David Kahn: Gentlemen Don't Read Other People's Mail

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Kahn is the author of "The Codebreakers" and "The Reader of Gentlemen's Mail," a biography of the cryptologist Herbert O. Yardley.]

PRESIDENT Bush's ordering the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants contradicts a long evolution toward the secrecy of communications. Centuries ago, people in England, France and the German states fought for the right to send letters without their being opened by the "black chambers" of absolutist monarchs. Martin Luther, whose letters had been opened by the Duke of Saxony, raged that "a thief is a thief, whether he is a money thief or a letter thief."

Regulations called for postal secrecy in 1532 and 1573 in Austria's Tyrol, in Prussia in 1685, in the oath of succession taken in 1690 by the Holy Roman emperor Joseph I and in his postal regulation of 1698. Rulers ignored them. Like Britain's Oliver Cromwell, who saw the post as "the best means to discover and prevent many dangerous and wicked designs against the Commonwealth," they justified letter-opening.

It sometimes worked. In 1723, Bishop Francis Atterbury was exiled, partly on the basis of intercepted letters, for trying to put a pretender on Britain's throne. Monarchs got information from their "black chambers" - secret rooms in post offices in main cities into which the mail was brought for opening. ...

Austria's black chamber was reputed to be the most efficient. Sacks of diplomatic mail arrived at 7 a.m., the letters unsealed and read, the important parts copied, sometimes by dictation, the letters replaced and resealed and sent to the embassies by 9:30. The employees sometimes erred, however. When the British ambassador in Austria complained that he was getting copies instead of originals, the prime minister, Metternich, coolly replied, "How clumsy these people are!"

But the public knew about the letter-opening and hated it. The pre-revolutionary French assembly, the Estates-General, received complaints from all regions of France and from all classes of society about this invasion of their thoughts. A month after the fall of the Bastille, Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man held that citizens may write with freedom - in effect nullifying the right of the government to read letters. In the United States, the 1792 law establishing the Post Office forbade its agents from illegally opening the mail entrusted to it. This grew out of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, prohibiting unreasonable searches. Of course, judges could issue warrants to read letters, just as they could allow law officials to enter a house. ...

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