Lecturers tap into history of government surveillance

A fusion of keen interest and somber reflection filled Science Complex P101 on the evening of March 19 at a forum for empire and democracy.

Falling on the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, this second part of the U.S. studies program’s Spring lecture series, “Empire and Democracy: Contradictions and Complications,” commemorated the forum’s late sponsor, Alan Dawley, professor of history and founder of the U.S. studies program at the College, who died on March 12.

Dawley was a “public intellectual who believed not only in the advance of knowledge in the classroom and on campus but in the wider world,” Marianna Sullivan, professor of political science, said. According to Sullivan, the forum was one model of Dawley’s dedication to the enrichment of the College community and to the betterment of society.

Almost every seat in the lecture hall was occupied for the forum, which featured presentations from Katherine Sibley, professor of history at St. Joseph’s University, and Michael Sullivan, professor of history and politics at Drexel University.

Sibley’s lecture, titled “National ‘Emergencies’ and the Rise of the Investigative State: The FBI’s Attack on Soviet Espionage in World War II,” addressed the anti-communist sentiment and nationwide fear during the Cold War as a cause of the loss of American civil liberties through the FBI’s invasive investigations of civilians. Putting it into the context of a post-Sept. 11 world, she drew parallels between the events following World War II and and the current “erosion of civil liberties” marked by the implementation of the USA Patriot Act in 2001.

The FBI became “much more sophisticated at catching spies” with the development of advanced technology like wiretaps and significant improvements in cryptology that surfaced during World War II.

These advances, coupled with the surge of informants motivated by pervasive anti-communism, led directly to a “tightening of FBI surveillance,” Sibley said.

“Although much has changed since then, there is still controversy over the NSA’s wiretapping today,” she said. She suggested that in comparison to the general acquiescence to the privacy breaches during the Cold War, “there is more skepticism today regarding the war on terror and its relevance to us. There is a need for any type of government to protect itself, but this often raises issues of protecting our civil liberties. There’s a fine line there.”

Sullivan further discussed the motivations behind certain American diplomatic policies in his presentation “Rise of the American Empire: From the Cold War to the ‘War on Terror’ as Rationales,” which highlighted some of the findings in his most recent book, “American Adventurism Abroad: Invasions, Interventions, and Regime Changes since World War II.”

The historical account analyzes 34 cases of the U.S. invading Third World countries. While suggesting that the American foreign interventions during the Cold War might have been justified by an aim to contain communism, Sullivan questioned the necessity of the presence of 700 American military bases in over 50 countries around the world today.

“The U.S. is about empire and controlling the world, and often this motive is disguised as an effort to spread democracy,” he said.

He cited several cases in which the preservation of capitalism was the key motivation for intervening, even when the United States did not directly profit, like the American involvement in Vietnam to protect the primarily French capital.

“The emphasis is on the greater good of the capital system, not necessarily the capital,” he said. “If there’s a choice between capitalism and democracy, we always choose capitalism.”

A supplemental chart that estimated 7,100,000 total fatalities in the 34 cases made a strong impression on many.

Nicole Pfeiffer, senior English and international studies major, was troubled that she had not been more familiar with many of the cases of damaging results from American intercession before college and asked what could be done to broaden her knowledge.

Marianna Sullivan announced that the U.S. studies program is currently preparing a plan for a high school course on American empire and democracy. “It was the students’ idea because many of them said they’d never heard of the concept of ’empire’ before college,” Sullivan said.

As the crowded lecture room began to empty, Pfeiffer saw the overwhelming turnout as a reflection of Dawley’s effectiveness as a professor who was able to influence his students, colleagues and the whole College community.

“The number of people and professors from different departments is a testament to his work,” she said, “and is a hopeful sign that it will continue on.”