by Prof. Alfred W. McCoy
November 16, 2009
In his approach to National Security Agency (NSA)
surveillance, as well as CIA renditions, drone assassinations, and military
Obama has to a surprising extent
embraced the expanded executive powers championed by his conservative
George W. Bush.
This bipartisan affirmation of the imperial
could "reverberate for generations," warns Jack Balkin, a
specialist on First Amendment freedoms at Yale Law School. And consider
these but some of the early fruits from the hybrid seeds that the Global
War on Terror has planted on American soil. Yet surprisingly few
Americans seem aware of the toll that this already endless war has taken on
our civil liberties.
Don't be too surprised, then, when, in the midst of some future crisis,
advanced surveillance methods and other techniques developed in our recent
counterinsurgency wars migrate from Baghdad, Falluja, and Kandahar to
your hometown or urban neighborhood.
And don't ever claim that nobody told you this
could happen - at least not if you care to read on.
Think of our counterinsurgency wars abroad as so many living laboratories
for the undermining of a democratic society at home, a process historians of
such American wars can tell you has been going on for a long, long time.
Counterintelligence innovations like centralized
data, covert penetration, and disinformation developed during the Army's
first protracted pacification campaigning a foreign land - the Philippines
from 1898 to 1913 - were repatriated to the United States during World War
I, becoming the blueprint for an invasive internal security apparatus that
persisted for the next half century.
Almost 90 years later,
George W. Bush's Global War on Terror plunged the U.S.
military into four simultaneous counterinsurgency campaigns, large and small
- in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and (once again) the Philippines -
transforming a vast swath of the planet into an ad hoc
The result? Cutting-edge high-tech security and
counter-terror techniques that are now slowly migrating homeward.
As the War on Terror enters its ninth year to become one of America's
longest overseas conflicts, the time has come to ask an uncomfortable
What impact have the wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq - and the atmosphere they created domestically - had on the quality
of our democracy?
Every American knows that we are supposedly
fighting elsewhere to defend democracy here at home.
Yet the crusade for democracy abroad,
largely unsuccessful in its own right, has proven remarkably
effective in building a technological template that could be just a few
tweaks away from creating a domestic surveillance state - with omnipresent
cameras, deep data-mining, nano-second biometric identification, and drone
aircraft patrolling "the homeland."
Even if its name is increasingly anathema in Washington, the ongoing
Global War on Terror has helped bring about a massive expansion of
domestic surveillance by the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA)
whose combined data-mining systems have already swept up several billion
private documents from U.S. citizens into classified data banks.
Abroad, after years of failing counterinsurgency
the Middle East, the Pentagon began
applying biometrics - the science of identification via facial shape,
fingerprints, and retinal or iris patterns - to the pacification of Iraqi
cities, as well as the use of electronic intercepts for instant intelligence
and the split-second application of satellite imagery to aid an
assassination campaign by drone aircraft that reaches from Africa to South
In the panicky aftermath of some future terrorist attack, Washington
could quickly fuse existing foreign and domestic surveillance techniques, as
well as others now being developed on distant battlefields, to create an
instant digital surveillance state.
The Crucible of
For the past six years, confronting a bloody insurgency, the U.S. occupation
of Iraq has served as a white-hot crucible of counterinsurgency, forging a
new system of biometric surveillance and digital warfare with potentially
disturbing domestic implications.
biometric identification system first
appeared in the smoking aftermath of "Operation Phantom Fury," a brutal,
nine-day battle that U.S. Marines fought in late 2004 to recapture the
insurgent-controlled city of Falluja. Bombing, artillery, and mortars
destroyed at least half of that city's buildings and sent most of its
250,000 residents fleeing into the surrounding countryside.
Marines then forced returning residents to wait
endless hours under a desert sun at checkpoints for fingerprints and iris
scans. Once inside the city's blast-wall maze, residents had to wear
identification tags for compulsory checks to catch infiltrating insurgents.
