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04 May, 2018

The impact of America’s wars on freedoms and Democracy at home

While America has gone a century and a half without being “war-torn” in the conventional sense, the damage of war is not limited to that inflicted by guns and bombs.

by Whitney Webb

Part 3 - The chill of civilian spy networks

In addition to legislative efforts and the use of media to manipulate opinion and squash dissent, American citizens were also encouraged to spy on their countrymen, leading to the formation of citizen vigilante groups likes the Knights of Liberty, the American Defense Society and the National Security League, among others.

The most powerful of these groups was the American Protective League (APL), a semi-official organization that worked with the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation and boasted around 250,000 members in some 600 cities across the U.S. Though ostensibly tasked with identifying war saboteurs, draft dodgers and foreign spies, the APL’s members surveilled, harassed, intimidated and “arrested” Americans whose loyalty to the war effort was called into question.

Declining to buy Liberty Bonds, being an immigrant of “questionable” origin, and even having food stores in your home were enough to raise the suspicion of the APL. They raided factories, union halls and private homes with impunity, seeking out any American who opposed the war effort as well as targeting innocent Americans of German descent, whom they tarred and feathered and attacked with horsewhips in full public view. They also worked to suppress American labor unions, calling unions and socialists “pro-German” and “anti-American” and working with the U.S. government to conduct mass raids on the socialist labor union International Workers of the World (IWW).

Despite the clearly illegal tactics of the APL, it had the support of then-Attorney General Thomas Gregory, who assured a skeptical President Wilson that the APL “should be encouraged and…not subject to any real criticism.” During the course of the war, the APL detained some 40,000 people and claimed to have found more than 3 million cases of “disloyalty.”

Though the APL and organizations like it have become relics of wars past, civilian vigilante groups that collaborate with the government have attempted to make a comeback in post 9/11 America.

For instance, under the George W. Bush administration, the Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS), was created and sought to create a domestic intelligence-gathering program that would have U.S. citizens report “suspicious” activity. The measure sought to recruit one out of every 24 Americans for the program, mainly those whose work provided access to private homes or businesses, such as mailmen, utility employees and truck drivers. The program, however, was eventually canceled and replaced with Homeland Security’s “See Something, Say Something” initiative.

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