Driving home from the market Wednesday. I heard over NPR that the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the government, claiming that the FBI spied on the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice “simply because it opposed the Iraq war.” Citing a memo obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU says that the investigation into the group was purely political in motivation.

Honestly, I wasn’t concerned–not because I felt that concerns for security justified spying on domestic groups. Historical research has dulled me alarm that a country would make such detailed notes on the political activities of its citizens. Indeed, as I was driving, I wondered what parts of the US government would note what went on an meetings and rallies in the manner of French and German policemen.

My notebooks from the archives are filled with the reports given to government administrators by policemen who attended political gatherings. More often than not, the meeting organizers were well aware that, by law, a policeman must attend in order to make notes (Polish organizations in Germany were even required to conduct their business in German even if their business was cultural.) Often the policemen noticed the rowdiness and drunkenness of the crowd more than the nuances of the ideas. This information was compiled by prefects and subprefects (along with pamphlets and newspaper clippings) into reports on the political sentiment of the territories. Nowadays, these are valuable sources for writing about social and political history.