Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other… No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. –James Madison, “Political Observations,” April 20, 1795.
Just as the uproar in response to the virtual whistle blown by Edward Snowden has focused on the right of Americans to personal privacy, the much quieter response to atrocities committed by the United States in the name of stopping terrorism has largely focused on the right of American citizens to trial and sentencing. While Americans have every right to, and are completely justified in, being afraid of the surveillance and indefinite detention of American citizens, those same atrocities that we fear for ourselves are currently being acted out on foreign born people around the world in the name of counterterrorism. Not enough Americans have exercised their voices on behalf of the millions of world citizens being invasively monitored by the United States government, or for over 100,000 civilians who have died in the upheaval caused by our war on terror, or the hundreds of men indefinitely detained and tortured in remote and secret camps abroad.
Most Americans know nothing of who our enemy actually is in the War on Terror, beyond that he is Arab(ish) and Muslim(ish) and blows himself up, along with other innocent civilians. They hold him responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, but know little or nothing about the intent of that act, beyond its death toll for thousands of Americans. And yet, despite our lack of knowledge about our targets (or perhaps because of that lack of knowledge), we have allowed our government to kill, torture, hunt, and spy on him. The elusiveness of this dark-skinned, narrow featured, long-bearded enemy of a different language and violent, unfamiliar religion has allowed the United States the freedom to wage endless, destructive war on foreign targets who may or may not have any intention of harming anyone on American soil. This war against Islamists should seem strange, if not all together frightening.
It should seem strange because the United States has supported al Qaeda in the past, when it was advantageous to our interests . Now, with al Qaeda comprised of a core membership of some 200-1,000 members globally, we seek to destroy them with over 70,000 American troops currently placed on their doorstep for convenient destruction.
It should be strange because the United States has, in the past and present, done nothing to stop acts of genocide or civil war that claimed far more lives in a few short months than Islamic terrorism has in the last decade. Strange because in its history the United States itself has killed more civilians in attempts to control the global economy and global politics than al Qaeda ever has  . Most disturbing, it should be strange that our war on terror resulted in 116, 657 civilian deaths by 2011, according to Wikileaks reports, while the attack on 9/11 took the lives of 2, 996 Americans .
When the war on terror began after 9/11, a prominent, highly vocal, painfully visual media campaign was waged by the Bush Administration and its supporters, both corporate and political, to instill in Americans a fierce sense of Nationalism and a fear of impending future attacks from Islamic terrorists. Since that time, fear has been used to justify external atrocities such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the extensive war in Afghanistan, the illegal use of drones in Pakistan, the rendition and torture of Islamists in Libya and throughout the Middle East, and the use of invasive surveillance tactics domestically and abroad.
There can be no doubt that Americans should be angry about the attack of 9/11 and seek justice. Or that the Americans sent overseas to fight our battles should be honored, respected, and welcomed home with a helping hand–they have sacrificed more than anyone should have ever asked of them.
But we should also be angry that the NSA has been collecting our data for as long as we have been producing it, while using it against individuals who dare show any sign of disagreement or dissent. We should be angry that the U.S. government has instilled us with the fear of a foreign enemy that we cannot name, or predict, or identify but has encouraged us to hate to the point of abuses against innocent Muslim Americans. We should be angry because they have justified inhumane, violent actions that protect their interests abroad in the name of protecting us, though thousands of Americans have died violently in that very fight. We should be angry that the U.S. government believes it is above international humanitarian law, and rather than presenting us with those guilty of the attacks on 9/11, of allowing us the respect and resolution of justice for their actions, they have assassinated, captured, and tortured unnamed and uncounted combatants with no intention to charge or try them. We should be angry that our fear has been used as an excuse to spend trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives to control the political outcome of foreign nations.
But, how can we be surprised when anyone who has lost a loved one to our war on terror retaliates in much the same way as we have to 9/11?