The first hint that biometrics were helping to pacify Baghdad's far larger
population of seven million came in April 2007 when the New York Times
published an eerie image of American soldiers studiously photographing an
With only a terse caption to go by, we can still
infer the technology behind this single record of a retinal scan in Baghdad:
digital cameras for U.S. patrols
wireless data transfer to a mainframe
a database to record as many adult Iraqi eyes as could be
Indeed, eight months later,
Post reported that the Pentagon had collected over a million Iraqi
fingerprints and iris scans. By mid-2008, the U.S. Army had also confined
Baghdad's population behind blast-wall cordons and was checking Iraqi
identities by satellite link to a biometric database.
Pushing ever closer to the boundaries of what present-day technology can do,
by early 2008, U.S. forces were also collecting
facial images accessible by
portable data labs called
Joint Expeditionary Forensic Facilities,
linked by satellite to a biometric database in West Virginia.
"A war fighter needs to know one of three
things," explained the inventor of this lab-in-a-box. "Do I let him go?
Keep him? Or shoot him on the spot?"
A future is already imaginable in which a U.S.
sniper could take a bead on the eyeball of a suspected terrorist, pause for
a nanosecond to transmit the target's iris or retinal data via
backpack-sized laboratory to a computer in West Virginia, and then, after
instantaneous feedback, pull the trigger.
Lest such developments seem fanciful, recall that Washington Post
reporter Bob Woodward claims the success of George W. Bush's
2007 troop surge in Iraq was due less to boots on the ground than to bullets
in the head - and these, in turn, were due to a top-secret fusion of
electronic intercepts and satellite imagery.
Starting in May 2006, American intelligence
launched a Special Action Program using,
"the most highly classified techniques and
information in the U.S. government" in a successful effort "to locate,
target and kill key individuals in extremist groups such as al-Qaeda,
the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias."
Under General Stanley McChrystal, now
U.S. Afghan War commander, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)
"every tool available simultaneously, from
signals intercepts to human intelligence" for "lightning quick" strikes.
One intelligence officer reportedly claimed that
the program was so effective it gave him "orgasms." President Bush called it
Although refusing to divulge details, Woodward
himself compared it to the Manhattan Project in World War II. This
Iraq-based assassination program relied on the authority Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
granted JSOC in early 2004 to "kill or
capture al-Qaeda terrorists" in 20 countries across the Middle East,
producing dozens of lethal strikes by airborne Special Operations forces.
Another crucial technological development in Washington's secret war of
assassination has been the armed drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, whose
speedy development has been another by-product of Washington's global
counterterrorism laboratory. Half a world away from Iraq in the southern
Philippines, the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Forces
conducted an early
experiment in the use of aerial surveillance for assassination.
In June 2002, with a specially-equipped CIA
aircraft circling overhead offering real-time video surveillance in the
pitch dark of a tropical night, Philippine Marines executed a deadly
high-seas ambush of Muslim terrorist Aldam Tilao (a.k.a. "Abu Sabaya").
In July 2008, the Pentagon
proposed an expenditure of $1.2 billion for a
fleet of 50 light aircraft loaded with advanced electronics to loiter over
battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq, bringing "full motion video and
electronic eavesdropping to the troops." By late 2008, night flights over
Afghanistan from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt were using sensors
to give American ground forces real-time images of Taliban targets - some so
focused that they could catch just a few warm bodies huddled in darkness
behind a wall.
In the first months of Barack Obama's presidency, CIA Predator drone strikes
have escalated in the Pakistani tribal borderlands with a macabre
efficiency, using a top-secret mix of electronic intercepts, satellite
transmission, and digital imaging to kill half of the Agency's 20
top-priority al-Qaeda targets in the region.
Just three days before Obama visited Canada last
February, Homeland Security launched its first Predator-B drones to patrol
the vast, empty North Dakota-Manitoba borderlands that one U.S.
senator has called America's "weakest link."
While those running U.S. combat operations overseas were experimenting with
intercepts, satellites, drones, and biometrics, inside Washington the
plodding civil servants of internal security at the FBI and the NSA
initially began expanding domestic surveillance through thoroughly
conventional data sweeps, legal and extra-legal, and - with White House help
- several abortive attempts to revive a tradition that dates back to World
War I of citizens spying on suspected subversives.
"If people see anything suspicious, utility
workers, you ought to report it,"
said President George Bush in his
April 2002 call for nationwide citizen vigilance.
