Reining in the State

Civil Society and Congress in the Vietnam and Watergate Era

Katherine A. Scott

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Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon dramatically expanded the federal government's domestic security apparatus to cope with social unrest that rocked their administrations. By the mid-1970s, the Justice Department and Army maintained some 400 databanks containing nearly 200 million files on supposedly subversive individuals and organizations.

“Part of the value of Katherine Scott’s informative book lies in its demonstration of the difficulty of untangling the complexities of post-World War II national security intelligence gathering and the legitimacy of Americans’ recent privacy concerns.”

The Historian

“This is a much-needed analysis of civil-political relations, providing an excellent framework for citizen activism against an overly exuberant executive and an overly placative Congress.

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Katherine Scott chronicles the subsequent public response to that government action: a determined citizens' movement to rein in the state. She details the efforts of a group of unheralded heroes who battled to reinvigorate judicial, legislative, and civic oversight of the executive branch in order to curtail and prevent future abuses by government agencies. Working closely with allies in Congress, they challenged state power, instituted open government policies, and protected individual privacy rights.

Scott has assembled a cast of characters with compelling stories: Russ Wiggins of the Washington Post, who organized a citizens' campaign for government transparency; Representative John Moss, who called attention to government censorship; ACLU Director Aryeh Neier, who created a legal strategy for judicial oversight of executive branch security measures; Senator Sam Ervin, a civil libertarian who demanded greater oversight of the executive branch; and Morton Halperin, a former NSC staff member, who called attention to the gross constitutional violations of the nation's top security agencies. Rejecting the agendas and methods of both the radical left and the antigovernment right, these progressive reformers sought to bring the American state in line with democratic practice.

When Army Captain Christopher Pyle blew the whistle on the U.S. Army's domestic surveillance program, reformers had evidence of illegal domestic spying that they had long suspected but could not confirm. Scott explores how his action united liberals and conservatives to end such abuses. She also assesses how Watergate prompted broad debate in the public sphere about the problems of executive power, the need for greater transparency in domestic security policy, and greater oversight of the activities of the FBI and CIA.

These reformers' efforts bore fruit with the passage of a series of major legislative reforms, including the 1974 Freedom of Information Act revisions, the 1974 Privacy Act, the 1976 Government in Sunshine Act, and the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Now that government surveillance of citizens has returned to public consciousness in the wake of 9/11, Scott's stirring account reminds us that power still resides with the people.

About the Author

Katherine A. Scott is Assistant Historian with the U.S. Senate.