That is what the war has given us—all of us, regardless of our citizenship— marking it with the rubber stamp of security and the name tag of justice. It has given us enemies without names, justice without trials, and the violent destruction of humanity without the consideration of non-violent solutions.
Surveillance and the Violation of International Human Rights Law
The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other religions were converted) but rather its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do. –Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. 1996.
According to the Associated Press, the NSA has been tapping Trans-Atlantic Telecommunication fiber-optic cables carrying phone and internet data since the 1970’s. Foreign citizens are not protected by any privacy rights, and therefore the NSA need not ask for anyone’s permission to obtain personal data from these cables . After all, the NSA was made to be internationally nosy.
Using those same fiber-optic cables, in addition to predator drones, Rivet Joint surveillance, and electronic devices found in Iraq, the United States has proceeded to gather or murder members of al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for 9/11, and anyone even tangentially associated with them. Though intelligence gathering has been a massive undertaking in wars in the Middle East, Major General Mark Schissler says that terrorists use the internet to send ideological messages, rather than to convey useful military data. The most valuable information acquired in Iraq has been found on papers, laptops, and hard disks in the possession of combatants captured on the ground . According to experts interviewed by NPR, the intelligence gathered through telephone and internet surveillance, which most concerns Americans, is the least likely to result in actionable intelligence. Terrorists know they are being watched and listened to, and use code words and aliases to communicate over data-generating communications networks.
There are two kinds of human beings at the end of an intelligence gathering mission: those being spied on who do not know they are divulging valuable information about themselves or people they care about, and those who are compelled through various means to give up that information. For these people, there are basically four outcomes: never knowing they were being watched, an enormous payday in incentive funds that caused him/her to give up a friend or stranger, death or injury in an assassination attempt (either as a target or someone nearby), or detention and interrogation . It is important to remember, if you have any interest in understanding the complexity of war, that the people at the other end of the data are humans as complicated, emotional, intelligent, diverse, and interesting as you or I. Just like you, they would be horrified to know they are being watched or tracked like animals being hunted. While some of them may be combatants, so are our soldiers. While their leaders may send them ideological messages of hate, so do ours to our soldiers. They are motivated by what we are motivated by: faith, honor, justice, God, money, family, hunger, love, hate, and fear.
In 2004, former Deputy Attorney General and current Director of the FBI James Comey explained the need for the indefinite detention of Jose Padilla. He explained that if Padilla were to be tried in our criminal justice system he would, “very likely have followed his lawyer’s advice and said nothing, which would have been his constitutional right. He would likely have ended up a free man,” and the government could not have gained vital information from him about al Qaeda or future terrorist plots. Jose Padilla is an American citizen who was militarily detained and tortured until tried in 2007. He was never charged with the plots to plant bombs that Comey suspected him of. He was, however, convicted of material support of terrorism overseas .
For many Americans, the fact that Comey would defend the indefinite military detention and torture of an American citizen, in violation of his fifth, sixth, and eighth amendment rights, will be completely outrageous and unjustifiable. Not because his detention was indefinite—he was part of al Qaeda!—or because he was tortured—We needed the information to protect ourselves!—or because he was denied a speedy trial in our criminal justice system—National Security secrets!—but because he was an American citizen. And American citizens are too good to be indefinitely detained or tortured—We have rights!
Well, America—so does everyone else. These rights are known as human rights and they are protected by international human rights law. Unfortunately, the United States has the largest military in the world and the largest economy. International rights organizations like the United Nations and International Criminal Court are underfunded and understaffed. Meanwhile the U.S. uses its surveillance machine to monitor officials across the globe—even, or especially, our allies. In that reality the United States seems to be above the system—choosing who qualifies as less than human and less deserving of basic human rights than anyone else.
If Jose Padilla could not have been proven guilty in a court of law, secret court or otherwise, he should have been set free. If we break from that very basic model of our entire justice system, we are not doing justice at all and everyone—American or otherwise—is at risk of being swept up for suspicion and held without proof, representation, or charge.
