Wiretapping Is as American as Apple Pie

From President Bush’s 2005 acknowledgement that he signed an order allowing the NSA to listen to phone calls going overseas to Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelation of the scope of the NSA surveillance program, the topic of wiretapping has been at the forefront of US political consciousness for the last decade.

And now the topic of wiretapping is in vogue once again due to recent claims by President Trump that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump tower during the most recent election cycle.

While the topic of wiretapping may seem to be a political conversation unique to the era of the War on Terror and its accompanying regime of mass surveillance, it turns out that this governmental practice is nearly as old as the US itself.

During the Civil War, eavesdropping on a conversation required physically tapping into a telegraph or phone line with an extra wire to divert the signal to a third party. But sometimes, when wires weren’t available, wiretapping also bore some bodily risk.

“The best stories were during the Civil war when Confederate rangers such as John Mosby would cut the [telegraph] lines,” Wheeler told me. “Then a ranger would shimmy up the pole and hold the end of the line to his tongue to feel the pulses to read them out. Now, that’s a tap.”

Wheeler said he isn’t aware of any evidence that President Lincoln, who he described as an “early adopter” of telegraph technology, was ever the subject of wiretapping himself during the war, despite having personally sent hundreds of telegrams to Union generals.

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