The 1860s had Their Own Version of PRISM

“The National Security Agency is not spying on our U.S. citizens—and the thought is not only illegal—it’s ludicrous.” —James Foster

In a Nutshell

In 2013, the world erupted in fury at news that, under a program known as PRISM, the NSA is spying on the electronic communications of billions of people. However, there’s a historical precedent for this; in 1862, all telegraph lines in the US were successfully re-routed through the office of the Secretary of War, allowing him to read and censor the information contained within.

The Whole Bushel

In June 2013, ex-NSA (National Security Agency) contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of PRISM, a spying program that allows the NSA to intercept the internet and telephone conversations of people all over the world.

However, Edward M Stanton—the Secretary of War during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln—was running a similar scheme during the American Civil War. In order to monitor the telegrams of journalists and government officials across the US, in 1862 he successfully petitioned President Lincoln to have the country’s telegraph lines re-directed through his office. Here, Stanton was able to read and censor massive amounts of information, including vital correspondence regarding the war. With the information that Stanton gathered, he was able to justify the imprisonment of dozens of journalists on falsified charges of spying, including one prominent reporter for the New York Times.

Eventually, such activities raised enough concern amongst the higher echelons of government that the House Judiciary Committee called for Stanton to exercise a higher level of restraint when censoring communications. Fortunately, with 1865 and the end of the war, Stanton’s powers were removed and the telegraph lines redirected out of his control, thereby allowing information to flow freely and without control.

Well, until recently anyway.

Show Me The Proof

New York Times: Lincoln’s Surveillance State