Surveilling citizens, and blacklisting

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Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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The blue and white signs are omnipresent in downtown London: “CCTV.” As every Brit knows, and curious visitors soon learn, that means a “closed circuit television” camera is recording your every move on the streets. Although the CCTV concentration is far less on roadways out of town, persons in England are arguably subject to more direct surveillance than any other persons on earth.

An invasion of privacy? Or a law enforcement tactic essential for public safety in a time of international terrorism?

The vast majority of affected English citizens seem to accept the latter premise, and recent events bear out their attitude. Two summers ago, deadly explosions rent Tube trains and buses. Then came the late-June series of attempted bombings in London and Scotland. In both instances authorities struck back, with Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and MI-5 (the domestic agency roughly akin to our FBI) using CCTV images, according to media accounts, to find and arrest suspected terrorists.

The way the domestic security system works in the United Kingdom is painstakingly described in a new novel by Dame Stella Rimington, who as the first female director of MI-5 (1992 through 1996) knows of what she writes. Her second novel since retirement is Secret Asset (Knopf, $24.95, 319 pages), and I recommend it as a good read for anyone who likes authentic intelligence fiction.

Once again, Ms. Rimington’s protagonist is MI-5 officer Liz Caryle, assigned to counterterrorism. She is running an informant, a law student who has a part-time job in a small Islamic bookshop. Sohail Din is “shocked by the casual talk of fatwas and jihad, then still more so to learn that some of his fellow employees openly supported the tactics of suicide bombers, even boasting of taking up arms themselves against the West.”

With that opening, Ms. Rimington takes us into the real world of counterterrorism — for instance, Caryle’s use of “a small army of tough-looking characters in shirt sleeves … responsible for ‘bugging and burgling’ — installing covert listening devices and cameras — nowadays done strictly under warrant.” We are introduced to the pocket buzzers that street agents use to pass silent signals during surveillance operations. MI-5, we learn, uses the time-honored “pretext interview” when an officer does not wish his intelligence identify to be revealed. We see an MI-5 analyst poring through hours of CCTV tapes taken on rural roads, looking for a van carrying three men suspected of killing the student informant.

Ms. Rimington deftly carries along a secondary plot concerning a supposed Irish Revolutionary Army (IRA) “asset” within British security services. In due course, predictably, the threads merge, climaxing in some Clancy-ish bang-bang at a ceremony at Oxford University. I shan’t spoil a good summer read by telling more of the plot; suffice it to say that afficionados of spook fiction should welcome a new queen of the genre.

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In the spring of 1941, with ink still fresh on the infamous Hitler-Stalin pact, propaganda of the Communist Party, USA decried any attempt by President Roosevelt to enter the war. A “folk singer” group consisting of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and lesser-lights did an album branding FDR “as a cold-blooded, calculating warmonger who sought to throw away the lives of American boys” to benefit American business. Not content to slander FDR alone, the singers included wife Eleanor in their smear:

“Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt / We damned near believed what he said / He said, ‘I hate war, and so does Eleanor / ‘But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.’”

A month later, after Germany invaded the USSR, the same group did an abrupt about-face and lambasted Hitler in another album.

Why cite this long-ago song? Because targets of the so-called “radio blacklist” of the 1950s “have often been portrayed as nothing more than idealistic progressives, their politics characterized as essentially vigorous opposition to bigotry and fascism, as if communism in the age of Stalin was nothing more than liberalism with attitude.” So writes David Everitt in a refreshingly objective study, A Shadow of Red: Communism in Radio and Television, (Ivan R. Dee, $27.50, 411 pages, illus.). The truth is a bit more complicated.

To be sure, villains abounded on both sides, with some of the “blacklisters” operating as outright extortionists, offering to “clear” suspect entertainment personalities for a price. But Mr. Everitt makes plain that many of them sincerely believed there were legitimate reasons to keep certain persons off the airways, and that the blackmailers were fringe operators.

The crusade began as the brainchild of three FBI agents working on the “New York Communist Squad” during World War II. Although the bureau focused on fascism during the period, these agents investigated “Communists, fellow travelers, and the organizations they sought to control, especially those that could play a role in transportation, unions, politics, and communications.”

As Mr. Everitt writes, “By gaining influence in these four areas, the agents surmised, Communists could sabotage the country’s vital functions in time of emergency or perhaps form a power base for an eventual putsch.” So they resigned and started a newsletter, Plain Talk, which publicized the political activities of electronic media personalities.

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