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Alfred W. McCoy, Obama's Expanding Surveillance Universe

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

On the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services there is a list of rights belonging to all Americans. Chief among them: Freedom to express yourself. Abdiwali Warsame must have taken them literally. Two days after he became a U.S. citizen, he created a rollicking news and opinion website covering his native Somalia.  It became popular with many Somalis and Somali-Americans, but also attracted attention from other quarters.  As Craig Whitlock recently revealed in the Washington Post, Warsame was, according to public records and interviews, soon "caught up in a shadowy Defense Department counterpropaganda operation."

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Warsame's website became a clearinghouse for articles from various points of view (including his own fundamentalist Muslim beliefs), but with emphasis on strong opposition to U.S.-backed military interventions in Somalia, and the contention that al-Shabab militants are freedom fighters, not terrorists. This, in turn, attracted the attention of the U.S.-based Navanti Group, which was "working as a subcontractor for the Special Operations Command to help conduct "information operations to engage local populations and counter nefarious influences' in Africa and Europe."  As part of a sophisticated military effort aimed at manipulating news stories and social media around the world, Navanti compiled a dossier on Warsame, even though the military is legally barred from carrying out psychological operations at home.  (Navanti claimed it believed Warsame was based overseas; Whitlock's reporting indicates otherwise.)  The military contractor eventually sent a copy of its files to the FBI, whose agents soon showed up on Warsame's doorstep.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website says Americans are bound by "the shared values of freedom [and] liberty" and that "naturalized citizens are... an important part of our democracy."  Today, this rings about as true as a thump on the side of an empty dumpster.  Abdiwali Warsame is just one of millions of people -- Americans and foreigners -- who have found themselves monitored in some way by the U.S. military over the years. 

No one knows this long history of shadowy military surveillance better than TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of Policing America's Empire, among other works.  For decades, McCoy has been shedding light on some of the darkest aspects of government malfeasance from drug trafficking to spying to torture.  Today, he offers a chilling tour of military surveillance efforts from the turn of the twentieth century to a near future even more dystopian than our present -- a world in which we're all liable to end up like Abdiwali Warsame. Nick Turse

Surveillance Blowback
The Making of the U.S. Surveillance State, 1898-2020
By Alfred W. McCoy

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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.

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

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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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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