State surveillance

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David M. Shribman’s Jan. 26 column (“The Paradox of Secrecy”) explaining President Barack Obama’s dilemma about the role of secrecy and surveillance in an open society cites President Woodrow Wilson’s proposal to the victors in World War I to reach “open covenants of peace” after years of secret treaties that contributed to the outbreak of war. Mr. Shribman, however, misses the important and enduring connection between the two presidents.

Less idealistic leaders were uninterested and little came of Wilson’s suggestion at the Paris peace conference of 1919, but the most important aspect of Wilson’s presidency during a time of threat was to begin a policy of secret surveillance of U.S. citizens, including efforts to harass or suppress dissent as continues today with the Obama administration’s prosecution of whistle-blowers and at least one journalist, let alone the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping.

The Wilson administration also confronted domestic terrorism that featured a bomb blast at the home of the U.S. attorney general and responded by deportations and imprisonment. The administration also hired a young energetic lawyer named John Edgar Hoover who grew to love listening to recorded phone calls.

The technology is far better today than in 1919, but the reasoning behind surveillance is unchanged. Wilson was all too ready to lecture leaders of other nations on openness but had few qualms about secret campaigns against Americans. President Obama can worry about the federal government’s bugging of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s hotel room but is also all too ready to leave the government’s logging of phone calls unchanged.


The writer is the retired Post-Gazette book editor who has reviewed several biographies of Woodrow Wilson.

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