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Civil Liberties: What's Wrong with the TIPS Program? A WW I Horror Story Ripped from the History Books

In March 1917, with the United States on the brink of war with Germany, the administration of President Woodrow Wilson decided it needed help to secure the country internally from German saboteurs and spies. During a period of neutrality, from August 1914, when the European war began, to April 1917, when the United States formally entered what later became known as World War I, the Wilson administration had struggled with the question of internal security. It was especially concerned with activities by German aliens believed to be involved in espionage, sabotage, or what came to be called generally "German intrigues." Secretary of Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo argued his Secret Service be given control over any suspected German agents who should all be rounded up and sent back to Germany.

Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory, meanwhile, who was concerned about legal authority to act against suspected agents, claimed jurisdiction for his Bureau of Investigation (BI, which later evolved into the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI), and worked to obtain legal authority from Congress to expand counterespionage work and his Bureau. Locked in competition with a Secretary of Treasury, who was urging his agents to expose "German intrigues," and apparently intent on exploiting publicity for these stunning revelations, Attorney General Gregory accepted the offer of a Chicago advertising executive to organize a volunteer group of businessmen to assist in investigating German suspects.

This volunteer group, known as the American Protective League (APL), headquartered in Washington with branches throughout the county became a quasi-official investigating arm of the Justice Department, with the official task of investigating war-related internal security cases. The APL led the Wilson administration deeply into controversy over the question of how much authority the United States government could or should give to volunteers in investigating suspected spies and saboteurs. What began as an agreement to allow patriotic citizens to help the Justice Department defend the country, and coincidently maintain its dominance in internal security, eventually led the government deeply into citizen quarrels, such as personal grudges, labor disputes, and serious differences over economic and political policy.

After the fears of the first few months of war abated, there was little for the volunteers to do. With few German agents to investigate, after the early days of the war the Justice Department assigned APL units a variety of more prosaic tasks for the military. These ranged from plant protection to hunting for slackers, jobs which quickly involved volunteers, with their quasi-official authority and "auxiliary to the Justice Department" badges, in the affairs of ordinary citizens. APL units frequently organized plant protection inside factories with government contracts, establishing a secret hierarchy that stretched from company officials and War Department agents to the shop floor where privates watched fellow workers. Volunteer operatives searched for men who refused to register for the draft. They patrolled zones established around cantons where the military wanted liquor and prostitution restricted.

The Justice Department kept its APL volunteers working, in part to preempt the expansion of the Secret Service and Military Intelligence Division (MID) into internal security. After forcing the Secret Service out of the field, the Justice Department negotiated with the War Department to use the APL instead of its own volunteer groups. Although the APL worked for Military Intelligence and assigned one of its national directors as a liaison with it, the Justice Department nominally controlled the volunteers. The Justice Department agreed to supply APL members for the many tasks the military felt it should perform at home, but had insufficient trained military personnel. The plan also fit into a larger administration goal, to separate the military from civilians. The Selective Service, as the draft was called, had as its goal maintaining a civilian buffer between the military and the groups from which young men were now being called for military training.

The Wilson administration presided over a country divided about the wisdom of going to war, and that fact also dictated the caution with which officials used the military on the home front. Still, the fear of foreign danger fueled support for the war and the expansion of the government at home. The line between countering espionage and sabotage and stifling dissent was difficult to maintain. Volunteers often interpreted opposition to war policies as even more dangerous than enemy spying or sabotage because it hindered the war effort at the front. What was acceptable activity during war was unclear, and the guidelines about which laws could be applied to which activities were vague. Who was to determine what should be done and where the line should be drawn?

The APL had inherent weaknesses because of its volunteer status. Members were not selected, trained, or disciplined by the federal government. The group self-selected members, exercised only limited authority over its far-flung units, and had no way to discipline members, who often defined a broad range of legal activities as disloyal and in need of investigation.

Some APL units were composed of previously formed groups. The Minute Men was one such private organization that had already ruthlessly suppressed the Industrial Workers of the World in many areas of Washington State when the APL merged with it. Once recognized as authorized investigators, members went after a wide variety of suspects, including teachers accused of teaching "hun" courses in history. In four months, the Minute Men branch of the APL conducted over two thousand investigations in Seattle alone.

In a number of states the APL worked with Committees of Public Safety (CPS), which directed state war efforts and had broad powers to protect persons and property. Ostensibly formed for state defense, these committees were sometimes under the control of men who saw enemies everywhere and who were eager to use the APL in all kinds of vendettas. Judge John McGee, a member of the Minnesota CPS, whose very active intelligence bureau cooperated with APL members, attacked Swedish and German aliens as a whole, attempted to oust the Socialist mayor of Minneapolis, and opposed the attempts of farmers to organize the Non Partisan League because it wanted more government control of the economy. In April of 1918, McGee went before a Senate committee to argue the government should have formed firing squads after the declaration of war against Germany. They should be formed immediately, he urged, and "work overtime in order to make up for lost time." Behind such overblown rhetoric was the argument by men like McGee that the civilians should hand over control of the home front to the military.

