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How America's Wars Are Systematically Destroying Our Liberties

In his approach to National Security Agency surveillance, as well as
CIA renditions, drone assassinations, and military detention, President
Obama has to a surprising extent embraced the expanded executive powers
championed by his conservative predecessor, George W. Bush. This
bipartisan affirmation of the imperial executive could "reverberate for generations,"
warns Jack Balkin, a specialist on First Amendment freedoms at Yale Law
School. And consider these but some of the early fruits from the hybrid
seeds that the Global War on Terror has planted on American soil. Yet
surprisingly few Americans seem aware of the toll that this already
endless war has taken on our civil liberties.

Don't be too surprised, then, when, in the midst of some future
crisis, advanced surveillance methods and other techniques developed in
our recent counterinsurgency wars migrate from Baghdad, Falluja, and
Kandahar to your hometown or urban neighborhood. And don't ever claim
that nobody told you this could happen -- at least not if you care to
read on.

Think of our counterinsurgency wars abroad as so many living
laboratories for the undermining of a democratic society at home, a
process historians of such American wars can tell you has been going on
for a long, long time. Counterintelligence innovations like centralized
data, covert penetration, and disinformation developed during the
Army's first protracted pacification campaign
in a foreign land -- the Philippines from 1898 to 1913 -- were
repatriated to the United States during World War I, becoming the
blueprint for an invasive internal security apparatus that persisted
for the next half century.

Almost 90 years later, George W. Bush's Global War on Terror plunged
the U.S. military into four simultaneous counterinsurgency campaigns,
large and small -- in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and (once again) the
Philippines -- transforming a vast swath of the planet into an ad hoc
"counterterrorism" laboratory. The result? Cutting-edge high-tech
security and counterterror techniques that are now slowly migrating

As the War on Terror enters its ninth year to become one of America's
longest overseas conflicts, the time has come to ask an uncomfortable
question: What impact have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and the
atmosphere they created domestically -- had on the quality of our

Every American knows that we are supposedly fighting elsewhere to
defend democracy here at home. Yet the crusade for democracy abroad,
largely unsuccessful in its own right, 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."

Even if its name is increasingly anathema in Washington, the ongoing
Global War on Terror has helped bring about a massive expansion of
domestic surveillance by the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA)
whose combined data-mining systems have already swept up several
billion private documents from U.S. citizens into classified data
banks. Abroad, after years of failing counterinsurgency efforts in the
Middle East, the Pentagon began applying biometrics -- the science of
identification via facial shape, fingerprints, and retinal or iris
patterns -- to the pacification of Iraqi cities, as well as the use of
electronic intercepts for instant intelligence and the split-second
application of satellite imagery to aid an assassination campaign by
drone aircraft that reaches from Africa to South Asia.

In the panicky aftermath of some future terrorist attack, Washington
could quickly fuse existing foreign and domestic surveillance
techniques, as well as others now being developed on distant
battlefields, to create an instant digital surveillance state.

The Crucible of Counterinsurgency

For the past six years, confronting a bloody insurgency, the U.S.
occupation of Iraq has served as a white-hot crucible of
counterinsurgency, forging a new system of biometric surveillance and
digital warfare with potentially disturbing domestic implications. This
new biometric identification system first appeared
in the smoking aftermath of "Operation Phantom Fury," a brutal,
nine-day battle that U.S. Marines fought in late 2004 to recapture the
insurgent-controlled city of Falluja. Bombing, artillery, and mortars
destroyed at least half of that city's buildings and sent most of its
250,000 residents fleeing into the surrounding countryside. Marines
then forced returning residents to wait endless hours under a desert
sun at checkpoints for fingerprints and iris scans. Once inside the
city's blast-wall maze, residents had to wear identification tags for
compulsory checks to catch infiltrating insurgents.

first hint that biometrics were helping to pacify Baghdad's far larger
population of seven million came in April 2007 when the New York Timespublished
an eerie image of American soldiers studiously photographing an Iraqi's
eyeball. With only a terse caption to go by, we can still infer the
technology behind this single record of a retinal scan in Baghdad:
digital cameras for U.S. patrols, wireless data transfer to a mainframe
computer, and a database to record as many adult Iraqi eyes as could be
gathered. Indeed, eight months later, the Washington Postreported
that the Pentagon had collected over a million Iraqi fingerprints and
iris scans. By mid-2008, the U.S. Army had also confined Baghdad's
population behind blast-wall cordons and was checking Iraqi identities
by satellite link to a biometric database.

