Robert Stove has written a readable and intelligent survey of secret policing, which he defines as “governments’ surveillance of their own subjects, as distinct from espionage.”  Sensibly, he does not try to cover every known instance of this behavior but focuses on some celebrated instances, including the French police state of the 18th and 19th centuries, the secret-police apparatus of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.  His lament about the lack of research in this area is curious, now that the journal Intelligence and National Security is approaching its third decade of publication.

Still, Stove’s account is pleasingly balanced, a rare enough virtue at a time when so many writers seek only to cast out the motes in the eyes of their ideological opposites.  Often, it is not easy to pin down his particular biases.  He is hard on Hoover, who takes the blame for so much of what was required by his political masters, from FDR onward.  At the same time, he has little sympathy for Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he describes as “the opiate of post-Christian America’s masses” and whose “seemingly incessant Communist associations” would have attracted the hostility of a much less partisan bureaucrat than J. Edgar.  If there is a single political strain running through this book, it is “a healthy aversion to the very notion of Big Government.”  Stove’s focus on the leadership of each separate secret-police apparatus shows alarmingly how systems designed to preserve and protect public security tend in practice to permit the ascent of fundamentally dreadful human beings, who vary only in the degree of their depravity and malice.  Felix Dzerzhinsky, Joseph Fouché, Nikolai Yezhov, and Heinrich Himmler are the aristocrats of this horrible world, compared with whom Hoover was a gentle giant.

The criticisms of secret policing are all too obvious: not just the fact that evils are inflicted in the name of national security but that similar practices then tend to become standard in “ordinary” politics and law enforcement.  What is alarming about the PATRIOT Act, currently the object of so much opprobrium in the United States, is not that it will do dreadful things to terrorists but that prosecutors will abuse the extensive powers they have been granted to pursue far less heinous offenders and, ultimately, very ordinary citizens indeed.  In September 2003, the New York Times noted, unsurprisingly, that

The government is using its expanded authority under the far-reaching law to investigate suspected drug traffickers, white-collar criminals, blackmailers, child pornographers, money launderers, spies and even corrupt foreign leaders.

Yet what is not clear—for Stove, or indeed for most other authors on this topic—is exactly what he wants to see in the realm of secret policing.  (With few and negligible exceptions, nobody wants to do without this kind of practice altogether.)  Arguably, some kind of secret policing, as defined by Stove, is essential to the survival of any modern state.  The harshest critics of John Ashcroft and PATRIOT would not hesitate to suggest that federal agencies should do everything in their power to prevent plots by militias and neo-Nazis to foment a race war, even if that means such distasteful practices as infiltration, surveillance, and intelligence collection—all before a crime has been committed.  Conservative critics who have apoplexy at seeing pro-life groups subjected to this treatment would have no qualms about supporting the penetration and disruption of Al Qaeda or Hezbollah cells on American soil, even if this activity involved bending some legal technicalities.  Given the appropriate ideological context, virtually everyone apart from the deepest-dyed libertarian believes that, sometimes, legal niceties have to give way to public safety.  Many who would once have disagreed with that proposition changed their minds quite thoroughly between roughly nine and ten Eastern time on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Stove makes the excellent point that the American public and its politicians operate from mixed and contradictory values.  People want to be protected from terrorism, yet they want to avoid police forces running out of control and violating human rights.  Equally, people believe in surveillance and prevention, yet they rarely acknowledge just how far this acquiescence contradicts basic democratic beliefs about the role of police and the investigation of crime.  Of its nature, counterterrorism means trying to prevent actions rather than investigating them after they have occurred.  Arresting and punishing everyone who might have been involved in the September 11 conspiracy would be a grossly inadequate and belated response to the crisis.  But preventing terrorist crimes before they occur means investigating many people who have not yet engaged in violence, on the supposition that they might do so in the near future.  (Remember the film Minority Report, with its image of elite police units pursuing offenders thought prone to “pre-crime”?)

In the 1970’s, a British newspaper undertook an enlightening survey of present and former intelligence agents and officials of the secret state, asking them which novel best reflected their professional worlds.  Surely, the answer would be a thriller by John Le Carré, or conceivably Frederick Forsyth, or just possibly Ian Fleming?  Not at all.  The overwhelming favorite was G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, a phantasmagoric fiction concerning police and anarchists in which all the police prove to be secret anarchists, and vice versa.  In one dazzling encounter, a member of the special Philosophical Detective Squad explains the radical new measures to which the government has been driven to protect the nation.  Effectively, highly intellectual law enforcers must predict crime by spotting its earliest spiritual antecedents.

The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic parties to detect pessimists.  The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger that a crime has been committed.  We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed.  We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime.

The passage is hilarious yet alarming.  At some point, presumably, some modern Philosophical Detective really does have to decide which Muslim activist is a pious mystic, which is a hypocritical windbag, and which is a fanatic hoping to take thousands of American lives with him in his act of self-immolation.  That means spotting who will commit crimes in the future and acting to ensure that they do not do so.  No law school in American history has ever dealt with those dilemmas.

Equally, agencies face an impossible contradiction when trying to keep watch on terrorist networks.  Both public and political leaders demand that such networks be kept under surveillance and, ideally, destroyed before they can carry out their attacks.  Yet experienced terrorist groups conceal themselves behind a web of affiliated organizations, through the process known as insulation.  An effective investigation of terrorism must of necessity involve fighting not just violent organizations but the whole broader support network, which in practice means surveillance and infiltration of numerous innocent-sounding groups pursuing licit causes like labor organization and woman’s rights.  Yet many of the people involved in such groups will have no terrorist connections, and agencies leave themselves open to charges of repression, antilabor, and antiwoman attitudes, even of religious persecution—in short, of acting like secret police.  As voters and media consumers, we want to be protected, yet we refuse to believe or accept what this effort might entail.  We reject the notion of a secret police, yet we demand that the secret police protect us and shriek when they fail.

Stove’s conclusion was written in late 2001, and it has a breathless tone rather out of character with the balanced approach of the rest of the book: “Are we witnessing the re-emergence of outright secret police terror, all carried out—of course—in the name of wartime ‘emergency’ powers?”  Well, hardly.  We should be disturbed, however, by the ratchet effect so often evident in domestic-security policy.  New and severe laws are introduced on a temporary and emergency basis; once the emergency passes, however, the laws remain and provide a foundation on which later regimes can establish even more draconian policies.  It will be essential to collect the statements of liberal and Democratic politicians over the next few months, as they denounce the PATRIOT Act and its legislative kin—and then to exhume these worthy sentiments a few years down the road, when a liberal administration faces a domestic crisis from militias or antiabortion militants.  Will PATRIOT have been repealed by then, and full civil liberties restored?  Clearly not.  The name might change (from PATRIOT to JUSTICE, perhaps), but the laws will remain in place, and so will the bureaucrats who enforce them.  Until we are able even to admit the existence of such realities as state security and—yes—secret policing, however, we cannot begin to regulate agencies in a way that might be fair to all shades of political opinion.


[The Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims, by Robert J. Stove (San Francisco: Encounter Books) 367 pp., $25.95]