Obama’s surveillance examples from history lack relevance today


President Barack Obama began his speech Friday by citing surveillance in history. He said:

“At the dawn of our republic, a small, secret surveillance committee born out of the Sons of Liberty was established in Boston. And the group’s members included Paul Revere. At night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early patriots.

“Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms. In the Civil War, Union balloons’ reconnaissance tracked the size of Confederate armies by counting the number of campfires.”

He went on to talk about more mainstream cases of surveillance, but let’s take a moment to delve into these examples, as I so seldom get to hold forth on the Civil War balloon surveillance movement.

It’s true that Revere was active in surveillance. He said (quoted by David Hackett Fischer in “Paul Revere’s Ride”): “I was one of upwards of thirty, chiefly mechanics, who formed ourselves into a committee for the purpose of watching the movements of the British soldiers, and gaining every intelligence of the movements of the Tories. We held our meetings at the Green Dragon Tavern.”

Revere added (also quoted by Fischer): “We were so careful that our meetings should be kept secret, that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible that he would not discover any of our transactions but to Messrs. Hancock, Adams, Doctors Warren, Church and one or two more.”

Even then, before everyone and his background-checked dog had clearance, they had problems. Dr. Benjamin Church proved less trustworthy than hoped and leaked their information to the British. (No wonder Obama finds Edward Snowden so disappointing. Share our secret methods overseas? He’s like the Dr. Church of the National Security Agency.)

There is one distinction, though. Revere’s surveillance was conducted by private citizens against the soldiers and partisans of an occupying government they felt was infringing on their rights. In the sense that this is surveillance, it is similar to what the NSA is doing. But the lens is pointing the opposite way. It’s sort of like someone searched for “surveillance” in books about the Founding Fathers and decided that this was close enough. I’m not really sure what the lesson should be here. Collecting intelligence is a vibrant American tradition? No argument there. Everyone has spies. It’s also a tradition of the ancient Romans, Greeks — heck, anyone with a sufficiently advanced treehouse. But Revere is a case of individuals keeping tabs on their government, not the other way around.

Next up: Union balloon reconnaissance in the Civil War. Shout-out to Thaddeus Lowe!

Lowe was an inventor, entrepreneur and early aviator who suggested to Congress in 1858 the creation of a national weather service. He was also among a gaggle of private aviators vying to get the war-balloons contract in the Civil War. They kept turning up in Washington with balloons, hovering over the armory to demonstrate their skills. There was no shortage of drama — gaining and losing contracts, refusing to ride in one another’s contraptions, getting the apparatus tangled in trees. They were popular with generals (McClellan went up in one, at one point), and once underway they obtained useful information.

Also, all that metadata they collected in a dragnet by mistake. (Well, to be fair, they could probably see where you were stashing your cows.) And it wasn’t like the technology lacked other applications. A woman wrote to Abraham Lincoln suggesting that the balloon surveillance corps be used to drop copies of his speeches on the Confederate forces instead.

But, again, this is a somewhat different situation. It is hard to keep a balloon secret, especially when it keeps deflating and getting caught in trees.

Then, technology could do only so much. This did not prevent Lincoln from getting letters from a gentleman who claimed that God had put three magical inventions in his head and that “you must have my balloon to put down all foreign foes. I again warn you against secret enemies. Watch well, and you will find the golden wedge.” But this man was clearly bonkers, and Lincoln did not give him the $10,000 he asked for.

The struggle to balance the power of surveillance tools and the rights of the people observed — and the difficulty of keeping sensitive information out of the wrong hands — are problems as old as this nation. But Obama’s examples don’t shed much light on today’s challenges. The balance is a lot trickier to strike now because the tools are so much more powerful and the apparatus so much more complex. Any intelligence shared at the Green Dragon Tavern didn’t require a supercomputer. A person can tell whether someone is watching her from a balloon made of fine silk, or if Paul Revere is lingering outside her door. Both were cases of private individuals (either under their own steam or, after some wangling, on the government payroll) watching enemy armies. If only it were still that simple.

© 2014, The Washington Post

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