The Spy Who Taxed Me


Everyone is a spy now. The state has always spied on its citizens, but the lens is turning the other way. For that, we are indebted to Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and the sources passing along military and diplomatic documents. This turnabout redresses the balance between government and public to a small extent, but the state’s resources still outweigh ours. After all, the state uses our money to spy on us, and it has longer experience in keeping tabs on us. This vicious habit dates at least to the Espionage Act of 1917 that Woodrow Wilson used to watch and prosecute anyone who opposed his war in France’s trenches.

Did the Espionage Act, which some politicians and journalists want to use to prosecute Julian Assange, uncover the Kaiser’s spy network in the United States? Not exactly. The government used it to incarcerate socialists Eugene Debs and Kate Richards O’Hare and a film maker named Robert Goldstein, whose crime was to depict British atrocities against American colonists in his subversively titled 1917 epic The Spirit of ’76. Government spying on American citizens went berserk with the post-war Red Scare and Palmer Raids. It expanded during World War II and the Cold War, when J. Edgar Hoover dispatched second-story men to ransack the tiny Socialist Workers Party’s offices, follow journalists such as I. F. Stone, and plant microphones under Martin Luther King’s bed. This led, lest we forget, to 1966’s Freedom of Information Act and ostensible limits on what the Central Intelligence Agency could do within America’s borders. Thanks to a loss of trust in government following Watergate, the Church and Pike Committees allowed the public to learn how domestic-surveillance programs such as COINTELPRO had violated their constitutional rights. But such “transparency” wouldn’t last long.

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December 21, 2010