Indispensable Reading: The Watchers, the Rise of America’s Surveillance State

By: madler28 | Posted: 16th November 2010

Shane Harris’s The Watchers, the Rise of America’s Surveillance State is a must-read for anyone interested in the war on terror. Harris, who has covered counterterrorism and electronic surveillance for National Journal since the 90’s, has composed a book that is thorough, well-written, informative and non-partisan. It offers a discussion of the rise of wiretapping in the post-9/11 era from the perspective of those inside the intelligence community, or “the watchers.” In following figures such as Admiral John Poindexter and NSA director Mike Hayden, Harris’s narrative traces the origins of the war on terror to the suicide bombing of a U.S. embassy in Lebanon in 1983, and it discusses all the significant developments in the government’s efforts to create a surveillance apparatus in response, from the 1994 Communications for Law Assistance Act, which required phone companies to build products with equipment that enables the government to install wiretaps, to the Protect America Act of 2007, which legalized most of the practices initiated in secret by Bush years earlier.

Along the way are many fascinating revelations, such as a chapter-long explanation of Obama’s shift in favor of immunizing communications companies from legal retribution shortly before the 2008 election; John Ashcroft’s near refusal to sign a document approving Bush’s surveillance system in 2003, which would have “rocked the corridors of Washington” (262) by causing a mass exodus among members of the NSA, making the illegal spying program public and hence destroying the President’s chances for re-election in 2004; and Bush’s woefully late realization, in 2007, that cyber warfare poses a serious threat to national security, prompting him to call for “another Manhattan Project if we need to” (329).

The Watchers revolves largely around John Poindexter, who faced serious legal issues while serving as Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser during the Iran-Contra scandal and resurfaced as a key figure in devising a surveillance system to combat terrorism. Branded Total Information Awareness, or TIA, the project was supposed to bolster intelligence capabilities and protect privacy.

Officials sought some of the core proposals of the program well before 9/11. For example, and most riveting, Erik Kleinsmith headed a private company that uncovered public information on the internet to learn about Al Qaeda in 2000. His team had obtained a wealth of vital intelligence that might have been sufficient to thwart the 9/11 operation. But he had technically broken laws and was forced to delete all his findings on pain of imprisonment. After the attacks, however, Bush surreptitiously granted authority by executive order to pursue virtually every counterterrorism measure available. As a result, the NSA now has the right to spy on any conversation involving a terrorist suspect over the internet or via phone without a warrant, so long as one of the parties participating in the conversation is outside the country. As for domestic calls, warrants are still required, but they are easy to obtain, and there is little oversight to prevent abuse. So, if you are in France and call a friend in New York, government agents can listen in without a warrant and with impunity if they decide you are a terrorist suspect. And such determinations are often made on the basis of guilt-by-association. But should you call your New York friend from Florida, the government technically must obtain a warrant.

As such, Poindexter’s vision of safeguarding privacy has been left out of the equation. Harris explains that Poindexter initially “proposed an ‘immutable audit trail,’ a master record of every analyst who had used the TIA system, what data they’d touched, what they’d done with it… Poindexter wanted to use TIA to watch the watchers” (190). But it eventually became clear that the only assurance we have that “their information wouldn’t be misused now came from the government agents conducting the surveillance” (342). Harris continues, but “they were the watchers. Who was watching them?” (342).

Consequently, according to the author, bi-annual reviews of surveillance activity during Obama’s presidency have repeatedly shown that the watchers regularly spy on Americans who have no connection to terrorism, collecting phone calls and emails of innocent people. Unfortunately, the reviews are conducted after the fact and impose no regulations to curb the systemic law-breaking.

All this might be acceptable if it were clear that the efforts consistently intercept accurate information about terrorists. However, the surveillance program is so massive that analysts are overwhelmed by excessive data and false leads and therefore have trouble connecting dots. As Harris explained on CSPAN when promoting his book, this phenomenon was on display last December during the failed Christmas Day attack, when the bomber was able to board a U.S.-bound aircraft even though his father had contacted the CIA to warn them about his son’s radicalism. Since intelligence agencies receive a barrage of such reports every day, it’s more difficult for experts to decipher which admonitions are worth heeding.

Harris’s main point is that we must have a serious national conversation now about how we should monitor the watchers and protect our privacy. Because when the next attack occurs, which is inescapable according to Harris and every expert on the matter I’ve heard, this discussion will be merely “academic.” The government will crack down even harder and still further revoke basic rights in the name of national security.

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Tags: ronald reagan, surveillance system