Within weeks, his Justice Department had
Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information
and Prevention System), with plans for,
"millions of American truckers, letter
carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees and others"
to aid the government by spying on their fellow Americans.
Such citizen surveillance-sparked strong
protests, however, forcing the Justice Department to quietly bury the
Simultaneously, inside the Pentagon, Admiral
John Poindexter, President Ronald
Reagan's former national security advisor (swept up in the Iran-Contra
scandal of that era), was developing a
Total Information Awareness program which was to contain "detailed
electronic dossiers" on millions of Americans.
When news leaked about this secret Pentagon
office with its eerie, all-seeing eye logo, Congress banned the
program, and the admiral resigned in 2003.
But the key data extraction technology, the
Information Awareness Prototype System, migrated quietly to the NSA.
Soon enough, however, the CIA, FBI, and NSA turned to monitoring citizens
electronically without the need for human tipsters, rendering the
administration's grudging retreats from conventional surveillance at best an
ambiguous political victory for civil liberties advocates.
Sometime in 2002, President
Bush gave the NSA
secret, illegal orders to monitor private communications through the
nation's telephone companies and its private financial transactions through
SWIFT, an international bank clearinghouse.
After the New York Times exposed these wiretaps in 2005, Congress
quickly capitulated, first legalizing this illegal executive program and
then granting cooperating phone companies immunity from civil suits. Such
intelligence excess was, however, intentional. Even after Congress widened
the legal parameters for future intercepts in 2008, the NSA continued to
push the boundaries of its activities, engaging in what the New York Times
politely termed the systematic "over-collection" of electronic
communications among American citizens.
Now, for example, thanks to a top-secret NSA
database called "Pinwale,"
analysts routinely scan countless "millions" of domestic electronic
communications without much regard for whether they came from foreign or
Starting in 2004, the FBI launched an Investigative Data Warehouse as a
"centralized repository for... counterterrorism." Within two years, it
contained 659 million individual records. This digital archive of
intelligence, social security files, drivers' licenses, and records of
private finances could be accessed by 13,000 Bureau agents and analysts
making a million queries monthly.
By 2009, when digital rights advocates sued for
full disclosure, the database had already
grown to over a billion
And did this sacrifice of civil liberties make the United States a safer
place? In July 2009, after a careful review of the electronic surveillance
in these years, the inspectors general of the Defense Department, the
Justice Department, the CIA, the NSA, and the Office of National
Intelligence issued a report sharply critical of these secret efforts.
Despite George W. Bush's claims that massive
electronic surveillance had "helped prevent attacks," these auditors could
not find any,
"specific instances" of this, concluding
such surveillance had "generally played a limited role in the FBI's
overall counterterrorism efforts."
Amid the pressures of a generational global war,
Congress proved all too ready to offer up civil liberties as a bipartisan
burnt offering on the altar of national security.
In April 2007, for instance, in a bid to
legalize the Bush administration's warrantless wiretaps, Congressional
representative Jane Harman (Dem., California) offered a particularly
extreme example of this urge.
She introduced the
Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism
Prevention Act, proposing a powerful national commission,
functionally a standing "star chamber," to,
"combat the threat posed by homegrown
terrorists based and operating within the United States."
The bill passed the House by an overwhelming 404
to 6 vote before stalling, and then dying, in a Senate somewhat more mindful
of civil liberties.
Only weeks after
Barack Obama entered the Oval Office,
Harman's life itself became a cautionary tale about expanding electronic
surveillance. According to information leaked to the Congressional
Quarterly, in early 2005 an NSA wiretap caught Harman offering to press the
Bush Justice Department for reduced charges against two pro-Israel
lobbyists accused of espionage.
In exchange, an Israeli agent offered to help
Harman gain the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee by
threatening House Democratic majority leader Nancy Pelosi with the
loss of a major campaign donor.
As Harman put down the phone,
"This conversation doesn't exist."
How wrong she was.
