When I first read the eerie science-fiction novel 1984 during my senior year at Summit Hill High School (1957), I wondered whether I would ever encounter a "Big Brother" society here in the United States during my lifetime.
For those of you unfamiliar with 1984, the book, written in 1949 by British writer George Orwell, describes a society of the future where no one is safe from the prying eye of the government. Virtually every movement was monitored, often without the citizen's knowledge. 1984 fostered a society of neighborhood snitches where people would turn in their neighbors, even their relatives, for minor infractions against the state.
Little did I realize that 10 years later, in 1967, I would encounter a facet of the Big Brother society first-hand: The FBI tapped my phones, without my knowledge, of course, for six month as it sought to find information about a suspect in a fire at a Selective Service office in Stroudsburg.
Every phone call I made from home and my office during that time was monitored by FBI agents. Every time I told my wife I loved her, every time I spoke to my children about their daily activities, every time I assured a confidential source anonymity, every time I spoke confidentially about an employee or his or her personnel information to my supervisor, FBI agents were listening in and recording each piece of information.
How did I eventually find out?
Several years ago, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal government to determine whether I had been the subject of any wiretaps during my long, full-time career in daily journalism (1961-1998). You can imagine my shock when the information came back that, indeed, the government had been snooping on an estimated 4,500 phone calls I had made or received for half a year.
So what was the FBI looking for when it tapped my phone? Was I considered a dangerous subversive hell-bent on doing damage to my country?
It turned out that I had interviewed a young anti-Vietnam War activist who was organizing and carrying out demonstrations in the Monroe County area in 1967. At the time, I was writing a feature story about him for The Express (now The Express-Times) in Easton. At the time, I was the Monroe County Bureau Chief of the newspaper and stationed in Stroudsburg.
A short time after the feature appeared, there was a fire in the Selective Service Office at the Stroudsburg Post Office which destroyed hundreds of draft records. The FBI determined the man I interviewed was a subject of interest, although there was never a public disclosure, nor were any charges ever filed. The FBI never interviewed me, nor asked me directly about my interview, nor whether the young man gave indications that would make him a suspect.
It was at that time that my phones were tapped, no doubt hoping that we would have additional conversations and that the suspect would say something incriminating.
During that six-month period, I never did speak to the young man again. I did, however, speak to hundreds of news sources, family members, friends and others – all blithely unaware that every word we said to each other was being recorded and scrutinized by the FBI.
How did I feel when I found out about the tap some 35 years after the fact? It may sound trite and clichéd, but I felt violated and a strange kinship to Winston Smith, the key character in 1984, and the abuses he underwent at the hand of his government.
But this is not something that stopped years ago. The FBI secretly seeks information on U.S. citizens and legal residents from their banks and credit cards, telephone and Internet companies without a court's approval. Thanks to the war on terrorism and The Patriot Act, the government can even snoop on our reading preferences at the local library.
At this very minute, the U.S. Justice Department is under fire for secretly obtaining phone records from 20 phone lines used by Associated Press journalists as part of a leak investigation.
In addition, there is renewed criticism of the Obama administration over revelations that federal authorities secretly obtained the emails and traced the movements of Fox News broadcaster Jim Rosen as part of an investigation of former State Department analyst Stephen Kim, who is charged with leaking classified information on North Korea.
If it happened to me, it can happen to journalists anywhere, and they should be shaking in their boots wondering how secure they are in their personal and confidential electronic conversations with news sources.
(Bruce Frassinelli, a 1957 graduate of Summit Hill High School, lives in Schnecksville, and is an adjunct instructor in the Political Science department at Lehigh Carbon Community College.)