The American Surveillance State

Tony Richardson reviews "The American Surveillance State: How the US Spies on Dissent", David H. Price, Pluto Press, 2022.


This book is a useful companion to “The Red List,” reviewed on this site, which deals with spying on the UK left and intellectuals.

This book shows how the US state spies, based on documents gained under the Freedom of Information Acts.

The author has a long history of studying this, and an extensive knowledge of the radical movements in the US and beyond.

As these documents are only released after the subject’s death, they are only useful for the period before internet surveillance. Although the conclusion is really good on assessing the present internet age, arguing that, although the methods used by the state are mainly through trolling, they are still basically doing the same job as letter opening, infiltration, and spying. He claims that they continue to focus on the left and radicals while ignoring the right and fascists. For example, the FBI missed the Boston bomber in 2013 because they were busy watching Boston radicals.

Most of the book is about the FBI, from the time of J. Edgar Hoover to more recent times. Its chapters mainly deal in detail with an individual and then look at similar cases.

Hoover regarded anyone who advocated for racial equality as a quasi-communist. Similarly, those who fought for First Nation rights. A large number of the cases involve people who campaigned for peace.

The first part of the book talks about how surveillance became institutionalised, starting with Hoover and moving on to corporate surveillance as well as state activities. He argues that this is all about maintaining the status quo. From the early twenties phones were listened in to, letters opened and movements infiltrated, including using agent-provocateurs. The Ku Klux Klan was initially defended against black activists.

This went all the way through the McCarthy period (1950–54). After the Nixon scandals, Congress imposed limitations on what the FBI was officially allowed to do, but these limitations were all removed after 9/11.

It is a fascinating book for anybody looking at the history of 20th-century struggles and culture. By highlighting one person in each chapter, Price deals with their history and goes through the documents of the FBI revealed in wiretaps, etc. A lot of the documents are incomplete or redacted, but a huge amount is revealed, and he is able to fill some gaps with his own knowledge as he has been doing this for decades.

He shows how Hoover had vast files, so whenever a person became of interest, he didn’t just survey them; using his informers and phone taps, he gained files on anybody who came near them. As a result, his files numbered in the millions. When it comes to trials, for example, it is illegal in the US to do a study of the potential jurors. However, the FBI was able to provide the prosecution with a file on many of them that was already in existence.

Book Cover

One of these trials was that of Mark Zborowski, who, as a NKVD agent, infiltrated Trotsky’s “inner circle” and set up his assassination. He later came back to the USA as an NKVD spy, and was put on trial. I came across a similar form of jury fixing in the recent book on the trials of the Shrewsbury pickets, where the police were given details of jurors that the defence did not have.

Because Price deals with many individuals and cases, it is only by reading the whole book that the reader can get a full picture. I will just deal with the pieces that fascinated me. I would recommend especially the conclusion, because as a radical writer, he sums up well the dangers of the surveillance state.

Also, in the section on the murder of Ruth First, the prominent exiled anti-apartheid activist, she was organising conferences and meetings in Southern Africa, bringing together African anti-imperialists as well as American Black Rights activists and the CIA. When she was killed by a letter bomb, which was in a USAID parcel, many people suspected the Americans. But the BOSS (South African spy agency) was capable of trying to get the US involved. In the subsequent post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, the man who did it, a South African agent, confessed.

The book describes the deportations of foreign-born nationals like Gunder Frank and Alexander Cockburn. It shows how it tried to completely control the Organisation of American States by removing a critic. Although it is not as devastating as books by Philip Agee or other ex-CIA critics, it is powerful as it is based on FBI documents and is more recent.

The section on Edward Said is also interesting to Palestinian activists.

As a film buff, I had no idea that Haskell Wexler, a legendary cinematographer, had been spied on for many years. He worked as a cameraman on several Hollywood, independent, and documentary films.

Also, when the Americans, more specifically MacArthur, controlled Japan after the war, they had a film unit there that included a radical, David W. Conde. He was involved with supposedly getting the industry demilitarised. He worked on an early Kurosawa film and seems to have influenced the start of the great post-war period of Japanese cinema. MacArthur finally had him deported.

The book ends with the dangers of this surveillance for radical movements, particularly those such as Black Lives Matter, the Occupy Movement, the Land Protectors, and the Women’s Movement.

He argues against some radicals that appeal for the FBI to inquire into their problems, he says they are the problem, as defenders of the status quo.

This is a book well worth reading; although the enemy is more diverse and slightly more open, they still do the same job.

The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent by David H. Price

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