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Snooper's Charter? How they did it in 1805...

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There's been a lot of talk in the media about government "snooping" into private lives, from the revelations of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, to the current debate raging in Parliament about the "snooper's charter".

Is this all new?  The internet and social media may have added another dimension to this, but from a historical perspective, it was ever thus. If anyone could be described as the perfect example of a great information-gatherer, master-spy - in other words, the ultimate snooper - it was Joseph Fouché, Napoleon's chief of police and top information gatherer. He was even rumoured to have kept a secret file on Napoleon himself, which made him very difficult to get rid of, in spite of Napoleon's claim later in his career that he should have had him hanged.

Stefan Zweig wrote a fascinating psychological study of the austere, shadowy, manipulative Fouché. Educated in a seminary and a science and mathematics teacher before the revolution, he turned bloodthirsty in the extreme when he was sent to quell a rebellion in Lyon.

Letter Signed by Joseph Fouché in 1805 ordering surveillance But his hour truly came when he became Minister of Police under Napoleon. Ordinary policing had little to do with it - this was surveillance, manipulation, plotting and counter-plotting on a grand scale. Napoleon knew trouble was brewing when Fouché and his arch-enemy Talleyrand were seen walking arm in arm - "vice [Talleyrand] leaning on the arm of crime [Fouché]", in the words of Chateaubriand. 

Here is a letter [here translated from the French] from Fouché ordering surveillance on a General whose loyalty was in question: "I have received, Sir, the letter which you sent me on 16 Brumaire last, regarding the former General Rigaud, coloured man, under surveillance at Tours. His Excellency the Minister of the Navy [Decrès] had already passed on to me the information contained in your letter, and the Councillor of State in charge of the first arrondissement for the Police was to have arranged for special surveillance on the part of the civil authorities on M. Rigaud.

His natural successor would have been J. Edgar Hoover.  And today?  Well, computers have no doubt done a great deal to make our secret services much more effective - and let's not forget that we should be extremely grateful that they are so effective. But I doubt they'll leave behind such a wealth of interesting and colourful letters.

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