Pushing ever closer to the boundaries of what present-day technology
can do, by early 2008, U.S. forces were also collecting facial images accessible
by portable data labs called Joint Expeditionary Forensic Facilities,
linked by satellite to a biometric database in West Virginia. "A war
fighter needs to know one of three things," explained the inventor of
this lab-in-a-box. "Do I let him go? Keep him? Or shoot him on the

A future is already imaginable in which a U.S. sniper could take a bead
on the eyeball of a suspected terrorist, pause for a nanosecond to
transmit the target's iris or retinal data via backpack-sized
laboratory to a computer in West Virginia, and then, after
instantaneous feedback, pull the trigger.

Lest such developments seem fanciful, recall that Washington Post
reporter Bob Woodward claims the success of George W. Bush's 2007 troop
surge in Iraq was due less to boots on the ground than to bullets in
the head -- and these, in turn, were due to a top-secret fusion of
electronic intercepts and satellite imagery. Starting in May 2006,
American intelligence agencies launched
a Special Action Program using "the most highly classified techniques
and information in the U.S. government" in a successful effort "to
locate, target and kill key individuals in extremist groups such as
al-Qaeda, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias."

Under General Stanley McChrystal, now U.S. Afghan War commander, the
Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) deployed "every tool available
simultaneously, from signals intercepts to human intelligence" for
"lightning quick" strikes. One intelligence officer reportedly claimed
that the program was so effective it gave him "orgasms." President Bush
called it "awesome." Although refusing to divulge details, Woodward
himself compared it to
the Manhattan Project in World War II. This Iraq-based assassination
program relied on the authority Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld granted JSOC
in early 2004 to "kill or capture al-Qaeda terrorists" in 20 countries
across the Middle East, producing dozens of lethal strikes by airborne
Special Operations forces.

Another crucial technological development in Washington's secret war
of assassination has been the armed drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle,
whose speedy development has been another by-product of Washington's
global counterterrorism laboratory. Half a world away from Iraq in the
southern Philippines, the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Forces conducted
an early experiment in the use of aerial surveillance for
assassination. In June 2002, with a specially-equipped CIA aircraft
circling overhead offering real-time video surveillance in the pitch
dark of a tropical night, Philippine Marines executed a deadly
high-seas ambush of Muslim terrorist Aldam Tilao (a.k.a. "Abu Sabaya").

In July 2008, the Pentagon proposed an expenditure
of $1.2 billion for a fleet of 50 light aircraft loaded with advanced
electronics to loiter over battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq,
bringing "full motion video and electronic eavesdropping to the
troops." By late 2008, night flights over Afghanistan from the deck of
the USS Theodore Roosevelt were using sensors
to give American ground forces real-time images of Taliban targets --
some so focused that they could catch just a few warm bodies huddled in
darkness behind a wall.

In the first months of Barack Obama's presidency, CIA Predator drone strikes have escalated
in the Pakistani tribal borderlands with a macabre efficiency, using a
top-secret mix of electronic intercepts, satellite transmission, and
digital imaging to kill
half of the Agency's 20 top-priority al-Qaeda targets in the region.
Just three days before Obama visited Canada last February, Homeland
Security launched
its first Predator-B drones to patrol the vast, empty North
Dakota-Manitoba borderlands that one U.S. senator has called America's
"weakest link."

Homeland Security

While those running U.S. combat operations overseas were
experimenting with intercepts, satellites, drones, and biometrics,
inside Washington the plodding civil servants of internal security at
the FBI and the NSA initially began expanding domestic surveillance
through thoroughly conventional data sweeps, legal and extra-legal, and
-- with White House help -- several abortive attempts to revive a
tradition that dates back to World War I of citizens spying on
suspected subversives.

"If people see anything suspicious, utility workers, you ought to report it," said President George Bush in his April 2002 call for nationwide citizen vigilance. Within weeks, his Justice Department had launched Operation TIPS
(Terrorism Information and Prevention System), with plans for "millions
of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains,
utility employees and others" to aid the government by spying on their
fellow Americans. Such citizen surveillance sparked strong protests, however, forcing the Justice Department to quietly bury the president's program.

