The United States and Its Informants: The Cold War and the War on Terror

AHA Session 89
Friday, January 4, 2013: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Southdown Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
David J. Garrow, University of Pittsburgh School of Law
Beverly F. Gage, Yale University

Session Abstract

In 2005, a part-time engineering student and a green card holder Yassine Ouassif was taken off a plane headed for his home country, Morocco, brought to a US Customs and Border Protection facility, cuffed to a chair, and interrogated at length. An FBI agent offered him an alternative: inform on your Muslim friends or be deported. Ouassif was not alone: despite sophisticated electronic surveillance technologies, US security agencies still rely heavily on “human assets.” As the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit pointed out in 1955 about McCarthyism, both authoritarian and liberal states have modernized traditional snitching into intricate “systems” of “secret informers.” Human intelligence projects flourish at times of military conflict and social unrest, hence matter for the study of wars and social movements. Growing public distrust of government informers signifies people’s general disenchantment in their government, and thus illuminates the crucial role of surveillance in modern state formation. Yet despite several early calls for a historiography of informing, few scholars of liberal democratic states have tackled the issue as a historical problem.

This session sketches out a research agenda by focusing on the United States, specifically on the continuities in the state’s use of informants in the Cold War and the “War on Terror.” The papers examine institutional contexts of informing as a method of surveillance and governance in a time of war, as well as everyday cultural and moral views of it. Olaf Stieglitz uses film and photography from the early Cold War to show how police and FBI top brass expected their undercover agents and informants to detect political dissent from visual clues. The construction of the communist ‘other’ was never assured—there was always a chance that radicals, like nineteenth-century con men, would pass as loyal middle-class subjects. Steve Hewitt shows that post-911 resurgence of counter-terrorist human intelligence, or HUMINT, across the lines of race and religion mirrors the later Cold War when the FBI and police aggressively targeted the Klan, as well as antiwar, black power, and feminist activists. In both eras, domestic security agents differed in ideology, race, religion, or gender from members of communities targeted for surveillance, and thus had to recruit and depend on often uncontrollable local informants. Elena Razlogova compares public controversies concerning informers after revelations of FBI’s COINTELPRO in the 1970s (focused on revealing informants’ identities) and of Wikileaks Afghan and Iraq Logs in 2010 (focused on protecting them). If Vietnam-era disdain for “the snitch” for a time disrupted FBI’s informer system, public outrage at Wikileaks for not redacting US informants’ names justly protected individuals yet also legitimized US counterinsurgency activities in the occupied territories.

Today, in the United States and globally, informants figure in debates about national security and individual privacy; transparency and secrecy; racial profiling and religious freedom; terrorism, rendition, and torture. This panel seeks to contribute to these public debates as well as inspire a deeper study of informing as a historical issue.

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