Orwellian Surveillance (Quite Literally)

Orwell.jpgWhen people think of surveillance, they frequently think of George Orwell, the English writer whose depictions of surveillance in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four continue to resonate and inform our cultural and legal understandings of privacy. Orwell’s critics (and even some of his friends) thought he was a bit paranoid, but recent documents released by the British government suggest he had a point. The documents show that Orwell was himself monitored by the British government’s Special Branch police for over a decade because he was suspected of being a communist. A particularly amusing note in one of the documents explained that, referring to Orwell, “This man has advanced communist views … He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours.” The documents also reveal that Orwell apparently had tattoos on some of his knuckles, which he apparently picked up as a young man living in India.

Orwell was being watched because he was feared to be a communist, a charge that we know (and the government finally figured out after watching him for a decade) to be nonsense. But watching people because they were communists was considered perfectly acceptable in the context of the communist era. One wonders what (and who) is in the surveillance files currently being created by Western governments as part of the war on terrorism. Unfortunately, absent a leak or the extended passage of time, we may never know.

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5 Responses

  1. well, we already know that if you’re a political enemy of Eliot Spitzer, there’s a better chance that someone’s been monitoring you than if, say, you were an illegal immigrant…as to other other Western governments, I’ll guess that there’s a good chance you’re under surveillance if you’re in an “Old Europe” EU state and you question the need for Kyoto; you’re critical of the EU itself; you feel the need to print cartoons of Mohammed or have wondered out loud if there weren’t maybe advantages to the US health care system…but like you said, absent a leak…

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Indeed, there’s precedent on this side of the Atlantic, for instance, with the FBI surveillance of Coretta Scott King: ‘even after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the FBI’s Scott King file shows the Bureau actually intensified their spying and surveillance of the new widow. [N]ewly released documents show the Bureau closely tracked and scrutinized Scott King’s comings and goings, including public appearances (“Mrs. King is due to arrive…at 10:40 a.m.”) and what was said there. Agents also kept particular notice of any of her plane flights. They even kept tabs on a King family outing to Las Vegas and what security company Scott King was using.

    Far more invasive though was the Bureau’s interception of private letters she had written.

    One agent even read and reviewed her 1969 book “My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.” and made a point to say Scott King’s “selfless, magnanimous, decorous attitude is belied by(her)…actual shrewd, calculating, businesslike activities.”

    But the file also shows that the Bureau’s real worry about Scott King was not the civil rights movement but instead her involvement with the peace and “anti-Vietnam War” movement. Government officials were afraid that she might try to complete what her husband had been doing when he died: “attempt to tie the anti-Vietnam war movement to the civil rights movement,” as one FBI agent put it.

    During the late ‘60s, the anti-war movement was snowballing in strength and was considered a real danger to the war effort by both the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Adding the hundreds of thousands involved in the civil rights effort to the war protest was thus considered “a danger.”’


    A book I’ve mentioned at CO before that remains indispensable reading is Kenneth O’Reilly’s Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret Files on Black America, 1960-1972 (1989).

    See too, Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, eds., The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States (2002 ed.).

  3. I think these are really helpful comments, as they illustrate a critical point that often is absent from public debate: opposition to widespead surveillance and a healthy distrust of government are not narrowly partisan or conservative/liberal issues, but rather basic themes of Anglo-American legal culture.

  4. Adam says:

    Neil, I think you might be stretching the first comment a bit far. Your 8:37 comment would have been much more accurate if it had said: “opposition to widespead surveillance undertaken for purely political reasons and a healthy distrust of government are not narrowly partisan or conservative/liberal issues, but rather basic themes of Anglo-American legal culture”

    Let’s not forget that there actually were Communists in the United States, both within and without the government, that were attempting to subvert the United States and to assist the Soviet Union achieve predominance in Europe. While the abusive surveillance of MLK Jr. and others certainly was inappropriate, the surveillance undertaken by FDR most certainly was appropriate. I would venture to guess that, today, the American public largely supports surveillance of international communications involving suspected terrorists abroad. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that it illustrates a critical point often absent from legal debates in both the US and the UK: namely, that ideological, absolutist opposition to such surveillance is a basic theme of Anglo-American culture.

  5. Adam W says:

    Whoops, I certainly blew the last line. It should have read, “namely, that opposition to ideological, absoluteist opposition to such surveillance is a basic theme of Anglo-American culture.” That’s what I get for venturing a double-negative.