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Edwin M. Stanton's Surveillance of Telecommunications During the American Civil War


President Abraham Lincoln appointed Edwin M. Stanton Secretary of War on January 15, 1862, and soon thereafter Stanton requested sweeping powers, including total control of telegraph lines, as a security measure. By having all telegraph lines rerouted through his office, Stanton could monitor vast amounts of communication—journalistic, governmental and personal. This early example of governmental surveillance of telecommunications came to my attention in an op-ed piece by David T. Z. Mindich entitled "Lincoln's Surveillance State" in The New York Times July 5, 2013. The piece was published in the context of the leaks by Edward Snowden in June 2013 concerninig the vast PRISM telecommunications surveillance program:

"Having the telegraph lines running through Stanton’s office made his department the nexus of war information; Lincoln visited regularly to get the latest on the war. Stanton collected news from generals, telegraph operators and reporters. He had a journalist’s love of breaking the story and an autocrat’s obsession with information control. He used his power over the telegraphs to influence what journalists did or didn’t publish. In 1862, the House Judiciary Committee took up the question of 'telegraphic censorship' and called for restraint on the part of the administration’s censors.  

"When I first read Stanton’s requests to Lincoln asking for broad powers, I accepted his information control as a necessary evil. Lincoln was fighting for a cause of the utmost importance in the face of enormous challenges. The benefits of information monitoring, censorship and extrajudicial tactics, though disturbing, were arguably worth their price.  

"But part of the reason this calculus was acceptable to me was that the trade-offs were not permanent. As the war ended, the emergency measures were rolled back. Information — telegraph and otherwise — began to flow freely again.  

"So it has been with many wars: a cycle of draconian measures followed by contraction. During the First World War, the Supreme Court found that Charles T. Schenck posed a “clear and present danger” for advocating opposition to the draft; later such speech became more permissible. During the Second World War, habeas corpus was suspended several times — most notably in Hawaii after the Pearl Harbor attack — but afterward such suspensions became rare.  

"This is why, if you are a critic of the N.S.A.’s surveillance program, it is imperative that the war on terror reach its culmination. In May, President Obama declared that 'this war, like all wars, must end.' If history is any guide, ending the seemingly endless state of war is the first step in returning our civil liberties. 

"Until then, we will continue to see acts of governmental overreach that would make even Stanton blush. “I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the President, if I had a personal e-mail,” Mr. Snowden told The Guardian. And unlike Stanton’s telegraph operation, which housed just a handful of telegraphers, the current national security apparatus is huge. An estimated 483,000 government contractors had top-secret security clearances in 2012. That’s a lot of Snowdens to trust with your information."

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