Surveillance: A Correlative History

OAH 2012 talk, with sources:

On March 8, 1971, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and got away with all its documents. An antiwar WIN magazine published 271 of the stolen pages. WIN staff carefully redacted the names of ordinary people appearing in the files. But they printed all informers’ names; “there was no question” for the activists that these needed to be made public. This decision seems surprising today, given that after criticism from human rights organizations, Wikileaks attempted to redact the names of informants from leaked US military and diplomatic documents. WIN activists’ disdain for “the snitch” had more in common with that of their Soviet contemporaries, who by the 1970s also found any form of collaboration with the state despicable.

Why did two societies end up in sync on this issue at this particular historical moment? Historians still seem unwilling to study surveillance and informing as a modern phenomenon common across social systems. As the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit pointed out in 1955 about McCarthyism, in the second half of the twentieth century both authoritarian and liberal states have modernized traditional snitching into intricate “systems” of “secret informers.” Human intelligence projects flourish at times of military conflict and social unrest, hence they matter for the study of wars and social movements. Growing public distrust of government informers is often a sign of people’s general disenchantment in their government, and thus illuminates the crucial role of surveillance in modern state formation. Some comparative work has been done on denunciation in authoritarian societies, such as the Sheila Fitzpatrick and Robert Gellately’s collection, Accusatory Practices, which came out in 1997. The same year, Russian historian Peter Holquist suggested that Soviet surveillance was a “specific manifestation of a new governmental modality of politics” common to all modern states. Yet despite several early calls for a historiography of informing in the United States—notably, in 1988 David Garrow called for a study of the role of informants in the civil rights movement–few scholars of liberal democracies have tackled the issue as a historical problem.

Here I will argue that 1970s moral judgment against informing can only be understood by telling a “correlative” history of “the morality of snitching” in the US and the USSR. Transnational or translocal history, focused on flow and circulation of people, ideas, and practices across borders, has been popular as an alternative to comparative history which took discrete nations as objects. Yet lately some historians have been finding transnational approach inadequate for their purposes. Thus, Paul Kramer argues that transnationalists’ emphasis on flows too readily mirrors the rhetoric of global capitalism. “Rather than contrasting emancipatory flows and oppressing borders,” his proposed method, imperial history “includes among its subjects flows of violence and coercion, and borders that exercise power by permitting, regulating, and directing rather than merely blocking global flows.” Ann Laura Stoler has encouraged historians of intimacy to look beyond direct flows, for “unexpected points of congruence and similarities of discourse in seemingly disparate sites” in the United States and colonial and postcolonial Global South that reveal “common technologies of intervention and common anxieties of rule.” Micol Seigel’s transnational history of interactions among Brazilians, North Americans, and Europeans was framed as a scathing critique of comparative history, yet could not entirely avoid comparison because the people she examined used comparisons to foster their own political agenda.

In trying to look beyond the transnational, I find promising the way Kate Brown has approached her “tandem” history of the first two cities built for operators of plutonium plants, Richland in eastern Washington, and Cheliabinsk-40, in the Southern Urals. “Top secret, highly restricted and socially engineered, these government-run communities developed on parallel paths into model cities. … Richland was called too ‘socialisitic,’ while Cheliabinsk-40 was considered by some too ‘materialisitic’ and ‘bourgeois.’ Both cities suffer a legacy of radioactive contamination.” Brown argues “that in creating the means to destroy each other, the two cities came to resemble one another.”

Likewise, there are “points of congruence” in the shift in moral judgment about informing in the United States and the Soviet Union. During McCarthyism in the US and late Stalinism in Russia, the state compelled citizens’ collaboration. The civil rights and antiwar movements in the US and relative democratization—the “thaw”—in the Soviet Union brought about a crisis of state authority. A correlative history of this transformation would consider, along with transnational flows, the times when the local trumped the transnational, and the ways historical actors used comparison for political ends.

The history of Media, Pa. break-in points to the instance when the local trumped the transnational in the history of snitching, in that it shows the importance of the legal process. By the late 1960s, FBI rivaled the Soviet secret police in its use of informants, relying on them in 85 percent of its domestic intelligence investigations. The murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton in 1969 in Chicago was only one example of a high-profile scandal involving FBI informants at the time, reported in mainstream as well as underground press. FBI informant network went beyond political spying–for example, FBI’s ghetto program, established after urban riots in the 1960s, targeted all poor blacks in cities.

By the 1970s activists’ awareness and disdain of government surveillance and military policies reached its peak. Media burglary was only the first successful of several attempts to rob FBI offices, and was also linked to repeated break-ins into military draft offices to burn draft cards. When Media thieves for the first time disseminated the term “COINTELPRO”–FBI’s domestic counterintelligence program—along with several informants’ identities, they reinforced the disdain for “the snitch” of the larger public, and helped journalists, legislators, lawyers, and juries make FBI accountable for its undercover operations.

