Where Counter-Terrorism Got Us
By Todd St Hill
For years – and especially after 9/11 – activists, whistle-blowers, journalists and authors highlighted the emergence and proliferation of the U.S. surveillance state. Alfred McCoy, author of In The Shadows Of The American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, traced this surveillance state back to the United State’s military endeavors throughout the world. It is and has always been rooted in the racism of an imperialist state. The folding of surveillance and intelligence gathering into municipal and state law enforcement agencies, using military funded programs and private investment, have been the primary ways of facilitating the emergence of the U.S. surveillance state.
Communities of color, particularly Black and Latinx communities, have been pushing back on local surveillance, such as so-called “gang databases” and racial profiling tactics, that have evolved to incorporating sophisticated surveillance technology. For years communities of color have emphasized the deeply problematic and racist use of gang databases and other surveillance technology on primarily Black and Latinx adults and youth. Detroit’s Project Green Light has received considerable criticism from Detroit residents and condemnation from grassroots organizations like the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP) and the Detroit Chapter of BYP100. Erase The Database campaigns have sprung up in Chicago and New York city calling for the abolition of all gang databases of “any kind.” In July, the LAPD caved under pressure from community groups and ended its use of their gang database leaving an ongoing fight to completely dismantle the CalGang database.
Still, the US military-in conjunction with local governments-continues to fund the transfer and use of surveillance technology like databases, massive surveillance fusions centers, mobile “stingrays” , and gunshot detection technology (widely criticized for its inaccuracy) to local law enforcement to the tune of millions. Here’s some things you should know about what connects surveillance, the US Military and policing:
- Federal policies led to budget cuts to public institutions and the deregulation of government agencies across sectors of U.S. government (aka neoliberalism) started in earnest towards the beginning of the 1970s (it really did).
Well, the U.S. military launched its “information computerization revolution” some 68 years prior in the early 20th century which, according to McCoy, consisted of three phases: manual intelligence collection [Phillipine war], Computerized data management [Vietnam War], and integrated robotics systems [Afghanistan and Iraq war]. The cuts to the budgets of U.S. public institutions and programs, and the deregulation of private industries synonymous with neoliberal policies also syphoned millions in public spending and private investment military advancements in U.S. surveillance technology and the subsequent construction of a U.S. surveillance state.
- In 1966, in the middle of the Vietnam War, then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara asked the CIA to design a program that would apprise the status of control in the countryside.
The Strategic Hamlet Program was launched in an effort to combat the growing influence of the National Liberation Front (NLF-the organized forces of the communist Vietnamese rebellion) in rural (and poorer) vietnamese countryside.
- This program proved to be inaccurate and ultimately ineffective.
The Strategic Hamlet Program used eighteen variables and computers provided by the private company IBM to generate a monthly “Hamlet Evaluation” Survey on a computerized map meant to track the spread and influence of NLF forces. Inconsistent and inaccurate results is an reoccuring and unavoidable issue for surveillance technology which only amplifies its dangerous potential
- Between 1960 and 1974 the FBI’s COINTELPRO program conducted 2,370 illegal actions.
During the Vietnam era, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted 2,370 acts of covert infiltration, disruption and discreditation, intense domestic surveillance, and police harrassment (and murder) of social movemnets like the civil rights, anti-war and Black power movements, of organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Students for a Democratic Society, and-maybe most infamous-the Black Panther Party, as well as 1,605 illegal acts of surveillance on U.S. congresspeople, all of which were deemed illegal.
- By the end of the FBI’s CounterIntelligence program, the CIA was exposed for having illegally surveilled 300,000 antiwar activists.
These 300,000 domestic names were illegally acquired under the auspices of the administration’s Operation Chaos, which was later expanded by Richard Nixon to monitor foreign influence on anti-war and anti-racist movements between 1967 and 1974.
- By 1978 The Foriegn Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts were created by the Rockefeller Commission.
The FISA courts were created to regulate the issuance of warrants for all future national security wiretaps. According to McCoy, under the second Bush Administration, and ever since, the FISA courts have issued orders permitting the collection of increasingly broad categories of information rather than information of specific individuals.
- In the years following 9/11 there were 800,000 government vetted personnel operating domestically as intelligence “security officials” with over 3,000 private and public intelligence organizations around the U.S..
- Metadata became the key concept, opening a doorway into the private lives of millions of americans.
