There is nothing new about political surveillance. One of the early practitioners, Joseph Fouché, the chief of police in Napoleonic France, supposedly had thousands of informers who sometimes acted as agents provocateurs. It is said that, on one occasion, two of his agents, unknown to each other, attended the same meeting where each proposed various revolutionary acts. Leaving at about the same time, they are reported to have arrested each other at the foot of the stairs. Though the activities of the National Security Agency now in dispute are different than such earlier precursors, it is important to recognize that the older forms of surveillance persist.
Consider the complaint filed in a federal court today by the American Civil Liberties Union against The New York Police Department: it describes the systematic surveillance of mosques within a 250-mile radius of New York City and of at least 263 “hot spots” in New York City, such as cafés, restaurants, and bookstores owned and patronized by Muslims. The complaint also describes the ways in which the surveillance—and awareness that it is taking place—have disrupted Muslim community life in New York. New-style electronic surveillance and old-style use of informers, who may be tempted to become agents provocateurs because that is a means to penetrate groups suspected of plotting against the government, can co-exist.