Simultaneously, inside the Pentagon, Admiral John Poindexter, President
Ronald Reagan's former national security advisor (swept up in the
Iran-Contra scandal of that era), was developing
a Total Information Awareness program which was to contain "detailed
electronic dossiers" on millions of Americans. When news leaked about
this secret Pentagon office with its eerie, all-seeing eye logo,
Congress banned the program, and the admiral resigned in 2003. But the
key data extraction technology, the Information Awareness Prototype
System, migrated quietly to the NSA.

enough, however, the CIA, FBI, and NSA turned to monitoring citizens
electronically without the need for human tipsters, rendering the
administration's grudging retreats from conventional surveillance at
best an ambiguous political victory for civil liberties advocates.
Sometime in 2002, President Bush gave
the NSA secret, illegal orders to monitor private communications
through the nation's telephone companies and its private financial
transactions through SWIFT, an international bank clearinghouse.

After the New York Times exposed these wiretaps in 2005,
Congress quickly capitulated, first legalizing this illegal executive
program and then granting cooperating phone companies immunity from
civil suits. Such intelligence excess was, however, intentional. Even
after Congress widened the legal parameters for future intercepts in
2008, the NSA continued to push the boundaries of its activities,
engaging in what the New York Times politely termed
the systematic "overcollection" of electronic communications among
American citizens. Now, for example, thanks to a top-secret NSA
database called "Pinwale," analysts routinely scan
countless "millions" of domestic electronic communications without much
regard for whether they came from foreign or domestic sources.

Starting in 2004, the FBI launched an Investigative Data Warehouse as a "centralized repository for... counterterrorism." Within two years, it contained
659 million individual records. This digital archive of intelligence,
social security files, drivers' licenses, and records of private
finances could be accessed by 13,000 Bureau agents and analysts making
a million queries monthly. By 2009, when digital rights advocates sued
for full disclosure, the database had already grown to over a billion documents.

And did this sacrifice of civil liberties make the United States a
safer place? In July 2009, after a careful review of the electronic
surveillance in these years, the inspectors general of the Defense
Department, the Justice Department, the CIA, the NSA, and the Office of
National Intelligence issued a report
sharply critical of these secret efforts. Despite George W. Bush's
claims that massive electronic surveillance had "helped prevent
attacks," these auditors could not find any "specific instances" of
this, concluding such surveillance had "generally played a limited role
in the F.B.I.'s overall counterterrorism efforts."

Amid the pressures of a generational global war, Congress proved all
too ready to offer up civil liberties as a bipartisan burnt offering on
the altar of national security. In April 2007, for instance, in a bid
to legalize the Bush administration's warrantless wiretaps,
Congressional representative Jane Harman (Dem., California) offered a
particularly extreme example of this urge. She introduced
the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act,
proposing a powerful national commission, functionally a standing "star chamber,"
to "combat the threat posed by homegrown terrorists based and operating
within the United States." The bill passed the House by an overwhelming
404 to 6 vote before stalling, and then dying, in a Senate somewhat
more mindful of civil liberties.

Only weeks after Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, Harman's life
itself became a cautionary tale about expanding electronic
surveillance. According to information leaked to the Congressional Quarterly, in early 2005 an NSA wiretap caught
Harman offering to press the Bush Justice Department for reduced
charges against two pro-Israel lobbyists accused of espionage. In
exchange, an Israeli agent offered to help Harman gain the chairmanship
of the House Intelligence Committee by threatening House Democratic
majority leader Nancy Pelosi with the loss of a major campaign donor.
As Harman put down the phone, she said, "This conversation doesn't exist."

How wrong she was. An NSA transcript of Harman's every word soon
crossed the desk of CIA Director Porter Goss, prompting an FBI
investigation that, in turn, was blocked by then-White House Counsel
Alberto Gonzales. As it happened, the White House knew that the New York Times
was about to publish its sensational revelation of the NSA's
warrantless wiretaps, and felt it desperately needed Harman for damage
control among her fellow Democrats. In this commingling of intrigue and
irony, an influential legislator's defense of the NSA's illegal
wiretapping exempted her from prosecution for a security breach
discovered by an NSA wiretap.

