The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States
by Brian Hochman
In 1911, a self-promoting private detective named William Burns made national headlines. He had broken open a major political corruption case, using a powerful new technology: an electronic bug. A business group had hired him to investigate the Ohio state legislature. So he had two of his agents plant a dictograph—a telephonic device invented in 1905 as an office intercom—under a couch at a hotel in Cincinnati. Another agent then posed as a businessman, invited dozens of legislators to the hotel, and offered them bribes. As lawmakers agreed to the deals, the dictograph carried their conversation to the room next door, where a stenographer wrote it all down. It led to multiple criminal convictions. And Burns became a celebrity: Bars started serving “dictograph cocktails” in his honor, while Burns produced a play about his own exploits and even starred as himself in a silent film. The age of electronic listening had arrived.
Burns was celebrated for bugging corrupt politicians in Ohio, but he soon drew fire for using a different kind of electronic eavesdropping: tapping phone conversations. In 1916, the first national scandal over wiretapping exploded in New York City, and Burns was in the thick of it. The police were tapping hundreds of phones a year to track criminals and suppress labor activism. Burns was accused of helping them tap the lines at a leading law firm. The public was outraged, and State Senator George Thompson held hearings, where both sides argued their case. Mayor John Mitchell testified that wiretapping was “essential to the protection of the community,” and Burns added that “rough methods” were needed to fight crime. On the other side, labor organizers demanded protection from police surveillance, and civil libertarians warned about the dangers of justifying wiretapping. The hearings offered the public a seemingly stark choice, one that feels all too familiar today: safety or civil liberties?
The Thompson Committee ultimately recommended that New York rein in police wiretapping and prosecute Burns. The detective paid a $100 fine. But it hardly derailed his career: In 1921, he became director of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI. There, he approved frequent wiretapping, including of a U.S. senator, and in 1924, the ACLU alleged that the bureau was “lawless.” Burns later resigned, but in one of history’s ironies, his successor, J. Edgar Hoover, told Congress in 1929 that the bureau had turned over a new leaf. Wiretapping was “unethical,” Hoover declared, and “any employee engaging in [it] will be dismissed.” That must have slipped his mind in 1963 when he had the FBI tap Martin Luther King Jr.’s phones.
If these wiretapping scandals sound remarkably similar to the controversies over government surveillance today, that’s because they are. Or at least that’s what Brian Hochman argues in his smart, entertaining, and occasionally alarming new book, The Listeners: A History of Wiretapping in the United States. As the subtitle alludes to, Hochman narrates a century and a half of wiretapping, from the Civil War to the War on Terror. What emerges is a powerful prehistory of today’s private sector and government surveillance regimes. Hochman reveals the surprising strength of public resistance to all forms of electronic surveillance until the 1960s. And, crucially, he shows how national leaders used the racial backlash politics of the late 1960s to normalize government eavesdropping and build the world we live in today.