Like FBI Director Comey, the United States government—and apparently much of the American population—believes that the inherent rights of Americans are paramount to the right to life of any other person on the planet. Further, that the protection of Americans against even the most unlikely or fabricated foes justifies the indefinite detention of hundreds, the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of civilians for occupation, the torture of prisoners for the tiniest scrap of information, and the secret rendition of suspected terrorists supported by a shred of evidence. Despite these most vile, invasive, dehumanizing tactics used by the United States in its exercise of power and control over international political and economic interests, Americans’ voices are crying—“But what about my rights!”
Every single time I hear a cry for more American rights in the war on terror I get the distinct sour scent of death on my tongue. Being fine with surveillance so long as it isn’t against you, being fine so long as it is used to protect you against possible violent attacks despite the violence done to others in your name, is like going to the gallows to see the public lynching of a stranger and then turning your eyes away at the last second.
According to an NSA official, more than 90% of 50(ish) terrorist disruptions since 9/11 came from surveillance information legally acquired under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) . However, the government’s evidence of such disruptions largely disclose the end to sums of money changing hands rather than walking in on human beings actually drafting concrete plans to bomb, fire upon, or destroy domestic targets. Only two plots have been described in any detail as having been prevented by FISA investigations—one targeted at the New York subway and the other against a Danish newspaper in Chicago. The supposed planned attacks on the New York stock exchange seem to have been debunked or at least theoretical, with no charges being filed in regard to that plot .
In the name of those 50(ish) “terrorist disruptions” over the course of the last 12 years (that’s less than 4 disruptions–of any magnitude ranging from monetary donations to supposed possible violent plots on domestic soil–per year), the United States has used the same NSA surveillance technology currently causing American outrage, in addition to large incentive sums ranging from $3,000 – $25,000, to find and kill or detain thousands of foreign born people.
In the “War on Terror,” Human Rights Watch estimated that 100 or more “ghost prisoners” are being held incognito abroad, unnamed, uncharged, and unclaimed by the responsibility of anyone’s oversight who has their interests in mind. In addition, an unknown number of secret detention facilities within the warzones exist, holding high-level prisoners to be interrogated . In violation of the international human rights outlined in the Geneva Convention of 1949, the Bush Administration humiliated, degraded, tortured, and coercively interrogated hundreds of detainees held at both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and other “undisclosed” military sites throughout the world.
From 2002 – 2004, detainees held at the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib have reported being sexually assaulted, forced to undress in front of females and guards, forced to touch themselves, being urinated on, being piled atop one another in various positions, and humiliated in all manner of unimaginable ways. Some of their statements, have been published by the Washington Post. In addition to humiliating treatment by low-level guards, the policy of the U.S. government was to interrogate prisoners by inhumane means, such as painful stress positions, depriving them of sleep and light, exposing them to extreme heat, cold, noise, and light, hooding, and depriving them of clothes. U.S. personnel were approved to torture detainees by submerging them under water until they believed they would drown. All reports of prisoner abuse or prisoner deaths went unpunished and unheard in a judicial setting .
779 people have been detained at Guantanamo Bay alone. The commanding general, who served both in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, issued orders to physically, mentally, and emotionally degrade detainees to “prepare them” for interrogation including the use of military guard dogs. After years of imprisonment, 86 of 166 currently in Guantanamo are approved for release but have remained in cells for months after approval . A secret camp within Guantanamo Bay, known as Camp 7, has never been visited by any journalists or non-military personnel. It is unknown how many men are detained there, for how long, under what charges, and how they are being treated.
According to intelligence gathered on al Qaeda recruits, the average age of all would-be terrorist is 23-years. That’s three years younger than I am today, and the age I was one year after graduating college. Most suicide bombers were students; others were teachers, engineers, or scientists . In the hunt for al Qaeda members and suicide bombers, not everyone is detained. Some are simply assassinated without any attempt at capture. At any moment, in the midst of doing the most inoccuous tasks, foreign citizens can be gunned down by American soldiers or unmanned drones with no chance at defending themselves, with the proof of their crimes hidden from them and all but a few military personnel. Among the horrors of war, these silent deaths may be the most disturbing. That at one moment a person is living and then they are dead, with no case made against them and anyone nearby labeled “collateral damage.”
