The Origins of the U.S. Surveillance State

The Origins of the U.S. Surveillance State


In the U.S., carrying out military interventions abroad has undermined freedom at home



Originally published by Stanford University Press blog here

The Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal continues to be front-page news. According to current reports Cambridge Analytica obtained private Facebook data, which it used to send pro-Trump material to targeted Facebook users. These reports have been met with outrage in Washington, D.C. The Federal Trade Commission has opened an investigation and U.S. senators have called for Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO, to testify in front of Congress.

Calls by Congress for increased oversight to prevent private companies from surveilling people are extremely ironic given that they themselves recently renewed a section of the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which allows for the warrantless surveillance of Americans. Issues regarding the appropriate use of government surveillance are also at the center of Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump administration.

These headlines provide an excellent opportunity to consider the history of the U.S. government’s surveillance state, which matters for people across the world whose liberties are at stake as government power expands.


The origins of the present-day surveillance state can be traced back to the U.S. government’s military occupation of the Philippines in the late 1890s

The origins of the present-day surveillance state can be traced back to the U.S. government’s military occupation of the Philippines in the late 1890s. Under the leadership of Ralph Van Deman, who would earn the informal honorific of “father of U.S. military intelligence,” the U.S. occupiers established a state-of-the-art surveillance apparatus to squash dissent by those who resisted U.S. efforts.

After his time abroad, Van Deman returned home and, drawing upon his experiences abroad, worked tirelessly to establish similar surveillance infrastructure at home. In May 1917, the Military Intelligence Sec­tion (MIS) was formed with Van Deman at the helm.

Over the following decades, the U.S. surveillance state continued to expand and reorganize, resulting in the founding of the National Security Agency (NSA) in 1952. The founding of the NSA coincided with an unprecedented expansion in the scope of government surveillance of the daily lives and activities of American persons.

The prevalence of unconstrained government surveil­lance is evident in the four main concurrent operations undertaken at that time: Project SHAMROCK and Project MINARET, both operated by the NSA; COINTELPRO, implemented by the Federal Bureau of Investiga­tion; and Operation CHAOS, which fell under the purview of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

These programs monitored all foreign telegraphs passing through the United States and surveilled individuals deemed “subversive” by the FBI, which included civil rights leaders and anti-war protestors, among many others. This included not just indirect monitoring, but also infiltrating private organizations and illegal burglary in the name of protecting against “domestic dissent.”

The success of Van Deman’s vision and influence would emerge in the 1970s, when the scale and scope of the national surveillance state, and the American government’s abuse of the power derived from controlling that machinery, were publicly revealed due to the reporting of Seymour Hersh.

The subsequent investigation by the Church Committee revealed the extent of the abuses by U.S. intelligence operations noting that “virtually every element of our society has been subjected to excessive government-ordered intelligence inquiries.”

The findings of the committee made clear that the unchecked surveillance apparatus had unleashed an unconstrained leviathan that undermined the liberty of the American people.

In response to the committee’s findings, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, which was intended to oversee and place judicial constraints on the government’s surveillance activities. The act created the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

However, as the revelations by Edward Snowden in 2013 made clear, these reforms were ineffective with the members of the security state acting with few if any real constraints on their behavior.


Coyne cover

Tyranny Comes Home unveils a new aspect of the symbiotic relationship between foreign interventions and domestic politics by revealing how foreign policy impacts civil liberties at home.

It is crucial to understand the origins of the U.S. surveillance state both as an important historical episode, but also because it highlights a broader point: a militaristic foreign policy has real effects on domestic institutions and poses a genuine threat to domestic liberties.

Many Americans believe that interventions overseas by the U.S. government protect domestic liberties and promote freedom.

In our book, Tyranny Comes Home, we argue that this view is incomplete, if not entirely mistaken.

When a society adopts the values of an aggres­sive empire, it runs the risk of adopting imperial characteristics at home.

To explain why, we develop a theory of the “boomerang effect” to un­derstand the process through which intervention abroad increases the scope of government power at home and erodes citizens’ liberties.

Preparing for and engaging in foreign intervention provides a test­ing ground for intervening governments to experiment with new forms of social control over distant populations.

Under certain conditions, these innovations in social control are then imported back to the intervening country, leading to an expansion in the scope of domestic gov­ernment activities. The result is that the intervening government becomes more effective at controlling not only foreign populations but the domes­tic population as well.

Under this scenario, the preparation and execution of foreign intervention changes domestic political institutions and the re­lationship between citizen and government. Domestic freedom from in­terference and coercion by others is eroded or lost altogether as the state gains power over citizens.


A militaristic foreign policy has real effects on domestic institutions and poses a genuine threat to domestic liberties

The thriving U.S. surveillance state clearly illustrates the logic of the boo­merang effect. The centralized apparatus of social control that the U.S. government first developed in the Philippines in the late nineteenth cen­tury has boomeranged to the United States, where it is flourishing over a century later.

As we discuss in Tyranny Comes Home, the boomerang effect also offers important insights into other cases, including the militarization of police, the domestic use of drones, and torture in U.S. prisons. Ongoing foreign military interventions with no end in sight will certainly lead to increased government power at home in the future.

Members of the U.S. government often use the rhetoric of freedom and virtue to legitimize intervention. This supposed commitment to higher ide­als is indicated by the names assigned to the government’s actions, such as “Operation Just Cause,” “Operation Enduring Freedom,” “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” “Operation Valiant Guardian,” and “Operation Falcon Freedom.”

Despite this lofty rhetoric, the pernicious boomerang effect continues to operate: preparing for and carrying out intervention abroad undermines freedom at home.

It is crucial for Americans to realize this unseen and overlooked cost of a militarist foreign policy before it is too late and their liberties are forever lost.

Start reading Tyranny Comes Home »

Christopher J. Coyne is Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Associate Director of the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center.

He is the author of multiple books, including Doing Bad by Doing Good and After War, and co-author of Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism.

Abigail R. Hall is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa and co-author of Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism.


Jan Oberg comments
The link made by the author here is extremely important. Imperialism is not only bad for those at the receiving end; it’s also self-destructive. Controversial, militarist policies create oppositional groups at home and they have to be monitored.

If we take the present global war on terror, it started out on the basis of 9/11 2001 and the “response” bombing of Aghanistan 10/7. Ever since, the US has seen itself as a victim and all kinds of surveillance policies have been introduced, also inside the West, and new wars have been started with predictable catastrophic consequences.

In spite of that, the terrorism problem has only grown, almost exponentially while the democratic state and its freedoms and right to privacy has been undermined to the extent that, as it’s often expressed, “they know everyting about us.”

If one purpose of terrorism as such was to demonstrate that the principles of democracy and freedom were nothing but a thin layer on top of an undemocratic, corporate, violent and interventionist state, it takes only the so-called Deep State today to see that terrorism has already won.


Photo processed from photo by Jonathan McIntosh. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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