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The Montreal Spy Ring of 1898 and the Origins of ''Domestic 11 Surveillance in the United States RHODRI JEFFREYS-JONES The Watergate affair has reminded Americans of the abuses that can occur when surveillance is instituted in the name of national security. The affair induces the suspicion that national security is too often and too lightly invoked in justification of normally unacceptable acts of intrusion. Continuous , central surveillance was, however, begun by the United States during the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the Treasury Department 's Secret Service organized an ° emergency force" for counter-intelligence work. This special force was expected to guard the United States against enemy espionage, and to keep a watch on Spanish sympathizers internally. Ironically and prophetically, however, the special force's one notable success came on Canadian soil, when its agents discovered and dislocated Spanish espionage activities centred in Montreal.1 The success of the special force in splintering the Montreal spy ring blinded most Americans to the high-handed nature of its actions. Its agents were directly responsible for the detention of men without trial, for burglary, for interference with private correspondence, and for leaking to privileged politicians information calculated to injure their enemies. The SpanishAmerican War supplied visible proof of America's emergence as a world power. At the same time, it created more than one moral dilemma. America's master spy in 1898 was John Elbert Wilkie (1860-1934). Wilkie's acceptability to President McKinley's business-dominated Cabinet is understandable. After working in financial journalism for the Chicago Tribune, he had engaged in banking and steamship business in London. Wilkie was inexperienced in the practice of detection but, having returned to Chicago journalism in 1896 as a special crime reporter, he had acquired a considerable understanding of the principles involved. He was little more than a name to most of his contemporaries; he probably cultivated obscurity for reasons of security. But if Wilkie had professional reasons for shunning fame and notoriety, he was by no means a featureless man. He was immodest about his achievements as United States spymaster , and from the recesses of a photograph taken in 1899 he peers at the curious historian through intent, bespectacled eyes set over a flamTHE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. V, NO. 2, FALL 1974 boyant moustache, abrasively coloured bow tie and a very smart, if far from quiet Harris tweed jacket. This was the man who headed the United States Secret Service until 1912, and who may be termed the father of modern American espionage.2 Wilkie's personal qualifications do not in themselves explain why he was asked to work under the Treasury Department. The Treasury Department became the nerve-centre of United States intelligence operations partly by default. There was no other institution which offered comparable adaptability, expertise and centralization. Presidents had in the past used various methods to obtain information. They had employed 11 executive agents" in two capacities, secret and diplomatic. After a century of controversy the Senate disallowed the use of such agents in an official capacity , but condoned their employment as spies. The situation in 1898, however , called for the use of spies internally as well as externally, and this kind of operation had never formed part of the executive agents' work. Pinkerton agents had operated on American soil on behalf of the Union during the Civil War, but on that occasion they had let the Union down. Furthermore, as the villains of the Homestead lockout of 1892, they were hated by wage-earners, most of whom were patriotic but willing to cooperate only with a less controversial intelligence service (they did, in fact, help the Secret Service men by supplying information for use in counterespionage operations). These circumstances, together with the suspicion that Pinkerton agents might be working for Spain, meant that the wellknown detective agency was not on the American team in 1898. A further method open to the President was the use of Army and Navy intelligence, which had been put on a permanent footing in the 1880s. Spies for the Navy did achieve some notable wartime success, such as the penetration of the security cloak thrown around naval deliberations at...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 119-134
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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