George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Researcher traces 'surveillance state' beginnings to World War I

Fri, 03/07/2014

LAWRENCE — When Edward Snowden in 2013 leaked thousands of classified documents about the reach of the National Security Agency’s surveillance efforts, it touched off a major political debate about privacy and how much access government should have to civilian communication records, such as email and cellphone data.

The leaks have led critics to raise alarms about the United States as a “surveillance state,” and the debate is expected to pick up again Monday, March 10. Snowden — a former NSA contractor who has asylum in Russia while facing federal espionage charges in the United States — is scheduled to speak via videoconference at the 2014 South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. But a University of Kansas researcher says questions over how far government should be allowed to go regarding surveillance is not new.

In fact, Lon Strauss, a KU lecturer in the Department of History, says it can be traced back to an important anniversary that is nearing. August will mark 100 years since the outbreak of World War I in Europe, and Strauss says the United States’ involvement in the war in 1917 started the growth of America surveillance methods that have continued ever since.

“It’s fascinating to examine America in the early 20th century and see the foundation that influenced subsequent decisions,” Strauss said. “And with what we’re seeing now we can certainly say there’s a direct connection with the type of surveillance state that produced the NSA; that foundation was created in the First World War.”

Strauss, who is working on a book based on his research about the influences upon surveillance methods that started with World War I, has examined American military intelligence records, most of which were largely untouched before.

“The First World War really influenced the formation of the modern state in so many different aspects, and surveillance was one of those that’s often overlooked,” he said.

A key component was the Espionage Act Congress passed in 1917 that Strauss argues formed the foundation for other legislation regarding intelligence practices and the broad reach of the federal government, including executive power. Congress passed the law after joining the war and as a way to curb dissent, mainly among socialists and pacifists, he said.

“These movements all got rolled up into one, and America got into the war so quickly and had to really just get moving,” Strauss said. “There was the expansion of the military, society, economy, and these intelligence agencies were a part of that. And there was nobody. Not enough people had experience in this kind of work before.” 

Strauss argues in his research that intelligence officers targeted certain groups for a reason. They deemed them as “un-American” or German sympathizers. The war ended relatively quickly in 1918, and the military passed along intelligence responsibility to a civilian agency, the Bureau of Investigation, which later became the FBI.

“There weren’t a lot of borders. No one really created a framework in which these agencies were supposed to work,” he said. “So over the years, it contributed to McCarthyism. Previously, in the Second World War, they were much more prescient about aspects of what they were doing. In the first World War, they were looking through people’s mail and sneaking into offices. They were looking through these things that we think are sacred now.”

It’s telling, Strauss said, that men like J. Edgar Hoover got his early training during this period. In decades since, the issue of how far government should go with surveillance in the interest of national security has persisted, including being scaled back after Watergate and then ramping up again after 9/11 with the “War on Terror” spurring legislation like the PATRIOT Act and what Snowden’s leaks have brought to light about NSA practices.

“Those seeds were put in the soil, and they grew,” Strauss said. “We’re still questioning: What is the happy medium between this kind of surveillance and our civil liberties during a crisis?”

Advancements in technology have created new questions about the role of large corporations, especially when the NSA and law enforcement perhaps are not interested so much in the content of emails or calls but setting up large security nets that detail data behind a call or email, such as when it was sent or how many times a number was called.

“But now we’ve seen how far it’s gone, so I think there is much more pushback. How that will influence the NSA and surveillance moving forward will be interesting, especially in regard to espionage and national security,” Strauss said.

It’s also crucial that debating issues of privacy and government surveillance has also persisted.

“It’s why the system is the way it is. It’s why it is a democracy instead of a dictatorship. That’s a product of democratic states where there’s this negotiation among the public, government and businesses,” Strauss said. “And we see that play out from the First World War onward. The First World War is what changed that because before that and even during the war, the idea was the government was not big enough to do everything.”

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

RT @kulibraries : Check out this news feature & then check out his book with us: #KULibraries #KUWorks…
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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