Richard Reeves

Big Brother Is Still Watching

WASHINGTON -- On Thursday of last week, someone inside a secret meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee spotted a new paragraph in the intelligence authorization bill for fiscal year 2004. The new wording would give the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency the same kind of subpoena power used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies.

In other words, the military officials and CIA agents could legally search through your telephone, credit card and bank records, and e-mail logs, without court approval. The wording came from the White House. Some members, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, objected, and the wording is on hold.

Pretty scary stuff, I'd say. You don't have to be a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union to understand the implications of soldiers and spooks checking out you and your life minute-by-minute.

But I must say I was encouraged by the fact that the story was on the streets, in The New York Times, within a few hours. The leaks shall make you free.

Also, I happened to be reading a book, to be published in June, that put that spy story in a different historical context. "The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I," by Thomas Fleming, a smart popular historian who learned his politics the same place I did. It is an astonishing book, particularly if you know little or nothing about that war to end all wars.

I did not know, for instance, that the German government placed advertisements in New York newspapers warning passengers not to board the British luxury liner Lusitania. The ads said the ship was secretly carrying ammunition and weaponry to England, and that German U-boats, the super-weapons of the time, were going to try to sink it -- which they did on May 17, 1915. More than 1,100 people, including 128 Americans, died, and more than 5,000 cases of ammunition blew up or ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

This, according to Fleming, is what it was like at home after the United States entered the war in 1917:

-- Sen. Hiram Johnson of California led the fight to kill a one-paragraph clause in an omnibus appropriations bill that would have given the White House and Department of War the power to censor all newspapers in the country.

-- "Patriots" in Milwaukee used machine guns to stop patrons from seeing the German play "Wilhelm Tell."

-- Lutheran schools and churches were raided and searched for pro-German material; former president Theodore Roosevelt called for a ban on teaching the German language in schools.

-- In Lansing, Mich., a man named Powell was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for complaining about pressure to buy war bonds; the mayor of Lansing was sent to jail for contempt of court when he rose to defend Powell.

-- At least 100 conscientious objectors, especially socialist political leaders, were sentenced to 10 to 30 years in federal penitentiaries; Mennonites were sent into empty fields and pursued by motorcyclists until they collapsed.

-- Labor leader Eugene Debs, who supported the war, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for attacking "superpatriots."

-- Citizens Protective League vigilantes loaded 1,200 union miners and dissidents into railroad cars and dropped them in New Mexico deserts -- "a lesson that the whole of America would do well to copy," said a Los Angeles Times editorial.

-- The general counsel of the U.S. Post Office, William H. Lamar, closed several magazines, including The Nation, denouncing them for "pro-Germanism, pacifism and highbrowism."

-- The Saturday Evening Post called on America to get rid of German-Americans and Irish-Americans, "the scum of the melting pot."

-- Robert Goldstein, director of "Spirit of '76," a film that depicted 18th-century atrocities by British soldiers during the American revolution, was arrested and sentenced to prison for 10 years.

-- Baseball fans at an exhibition game in Texas cheered Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers when he slid into second base spikes high and then pummeled the bleeding second baseman, Buck Herzog of the New York Giants, yelling, "German! German!"

-- Morris Ryskind was expelled from Columbia Journalism School for making fun of the school's president, Nicholas Murray Butler, who fired any faculty who spoke against the war. He went to Hollywood and wrote movies for the Marx Brothers.

We seem to have come a long way, or at least the government is a lot less crazy. Or maybe we talk less now and have better listening devices.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves