Domestic military surveillance, first used on a significant scale under President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, emerged in its modern form under the administration of Woodrow Wilson in World War I. The army General Staff's Military Intelligence Division (MID) was created in 1917, in part to locate German spies or saboteurs. It found few enemy agents; but under its creator, Capt. (later Maj. Gen.) Ralph H. Van Deman, it turned during the war and postwar period to investigate Americans whom MID considered “dangerous.” These included not simply enemy aliens and other immigrants but citizens who were labor unionists, pacifists, socialists, or civil rights activists. In the antiradicalism of the postwar era, MID, working with the newly created Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as local police and vigilante groups, conducted illegal raids, made illegal arrests, and subjected many U.S. citizens to interrogation. It also developed an elaborate filing system for its dossiers on thousands of American citizens, and it helped local authorities crush major labor strikes and suppress racial disturbances.
In the 1920s, military intelligence sought, without real evidence, to link pacifist groups, including liberal women's and religious organizations, to an alleged Communist threat to U.S. internal security. Indeed, MID prepared “Emergency Plan White”—a detailed outline for army intervention to suppress what the conservative planners feared would be Communist‐led civil disorder and armed insurrection in the United States.
In 1932, the U.S. Army used a modified version of Plan White against the unemployed veterans encamped in Washington, D.C., petitioning Congress for relief. Based upon an MID report that the veterans were led by Communists (an allegation denied by the Washington police chief), President Herbert C. Hoover authorized the army to drive the men from the capital. Fear of foreign aggression and radicalism in the 1930s led MID to expand its domestic operations, increasing the surveillance of unionists, pacifists, civil rights activists, and Communists. Van Deman retired in 1938, but the agency continued to pursue radical specters at home more than foreign espionage and intelligence evaluations, a lesson brought home by the unanticipated attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
During World War II, domestic military surveillance expanded substantially. President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave military intelligence (now G‐2) responsibility for protecting defense plants, and it established a network of thousands of informants. Although the FBI had primary jurisdiction over domestic investigation of civilians, it eventually cooperated with G‐2 and with the army's new Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). Almost half of CIC's 5,000 civilian agents operated undercover among various groups of civilians—particularly disaffected minority or political groups. In addition, G‐2 continued to assemble data for Plan White, reporting on radical labor and political groups and what it called “semiradical” groups concerned with pacifism and civil liberties. Military intelligence continued that policy throughout much of the Cold War era.
In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower restricted the use of military‐intelligence personnel in monitoring civil disturbances until a presidential authorization indicated that the use of federal troops was imminent. Only after the decision to use federal troops to enforce desegregation did G‐2 and CIC join the FBI in monitoring groups of whites and blacks in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957–58. In the desegregation crisis at the University of Mississippi in 1962, however, military intelligence agents violated regulations and conducted investigations of civilians without specific authorization from President John F. Kennedy.
Domestic military surveillance expanded to an unprecedented extent in peacetime in the 1960s with the concern of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, among others, over threats to internal security in the United States as a result of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam antiwar movement, and the urban disturbances. In 1965, a new intelligence command was established at Fort Holabird, Maryland. It began coordinating the work of counterintelligence agents at G‐2 offices at each army command within the United States, preparing daily civil disturbance situation reports on right‐wing and racial activists and on left‐wing and antiwar dissidents. The widespread dissent, civil disorder, and violence in the 1960s led to the pre‐positioning and occasionally active intervention of units of the army in American cities under President Johnson—Detroit in 1967 and Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Baltimore in 1968. President Nixon deployed troops at both the Democratic and Republic National Conventions in Miami Beach in 1972, and at his second inauguration in 1973.
By 1966, the U.S. Army's Intelligence Command at Fort Holabird had broadened its civilian surveillance, including operations violating regulations and probably done without knowledge of senior army commanders. By 1968, renamed Continental United States Intelligence (CONUS Intel), the Holabird center had computerized field reports on civilians composed by more than 1,000 plainclothes army agents, who monitored civil rights and antiwar organizations, infiltrated radical groups like the Students for a Democratic Society, and sometimes engaged in provocative and illegal acts to discredit them.
Military intelligence crossed the dividing line into illegal, unconstitutional activity between 1963 and 1972, as it had in the period 1917–21. Violating laws and regulations restricting federal domestic investigatory activity to civilian agencies, primarily the FBI, the military's investigation of civilian protest went beyond immediate use in tactical operations. Instead, it intimidated and sometimes restrained legitimate exercise of civil and political rights. The use of the military against political criticism of the central government was precisely the kind of abuse of standing armies feared by Americans since the mid‐ eighteenth century.
The extent of domestic military surveillance became the center of controversy when it was exposed in Washington Monthly magazine in January 1970 by a former military intelligence officer. This led to the first full‐scale public debate on the subject in America. Although the Supreme Court in Laird v. Tatum (1972) upheld the legitimacy of military surveillance for national security, a widespread public and congressional belief that the surveillance had become excessive, if not illegal, led the army to exercise greater control over its domestic military intelligence system.
[See also Civil‐Military Relations: Civilian Control of the Military; Vietnam War: Domestic Course.]
U.S. Congress, Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, Committee on the Judiciary , Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics: A Report, 1973.
Christopher H. Pyle , Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics, 1967–1970, 1986.
Joan M. Jensen , Army Surveillance in America, 1775–1980, 1991.
Roy Talbert, Jr. , Negative Intelligence: The Army and the American Left, 1917–1941, 1991.
John Whiteclay Chambers II
"Surveillance, Domestic." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/surveillance-domestic
"Surveillance, Domestic." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved March 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/surveillance-domestic
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