As of 2011, the US had collected three million Iraqi fingerprint, iris, and retinal scans that were deposited in a biometric database in West Virginia, accessible by satellite from any military checkpoint in the world. Electronic and satellite surveillance in the Greater Middle East was synchronized to search for possible al-Qaeda operatives for assassination by predator drones or hunter-killer raids . In unmanned drone strikes that supposedly protect the lives of American pilots but are less accurate than polited planes, there is no count of the deaths of militants or civilians. Human Rights organizations have estimated that in 2011 anywhere from 72-155 civilians were killed in drone strikes in Pakistan alone .
While many will justify the human rights violations against detained individuals as the unfortunate necessities of war, and the reduction of detainees’ humanity by referring to them as “combatants,” there is no justice in the world when it is denied to a few. Though the crimes of al Qaeda are great and times of war are confusing, we cannot discount human experience simply because it is convenient for us. Combatants are human beings. Their beliefs and actions are informed by their experience, just like ours. To dehumanize them is to create a black hole of otherness—where some people are deserving of torture and death because of their violent actions and others are not.
The torture and indefinite detention of Iraqi detainees is particularly ironic (or hypocritical) in light of the justifications used to explain our presence in Iraq in the first place. Having occupied Iraq despite its complete disconnect from the events of 9/11 in search of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that were never found , resulting in the deaths of over 100,000 civilians and the upheaval of Iraqi life, the Bush Administration explained the conflict as a fight for democracy in the region and the overthrow of the tyrannical Saddam Hussein. Included among the crimes committed by Hussein in his attempt to secure his power are: international war crimes, indefinite detention, detention without trial, and torture.
Even more ironic, before the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, al Qaeda had no presence there. It was only after the destabilization caused by government overthrow and the political confusion to follow that al Qaeda moved in with the hope of fighting the U.S. (essentially bringing Americans to where they could be killed), and other enemies previously silenced by Saddam Hussein’s regime . The spread of al Qaeda into Iraq and the intentional drawing of suicide bombers into that region at the bequest of al Qaeda leadership was a direct result of the United States’ occupation.
Insurgents–or, as I like to call them–human beings who actually live there, are also paying the price for our war. In the 20th century, Iraq and Afghanistan were carved out of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France, with no regard for how the people there actually lived, or how they would use their resources. As a result, each country contains 3-4 major ethnic groups forced into a nation state. After gaining independence, each country saw coup after coup, government turn over and resistance movements making attempts to gain power. For decades before 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan were ruled by separate tyrannical regimes that violently suppressed their opposition with genocide, mass public and secret executions, and militarized police states. Neither government properly addressed the needs of the people in regard to agriculture, resource division, job creation, or even sanitation. When the US government overthrew those regimes, it was with no attempt to understand the needs or desires of the people whose political, social, or economic needs and desires had long been suppressed.
Many of the men and women we fight against in Afghanistan today are insurgents. They are small militias belonging to ethnically diverse groups who want to claim power or representation in their government, before yet another militarized regime (the US) supplants those representatives it thinks best suited to our interests. Yet, we blame them. We call them combatants to dehumanize them so that our idea of democracy will be swallowed a little better. Their tactics are different because, unlike us, they do not have a trillion dollar budget or the newest technologies. They fight the largest military in the world as well as their own governments. Most of them will die without ever achieving political representation or social gain.
