Foucault’s lettres de cachet and national security letters

As I’ve mentioned before (apols for the broken links in that post) one of the books by or involving Foucault is his work with Arlette Farge on “lettres de cachet,” the hidden or secret letters used to put people away. This was published in French as Le Désordre des familles.

According to an interview in Politics, Philosophy, Culture (Kritzman, 1988) Foucault mentions his surprise on finding more about these practices:

MF: I, too, thought for a long time that the lettres de cachet were a privileged institution, in the hands of the king himself, and which could only be used against his immediate enemies…but as I went through the archives in the Arsenal, I came to see that it was a very widespread practice indeed. The lettres de cachet were in no way confined to royal use and to the upper aristocracy. But, from the late seventeenth century onwards, two correlative and more or less simultaneous institutions developed. On the one hand, the police had divided up the cities into closely supervised sectors, with a superintendent for each district; inspectors and informers swarmed the streets, arresting prostitutes, homosexuals, etc. On the other hand, and side by side with it, were the lettres de cachet, which were in widespread use and by which anybody could ask the district superintendent to arrest and confine somebody…

M.-O.F. But where?

MF: At Bicetre, where there were between three and six thousand individuals. At La Salpetriere, where women were confined, etc.

Piles of those letters have been found, which were written by public writers, at street corners. Perhaps the cobbler’s or fishmonger’s wife wanted to get rid of her husband, or her son, her uncle, her father0in-law, etc. — then she would dictate her complaints to the public writer. They are astonishing documents.

(p. 187)

Foucault goes on to note that it was very easy to get a counter-signature from an authority, in this case, a doctor, who felt himself to be acting on behalf of public hygiene against “dangerous individuals.”

There are a couple of points worth noting here. First, Foucault’s sensitivity to the spatial or geographical aspects of these practices. Note how he recognises the spatial segregation of the city for surveillance purposes. (I wrote about this more in my chapter for the Companion to Foucault from Blackwell.) We can easily well translate I think the particular historical examples of surveillance from informers and supervisers to CCTVs and geo-locational tracking.

Second, we have the idea of these secret [cachet] letters being issued against individuals on a wide scale and with few if any administrative checks and balances. Here another contemporary parallel suggests itself; the “national security letters” (NSLs) which experienced a dramatic expansion following the Patriot Act and 9/11. As with the lettres de cachet, which highlight the individual “dangerous” or risky to society, the NSLs are secret requests for information about individuals similarly deemed threatening. Initially, it was even illegal to disclose to someone that they were a target of these requests (the ultimate cachet). (There are amendments that would subject this nondisclosure to judicial review.)

A new Congressional Research Service (CRS) report provides an update on the law and practice of issuing NSLs (see news item at the FAS Secrecy News blog).

The report documents widespread abuse of the law to obtain NSLs as well as the lack of administrative supervision. It also notes the rapid increase in NSLs following 9/11 and especially the Patriot Act. These include the “lone wolf” and “roving wiretap” provisions amendments to the FISA statutes (these–but not the NSLs–originally set to expire in 2005, but extended multiple times, currently through June 1, 2015). Unfortunately the report does not provide numbers of NSLs or document how many times their nondisclosure terms have been challenged and overturned.

There are therefore some very interesting parallels here. One difference is that the lettres de cachet could be generated by members of the public, whereas the NSLs are sought by the FBI and intelligence agencies. It would be very useful if someone could do a full comparison of the lettres de cachet and the NSLs.

3 responses to “Foucault’s lettres de cachet and national security letters

  1. Pingback: Foucault on lettres de cachet and their contemporary relevance | Progressive Geographies

  2. Pingback: Foucault’s ‘Le desordre des familles’ to be translated | Open Geography

  3. There is a kind of private lettre de cachet function to involuntary commitment in mental health facilities, which has historically been used by some modern governments for political purposes, but also deployed in everything from marital and family disputes to business conflicts. They differ from NSLs in important ways, but some do operate in their own gray realm of judicial oversight (which one might compare to FISA courts). Numerous cases of such activities by local and state authorities exist in the 20th c. (targeted at anarchists, suffragettes, civil rights protestors, etc.). Likewise the modern system of involuntary mental health holds requires only the right words said to the right medical authority to enter a person against her or his will into the entire regime of diagnosis, observation, and treatment.

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