Trust us: A brief history of government spying

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In 1975, the Church Committee revealed the extent to which the federal government’s intelligence apparatuses were aimed not at foreign enemies, but at Americans. While President Obama has repeatedly told us that we should trust the government, history teaches us that the current scandal involving the National Security Agency is not an isolated incident.

Big Brother has been with us for a long time.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were passed by a Federalist Congress during the Quasi-War with France. The Sedition Act made it illegal to criticize federal government officials, even if the criticism was true. The act was politically motivated and aimed at silencing Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party. In fact, while it was illegal to criticize Federalist officials, it was perfectly okay to slander Jefferson because the office of the vice president, which Jefferson held at the time, was omitted from the list of offices which were protected from criticism. Prominent Democratic-Republicans refused to use the postal service out of fear that their mail would be intercepted and they would be prosecuted for sedition. Fearing arrest themselves, Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which urged the states to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts, in secret.

As technology advanced, so did the government’s ability to keep tabs on its citizens. The 1920s saw the creation of a predecessor of the NSA — the Cipher Bureau, also known as the Black Chamber. The Black Chamber’s mission was to monitor international telegraphs for threats to national security. The Chamber approached Western Union, the nation’s largest telegraph company, hoping to gain access to the messages traveling its telegraph lines. Just as Verizon is today, Western Union was more than happy to comply, giving the Chamber secret access to its customers’ private communications.

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