The Eavesdroppers (1959)

It’s been quite some time since I’ve been able to update this blog.

Here’s the start of the book chapter that I’ll be working on this summer.  It examines the period between 1957 and 1967, when national debate about wiretapping and other forms of electronic eavesdropping reached a fever pitch.

The chapter features a really diverse cast of characters, indicative of the bizarre twists and turns that the public life of electronic eavesdropping took in this period.  There’s a high-profile Philadelphia lawyer, a drug dealer mistakenly arrested for bootlegging by the NYPD, a private investigator who figured out how to bug a dry martini, and a mob wiretapper-turned-evangelical Christian whose life story was made into a movie by Billy Graham.

In July 1956, six months after the uneasy resolution of the 55th Street tap nest affair in New York, the Pennsylvania Bar Association Endowment commissioned a comprehensive study of “wiretapping practices, laws, devices, and techniques” in the United States.[1] At the time, Pennsylvania lacked a legal statute governing the privacy of electronic communications. The Endowment’s members believed that a nationwide fact-finding mission had the potential to help guide the state in establishing an effective set of policies.[2] The man appointed to direct the study was Samuel Dash, a high-profile Philadelphia lawyer whose brief stint as a district attorney had given him a firsthand look at eavesdropping abuses on both sides of the law. Two decades later, while serving as chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee, Dash would see many of those abuses come full circle.

After receiving a $50,000 grant from the Fund for the Republic, Dash hired a small team of investigators to help complete the study. Their ranks included Robert Knowlton, a legal historian at Rutgers University who was put in charge of surveying wiretap law, and Richard Schwartz, a communications engineer at the University of Pennsylvania whose job was to shed light on the shadowy world of eavesdropping technology. The group worked together for sixteen months in twelve different cities, consulting a range of experts with direct experience in the field: police officers, law enforcement officials, district attorneys, judges, phone company employees, electrical engineers, private investigators, even convicted criminals. “Every person we interviewed was an eavesdropper himself,” Dash recalled, “a person who either employed it, authorized it, or actually engaged in installing the tap. . . . [W]e got our information right from the people who knew most about it.”[3] Dash himself interviewed more than 300 individuals over the course of the study. All but a handful refused attribution.

The result of their efforts was The Eavesdroppers, a commanding 483-page report published by Rutgers University Press in 1959. The book told a story that scandalized readers. While law enforcement agencies were tapping lines in willful violation of state and federal statutes, phone companies were deliberately underreporting wiretap statistics to protect public confidence in their services. While American businesses were amassing stockpiles of electronic equipment to spy on employees and gather competitive intelligence, private investigators were using frightening new tools to listen in on wayward lovers and loose-lipped politicians. As Dash told a congressional subcommittee on the eve of the book’s release, the American public’s casual disregard for the long history of communications privacy infringement in the United States had only served to enable these developments. “[T]he context of this whole subject clearly shows that we are not dealing with a new problem,” Dash testified. “We are dealing with a problem that is at least 100 years old. At least from the very beginnings of electronic communication there were interceptions of electronic communications. Each generation seems to forget the problems of the past and considers this their own unique problem.”[4]


The Eavesdroppers ended up having an outsized influence on national debate. Newspaper editorials and journalistic exposés frequently cited the book as the authoritative work in the field, even after representatives of the American law enforcement community tried to discredit Dash’s findings. Moreover, federal lawmakers entered portions of the text of The Eavesdroppers into the official record of every major hearing on communications privacy that Congress held before 1968, when landmark legislative reforms appeared to render the book obsolete.[5] To the extent that it’s possible to identify a turning point in the history of wiretapping in the United States, the publication of The Eavesdroppers is as convincing a candidate as any. According to the legal historian Alan Westin, whose own study of eavesdropping Privacy and Freedom (1967) made extensive use of Dash’s research, the American public’s attitude toward wiretapping had drifted ambivalently between naïve “fascination” and “nervous awareness” during the 1940s and 1950s.[6] But the debate reached a sudden fever pitch in the years following the publication of The Eavesdroppers. By the late 1960s, commentators of all political stripes were sounding the alarm of a full-scale “electronic listening invasion.”[7] The godless march of technological progress finally appeared to have trampled America’s most cherished social values. No one seemed safe.

Dash and his co-authors played an important role in bringing about this shift in public perception. Oddly enough, so did Billy Graham. . . .

[1] Samuel Dash, Richard F. Schwartz, and Robert E. Knowlton, The Eavesdroppers (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1959), 5.

[2] Pennsylvania Bar Association Endowment; 1956-1959; Fund for the Republic Records, Box 63, Folder 1; Public Policy Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[3] Wiretapping, Eavesdropping, and the Bill of Rights, Part 3: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate, Eighty-Sixth Congress, First Session, Pursuant to S. Res 62, July 9, 1959 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960), 512

[4] Ibid., 511.

[5] See, for instance, Wiretapping, Eavesdropping, and the Bill of Rights, Part 5: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate, Eighty-Sixth Congress, First Session, Pursuant to S. Res 62, December 15 and 16, 1959 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960), 1706-1781.

[6] Alan F. Westin, Privacy and Freedom (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 173-174.

[7] Robert M. Brown, The Electronic Invasion (New York: John F. Rider Publisher, Inc., 1967).