In his 2004 book Perilous Times, Geoffrey R. Stone observes that with respect to free speech rights in wartime, “Time and again, Americans have suppressed dissent, imprisoned and deported dissenters, and then—later—regretted their actions.” In reality, as the timeline below demonstrates, it is not simply American’s free speech rights that are often threatened by federal agencies. The federal government’s penchant for surveilling, penetrating, and actively subverting domestic political activities by individuals and groups spans periods of peace and war over more than a century.

Whether protesting the march to war, federal policy on AIDS research, civil rights violations, or simply enjoying the Nevada desert at a “Burning Man” gathering, the common theme that emerges is that simply publicly expressing strong political views that run counter to the prevailing government political paradigm is often enough to trigger federal government surveillance. The purpose of this timeline is to further public understanding of the scope of this problem. Check this page periodically, as this “living document” is being updated regularly on the basis of ongoing archival research as well as fresh developments making news.


The Countering Violent Extremism program by the US government is a controversial, contemporary manifestation of the themes in the timeline. Ostensibly, it is intended to root out extremism by making partnerships between law enforcement agencies and community leaders to find at‐​risk members and steer them away from violence. However, there are many questions over how it is done and if the Muslim community is being unfairly singled out. Cato held an event on the topic in 2017, which may be of interest to those studying domestic surveillance programs.

Countering Violent Extremism in the Trump Era — Panel 1

Countering Violent Extremism in the Trump Era — Panel 2

The Second Annual Cato Surveillance Conference:
National Surveillance Laws on a Borderless Network

The Second Annual Cato Surveillance Conference:
The Feeling of Being Watched