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Abuse of Power: How Cold War Surveillance and Secrecy Policy Shaped the Response to 9/11

Athan Theoharis

Publication Year: 2011

Athan Theoharis, long a respected authority on surveillance and secrecy, established his reputation for meticulous scholarship with his work on the loyalty security program developed under Truman and McCarthy. In Abuse of Power, Theoharis continues his investigation of U.S. government surveillance and historicizes the 9/11 response.

Criticizing the U.S. government's secret activities and policies during periods of "unprecedented crisis," he recounts how presidents and FBI officials exploited concerns about foreign-based internal security threats.

Drawing on information sequestered until recently in FBI records, Theoharis shows how these secret activities in the World War II and Cold War eras expanded FBI surveillance powers and, in the process, eroded civil liberties without substantially advancing legitimate security interests.

Passionately argued, this timely book speaks to the costs and consequences of still-secret post-9/11 surveillance programs and counterintelligence failures. Ultimately, Abuse of Power makes the case that the abusive surveillance policies of the Cold War years were repeated in the government's responses to the September 11 attacks.

Published by: Temple University Press

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pp. ix-x

This book is the culmination of ongoing research of accessible FBI records dating from the mid-1970s. In the process of conducting this research, I have incurred a number of debts. First, I thank the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the Harry S Truman Institute for International and National Affairs, and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation for funding my research at presidential libraries. Second, and more important, my extensive use of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain hundreds of thousands of pages of FBI records was made possible through the support of the following...

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pp. xi-xvi

Blind-sided by the devastating terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush administration officials endorsed what they contended were unprecedented changes in federal surveillance policy. Such changes, they claimed, were essential to anticipating and preventing future terrorist attacks. First, administration officials drafted and successfully lobbied the Congress to enact the...

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1. A New Intelligence Paradigm: Surveillance and Preventive Detention

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pp. 1-23

The crisis of the Great Depression transformed American politics. Capitalizing on the severe economic downturn and the seeming ineptitude of Herbert Hoover, the incumbent Republican president, Democratic presidential nominee Franklin Roosevelt easily captured the presidency in the 1932 election. Candidate Roosevelt, however, had offered no specific blueprint for the New Deal he pledged to enact if elected beyond promising bold new initiatives and a willingness to experiment. His commitment to change course and commanding personality, nonetheless, captured the public’s...

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2. A History of FBI Wiretapping Authority

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pp. 24-44

President Franklin Roosevelt’s unprecedented authorization of Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) “intelligence” investigations, combined with the similarly secret authorization (whether by presidents, attorneys general, or the FBI director) of other preventive detention and informer programs, had shifted the focus of FBI investigations from law enforcement to monitoring the political and personal activities of suspected “subversives.” And yet...

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3. The Politics of Wiretapping

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pp. 45-67

The rationale for President Franklin Roosevelt’s secret wiretapping directive was that this technique would enable the FBI to anticipate threats to the “national defense”—that is, planned acts of espionage or sabotage. President Harry Truman’s unknowing broader authorization of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wiretapping of “subversive activities” and Attorney General Herbert Brownell’s authorization of FBI bugging during “internal security” investigations were also intended to anticipate foreign-directed operations...

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4. A Commitment to Secrecy

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pp. 68-89

Senior Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials’ authorization of illegal investigative techniques (wiretaps, bugs, break-ins, mail openings), willingness to service the political and policy interests of the White House, and, conversely, willingness to subvert the political interests of liberal presidents by covertly assisting their conservative critics in Congress and the media posed serious political risks. The discovery of their actions could provoke demands...

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5. The Limits of Counterintelligence

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pp. 90-106

President Franklin Roosevelt’s purpose when authorizing Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) intelligence investigations and wiretapping was to enable FBI agents to anticipate and thus hopefully prevent espionage and sabotage operations that could undermine the nation’s security. Roosevelt’s willingness to bypass the attorney general when authorizing intelligence investigations or drafting the 1940 wiretapping directive (combined with Attorney General Robert Jackson’s purposeful decision not to maintain records of approved FBI wiretaps) emboldened the ambitious, if cautious,...

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6. The Politics of Counterintelligence

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pp. 107-140

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) failure to have uncovered Soviet espionage activities during World War II was not due to the lack of authority or legal restrictions precluding the use of intrusive investigative techniques. A key source of these failures stemmed from the political assumptions of senior FBI officials, assumptions that determined whom agents should target and that were based on essentially political conceptions of...

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7. Ignoring the Lessons of the Cold War

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pp. 141-166

Secrecy had enabled Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials (and, as well, those of the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] and the National Security Agency [NS A]) to avoid public scrutiny of their abuses of power throughout the World War II and cold war years. This success in avoiding accountability seemingly ended in the early 1970s. The Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations’ conduct of the Vietnam War had increased public...


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pp. 167-200


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pp. 201-213

E-ISBN-13: 9781439906668

Publication Year: 2011