This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
In his approach to National Security Agency surveillance, as well as CIA renditions, drone assassinations, and military detention, President Obama has to a surprising extent embraced the expanded executive powers championed by his conservative predecessor, George W. Bush. This bipartisan affirmation of the imperial executive 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 campaign in 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 US 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 "counterterrorism" laboratory. The result? Cutting-edge high-tech security and counterterror 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 question: 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 US citizens into classified data banks. Abroad, after years of failing counterinsurgency efforts in 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 Asia.
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 Counterinsurgency
For the past six years, confronting a bloody insurgency, the US 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. This new biometric identification system first appeared in the smoking aftermath of "Operation Phantom Fury," a brutal, nine-day battle that US 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 Iraqi's eyeball. 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 US patrols, wireless data transfer to a mainframe computer, and a database to record as many adult Iraqi eyes as could be gathered. Indeed, eight months later, the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon had collected over a million Iraqi fingerprints and iris scans. By mid-2008, the US 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, US 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 US 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 agencies launched a Special Action Program using "the most highly classified techniques and information in the US 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 US Afghan War commander, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) deployed "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 "awesome." 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 US 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 US senator has called America's "weakest link."