The first legal case won because of Media documents was a suit brought by residents of Powelton neighborhood in Philadelphia where FBI aggressively looked for burglary suspects–ironically, the residents were able to curtail FBI investigation into Media burglary by citing documents obtained by Media burglars. In a famous Camden 28 case several Media burglary suspects, members of the Catholic Left, were acquitted by a jury culled from a conservative Pennsylvania district—where Gallup polls only a few months later showed overwhelming approval of the FBI. The jury acquitted because the defense showed that FBI enabled the raid by using an informant, Robert Hardy. This case is now a prime example of “entrapment” and “jury nullification.” Another lawsuit, by NBC reporter Carl Stern, revealed the extent of the COINTELPRO program, first mentioned in Media files. Within a few years, the Church Committee (United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities) further documented the extraordinary reach of the FBI informer system; Congress enacted new laws to curtail it. Lawsuits by individual civil rights activists and organizations such as the Socialist Worker Party and National Lawyers Guild cited Media documents and revealed further names of informants and the extent of surveillance from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Importantly, the arguments that won these lawsuits, by lawyers affiliated with the radical National Lawyers Guild, fell flat in the early 1950s, at the height of anti-communists fears, but succeeded spectacularly in the early 1970s, when the public turned against government loyalty investigations and FBI surveillance of radicals.

None of this could have happened in the Soviet Union, where law was administered from the top down and depended not on precedent or Congress but on ideological shifts within the Communist party leadership. However, if we consider the fate of political convicts’ petitions to the Soviet Procuracy—the highest prosecution office—we’ll see that a parallel shift in legal understanding of informing happened there too. In their petitions to vacate convictions, prisoners often claimed that those who informed on them were self-interested and unjust. These petitions had little effect before Stalin’s death in 1953. But post-Stalinist courts began to follow a semblance of legality in judging the veracity of witnesses. Surprisingly, they considered claims of witness bias in appeals seriously and overturned sentences for “anti-Soviet speech” based on the testimony of untrustworthy informers. In 1954, a religious leader of a Chechen village resettled to Kazakhstan was convicted of plotting to overthrow the government. The leader seemed to have been devout and respected but also violent to relatives and neighbors. The village community convinced all informers to recant their testimony, and he was freed. A Gulag returnee, an antisemite and a drunk, convicted for the second time for anti-Soviet propaganda on his wife’s testimony, succeeded in dividing Procuracy jurists on his case and ultimately won his appeal primarily on evidence that his wife informed on him out of spite, and to keep the apartment after their divorce. While dissidents continued to face forced labor camps into the 1980s, ordinary acts of “treasonous speech” reported by family members and friends ceased to be prosecuted altogether by then. Thus an everyday ethics of informing held by ordinary people came to be shared in part by jurists as well.

To sum up, two entirely different shifts in legal practice in the US and the Soviet Union depended on growing public disdain of informers in both countries. More importantly, the interplay between arbitrary rule, rule of law, and everyday ethics in these two transformations suggests a continuum between the ideal “rule of law” in liberal democracies on the one hand, and the continuous “state of exception” in authoritarian states in on the other. In both cases, one could argue for what legal theorist Robert Cover calls “jurisgenesis”–a process whereby lay communities influence new understanding and practice of law.

The Media break-in moment also points to cases where transnational flows and comparisons intersect. At the time of the burglary and ensuing publicity, many lawyers, scholars and activists agreed with Frank Donner, who commented about FBI snitch-jacketing of communist William Albertson: “there is little to distinguish [FBI] behavior from, say, the harassment of Soviet nationals by the KGB.” FBI officials, on the other hand, were shocked that one could even think to compare Soviet and American police institutions. FBI Agent Mark Felt (aka Deep Throat) remembered that in the late 1960s, New Left groups “hysterically equated” FBI “with the Soviet secret police,” an opinion that he believed “seeped into the press and found growing expression among the more bewitched and bothered opinion-makers.” Of course, many sources influenced FBI’s human intelligence practices, from the activities of private investigating agencies such as Pinkertons’ labor spying, to policing the Philippines after the Philippine-American War, where Manuel Quezon, first president of the Philippine Commonwealth, was an undercover operative for the Philippine Constabulary.

At the same time, Donner’s accusations were not entirely unfounded. In the 1950s, FBI circulated two internal monographs, entitled “Stool Pigeon or Loyal Citizen,” that instructed FBI agents how to recruit informants among communists and other radical and civil rights groups. The first, dated August 1952, in addition to arguing that “stool-pidgeon” is defined as a positive term in the Oxford English Dictionary, quoted Joseph Stalin as an authority on the morality of informing. The manual used Soviet snitch recruitment practices as a reference point to such an extent that it had to warn the agents: “considerable care should exercised not to justify [potential informant’s] cooperation with you on the ground that Communists approve of this same type of activity”–the very point made repeatedly by the manual. The table of contents for the second, longer monograph, dated June 1955, lists several sections on “informants in Soviet Russia.”

