The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wiretapping’s shift from a criminal tactic to a law enforcement tool

The 1955 crime drama “Wiretapper” involved some nefarious eavesdropping. For decades the American public saw wiretapping as morally wrong. (LMPC/Getty Images)
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For much of American history, a large segment of the public believed that surveillance in any form was not just unwise or unlawful but instinctively vile. Wisconsin Republican John C. Schafer took to the floor of Congress in 1929 and ranked government eavesdroppers among “the most despicable specimens of the human race.” In a 1928 Supreme Court dissent, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. deemed the wiretapping that caught one of the nation’s most successful bootleggers a “dirty business” better fit for criminals.

In “The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States,” Brian Hochman sets himself the task of explaining where that disgust came from — and where it went. His thoughtful, searching history reminds us that the practice of wiretapping was steeped from the start in lawlessness. Before the tap became a tool for controlling crime, the public encountered it as a means of committing it, whether by stealing corporate secrets or listening in on gamblers’ wagers. So common was the exploitation of early telegraph and telephone networks to swindle, cheat and defraud that a literary genre — the “wire thriller” — sprouted from the scandals.

“The Listeners” mines narratives like these to great effect in its account of why government officers struggled to sanitize surveillance: Wiretapping, in the public’s mind, was what crooks did.

Those bad roots caused wide aversion to official wiretapping, however closely regulated, and made it possible to imagine banning it entirely. Certainly opinion was never monolithic, and — as Hochman tells us in perhaps too much detail — state and federal laws were a patchwork. Still, an important thread of popular thinking held that surveillance was simply “dishonest and immoral.” In the mid-20th century, a proponent of eavesdropping despaired that the vocabulary itself was poisoned: “If we had a word or term that meant the ‘scientific devices to combat crime,’ the very use of that term would make most people understand a lot more clearly what law enforcing people have in mind.”

Those “law enforcing people” fought in fits and starts against popular unease, and “The Listeners” follows carefully the haphazard policy shifts that ensued. In Hochman’s telling, it was the advent of “law-and-order” politics, rooted in race-based fears of civil unrest, that gave the wiretap a stable place in American law. John McClellan, a segregationist senator from Arkansas, pushed to broaden government wiretaps by appealing to White fears. “You could bug a room or a hall in which [Stokely] Carmichael was meeting, in which [H.] Rap Brown was meeting, where they were inciting to riot, telling people to get their guns, ‘Go get whitey,’” McClellan argued. The appeal worked, and the possibility of mass opposition to wiretapping — not just wiretapping without legal process — dissolved.

Hochman, a professor of English and director of American studies at Georgetown University, is a lively guide to this history — yet with an unconventional sense of emphasis. The book spends less time on issues related to the National Security Agency than it does on private investigators working the divorce beat, and fewer pages on the 1970s revelations of intelligence abuse than it does on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film, “The Conversation.” Hochman’s approach is to look for the politics of surveillance in the mundane and the popular, not just in the state’s secret files.

The book sometimes seems to be of two minds about where this history leaves us. Hochman writes at one point that he has “no doubt that the wiretap continues to serve as a vital law enforcement tool when employed responsibly under the law’s baroque guidelines.” Yet he conveys a certain nostalgia when he notes “just how widespread popular opposition to electronic surveillance really was for most of this country’s history.”

Today, full-throated antagonism is rarer than it used to be. And the pushback is a minor theme in a system dominated by the ideal of well-regulated monitoring. “The Listeners” does a wonderful job evoking a world shaped by intense distaste for surveillance, even if the sharp emotions that once energized the battle now seem lost to history.

Grayson Clary is a legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The Listeners

A History of Wiretapping in the United States

By Brian Hochman

Harvard University Press. 360 pp. $35.

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