These attacks led the Justice Department to expand the APL still further. The "web," as the APL called its network of operatives, claimed over 300,000 members by the end of 1918. As it expanded and spread through the United States, the APL turned its attention first from aliens to dissenters, and then eventually to larger numbers of ordinary citizens. By 1918, the APL was probing deeply into the lives of ordinary citizens as it collected domestic intelligence for the War Department. Those reports helped convince the War Department that the government needed protection against its own civilians. In the early 1920s, it developed plans coded War Plans White to counter a domestic revolution.

The Justice Department tolerated the APL because of necessity. It had too few agents for the investigations it wished to make. It also exploited the APL to preempt internal security work by other federal agencies at the national level, and by states at the regional level. It used a private group of investigators against whom the Bill of Rights provided no defense. In the 1950s, the federal government obtained legal sanction from the Supreme Court for supremacy in guarding the home front, but at that time, Congress also extended constitutional safeguards to protect against possible abuse of that power. Any strengthening of federal posers in internal security seemed dangerous to American freedoms unless accompanied by a similar expansion of protections of civil liberties.

By the end of World War I, Attorney General Gregory and his Director of the War Emergency Division, John Lord O'Brian were concerned about growing APL involvement in the lives of Americans. General Gregory ordered the APL disbanded in early 1919. He offered members the government's thanks for their work, granted them "honorable discharges," and at various mustering out celebrations in major cities had his subordinates tell the volunteers to go home.

A number of APL units vigorously protested their dismissal, arguing the group should become a permanent "auxiliary" of the federal government. When Gregory and John Lord O'Brian stood firm, disgruntled volunteers found local support for their continued activities and reappeared under a variety of new names. In Chicago, APL veterans formed the Patriotic American League, in Cleveland the Loyalty League, in Cincinnati they became part of the Home Guard. In Minneapolis, APL members transformed themselves into the "Committee of Thirteen." Even when officially gone, the APL provided a model for citizen sleuthing. Ku Klux Klan founder William Simons claimed the idea for his surveillance of Americans came from the Atlanta APL. Northern factory owners copied plant protection formulas in forming surveillance groups to report on their workers' union activities.

APL members were recalled to serve government agencies of various sorts in the 1920s. Former members worked again for the Justice Department under Attorney General Mitchell Palmer during the Red Raids and for the War Department's head of the Military Intelligence Division, Brigadier General Marlborough Churchill, as well as for assorted state and local investigative bodies concerned with what they considered disloyal or un-American activities. Gregory had attempted to collect all the case files opened by the APL during the war, but instead local units held many of them for future use, often by local police or regional military intelligence offices. The national government finally ceased using APL veterans only in 1924.

On the eve of another war in 1940, both civil libertarians and professionals within the Justice Department--including J. Edgar Hoover--opposed the use of volunteers. They all agreed that counterespionage was the proper province of a small group of highly trained and organized professionals rather than volunteers. Hoover did encourage the public to report neighborhood subversives in the 1950s, and volunteers similarly formed private intelligence units, but he never gave them official sanction.

John Lord O'Brian, who had insisted the APL be abandoned in 1919, always defended their use in World War I, even for investigations, but specifically for helping patrol and protect munition plants and harbor fronts and for running down draft dodgers, then called "slackers." Ironically, it was such activities as running down slackers which first brought unfavorable publicity to the APL in the summer of 1918, when they held massive dragnets to locate men who had dodged the draft. Such visible activities alerted the public to the presence of the APL and to the fact that many of the purported "government agents" had actually been volunteers without legal authority to act on behalf of the government. Whatever Hoover may have done later to promote neighbor spies and support the organizations that hunted radicals, he steadfastly condemned the official use of organizations such as the APL.

There is a long history of of government using private groups for domestic surveillance and encouraging individuals to spy on their neighbors. We should at least be aware of that history, as well as the history of official civilian and military government surveillance, as once again many Americans are concerned about security. Internal security policy deserves the most careful discussion and analysis, not only by those who understand the many legal and political issues involved, but also by those who are being called upon to engage in these activities. The basic rights that have insured our existence as a people are greatly affected by internal security policy. It is well worth the time and effort to discuss these issues of safety, freedom, and security that are so often consciously shrouded by governments in secrecy.

This material is drawn primarily from my trilogy on internal security and surveillance: on the APL generally, The Price of Vigilance (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1968); for the use by the Military Intelligence Division of APL and APL veterans, Army Surveillance in America, 1775-1980 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991); and for an analysis of the experiences with surveillance by one group of immigrants, some of whom were involved in anti-colonial movement against Great Britain, Passage from India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).