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Welcome Home, War!

How America's wars are systematically destroying our liberties.

| Thu Nov. 12, 2009 12:36 PM EST

Homeland Security

While those running US 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 launched 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 president's program.

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 "overcollection" 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 domestic sources.

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 documents.

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 F.B.I.'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, she said, "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 Alberto Gonzales. 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 wiretap.

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 cybercommand 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 US computer networks—with scant respect for what the Pentagon calls "sovereignty in the cyberdomain." Despite the president's assurances that operations "will not—I repeat—will not include monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic," the Pentagon's top cyberwarrior, General James E. Cartwright, has conceded such intrusions are inevitable.

Sending the Future Home

While US 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 here.

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 US 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, the military war-gamed its future coordination with the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 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 deployments, arguing: "[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 vigilantes. 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 life.

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.

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