How Surveillance Has Changed Since Nixon

The technology is very different, but is the spirit?


Our Nixon, a documentary about the Nixon presidency that will open to the public in select theaters across the U.S. and Canada this week, is remarkable for many reasons. But perhaps most remarkable of all is its source: Home movies made by Nixon staffers who obsessively shot footage of their world travels with the president.

Today, that seems almost unimaginable. "I doubt that anyone is letting anyone walk around with their iPhone 5 and make movies inside the White House," said Penny Lane, the film's director and co-producer. "It's just not the same world. One of the ways that the Nixon presidency changed presidencies was, oh guess what, no one's going to write anything down any more. I don't know what future filmmakers and historians will look back on from this era. I don't know what our Obama will be like in 40 years."

But even though the president's staffers are less likely to record his every move, it's ironic that the president has become much more likely to chronicle our every move. Forty years ago, government officials had to hire people to steal documents and install phone taps in order to spy on their enemies. Today, with the NSA gathering email and phone metadata on U.S. citizens, that lack of sophistication is almost unimaginable.

When the Watergate burglars were arrested in 1972, here's what their spying operation looked like, as reported by The Washington Post:

All wearing rubber surgical gloves, the five suspects were captured inside a small office within the committee's headquarters suite.

Police said the men had with them at least two sophisticated devices capable of picking up and transmitting all talk, including telephone conversations. In addition, police found lock-picks and door jimmies, almost $2,300 in cash, most of it in $100 bills with the serial numbers in sequence.

The men also had with them one walkie-talkie, a short wave receiver that could pick up police calls, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35 millimeter cameras and three pen-sized tear gas guns.

Near where they were captured were two open file drawers, and one national committee source conjectured that the men were preparing to photograph the contents.

Compare that to the NSA's tools for gathering "metadata" on email and phone correspondences, as described by and Associated Press report featured in The Atlantic this summer:

With Prism, the government gets a user's entire email inbox. Every email, including contacts with American citizens, becomes government property.

Once the NSA has an inbox, it can search its huge archives for information about everyone with whom the target communicated. All those people can be investigated, too.

Forty years ago, cassette tapes from a recording system Nixon himself put in his office helped bring down his presidency. As to whether our current president is the subject of an amateur iPhone video, we can only speculate. As Lane said, "I'm dying to know."

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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