This distinctive U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the "father of U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. information infrastructure turned to computerized data management, launching a second American information regime. Powered by the most advanced IBM mainframe computers, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. patrols on the streets of Baghdad could access instantaneously by satellite link to a computer center in West Virginia.
When President Obama took office and launched his "surge,&ddquo; escalating the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, that country became a new frontier for testing and perfecting such biometric databases, as well as for full-scale drone war in both that country and the Pakistani tribal borderlands, the latest wrinkle in a technowar already loosed by the Bush administration. This meant accelerating technological developments in drone warfare that had largely been suspended for two decades after the Vietnam War.
Launched as an experimental, unarmed surveillance aircraft in 1994, the Predator drone was first deployed in 2000 for combat surveillance under the CIA's "Operation Afghan Eyes." By 2011, the advanced MQ-9 Reaper drone, with "persistent hunter killer" capabilities, was heavily armed with missiles and bombs as well as sensors that could read disturbed dirt at 5,000 feet and track footprints back to enemy installations. Indicating the torrid pace of drone development, between 2004 and 2010 total flying time for all unmanned vehicles rose from just 71 hours to 250,000 hours.
By 2009, the Air Force and the CIA were already deploying a drone armada of at least 195 Predators and 28 Reapers inside Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan -- and it's only grown since. These collected and transmitted 16,000 hours of video daily, and from 2006-2012 fired hundreds of Hellfire missiles that killed an estimated 2,600 supposed insurgents inside Pakistan's tribal areas. Though the second-generation Reaper drones might seem stunningly sophisticated, one defense analyst has called them "very much Model T Fords." Beyond the battlefield, there are now some 7,000 drones in the U.S. armada of unmanned aircraft, including 800 larger missile-firing drones. By funding its own fleet of 35 drones and borrowing others from the Air Force, the CIA has moved beyond passive intelligence collection to build a permanent robotic paramilitary capacity.