On the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services there is a
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
in the Washington Post, Warsame was, according to public records and
interviews, soon “caught up in a shadowy Defense Department counterpropaganda
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
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
The American surveillance state is now an omnipresent reality, but its deep
history is little known and its future little grasped. Edward Snowden’s
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,
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
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
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.
Starting in 1901, the first U.S. governor-general (and future president) William
Howard Taft drafted draconian sedition legislation for the islands and established
a 5,000-man strong Philippines Constabulary. In the process, he created
a colonial surveillance state that ruled, in part, thanks to the agile control
of information, releasing damning data about enemies while suppressing scandals
When the Associated Press’s Manila bureau chief reported critically on these
policies, Taft’s allies dug up dirt on this would-be critic and dished it out
to the New York press. On the other hand, the Division of Military Information
compiled a scandalous report about the rising Filipino politician Manuel Quezon,
alleging a premarital abortion by his future first lady. Quezon, however,
served the Constabulary as a spy, so this document remained buried in U.S. files,
assuring his unchecked ascent to become the first president of the Philippines