If the fate of foreign combatants and civilians does not compel you to fear the war on terror, I will turn your attention to the American victims. There have been thousands of American and coalition casualties in combat since 2001. Over 6,000 American soldiers have committed suicide since the outset of the war on terror–over twice the death toll of 9/11 in suicides alone. VA hospitals in the United States have reported a massive overflow of thousands of American soldiers returning from war with injuries, illnesses, and mental ailments caused by their experiences abroad. Over 100,000 veterans have sought out the VA for treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with at least twice that going untreated and undiagnosed. Even with 2.4 million American soldiers serving in the over 4,000 days of war, a shortage of American troops has caused some tens of thousands of soldiers to return for several consecutive tours of duty–some up to six times in a row. The inhumane treatment of our own men, the destruction of their mental and physical health in the name of American control of political outcomes in the Middle East is a humanitarian crises in and of itself.
Surveillance in the United States is Not a Modern Art
Centralizing government files would eliminate perhaps the best safeguard of personal privacy—bureaucracy. Compiling all that is recorded about an individual is now often a difficult and, consequently, a discouraging task. If the National Data Center were established, the mere push of a button would end all that –Anthony Prisendorf, New York Post, 1966 .
The United States has made use of surveillance for political and military advantage since the early 1900’s, using whatever technology was readily available—and often developing new technology for that specific purpose. According to History professor and author Dr. Alfred McCoy, during the US occupation of the Philippines, American information innovations such as rapid telegraphy, photographic files, alpha-numeric coding, and Gamewell police communications, the U.S. government created a colonial surveillance state that ruled thanks to the control of information—using collected data to damn enemies and suppress scandals about allies . Among their use of surveillance, the American military killed Filipino men, women, and children indiscriminately, took prisoners and captives from among the insurgents and used torture–including waterboarding–to gain intelligence. The American occupation in the Philippines resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 civilians .
Use of surveillance techniques in the Philippines led to the creation of the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division (MID) and the Cipher Bureau or “Black Chamber” in 1914–the first official intelligence services. The MID amassed a million pages of surveillance reports on German-American civilians living within the United States. During World War I, the MID and FBI used these surveillance techniques to violently repress the American left. Under the auspice of international threat and influence of the Bolsheviks, US intelligence gatherers sought out opposition citizens and leadership within the United States to suppress prominent union strikes and civil rights movements in what is referred to as the “Red Scare.” As is familiar today, domestic bombings targeted at political ideologies were used to justify mass intelligence gathering to identify communists and anarchists—supposedly to prevent further violence that would reflect the revolutions abroad. Under laws like the Sedition Act, liberals, communists, socialists, anarchists, and foreigners were rounded up, jailed, blacklisted or deported    .
Again, in 1945 the United States launched a large-scale spy operation gathering telegraphic data going in and out of the country, which didn’t end until it faced the objections of lawmakers in 1975 .
From 1960 – 1974, again the United States used the most modern surveillance technology to target anti-war activists who spoke out about the violence, oppression and terror waged during the Vietnam war. Though no true threat to civilian lives existed, the government deployed COINTELPRO—a surveillance and interference operation—to investigate 300,000 activists and anonymously attempt to break them apart, disrupt their meetings, ostracize people from their professions outside of activism, and provoke rival groups to the point of violence. As a result, President Jimmy Carter signed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to create a special court to approve all wiretaps. That very legislation allowed for the intrusion of domestic privacy after 9/11, providing a covert judiciary that eliminated all transparency to the use of surveillance technology while still making it legal and the rights of American citizens supposedly secure .
On February 24, 1972 in United States v. United States District Court, the Supreme Court ruled that a warrant was required for domestic spying—even in the event of a domestic terrorist threat. Justice Lewis Powell wrote in the majority opinion, “The price of lawful public dissent must not be a dread of subjection to an unchecked surveillance power. Nor must the fear of unauthorized official eavesdropping deter vigorous citizen dissent and discussion of Government action in private conversation. For private dissent, no less than open public discourse, is essential to our free society.” . While this decision protected the American citizens of the 70’s from warrantless surveillance, it did nothing to protect foreigners, or “any other clear and present danger to the structure of the Government” who was not living domestically.
