Those who are calling the American government “Orwellian” after the recent revelations of NSA phone and Internet snooping should probably read or re-read 1984. Going through people’s phone records and Internet activity may seem creepy or intrusive to some, but that doesn’t make the United States an Orwellian nation. A few weeks ago, CNN Money reported that “on edition [of 1984] is now the third hottest book on Amazon after sales jumped by almost 10,000%.” People are comparing the NSA programs to something straight out of Orwell’s masterpiece work on totalitarianism. Yet, the U.S. government isn’t exactly attaching iron cages filled with rats to people’s faces, or doing away with the two-party system. In a June 25 article for Reason, Matthew Feeney wrote that “we should be wary of casually drawing too many comparisons between some of Orwell’s fiction and the current state of affairs.” NSA are looking for a way to compare the surveillance programs to something everyone fears, like an Orwellian government. Michael Moynihan of The Daily Beast dealt with the 1984-based criticism when he argued thus:
“We are engaged in a robust debate around Snowden’s disclosures, as newspapers fearlessly publish more top-secret documents purloined from the NSA. Which can only mean that, whatever our imperfections, we aren’t living in 1984.”
What I shall propose in this article is that when discussing NSA surveillance, we shouldn’t bring up George Orwell, with his rat-filled face cages. Instead, we should bring up the late FBI director, the notorious J. Edgar Hoover.
“Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and too much information has been collected. The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power.”
Those words were from the 1975 Church Committee, which investigated the intelligence gathering methods of several agencies within the U.S. government. One such agency was the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Reading a biography of the FBI’s long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover, by Curt Gentry, I am just beginning to realize the sheer size of some of Hoover’s surveillance programs. There were files on anyone thought to be a “radical”; Hoover even tried to smear Martin Luther King Jr. for alleged ties to Communist groups. For decades, Hoover’s FBI was the eyes and ears, and occasional fists, of the American government, often using unsavory methods to obtain information. And Hoover’s legacy still influences the United States today. Writing about the origins of surveillance in America for The Freeman, Wendy McElroy said the following:
“Hoover retained his FBI power base until his death in 1972. Subsequent ‘national security’ agencies have followed in his footsteps by remaining secretive, by using administrative procedures to violate civil liberties, and by being useful to both parties. In a real sense, it is a photo of Hoover that should be looking down on America as ‘Big Brother.'”
After discarding McElroy’s careless use of the “Big Brother” label to describe Hoover, we can see that the practical threat to American civil liberties isn’t the sort of oppression that Orwell predicted. Instead, the real danger is the Hoover-style use of Byzantine bureaucracy to spy on people. People may be fine with being observed for national security reasons, but what happens when they aren’t told about it? There’s the practical threat.
In conclusion, a new word should emerge in these debates about Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance programs: Hooverian. And it’s not the sort of word we want to describe our own government.