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Surveillance Blowback

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Posted on Jul 16, 2013
Nebulon5 (CC BY 2.0)

By Alfred W. McCoy, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Nick Turse’s introduction here.

The American surveillance state is now an omnipresent reality, but its deep history is little known and its future little grasped.  Edward Snowden’s leaked documents reveal that, in a post-9/11 state of war, the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to create a surveillance system that could secretly monitor the private communications of almost every American in the name of fighting foreign terrorists. The technology used is state of the art; the impulse, it turns out, is nothing new. For well over a century, what might be called “surveillance blowback” from America’s wars has ensured the creation of an ever more massive and omnipresent internal security and surveillance apparatus.  Its future (though not ours) looks bright indeed.

In 1898, Washington occupied the Philippines and in the years that followed pacified its rebellious people, in part by fashioning the world’s first full-scale “surveillance state” in a colonial land.  The illiberal lessons learned there then migrated homeward, providing the basis for constructing America’s earliest internal security and surveillance apparatus during World War I.  A half-century later, as protests mounted during the Vietnam War, the FBI, building on the foundations of that old security structure, launched large-scale illegal counterintelligence operations to harass antiwar activists, while President Richard Nixon’s White House created its own surveillance apparatus to target its domestic enemies.

In the aftermath of those wars, however, reformers pushed back against secret surveillance.  Republican privacy advocates abolished much of President Woodrow Wilson’s security apparatus during the 1920s, and Democratic liberals in Congress created the FISA courts in the 1970s in an attempt to prevent any recurrence of President Nixon’s illegal domestic wiretapping.

Today, as Washington withdraws troops from the Greater Middle East, a sophisticated intelligence apparatus built for the pacification of Afghanistan and Iraq has come home to help create a twenty-first century surveillance state of unprecedented scope. But the past pattern that once checked the rise of a U.S. surveillance state seems to be breaking down.  Despite talk about ending the war on terror one day, President Obama has left the historic pattern of partisan reforms far behind. In what has become a permanent state of “wartime” at home, the Obama administration is building upon the surveillance systems created in the Bush years to maintain U.S. global dominion in peace or war through a strategic, ever-widening edge in information control.  The White House shows no sign—nor does Congress—of cutting back on construction of a powerful, global Panopticon that can surveil domestic dissidents, track terrorists, manipulate allied nations, monitor rival powers, counter hostile cyber strikes, launch preemptive cyberattacks, and protect domestic communications.

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Writing for TomDispatch four years ago during Obama’s first months in office, I suggested that the War on Terror 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.’”

That prediction has become our present reality—and with stunning speed. Americans now live under the Argus-eyed gaze of a digital surveillance state, while increasing numbers of surveillance drones fill American skies.  In addition, the NSA’s net now reaches far beyond our borders, sweeping up the personal messages of many millions of people worldwide and penetrating the confidential official communications of at least 30 allied nations. The past has indeed proven prologue. The future is now.

The Coming of the Information Revolution

The origins of this emerging global surveillance state date back over a century to “America’s first information revolution” for the management of textual, statistical, and analytical data—a set of innovations whose synergy created the technological capacity for mass surveillance.

Here’s a little litany of “progress” to ponder while on the road to today’s every-email-all-the-time version of surveillance.

Within just a few years, the union of Thomas A. Edison’s quadruplex telegraph with Philo Remington’s commercial typewriter, both inventions of 1874, allowed for the accurate transmission of textual data at the unequalled speed of 40 words per minute across America and around the world.

In the mid-1870s as well, librarian Melvil Dewey developed the “Dewey decimal system” to catalog the Amherst College Library, thereby inventing the “smart number” for the reliable encoding and rapid retrieval of limitless information.

The year after engineer Herman Hollerith patented the punch card (1889), the U.S. Census Bureau adopted his Electrical Tabulating machine to count 62,622,250 Americans within weeks—a triumph that later led to the founding of International Business Machines, better known by its acronym IBM.

By 1900, all American cities were wired via the Gamewell Corporation’s innovative telegraphic communications, with over 900 municipal police and fire systems sending 41 million messages in a single year.

A Colonial Laboratory for the Surveillance State

On the eve of empire in 1898, however, the U.S. government was still what scholar Stephen Skowronek has termed a “patchwork” state with a near-zero capacity for domestic security.  That, of course, left ample room for the surveillance version of modernization, and it came with surprising speed after Washington conquered and colonized the Philippines.

Facing a decade of determined Filipino resistance, the U.S. Army applied all those American information innovations—rapid telegraphy, photographic files, alpha-numeric coding, and Gamewell police communications—to the creation of a formidable, three-tier colonial security apparatus including the Manila Police, the Philippines Constabulary, and above all the Army’s Division of Military Information.

In early 1901, Captain Ralph Van Deman, later dubbed “the father of U.S. Military Intelligence,” assumed command of this still embryonic division, the Army’s first field intelligence unit in its 100-year history. With a voracious appetite for raw data, Van Deman’s division compiled phenomenally detailed information on thousands of Filipino leaders, including their physical appearance, personal finances, landed property, political loyalties, and kinship networks.


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