However, in 1979 in Smith v. Maryland, the Supreme Court decided that the fourth amendment did not apply to surveillance of data tied to telephone calls. According to the justices, civilians do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” in the numbers they dial on their phones because they are aware that the telephone company keeps records . Today, this loophole allows the collection of certain data from telephone companies without warrants, and set a precedent for modern surveillance law.
The Use of Surveillance Against Americans in the War on Terror
NSA surveillance on American citizens is no joke. According to industry experts, the U.S. can track individual’s locations by obtaining data from cellphone towers that track the exact location of a cellphone—down to the specific floor of a building . While the atrocities being committed against foreign citizens far outweighs the threat to American privacy, the advancement of NSA surveillance on American information with the approval of all three branches of government is certainly something to be concerned about. In light of the history illustrated above, Americans have a lot to fear if the government cannot be compelled to reign in their urgency to control political outcomes.
In 2002, the Bush administration set in motion Operation TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System), that would have acquired millions of volunteers working as civilian foot-soldiers to spy on their neighbors right here in the United States. Though that program was ultimately shut down due to public outrage, it would have essentially turned civilians against one another, enacting them with the power to spy-on and report against their neighbors, granting powers of warrantless searches of their property without anyone knowing. Much like the infamous Red Scare, Bush had hoped that his media-driven campaign for patriotism would have compelled Americans to oust extremist Muslim sympathizers. The major problem being that most Americans believe that all Muslims are extremists, and could hardly identify a Muslim if they wanted to—and trust me they do.
Despite known public outrage based on their attempts made with O-TIPS, President Bush ordered the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor civilians’ private communications through access to telephone companies (sound familiar?). According to the Associated Press, the Bush Administration initiated the Terrorist Surveillance Program and used Microsoft Corp.—then the most popular software company and email provider—to collect email archives, account information, and any other data that could be compiled by their engineers and handed over to the government. No discretion was used in these transactions to distinguish between American citizens’ data and that of foreigners. Furthermore, the NSA was secretly authorized to tap the same fiber-optic cables they’d been monitoring since the 1970’s to spy on Americans’ phone calls, video chats, websites, bank transactions and more . The administration claimed that the use of this technology and monitoring was helping to stop post-9/11 terrorist attacks and that discretion was used in regard to accessing data related to Americans—the limits were and are still classified. According to the government, the data collected is not immediately destroyed in case it might have future relevance—how long the data will be kept is also classified. According to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), data is only kept on American citizens for five years if it has not become relevant . No answers have been given as to what counts as relevance, nor whether or not changes in our enemies justifies keeping the information.
In 2007 Bush endorsed a new law, the Protect America Act, which allowed wiretapping to continue through the NSA, so long as they explained their techniques and targets within a secret court—FISC. The Protect America Act made warrantless wire-tapping legal on both foreigners and American citizens. From that legislation, the now infamous NSA program and possibly one of the most innocuous parts of surveillance—Prism—was born. Though many of the companies compelled to give information to the United States—google, facebook, yahoo—have insisted that they do not provide unfettered access to user data, we really have no idea what the government actually sees and does. Securities expert and author Bruce Schneier has said openly that we cannot trust what the government, nor corporations, are telling us—“it’s spycraft, after all” .
According to the rules of the FISC, the NSA stores millions of records for phone data (again, data—not content) for records only associated with U.S. based phone numbers if they were called from an overseas phone identified with a specific foreign terrorist . Despite the fact that the content of the calls or emails are not recorded, the frequency of calls or length of calls can be quite intimate—who do you call most often? How often do you call your gynecologist? Have you recently called any politically or religiously affiliated groups? Journalists in particular have much to fear from the monitoring of the length, location, and frequency of their calls. If a journalist is doing an investigative piece in regard to terrorism, they might be the first to contact suspicious people. Even more frightening, if journalists are investigating surveillance itself, the NSA will know.