An NSA transcript of Harman's every word soon
crossed the desk of CIA Director Porter Goss, prompting an FBI
investigation that, in turn, was blocked by then-White House Counsel
As it happened, the White House knew that the
New York Times was about to publish its sensational revelation of the
NSA's warrantless wiretaps, and felt it desperately needed Harman for damage
control among her fellow Democrats. In this commingling of intrigue and
irony, an influential legislator's defense of the NSA's illegal wiretapping
exempted her from prosecution for a security breach discovered by an NSA
Since the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House, the auto-pilot
expansion of digital domestic surveillance has in no way been interfered
with. As a result, for example, the FBI's "Terrorist Watchlist," with
400,000 names and a million entries,
continues to grow at the rate of 1,600
new names daily.
In fact, the Obama administration has even announced plans for a new
military cyber-command-staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees at Lackland Air
Base in Texas. This command will be tasked with attacking enemy computers
and repelling hostile cyber-attacks or counterattacks aimed at U.S. computer
networks - with scant respect for what the Pentagon calls "sovereignty in
Despite the president's assurances that
"will not - I repeat - will not include
monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic," the Pentagon's
top cyber-warrior, General James E. Cartwright, has conceded such
intrusions are inevitable.
Sending the Future
While U.S. combat forces prepare to draw-down in Iraq (and ramp up in
Afghanistan), military intelligence units are coming home to apply their
combat-tempered surveillance skills to our expanding homeland security
state, while preparing to counter any future domestic civil disturbances
Indeed, in September 2008, the Army's Northern Command announced that one of
the Third Division's brigades in Iraq would be reassigned as a
Consequence Management Response Force (CMRF)
inside the U.S. Its new mission: planning for moments when civilian
authorities may need help with "civil unrest and crowd control."
According to Colonel Roger Cloutier, his
unit's civil-control equipment featured "a new modular package of non-lethal
capabilities" designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals - including
Taser guns, roadblocks, shields, batons, and beanbag bullets.
That same month, Army Chief of Staff General George Casey flew to
Fort Stewart, Georgia, for the first full CMRF mission readiness exercise.
There, he strode across a giant urban battle map
filling a gymnasium floor like a conquering Gulliver looming over
Lilliputian Americans. With 250 officers from all services participating,
military war-gamed its future coordination with the FBI, the Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),
and local authorities in the event of a domestic terrorist attack or threat.
Within weeks, the American Civil Liberties Union
filed an expedited freedom of information request for details of these
"[It] is imperative that the American people
know the truth about this new and unprecedented intrusion of the
military in domestic affairs."
At the outset of the Global War on Terror in
2001, memories of early Cold War anti-communist witch-hunts blocked Bush
administration plans to create a corps of civilian tipsters and potential
However, far more sophisticated security
methods, developed for counterinsurgency warfare overseas, are now coming
home to far less public resistance. They promise, sooner or later, to
further jeopardize the constitutional freedoms of Americans.
In these same years, under the pressure of War on Terror rhetoric,
presidential power has grown relentlessly, opening the way to unchecked
electronic surveillance, the endless detention of terror suspects, and a
variety of inhumane forms of interrogation. Somewhat more slowly, innovative
techniques of biometric identification, aerial surveillance, and civil
control are now being repatriated as well.
In a future America, enhanced retinal recognition could be married to
omnipresent security cameras as a part of the increasingly routine
monitoring of public space. Military surveillance equipment, tempered to a
technological cutting edge in counterinsurgency wars, might also one day be
married to the swelling domestic databases of the NSA and FBI, sweeping the
fiber-optic cables beneath our cities for any sign of subversion.
And in the skies above, loitering aircraft and
cruising drones could be checking our borders and peering down on American
If that day comes, our cities will be Argus-eyed with countless thousands of
digital cameras scanning the faces of passengers at airports, pedestrians on
city streets, drivers on highways, ATM customers, mall shoppers, and
visitors to any federal facility.
One day, hyper-speed software will be able to
match those millions upon millions of facial or retinal scans to photos of
suspect subversives inside a biometric database akin to England's current
National Public Order Intelligence Unit, sending anti-subversion SWAT teams
scrambling for an arrest or an armed assault.
By the time the Global War on Terror is declared over in 2020, if then, our
American world may be unrecognizable - or rather recognizable only as the
stuff of dystopian science fiction. What we are proving today is that,
however detached from the wars being fought in their name most Americans may
seem, war itself never stays far from home for long.
It's already returning in the form of new
security technologies that could one day make a digital surveillance state a
reality, changing fundamentally the character of American democracy.