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Abe Lincoln created US surveillance state

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When he wasn’t killing Vampires

The New York Times claims that the development of the US surveillance state goes a long way back into US history. In 1862, after President Abraham Lincoln appointed him secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton penned a letter to the president requesting sweeping powers.Central to these powers were getting total control of the telegraph lines.

The idea was that by routing those lines through his office, Stanton would keep tabs on vast amounts of communication, journalistic, governmental and personal. At the time the telegraph was the Internet of its day and while the traffic was lighter, the fact that it was rerouted through a centralised office is pretty much how Prism works.

On the back of Stanton’s letter Lincoln scribbled his approval: “The Secretary of War has my authority to exercise his discretion in the matter within mentioned.” Stanton’s next move was to arrest dozens of newspapermen arrested on questionable charges. A reporter for The New York Herald, who had insisted that he be given news ahead of other reporters, was arrested as a spy.

Stanton’s office made his department the nexus of war information. He collected news from generals, telegraph operators and reporters. He used his power over the telegraphs to influence what journalists did or didn’t publish. It was not until 1862, the House Judiciary Committee looked at the question of “telegraphic censorship” and called for restraint.

But the sequence is pretty much history repeating itself. Use the justification of a war to centralise the information, spy on citizens, arrest the journalists or brand them traitors. The only down side is that a war on terror is always endless, whereas the civil war did eventually stop – well not in Alabama of course.

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