Since the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House, the auto-pilot
expansion of digital domestic surveillance has in no way been
interfered with. As a result, for example, the FBI's "Terrorist
Watchlist," with 400,000 names and a million entries, continues to grow at the rate of 1,600 new names daily.

In fact, the Obama administration has even announced plans for a new military cybercommand staffed
by 7,000 Air Force employees at Lackland Air Base in Texas. This
command will be tasked with attacking enemy computers and repelling
hostile cyber-attacks or counterattacks aimed at U.S. computer networks
-- with scant respect for what the Pentagon calls
"sovereignty in the cyberdomain." Despite the president's assurances
that operations "will not -- I repeat -- will not include monitoring
private sector networks or Internet traffic," the Pentagon's top
cyberwarrior, General James E. Cartwright, has conceded such intrusions
are inevitable.

Sending the Future Home

While U.S. combat forces prepare to draw-down in Iraq (and ramp up
in Afghanistan), military intelligence units are coming home to apply
their combat-tempered surveillance skills to our expanding homeland
security state, while preparing to counter any future domestic civil
disturbances here.

Indeed, in September 2008, the Army's Northern Command announced that one of the Third Division's brigades in Iraq would be reassigned
as a Consequence Management Response Force (CMRF) inside the U.S. Its
new mission: planning for moments when civilian authorities may need
help with "civil unrest and crowd control." According to Colonel Roger
Cloutier, his unit's civil-control equipment featured "a new modular
package of non-lethal capabilities" designed to subdue unruly or
dangerous individuals -- including Taser guns, roadblocks, shields,
batons, and beanbag bullets.

same month, Army Chief of Staff General George Casey flew to Fort
Stewart, Georgia, for the first full CMRF mission readiness exercise.
There, he strode across a giant urban battle map filling a gymnasium
floor like a conquering Gulliver looming over Lilliputian Americans.
With 250 officers from all services participating, the military war-gamed
its future coordination with the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management
Agency, and local authorities in the event of a domestic terrorist
attack or threat. Within weeks, the American Civil Liberties Union filed
an expedited freedom of information request for details of these
deployments, arguing: "[It] is imperative that the American people know
the truth about this new and unprecedented intrusion of the military in
domestic affairs."

At the outset of the Global War on Terror in 2001, memories of early
Cold War anti-communist witch-hunts blocked Bush administration plans
to create a corps of civilian tipsters and potential vigilantes.
However, far more sophisticated security methods, developed for
counterinsurgency warfare overseas, are now coming home to far less
public resistance. They promise, sooner or later, to further jeopardize
the constitutional freedoms of Americans.

In these same years, under the pressure of War on Terror rhetoric,
presidential power has grown relentlessly, opening the way to unchecked
electronic surveillance, the endless detention of terror suspects, and
a variety of inhumane forms of interrogation. Somewhat more slowly,
innovative techniques of biometric identification, aerial surveillance,
and civil control are now being repatriated as well.

In a future America, enhanced retinal recognition could be married
to omnipresent security cameras as a part of the increasingly routine
monitoring of public space. Military surveillance equipment, tempered
to a technological cutting edge in counterinsurgency wars, might also
one day be married to the swelling domestic databases of the NSA and
FBI, sweeping the fiber-optic cables beneath our cities for any sign of
subversion. And in the skies above, loitering aircraft and cruising
drones could be checking our borders and peering down on American life.

If that day comes, our cities will be Argus-eyed with countless
thousands of digital cameras scanning the faces of passengers at
airports, pedestrians on city streets, drivers on highways, ATM
customers, mall shoppers, and visitors to any federal facility. One
day, hyper-speed software will be able to match those millions upon
millions of facial or retinal scans to photos of suspect subversives
inside a biometric database akin to England's current National Public Order Intelligence Unit, sending anti-subversion SWAT teams scrambling for an arrest or an armed assault.

By the time the Global War on Terror is declared over in 2020, if then,
our American world may be unrecognizable -- or rather recognizable only
as the stuff of dystopian science fiction. What we are proving today is
that, however detached from the wars being fought in their name most
Americans may seem, war itself never stays far from home for long. It's
already returning in the form of new security technologies that could
one day make a digital surveillance state a reality, changing
fundamentally the character of American democracy.

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