Friday, January 20, 2006

It Happened Before: U.S. Army Spied On Innocent Americans

Today we take the instantaneous transmission of details about everything in the world for granted. Back in the 1960’s, it was not considered possible. The U. S. Government owned the earliest computers. Their ability to process information was antiquated by today’s standards. However, their potential was frightening. Just the idea of anyone having access to so much data was alarming to most Americans. One man, Senator Sam Ervin, made it his mission to limit and control the amount of data the U.S. Government maintained.

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In 1969, a man named Christopher Pyle approached Senator Ervin. Pyle had worked in Army Intelligence. He believed that the Army was over-stepping its bounds by spying on American citizens. He confirmed Ervin’s worst fears when he explained that the Army employed more than 1500 plainclothes agents to investigate members of the general population. In addition, the Army was not coordinating the venture with the FBI. The Army had created its own domestic spying division without proper oversight.

Senator Ervin was outraged, both by the intrusion into the lives of ordinary citizens, and
by the fact that the military was participating. He convinced several Senate colleagues to join him in an investigation.

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They received no co-operation from the Nixon administration. The Senators complained that vital information was being withheld. The administration hid behind claims of executive power, misleading statements, and claims that such information would harm our national security in time of war. (Sounds familiar today!)

Senator Ervin hired Mr. Pyle as an investigator for the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. Eventually it was discovered that there were records on over one-million Americans in the Army’s files.

The Senator called for public hearings in 1971 to examine the ‘dangers the Army’s program presents to the principles of the Constitution.” Meanwhile, Christopher Pyle had an article appear in “Washington Monthly’ in January of 1970 on the subject of Army spying.

The subsequent outrage among Americans brought a great deal of support and attention to the investigation. Senator Ervin never reached the core of the Army spying story. However, some of the information his committee uncovered eventually lead to the discovery of the Watergate scandal.

All of these issues are recurring now. How do we balance our constitutional rights with national security? How do we make our leaders accountable when they refuse to cooperate with an investigation? Why must we re-learn the importance of maintaining our system of checks and balances every thirty-forty years?

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