The communications-interception program approved by Lincoln in 1862 was similar in scope, if not in technology, to the systematic surveillance undertaken by President Obama's National Security Agency. Mindich notes that while the current operation may be alarming, it is not — despite what many commentators have claimed — "unprecedented" in American history.
Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's secretary of war, got the go-ahead from the 16th president for a plan to take complete control of the nation's telegraph lines, Mindich relates. Stanton was thus able to "keep tabs on vast amounts of communication, journalistic, governmental and personal," the prof writes. And the head of the Department of War "ultimately had dozens of newspapermen arrested on questionable charges."
But Mindich adds that he wasn't appalled by Stanton's requests to Lincoln for sweeping powers of surveillance. Upon unearthing these documents in the Library of Congress in the 1990s, Mindich recalls, "I accepted his information control as a necessary evil." Given the cause for which the Union was fighting, "the benefits of information monitoring, censorship and extrajudicial tactics, though disturbing, were arguably worth their price," Mindich tells his Times readers.
There's a kicker, though.
"Part of the reason this calculus was acceptable to me," Mindich continues, "was that the trade-offs were not permanent. As the war ended, the emergency measures were rolled back. Information — telegraph and otherwise — began to flow freely again."
Moral of the story: To protect privacy, put an end to the wars that the government cites as justification for its snooping activities. "If you are a critic of the NSA's surveillance program," Mindich reasons, "it is imperative that the war on terror reach its culmination."