Review of The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States by Brian Hochman

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For much of American history, much of the public believed that surveillance in any form was not just reckless or illegal, but instinctively vile. Wisconsin Republican John C. Schafer spoke to Congress in 1929 and called government prying eyes “the most despicable specimens of the human race.” In a 1928 Supreme Court dissent, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. ruled that the wiretapping that caught one of the nation’s most successful smugglers was “dirty business” better suited to criminals.

In “The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States,” Brian Hochman sets out to explain where that disgust came from — and where it went. Its thoughtful and in-depth history reminds us that the practice of wiretapping was rooted in anarchy from the start. Before the faucet became a crime control tool, the public saw it as a way to commit it, whether by stealing company secrets or eavesdropping on gamblers’ bets. Exploitation of early telegraph and telephone networks was so common to swindle, cheat and defraud that a literary genre – the “wired thriller” – sprouted scandals.

“Listeners” exploits stories like these to great effect in his account of why government agents struggled to clean up surveillance: Wiretapping, in the public mind, was what crooks did.

These bad roots have caused a wide aversion to official telephone tapping, which is nevertheless tightly regulated, and have made it possible to imagine their total ban. Certainly, opinion was never monolithic and, as Hochman tells us in perhaps too much detail, state and federal laws were a patchwork. Yet a major thread of popular thought held that the surveillance was simply “dishonest and immoral.” In the mid-20th century, a proponent of eavesdropping despaired that the vocabulary itself was poisoned: “If we had a word or term that meant ‘scientific devices to fight crime’, the very use of that term would make it much clearer to most people what law enforcement officials have in mind.

These “law enforcement people” fought back in fits and starts against popular unrest, and “The Listeners” closely follows the random policy shifts that followed. According to Hochman’s account, it was the advent of “law and order” politics, rooted in racial fears of civil unrest, that gave wiretapping a stable place in American law. John McClellan, a segregationist senator from Arkansas, pushed to expand government wiretapping by appealing to white fears. “You could bug a room or hall in which [Stokely] Carmichael was meeting, during which [H.] Rap Brown was meeting, where they were inciting a riot, telling people to get their guns, “Go get Whitey,” McClellan explained. The call worked, and the possibility of mass opposition to wiretapping – not just wiretapping without legal process – was dissolved.

Hochman, professor of English and director of American studies at Georgetown University, is a living guide to this history – but with an unconventional sense of emphasis. The book spends less time on National Security Agency issues than it does on private investigators working the divorce beat, and fewer pages on 1970s revelations of intelligence abuse than on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film, “The Conversation”. Hochman’s approach is to seek out surveillance politics in the mundane and popular, not just in secret state files.

The book seems to be split at times as to where this story leaves us. Hochman writes at one point that he has “no doubt that wiretapping continues to serve as an essential law enforcement tool when used responsibly within the baroque guidelines of the law.” Still, he conveys a certain nostalgia when he notes “how widespread popular opposition to electronic surveillance has been for most of this country’s history.”

Today, full-throated antagonism is rarer than before. And repression is a minor theme in a system dominated by the ideal of well-regulated surveillance. “The Listeners” does a wonderful job of evoking a world shaped by an intense distaste for surveillance, even if the raw emotions that once energized the battle now seem lost to history.

Grayson Clary is a lawyer with the Journalists Committee for Freedom of the Press.

A History of Wiretapping in the United States

Harvard University Press. 360 pages. $35.

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