When Tyranny Comes to America
“When tyranny comes to America…”
Those words were spoken in 1975 by the late Senator Frank Church (1924–84), a Democrat from Idaho.
It was a prediction, actually — describing how technology was enabling the growth of tyranny in the U.S.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what Church said. Because after two months, most of America remains in lockdown due to the coronavirus. The economy is a wreck, and people are beginning to push back against state governors, many of whom — from Maine to Oregon — don’t want to ease up any time soon.
When you write a newsletter that’s named in part after the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791–94, you tend to notice things like government heavy handedness, and people reaching the breaking point.
And it’s why Sen. Church’s warning is worth remembering today.
Turns out that he was ahead of his time.
Let’s dig in…
Frank Church grew up in Idaho and served as an Army intelligence officer during World War II. Post-war, Church graduated from Stanford and Stanford Law School. After practicing law in Boise, he ran for office as a Democrat and served as a Senator from Idaho, 1957 to 1981.
Sen. Frank Church (D-ID)
For much of his Washington tenure, Church carved a political niche in environmental protection. But he wasn’t a one-trick pony. He was also concerned with the then-evolving national security state, the “Military-Industrial Complex.”
President Eisenhower had set that ball rolling before he left office in 1961, warning:
“We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”1
Church put it in more poetic terms during a talk at Harvard in 1963.
“We’ve been living with Mars for 22 years,” said Church, “and we’ve grown accustomed to his face.”
Church was referring to Mars, Roman god of war, of course. He was concerned about the continued growth of the U.S. as a military power, still going strong two decades after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.
In the early 1960s, even under the Democrat presidencies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Church opposed the U.S. military buildup in Vietnam. According to the Washington Post, Church “began speaking against the Vietnam War in 1963, long before it was fashionable in conservative states such as Idaho, or even among liberal Democrats.”2
So clearly Church had an early, foreboding sense that U.S. military and military-technical power was growing and extending in ways that were not in the best long-term interests of the country.
Again, Church was ahead of his time.
In 1975, Church’s name became synonymous with protecting the rights of U.S. citizens against unlawful surveillance by the government.
Like the birth of the U.S. military-industrial complex in World War II, the once-unthinkable notion of the U.S. government spying on its own people goes back to 1941.
Convention wisdom says Pearl Harbor was a “sneak attack,” but in hindsight, it was really a failure of national intelligence. There were many indications and warnings that the Pearl Harbor attack was coming. The U.S. had a mountain of information, yet was caught off guard. The problem was miscommunication within the U.S. military of otherwise actionable intelligence.3
Determined not to let it ever happen again, the U.S. created a vast system to gather, sift and analyze information at every level. It ranged from simple tasks like assigning people overseas just to read newspapers and have lunch with knowledgeable locals, to ultra-sophisticated signals intelligence coupled with advanced code breaking.
After the war ended, this intelligence system remained in place. It collected information about potential adversaries like the Soviet Union, “Soviet-bloc” nations and Communist China. Over time, its list of targets expanded to include any nation or group that was perceived as acting against U.S. interests across the globe.
Through the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and beyond, U.S. intelligence collection capabilities improved year after year. Congress appropriated funds, and U.S. industry came up with better ways of pulling signals out of the ether and making sense of who was saying what to whom.
Then in the mid-1970s, as the Vietnam War was winding down, news broke about government abuses of civil liberties of U.S. citizens. The CIA and even the U.S. Army spied on Americans inside the U.S. itself. Without warrants, the FBI wiretapped people. And the National Security Agency (NSA) listened-in on all manner of communications.
To be fair, much “intelligence gathering” is nothing but collecting raw signals that move at the speed of light. Collection dishes grab everything that passes by. There’s no knowing who is talking with whom until the signals are broken down and deciphered.
For example, when making a telephone call from New York to San Francisco, the signal could route through wires in Canada. So the NSA “might” record the call. Or consider a person in the U.S. speaking with someone outside the country. If someone is monitoring the foreign party, it is unavoidable to listen in to the person on the U.S. side.
So the problem isn’t just that certain agencies of the U.S. government have the capability to pull information out of the ether, if not “read the mail” while it passes through a system.
The problem — the danger to civil liberties — comes when political players begin to use that raw intelligence in a politically targeted manner.
Along these lines, there’s a gray area between getting ahead of bad actors and intrusively monitoring someone’s political activities.
Case in point… During the 1960s and into the ’70s, the U.S. was home to all manner of hard-left organizations such as the Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army and several hundred more.
Some of these organizations were just political discussion groups filled with faculty lounge kooks. Others were far more dangerous.
Per CNN, “the real Golden Age of terrorism in the United States was during the 1970s.”4 According to FBI statistics, the U.S. was hit by over 2,500 domestic bomb attacks over just 18 months in 1971 and 1972. That’s about five bombings per day. Very few of these crimes were ever solved and there were almost no significant prosecutions.5
But many players were monitored, which gets us back to 1975 and the “Church Committee” hearings on these government abuses of power.
Among other things, Church focused on technical capabilities for government surveillance. Even back then — in the days of vacuum tubes and analog circuits — Church was appalled and frightened at the scope of intrusion.
Make no mistake — Church was no supporter of terrorists and bomb-planters. But neither did he overlook the dangers inherent in mass surveillance by the government. Here’s some of what he said:
“In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air.… Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. [But] if this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.… I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America.”6
Church’s hearings shined light on many government surveillance programs. In hindsight, they shined “too much” light on them. They were a tutorial to foreign governments on how the U.S. performed intelligence gathering. Many a secret was exposed, and many individuals were “outed” such that they could never again work in the U.S. intelligence arena.
Still, Church was right about the potential for tyranny. The technology was there many decades ago, and it’s absolutely in your face today.
Your life is an open book and even casual use of technology makes it more open.
You can be tracked via your cell phone. Most late-model automobiles have tracking systems inside. Things like Facebook and Linked-In open parts of your life not just to the government but to the world.
Your personal data, tax data and other government data such as professional licensure, driver’s license, tax history or even military service is more than hackable. Let alone open to some nosy bureaucrat.
Now in the time of coronavirus, we live under a government crackdown… And many governors and other officious bureaucrats have allowed power to go to their heads. All while your data has been weaponized.
Leave your house? Someone can track your phone or car.
Go somewhere? You can be tracked by license plate identifiers or facial recognition.
Medical care? It’s mostly online; draw your own conclusions.
Buy something? Your credit card and banking history is available to people who want to know.
Go to work? There are many ways for some government player to “know things” about what you are doing.
And all of this is not really a “virus” thing. The surveillance state didn’t just happen in the past two months. The virus was just the needle that popped the bubble of oblivious comfort.
We’ve been living in a growing surveillance state for many decades. It’s been getting more and more powerful, all while you, I and many others have surrendered more and more control to the alleged benefits of new tech.
And now, as we seek individual and collective relief from the virus, we are also seeing what happens when power goes to the heads of the leadership class. This is what happens when tyranny comes to America.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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