Using exclusive access to key insiders, Shane Harris charts the rise of America's surveillance state over the past twenty-five years and highlights a dangerous paradox: Our government's strategy has made it harder to catch terrorists and easier to spy on the rest of us.
Our surveillance state was born in the brain of Admiral John Poindexter in 1983. Poindexter, Reagan's National Security Advisor, realized that the United States might have prevented the terrorist massacre of 241 Marines in Beirut if only intelligence agencies had been able to analyze in real time data they had on the attackers. Poindexter poured government know-how and funds into his dream-a system that would sift reams of data for signs of terrorist activity. Decades later, that elusive dream still captivates Washington. After the 2001 attacks, Poindexter returned to government with a controversial program, called Total Information Awareness, to detect the next attack. Today it is a secretly funded operation that can gather personal information on every American and millions of others worldwide.
But Poindexter's dream has also become America's nightmare. Despite billions of dollars spent on this digital quest since the Reagan era, we still can't discern future threats in the vast data cloud that surrounds us all. But the government can now spy on its citizens with an ease that was impossible-and illegal-just a few years ago. Drawing on unprecedented access to the people who pioneered this high-tech spycraft, Harris shows how it has shifted from the province of right- wing technocrats to a cornerstone of the Obama administration's war on terror.
Harris puts us behind the scenes and in front of the screens where twenty-first-century spycraft was born. We witness Poindexter quietly working from the private sector to get government to buy in to his programs in the early nineties. We see an army major agonize as he carries out an order to delete the vast database he's gathered on possible terror cells-and on thousands of innocent Americans-months before 9/11. We follow General Mike Hayden as he persuades the Bush administration to secretly monitor Americans based on a flawed interpretation of the law. After Congress publicly bans the Total Information Awareness program in 2003, we watch as it is covertly shifted to a "black op," which protects it from public scrutiny. When the next crisis comes, our government will inevitably crack down on civil liberties, but it will be no better able to identify new dangers. This is the outcome of a dream first hatched almost three decades ago, and The Watchers is an engrossing, unnerving wake-up call.
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Shane Harris writes about electronic surveillance, intelligence, and counterterrorism for National Journal.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
This is a mistake, Erik Kleinsmith told himself as he stared at his computer screen. He’d been agonizing over his orders. He considered disobeying them. He could make copies of all the data, send them off in the mail before anyone knew what had happened. He could still delete all the copies on his hard drive, but the backups would be safe. No one could say they hadn’t tried, that they hadn’t warned people.
The earnest thirty-five-year-old army major had drawn attention to himself as the leader of an innovative, some said renegade, band of intelligence analysts. Working under the code name Able Danger, Kleinsmith’s team had compiled an enormous digital dossier on a terrorist outfit called Al Qaeda. By the spring of 2000, it totaled two and a half terabytes, equal to about one tenth of all printed pages in the Library of Congress. This was priceless information, but also an alarm—the intelligence showed that Al Qaeda had established a presence inside the United States, and signs pointed to an imminent attack.
While the graybeards of intelligence at the CIA and in the Pentagon had come up empty handed, the army wanted to find Al Qaeda’s leaders, to capture or kill them. Kleinsmith believed he could show them how. That’s where he ran into his present troubles. Rather than rely on classified intelligence databases, which were often scant on details and hopelessly fragmentary, Kleinsmith created his Al Qaeda map with data drawn from the Internet, home to a bounty of chatter and observations about terrorists and holy war. Few outside Kleinsmith’s chain of command knew what he had discovered about terrorists in America, what secrets he and his analysts had stored in their data banks. They also didn’t know that the team had collected information on thousands of American citizens—including prominent government officials and politicians— during their massive data sweeps. On the Internet, intelligence about enemies mingled with the names of innocents. Good guys and bad were all in the same mix, and there was as yet no good way to sort it all out.
Army lawyers had put him on notice: Under military regulations, Kleinsmith could store his intelligence only for ninety days. It contained references to U.S. persons, and so all of it had to go. Even the inadvertent capture of such information amounted to domestic spying. Kleinsmith could go to jail.
As he stared at his computer terminal, Kleinsmith’s stomach flipflopped at the thought of what he was about to do. This is terrible. He pulled up the relevant files on his hard drive and hit the delete key. The blueprint of global terrorism vanished into the ether.
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