January 17, 2014
No balloons, but what can you do. (AP Photo/Disney-DreamWorks II, David James)
No balloons, but what can you do? (AP Photo/Disney-DreamWorks II, David James)

In Friday’s speech on the National Security Agency, President Obama began by citing surveillance in history. He commented:

At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee born out of the Sons of Liberty was established in Boston. And the group’s members included Paul Revere. At night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early patriots.

Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms. In the Civil War, Union balloons’ reconnaissance tracked the size of Confederate armies by counting the number of campfires.

He went on to talk about more popular, mainstream cases of surveillance, but first, let’s take a moment to delve into these initial examples, just because I so seldom get to hold forth on the Civil War Balloon Surveillance movement.

It’s true that Paul Revere was active in surveillance. He said himself (quoted by David Hackett Fischer in “Paul Revere’s Ride,” page 22) that:

“I was one of upwards of thirty, chiefly mechanics, who formed ourselves into a committee for the purpose of watching the movements of the British soldiers, and gaining every intelligence of the movements of the Tories. We held our meetings at the Green Dragon Tavern.”

He added (also quoted by Fisher): “We were so careful that our meetings should be kept secret, that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible that he would not discover any of our transactions but to Messrs Hancock, Adams, Doctors Warren, Church and one or two more.”

And even then, before everyone and his carefully background-checked dog had clearance, they had problems. Dr. Benjamin Church proved less trustworthy than hoped and leaked their information to British Gen. Thomas Gage.

No wonder President Obama finds Edward Snowden so disappointing. Share our secret methods overseas? He’s like the Dr. Church of the NSA — HEY, AMIRITE? No? Okay. Fine. (To be fair, instead of being rewarded with money, as Church was, Snowden was rewarded with a Really Long Airport Stay, so maybe he should have taken more pages from the Church playbook.)

There is one distinction, though, which is that Paul Revere’s surveillance was conducted by private citizens against the soldiers and partisans of an occupying government they felt was infringing on their rights and liberties. In the sense that this is surveillance, it is similar to what the NSA is doing. But the lens is pointing the opposite way. It’s sort of like someone did a word-search for the term “surveillance” in books about the Founding Fathers and decided this was close enough. But I’m not really sure what the lesson is here. Collecting intelligence is a vibrant American tradition? No arguments there. Everyone has spies. It’s also a tradition of the ancient Romans, the Greeks — heck, anyone with a sufficiently advanced treehouse. But citing Revere is a case of individuals keeping tabs on their government, not the other way around.

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight surveillance by Paul Revere
quipped David Burge on Twitter.

One hop if by land, and two if by sea
(Or if there’s a compelling issue of security.)

Or something like that.

Next up: “Union balloon reconnaissance” in the Civil War. Shout-out to Thaddeus Lowe!

Lowe was an inventor, balloon entrepreneur and early aviator who had been promoting the balloon cause for some time, suggesting to Congress in 1858 the creation of a national weather service. Never shy about suggesting his balloons for things, Lowe actually was part of a long and exciting saga of multiple private aviators vying to get the War Balloons contract in the Civil War. They kept turning up in D.C. with balloons and hovering usefully over the armory to demonstrate their skills. There was no shortage of drama — gaining and losing contracts, refusing to ride in one another’s contraptions, refusing to share the balloons, getting the apparatus tangled in trees. Picture the Google StreetView van if the van kept getting caught in bushes. They were popular with generals (McClellan even went up in one, at one point), and once underway they obtained useful information by counting enemy campfires and sent dispatches to Lincoln and the troops.

Also, all that metadata they collected in a dragnet by mistake. (Well, to be fair, they could probably see where you were stashing your cows.) And it wasn’t like the technology lacked other applications. A woman wrote a note to President Lincoln suggesting that the balloon surveillance corps be used to drop copies of his speeches on the Confederate forces instead. I don’t think he took her up on this, but even then, with great balloon power came great balloon responsibility.

But, again, this is a somewhat different situation. It is hard to keep a balloon secret, especially when it keeps deflating and getting caught in trees.

Technology, then, could only do so much. This did not prevent Lincoln from getting letters from a gentleman who claimed that God had put three magical inventions in his head and that “you must have my balloon to put down all foreign foes. I again warn you against secret enemies. Watch well, and you will find the golden wedge.” (Dear Mr. Lincoln; Letters to the President, Harold Holzer, ed.) But this man was clearly bonkers, and Lincoln did not give him the $10,000 he asked for.

True, the struggle to balance the power of the tools of surveillance and the rights of the people observed — as well as the difficulty of keeping sensitive information out of the wrong hands — are problems as old as this nation. But the examples don’t shed much light on today’s challenges. The balance is a lot trickier to strike now, because the tools are so much more powerful and the apparatus so much more complex. Any intelligence you can share at the Green Dragon Tavern clearly doesn’t require a supercomputer. You can tell if someone is watching you in a balloon made of fine silk, or if Paul is lingering outside your door. And both of these were cases of private individuals (either under their own steam or, after some wangling, on the government payroll) watching enemy armies. If only it were that simple.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.