By Ivan Greenberg
A few weeks ago, the journalist Declan McCullagh reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had formed a secret Domestic Communications Assistance Center (DCAC) to enhance their technological efforts to track and intercept Internet, wireless and VoIP communications. As part of an initiative termed “Going Dark,” the FBI wants to mandate social networks and Internet service providers to build special backdoors to allow for the mass surveillance of instant messaging, Web e-mail, and VoIP systems such as Skype.
Of course, such surveillance efforts are not new. Before the development of the Internet, the FBI allocated considerable resources to monitor the communications of Americans via telephones and U.S. postal mail. We know less about postal mail surveillance than the monitoring of telephones. In 1976, the U.S. Senate Church Committee found the FBI opened tens of thousands of domestic first-class letters between 1940 and 1966 to gather political intelligence. The Bureau also received intelligence based on thousands of letters opened by the CIA. Recently declassified FBI documents reveal for the first time details of two mail surveillance programs. From 1959 to 1962, the FBI operated the “Gus Survey” and the “Sam Survey” to identify Soviet espionage agents in the U.S.
Under the Gus program, local postal workers in several large cities (New York, Detroit, and San Francisco) successfully inspected all mail except when the flow overwhelmed them during the Christmas season. Under the Sam program, authorities inspected American mail into and out of several European cities. The FBI developed several criteria to identify suspect letters. Suspicious mail usually was typewritten and double-spaced with no return address, and also used Lincoln postage stamps. This was a labor intensive program. Under Gus and Sam in New York, for example, postal workers poured over approximately 900,000 letters per week.
In a memo dated August 31, 1961, top FBI official William Sullivan wrote: “It is felt that the two surveys offer great possibilities for recovering Soviet-bloc agent mail as well as identifying persons in the United States corresponding with known mail drops in Europe. If we are successful in these surveys, it will offer great potential and will permit us to cut into the communications system used by Soviet-bloc illegals in the United States.”
However, the next year both programs were terminated. Gus and Sam located almost a thousand suspect communications prompting several hundred new security investigations. But, the programs proved to be a failure because no new Soviet agents were identified. This failure is significant and should lead to questions about the effectiveness of the new drive to further develop electronic surveillance of domestic communications. If the goal is to prevent terrorism, as stated by officials, a huge amount of effort likely will result in few prosecutions. Contrary to many popular perceptions, the level of terrorism in America already is at very low levels. However, if the goal is to collect information on dissident political activity, which officials deny, the large-scale violation of Constitutional rights seems certain. It will be a major setback for civil liberties.
Ivan Greenberg is the author of Surveillance in America: Critical Analysis of the FBI, 1920 to the Present and The Dangers of Dissent: The FBI and Civil Liberties since 1965.