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20 July 2013

Opposition to Telegram Spying 1874 and 1877

A sends two newspaper articles:

Nashville Union and American, Friday, February 13, 1874 (PDF of original)

The Telegraph and the Mails

In the trial of an English election petition the other day, the postoffice authorities were required to produce the telegrams which had passed between certain persons during the election. A clerk accordingly attended with "a sackful" of the desired documents, but refused to give them up without an order of the court. The Judge took three days for consultation and reflection, and then declined to interfere. "His lordship said he did not intend to go into the reason for his decision, because he had no wish to say that cases might not arise where strong specific grounds might justify the interposition of the election judges." The demand was not pressed, and the telegrams were not read. The New York Tribune suggests that the inquiry is now raised why telegrams should not be held as sacred as letter, and protected absolutely against the espionage which they seem to have narrowly escaped on this occasion; and then that journal discusses the question involved as follows:

"The increasing use of the telegraph as a substitute for the post gives this question considerable importance in this country as well as in England. There is no good reason why the correspondence which is sent by wire should be any less sacred than the correspondence which is sent by rail; but the law on the subject is in a very unsatisfactory state, and nothing but the fear of public odium protects the telegraph office now from legal inquisitions. We have proof that the mails have occasionally been tampered with by customhouse officers, and a newspaper holding intimate relations with the Administration calmly told us the other day that the Government had under consideration a more complete system of postoffice espionage for the protection of the revenue. What would happen if Government officials had the handling of all our telegraphic messages? A letter is sealed, and to read it involved delay, trouble, and the risk of detection. But dispatches are open. Copies are taken of them. They are read always by two and generally by three or more persons before they reach their destination. There can hardly be a doubt that while the average character of public officers is as low as it is now, the confidence of the people under a Government telegraph system would be systematically violated. In times of political excitement, opponents of the party in power would be practically debarred from the use of the wires for political purposes, because they could never trust them. Opposition newspapers could not communicate freely with their correspondents, and the press generally would get no intelligence which the authorities saw fit to suppress. And then imagine what the result would be be when the Government began to watch the telegraph office 'for the better protection of the revenue,' and every importer became subject to a perpetual inspection of his private correspondence. It is one of the rarest of incidents now-a-days for the secrecy of the telegraph office  to be violated. There are two reasons for this. In the first place the business of the United States is very well managed -- much more efficiently than any Government business could be -- and in the second place the companies are liable in damages for any wrong to their customers. But if the postoffice loses a letter, or sends it to a wrong address, or detains it, the sufferer has no redress whatever; and there would be none for blunders and dishonesty in postal telegraphy."

New York Daily Tribune, Monday, January 8, 1877 (PDF of original)

Telegrams in Court

It can hardly be questioned that when the Senate called upon an officer of the Western Union Telegraph Company for the production of certain specified message pertinent to a case under investigation, it was acting within its legal power and duty. The law makes no distinction between telegraphic messages and other written evidence, and if it sanctions the examination of letters, books, and papers under certain restrictions to be produced in court in the trial of merely civil causes, it cannot consistently attribute an inviolable sanctity to telegrams. Where it can be alleged that any particular messages bearing upon the subject of a judicial inquiry have passed through a telegraph office, the courts or either house of Congress acting as a court can order their production.

We have already given reasons why we think this power, if it is exercised at all, ought to be exercised very sparingly. But whatever may be thought of the justice and expediency of the demand made by the Senate upon Mr. Turner of Oregon, there can be no difference of opinion among those who look at the subject without partisan bias as to the counter attempt to spread a political drag-net over the telegraph offices at the South-West, and ransack their files for something that may perhaps involve a political scandal. Such a proceeding is on a par with the operations of Jayne and company in the hey-day of the moiety business, when merchants's books were seized and searched on the chance that they might disclose some unsuspected violation of the revenue laws. Whatever authority may be given for these inquisitions by the letter of the statutes, public opinion in every free country never fails to denounce them as an invasion of individual rights and an indelible disgrace to the government or party by which they are practiced. Americans and other Anglo-Saxons will tolerate them a little as they will tolerate indiscriminate espionage at the post-office, or the random search of private houses by the police to discover whether any violation of law is going on within their walls.

It cannot be necessary to point out the bearing of the case now discussed in the House of Representative upon the proposal to make the telegraph a Government monopoly. If telegraph clerks held their places by the same tenure as post-office clerks, the ruling administration or the campaign managers of the party in power could have unrestricted access to the files of every office in the country, and it would be strange if they did not either discover a political scandal or make one. Leading men in public life would hardly venture to use the wires even in their most innocent private affairs. As yet the people are in a measure protected by the wise policy of the companies, which opposes to the political investigators almost every possible obstacle short of absolute disobedience to the law. This opposition will undoubtedly be made still more effective by the immediate destruction of messages, unless Congress enact a liberal general law which will free the companies from their present embarrassment and give the private affairs of the customers of the companies all reasonable protection. This we trust Congress will lose no time in doing. To say nothing of the inconvenience of destroying the originals of messages, it is not creditable to a free country like the United States that its citizens should be compelled to put their private papers in the fire, lest their rulers should insist upon reading them.