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Athan Theoharis is an author who specializes in the FBI. Government spying on its citizens has a long history, he says, and no one is immune.

Athan Theoharis is an author who specializes in the FBI. Government spying on its citizens has a long history, he says, and no one is immune.

When did extensive government surveillance begin in the U.S.?
The expansion begins in the 1930s, when the FBI went beyond investigating crime and took on an intelligence role. It wanted to identify communists, but soon moved beyond radicals to looking at influential people, including the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

When did you become aware of government surveillance?
Growing up in Wisconsin in the 1940s and 1950s, I was conscious of the McCarthy era. I was taken aback by his smear tactics. Also, I’m a historian of 20th-century America. From the Palmer Raids in the 1920s, to restriction on Japanese citizens during World War II, to the Cold War and the Civil Rights and Vietnam War eras, you see a pattern of trying to silence dissent.

You are interviewed in the documentary film 1971, which tells of activists breaking into an FBI office to uncover government spying.
It was the beginning of the FBI being forced to open its files to the public. Before such revelations, and before the congressional hearings in the mid-1970s and the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, there was nothing. The FBI had not turned over a single file.

Are there parallels between the 1971 break-in and Edward Snowden’s release of NSA documents?
The FBI break-in and Snowden’s actions are both within the tradition of civil disobedience. Snowden provided access to information that intelligence officials didn’t want to become public. His documents showed the scope of NSA surveillance, and that it went well beyond legitimate counter-intelligence. As for treason, there’s no evidence that Snowden gave information to our adversaries. But he is legally vulnerable because he signed a nondisclosure agreement.

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How would you compare J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to today’s NSA?
Both are indiscriminate in their surveillance, which is a threat to our civil liberties. As a private citizen, you may do things that are immoral, but not necessarily illegal. Should the government be allowed to use intrusive surveillance to discover such behavior and to possibly discredit you? It’s very legitimate to be concerned about the scope and nature of the NSA.

Aren’t there also national security considerations?
How do you differentiate between a leak that could have national security implications versus one that is merely politically embarrassing? And who decides? The real problem is the secrecy and how that undermines public accountability.

[quote]Here’s the problem with indiscriminate techniques, whether cameras or wiretaps: What do you do with information that has nothing to do with a legitimate inquiry into a crime? What if a husband is seen with his mistress going into a store? We can’t operate on the premise that those who collect the data are going to act responsibly.[/quote]

It seems people today are not upset about all of this.
One of the consequences of the 1970s is that people are no longer surprised by widespread surveillance, and there’s a certain passivity. Also, we are still in a post-9/11 world where there is this overreaction based on fear. Look at Ebola.

Which 20th-century president most engaged in secret surveillance?
Nixon. But the entire history of government surveillance is one of expansion, not retrenchment. After 9/11, we passed the U.S. Patriot Act and legalized extensive surveillance in the name of averting future terrorist threats.

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How do you rate Obama?
The NSA program began under Bush in 2001. But Obama has not reversed the process.

Some public officials and reporters came under criticism for signing recall papers against Gov. Scott Walker. What was your take?
I think the criticism was absurd. People do not give up their citizenship just because they are a reporter or a public official. Signing a recall petition does not necessarily impugn your ability to be impartial and do your job. And what of the people who didn’t sign? Should we have questioned their impartiality?

In Milwaukee, we have hundreds of police-monitored cameras on the streets to deter crime.
Here’s the problem with indiscriminate techniques, whether cameras or wiretaps: What do you do with information that has nothing to do with a legitimate inquiry into a crime? What if a husband is seen with his mistress going into a store? We can’t operate on the premise that those who collect the data are going to act responsibly.

Verizon has been ordered to give the government the phone records of millions of customers. If I’m a Verizon customer, should I worry?
It’s best to not do things that you’re not proud of, if known. But everyone does. We shouldn’t have to worry that our private communications are being intercepted and might become public.

Do you have a cell phone?
No. I’m technologically illiterate. I didn’t even have email until the end of my tenure as a professor at Marquette University about five years ago.

Condensed and edited from a longer interview.

This story appears in the January, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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