Metadata is data that provides information about other data. On face value the collection of metadata seemed relatively innocuous, but according to mathematician and former SunsMicrosystems engineer Susan Landau “it’s much more intrusive than content”… “[It’s] who you call, and who they call. If you can track that you know exactly what is happening-you don’t need the content.” With the launch of the National Security Agency’s Operation Stellar Wind in 2002 under the Bush administration, the covert monitoring of private communications within U.S. borders expanded significantly.
- The FBI acquired over a billion documents from domestic names inside the US.
According to McCoy’s book, The FISA court expanded orders permitting the collection of broader categories of data, effectively aiding in the deregulation of a growing surveillance state apparatus. As a result the FBI’s Investigative Data Warehouse acquired over a billion documents including drivers license, private financial records, social security files etc-all accessible to 13,000 analysts.
- The Obama administration expanded the powers of the National Security Agency (NSA) dramatically.
By the beginning of Obama’s second tenure as president, the NSA had successfully penetrated 190 datahubs across the world, and coupled this monumental achievement in surveillance with decryption technology, making few places in the world and internet safe from U.S. cyber influence.
- The war in Iraq under the Obama administration served as a testing ground for the next phase of surveillance.
The Biometrics Identity Management Agency innovated fingerprint and iris scanning technology (technology that would later be used in facial recognition technology used by municipal and state police departments) in Iraq, collecting 10% (3 million people) of the country’s population by 2011.
- The FISA courts extended the power of the National Security Agency.
Despite its original purpose as a regulatory body for surveillance within the U.S. in 2011, the FISA authorized the release of phone call records from telecommunications companies like Verizon to the NSA through the infamous PRISM program. According to McCoy’s book, in 2013 the MUSCULAR project captured 181 million records via data transfers between tech giants Google and Yahoo by copying huge flows across fiber-optic cables that carry information among the data centers of the Silicon Valley giants.
- The Department Of Homeland Security has encouraged the use of military-designed surveillance technologies on the domestic level.
In 2009, former Homeland Security Commander General Victor Renaurt called for the domestic application of biometric technology among U.S. law enforcement. Two years later the military and private corporations began marketing and directly transferring mobile-smartphone-based iris recognition technology as well as facial recognition technology (developed in Iraq) to police departments nationwide. The Maricopa County, AZ and Pinellas County,FL Sheriff’s offices have spent considerable time and resources to develop the use of this technology respectively.
- In the wake of the 1033 program a private-public partnership has provided the flow of military surveillance tech to local law enforcement.
Private contracts and military grants have taken the place of direct/indirect transfer of military tech to local law enforcement that was once facilitated directly by programs like the government’s infamous 1033 program. In August 2020 Katya Schwenk reported In The Intercept that “Memphis [TN] signed a new contract with Cellebrite, an Israeli forensics manufacturer popular with law enforcement, whose products can hack and extract data from smartphones,” Two days after the government’s newest program, Operation Legend was announced. ”
- Communities of color are pushing back and demanding answers.
Activists in San Diego have joined a coalition suing the state’s Attorney General demanding he completely shut down the state’s gang database. Similarly, in Chicago the Erase the Database coalition has waged a multiyear fight successfully ending the police use of the Cook county database and aiming to shut down all gang databases in Chicago. In Detroit when asked about their thoughts on the city’s Project Green Light initiative a resident was quoted saying “I mean your face is not even your own anymore. Your face is being captured by cameras.”
Surveillance technology, massive amounts of data collection, and disturbing amounts of military weaponry aren’t the only things that characterizes 21st Century policing. The military surveillance technologies given to local law enforcement has merged-seamlessly-with the racist culture of policing, using 21st century surveillance tactics to reinforce and justify the continued criminalization of Black and Latinx communities.
With the launch of the Trump administration’s Operation Legend over the summer, the infusing of state and local law enforcement with hundreds of millions in spending on surveillance technology, and a president and vice president-elect who refuse to support demands to defund police, Black and Latinx communities increasingly resemble occupied territories in in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine.
The fact of the matter is the evolution of the US surveillance state is more reminiscent of the death, destruction and confusion of a hollywood conspiracy movie than an effective tool for solving the problems of our society. And like your favorite movie about secret government programs gone terribly wrong, the U.S. government’s surveillance projects and programs, once exposed as ineffective, are often repackaged and reintroduced by another name with more funding.
In reality only continued, and growing, public scrutiny and pressure like the kind coming from grassroots organizations and coalitions like the ones in L.A, Chicago, New York City and Detroit can cut against and begin to dismantle the expansive funding and gripping authority of police-surveillance apparatus.