The authors of these manuals are not listed, but given past studies of FBI collaboration with Sovietologists it is possible to conclude that in writing it the FBI worked with scholars at Harvard and Columbia who interviewed Soviet defectors. The FBI unfortunately redacted everything but the table of contents from the second manual, but the exception given when the documents were released in 2008 was 7b(e): “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law,” which suggests that infiltration practices borrowed from the Soviet Union may still be part of American investigative routine today. Surveillance practices thus were borrowed back and forth across the cold war political blocs–Kate Brown, for example, found that Soviet spies borrowed US wiretapping and blackmail techniques, while some informant recruitment techniques seem to have been imported to the United States from the Soviet Union. When Felt called Donner’s comparison hysterical he obscured some actually existing connections in surveillance practices.

The international publication history of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s work on the Gulag demonstrates the ways historical actors used comparison for political ends. Post-Stalinist Gulag uprisings of 1953-54, when insurgents directed their violence specifically at informants, played a key role in The Gulag Archipelago, published nearly simultaneously in Russian, English, and dozens of other languages beginning in December 1973. The international success of the book allowed many cold warriors to assert that the horror of the Soviet Gulag was incomparable with injustices in Western societies. Upon hearing that Daniel Ellsberg considered Solzhenitsyn an inspiration for stealing and publishing the Pentagon Papers, one observer condemned the connection: “It would be grandly ludicrous, if it weren’t simply dumb.” Solzhenitsyn himself supported this opinion in his Harvard speech in 1978 when he argued that Americans should not have left Vietnam. Yet others saw parallels between the Gulag riots of the 1950s and the violently suppressed Attica prison riot of 1971. One American lawyer Ira Robbins, counted dozens of cases when American judges referred to the Solzhenitsyn’s work on the Gulag when ruling against demeaning conditions of incarceration and long prison terms. As Robbins explained in a review of The Gulag Archipelago in 1980, comparing American and Soviet penal systems, “Assuredly, we are dealing with a continuum; American prisons are not the Gulag. But differences in degree should not blind us to the striking similarities.”

Analogies drawn by Donner and Robbins were not scientific comparisons, but they allow us to rethink both the role of moral judgment in the cold war and the politics of comparison in history. Given that to declare something incomparable is already to compare it, morally charged adjectives such as “hysterical” and “ludicrous” applied to a comparison suggests that it actually has analytical value–even if historical actors more often used analogy, metaphor, or hyperbole rather than comparison in a scientific sense. In this case, arguments that Soviet and Western systems were incomparable justified domestic surveillance and military interventions in Vietnam and elsewhere; analogies between Soviet and Western experience served to fuel civil rights and prison rights movements.

That the value of “ludicrous” comparisons emerges from quotidian details–operating manuals and minor judicial decisions rather than speeches by J. Edgar Hoover or Solzhenitsyn–shows an affinity between the study of government informing and the study of intimacy championed by Ann Laura Stoler. In 1971 Harper’s magazine contrasted the conscientious radical of the early 1960s to the early 1970s party hipster whose heroes were the “dudes who ripped off the FBI files at Media, Pa.” Yet the levity associated with the burglary reveals another “unexpected point of congruence” between American and Soviet societies. Soviets were thought to escape surveillance together in private, exchanging forbidden ideas in the kitchens of Moscow apartments or during impromptu parties in hotel rooms at provincial international festivals such as the African and Asian Film Festival in Tashkent. Yet an American expat in Dar es Salaam described a similar private encounter—meeting Malcolm X at a party in a friend’s apartment: “He had full participation in this party, without drinking, without dancing, but just fully enjoying others doing their thing. Malcolm remained out in the kitchen, but would talk to people as they came to refresh their drinks.” 1 Because they could expect a government snitch to penetrate intimate situations like these as well, to inhabitants of all cold-war-era societies, informers showed the personal–moral and affective–dimensions of the rising national security state.

Panel “New Approaches to the Cold War,” Organization of American Historians annual meeting, Milwaukee, WI, April 2012


  1. Bill Sutherland, interviewed by William Minter, 19 July 2003, Brooklyn, NY, “No Easy Victories” collection, Aluka archive, quoted in Andrew Ivaska, “At Home in Exile: Dar es Salaam’s Transnational Activist Scene and the Politics of Everyday Life, c. 1960s and ’70s,” Concordia University History Department Colloquium, September 21, 2011. Many thanks to Andy for this reference.