This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
It's 2025 and an American "triple canopy" of advanced surveillance and armed drones fills the heavens from the lower- to the exo-atmosphere. A wonder of the modern age, it can deliver its weaponry anywhere on the planet with staggering speed, knock out an enemy's satellite communications system, or follow individuals biometrically for great distances. Along with the country's advanced cyberwar capacity, it's also the most sophisticated militarized information system ever created and an insurance policy for US global dominion deep into the twenty-first century. It's the future as the Pentagon imagines it; it's under development; and Americans know nothing about it.
They are still operating in another age. "Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917," complained Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the last presidential debate.
With words of withering mockery, President Obama shot back: "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed... the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities."
Obama later offered just a hint of what those capabilities might be: "What I did was work with our joint chiefs of staff to think about, what are we going to need in the future to make sure that we are safe?... We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space."
Amid all the post-debate media chatter, however, not a single commentator seemed to have a clue when it came to the profound strategic changes encoded in the president's sparse words. Yet for the past four years, working in silence and secrecy, the Obama administration has presided over a technological revolution in defense planning, moving the nation far beyond bayonets and battleships to cyberwarfare and the full-scale weaponization of space. In the face of waning economic influence, this bold new breakthrough in what's called "information warfare" may prove significantly responsible should US global dominion somehow continue far into the twenty-first century.
While the technological changes involved are nothing less than revolutionary, they have deep historical roots in a distinctive style of American global power. It's been evident from the moment this nation first stepped onto the world stage with its conquest of the Philippines in 1898. Over the span of a century, plunged into three Asian crucibles of counterinsurgency—in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Afghanistan—the US military has repeatedly been pushed to the breaking point. It has repeatedly responded by fusing the nation's most advanced technologies into new information infrastructures of unprecedented power.
That military first created a manual information regime for Philippine pacification, then a computerized apparatus to fight communist guerrillas in Vietnam. Finally, during its decade-plus in Afghanistan (and its years in Iraq), the Pentagon has begun to fuse biometrics, cyberwarfare, and a potential future triple canopy aerospace shield into a robotic information regime that could produce a platform of unprecedented power for the exercise of global dominion—or for future military disaster.
America's First Information Revolution
This distinctive US system of imperial information gathering (and the surveillance and war-making practices that go with it) traces its origins to some brilliant American innovations in the management of textual, statistical, and visual data. Their sum was nothing less than a new information infrastructure with an unprecedented capacity for mass surveillance.
During two extraordinary decades, American inventions like Thomas Alva Edison's quadruplex telegraph (1874), Philo Remington's commercial typewriter (1874), Melvil Dewey's library decimal system (1876), and Herman Hollerith's patented punch card (1889) created synergies that led to the militarized application of America's first information revolution. To pacify a determined guerrilla resistance that persisted in the Philippines for a decade after 1898, the US colonial regime—unlike European empires with their cultural studies of "Oriental civilizations"—used these advanced information technologies to amass detailed empirical data on Philippine society. In this way, they forged an Argus-eyed security apparatus that played a major role in crushing the Filipino nationalist movement. The resulting colonial policing and surveillance system would also leave a lasting institutional imprint on the emerging American state.
When the US entered World War I in 1917, the "father of US military intelligence" Colonel Ralph Van Deman drew upon security methods he had developed years before in the Philippines to found the Army's Military Intelligence Division. He recruited a staff that quickly grew from one (himself) to 1,700, deployed some 300,000 citizen-operatives to compile more than a million pages of surveillance reports on American citizens, and laid the foundations for a permanent domestic surveillance apparatus.
A version of this system rose to unparalleled success during World War II when Washington established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as the nation's first worldwide espionage agency. Among its nine branches, Research & Analysis recruited a staff of nearly 2,000 academics who amassed 300,000 photographs, a million maps, and three million file cards, which they deployed in an information system via "indexing, cross-indexing, and counter-indexing" to answer countless tactical questions.
Yet by early 1944, the OSS found itself, in the words of historian Robin Winks, "drowning under the flow of information." Many of the materials it had so carefully collected were left to molder in storage, unread and unprocessed. Despite its ambitious global reach, this first US information regime, absent technological change, might well have collapsed under its own weight, slowing the flow of foreign intelligence that would prove so crucial for America's exercise of global dominion after World War II.
Under the pressures of a never-ending war in Vietnam, those running the US information infrastructure turned to computerized data management, launching a second American information regime. Powered by the most advanced IBM mainframe computers, the US military compiled monthly tabulations of security in all of South Vietnam's 12,000 villages and filed the three million enemy documents its soldiers captured annually on giant reels of bar-coded film. At the same time, the CIA collated and computerized diverse data on the communist civilian infrastructure as part of its infamous Phoenix Program. This, in turn, became the basis for its systematic tortures and 41,000 "extra-judicial executions" (which, based on disinformation from petty local grudges and communist counterintelligence, killed many but failed to capture more than a handfull of top communist cadres).
Most ambitiously, the US Air Force spent $800 million a year to lace southern Laos with a network of 20,000 acoustic, seismic, thermal, and ammonia-sensitive sensors to pinpoint Hanoi's truck convoys coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail under a heavy jungle canopy. The information these provided was then gathered on computerized systems for the targeting of incessant bombing runs. After 100,000 North Vietnamese troops passed right through this electronic grid undetected with trucks, tanks, and heavy artillery to launch the Nguyen Hue Offensive in 1972, the US Pacific Air Force pronounced this bold attempt to build an "electronic battlefield" an unqualified failure.
In this pressure cooker of what became history's largest air war, the Air Force also accelerated the transformation of a new information system that would rise to significance three decades later: the Firebee target drone. By war's end, it had morphed into an increasingly agile unmanned aircraft that would make 3,500 top-secret surveillance sorties over China, North Vietnam, and Laos. By 1972, the SC/TV drone, with a camera in its nose, was capable of flying 2,400 miles while navigating via a low-resolution television image.
On balance, all this computerized data helped foster the illusion that American "pacification" programs in the countryside were winning over the inhabitants of Vietnam's villages, and the delusion that the air war was successfully destroying North Vietnam's supply effort. Despite a dismal succession of short-term failures that helped deliver a soul-searing blow to American power, all this computerized data-gathering proved a seminal experiment, even if its advances would not become evident for another 30 years until the US began creating a third—robotic—information regime.
The Global War on Terror
As it found itself at the edge of defeat in the attempted pacification of two complex societies, Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington responded in part by adapting new technologies of electronic surveillance, biometric identification, and drone warfare—all of which are now melding into what may become an information regime far more powerful and destructive than anything that has come before.
After six years of a failing counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, the Pentagon discovered the power of biometric identification and electronic surveillance to pacify the country's sprawling cities. It then built a biometric database with more than a million Iraqi fingerprints and iris scans that US patrols on the streets of Baghdad could access instantaneously by satellite link to a computer center in West Virginia.