Prism is an information narrowing program, used to focus the stream of data coming in from company-provided and fiber-optic cable data. Executed in secrecy, yearly meetings are held between the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to conspire about intelligence gathering overseas. A federal judge, also in secret, must approve that plan. Through that plan, specific directives aimed at targets or groups of targets are handed to internet companies for the collection of data. Prism allows the NSA access to a target’s entire email inbox—including any communications with American citizens .
More disturbing than the use of Prism, which one might suggest “accidentally” collects American data, is the continued warrantless monitoring of data in fiber-optic cables. One CEO of a technology corporation said that this kind of monitoring gives the US access to anything—aside from face-to-face contact—that he can think of.
The information being gathered is not as intimate as most Americans seem to imagine. No one is sitting behind a desk watching your uploaded home videos, or listening to your late-night chat with your best friend. Instead, these methods employed by the NSA are using the data associated with your communications—not the communications themselves—to monitor people around the world. According to the NYTimes, “When separate streams of data are integrated into large databases — matching, for example, time and location data from cellphones with credit card purchases or E-ZPass use — intelligence analysts are given a mosaic of a person’s life that would never be available from simply listening to their conversations. Just four data points about the location and time of a mobile phone call, a study published in Nature found, make it possible to identify the caller 95 percent of the time.”
Meanwhile, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, unmanned Predator Drones and piloted Rivet Joint aircraft were combined to capture full-motion video and infrared images around the clock, recording a “pattern of life,” that establishes—quite intimately—who comes, who goes, how often, and how regularly. The larger piloted aircraft are capable of tracking vehicles travelling across an entire desert region . Those being spied on need not even be using technology of any kind to be traced, and no distance of foot or automotive travel is safe enough to be out of sight.
Since taking office in 2009, after scandals revealing that the NSA was abusing access to American information, Obama has endorsed the use of wiretapping. As Obama continues to discuss decreasing the costs of defense while maintaining political power, 11,000 NSA employees are building a $1.6 billion data center in Utah that will coordinate surveillance data from predator drones, reapers, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawks, X-37B space drones, Google Earth, Space Surveillance Telescopes, and orbiting satellites. Protecting it, the Pentagon is building a security force of pilotless X-37B space drones that can strike rival satellite networks with missiles. Within the next decade, Dr. Alfred McCoy says the US will be able to “…advance more omnipresent digital surveillance networks that will envelope the earth in an electronic grid capable of blinding entire armies on the battlefield, atomizing a single suspected terrorist, or monitoring millions of private lives at home and abroad” .
Of solutions, I have none. We are mired in a decade long war stretching over three continents. I have only the paraphrased cautionary words of Robert Merton: we will always be met with unintended consequences if the desire for an outcome is so great that there is willful ignorance of its effects, and our decision making in disregard for the effects is informed by a moral or ideological imperative. The United States has been in a persistent state of war — or in search of one — throughout its history. In our hunt for empire, our internal struggles, our attempts to control the political outcomes of Europe and now the Middle East, we have chosen to neglect the basic human rights of our own citizens, soldiers, and enemies in a hunt for democratic, capitalist power. Capitalism is a dangerous ideology to chase and democracy an impossible one to enforce. Democracy can only be found in the willful struggle toward it, by the people within a nation–it cannot be thrust upon a culture from outside. History shows us that no matter how carefully we handpick officials we place into the governments of other countries, the people want to choose those who represent them and always rebel–that is democracy. If the people are Muslim and want an Islamic government, they should have it. If they want secular rule, they should have that too. We should not, and ultimately cannot, choose for them.
Though we are trapped in this war now, I would caution the United States government to find an escape as soon as possible. A witch hunt for enemies will always create them while destroying the innocent.
Updated September 7, 2013: The comments below may be in response to an earlier version of this piece.
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- NSA Data Center. Wired. 2012.
- NSA Verizon Call Records. Wired. 2013.
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- Harris, Shane. “The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State.” Penguin Books. London. 2010. Print.
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