Controlling Enemy Territory

August 26, 2013 § 1 Comment



Yesterday an excerpt from the forthcoming book Enemies Within by Associated Press journalists Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman appeared in the New York magazine website. The book concerns the extensive and intrusive surveillance apparatus erected by the New York Police Department (NYPD), in liaison with the C.I.A., directed at New York’s Muslim population. Highlights of the investigation, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, can be found here. The whole article is worth reading, but I’d just like to focus on one aspect here, and that is the way in which a colonial logic underpins the program. According to C.I.A. analyst Larry Sanchez, who was borrowed from the agency to assist the NYPD — along with former C.I.A. officer David Cohen — the idea of restructuring the NYPD’s Intelligence Division to monitor elements of the Muslim population was “borrowed” from “Israeli methods of controlling the military-occupied West Bank.” Cohen compared the concept to “raking an extinguished fire pit,” in which one might uncover “an ember—a hot spot waiting to catch.” That is, certain communities were honeycombed with spies and informants, effectively penetrated in much the same way enemy or colonized territory would be during conflict. We’ll return to this.

Similarities to the National Security Agency’s approach to information collection — summarized by General Keith Alexander’s wish to “collect the whole haystack” of information available in order to supposedly raise the odds of locating a needle — can’t be ignored. In both cases, the lack of terrorist attacks actually detected and thwarted by the respective programs highlights the problematic relationship between the total amount of information collected versus the amount of useful information collected, where after a certain point on the curve an inverse correlation is probably observed, an area of diminishing returns. To conclude, therefore, that the programs have failed at their ostensible missions, to protect against terrorist attacks, would be logical — if that is indeed the primary goal. Such programs also recall Admiral John Poindexter’s and Brian Hicks’ brainchild, the Information Awareness Office, established at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the prototype Total Information Awareness system (TIA), eventually discontinued subsequent to Congressional legislation concerning privacy rights of U.S. citizens. The seal emblazoned on the program stated “Scientia Est Potentia” — Knowledge is Power. Such programs continued, though splintered like different shards of what was previously one mosaic, in the form of collecting biometric data from facial recognition technologies and iris scans — a technology tested by NATO forces in Afghanistan as part of a wider counterinsurgency program, as but one example.

Poindexter stated his concerns in an August, 2002 speech:

The intelligence collection targets are thousands of people whose identities and whereabouts we do not always know. It is somewhat analogous to the anti-submarine warfare problem of finding submarines in an ocean of noise – we must find the terrorists in a world of noise, understand what they are planning, and develop options for preventing their attacks. […] We must become much more efficient and more clever in the ways we find new sources of data, mine information from the new and old, generate information, make it available for analysis, convert it to knowledge, and create actionable options. We must also break down the stovepipes – at least punch holes in them. By this, I mean we must share and collaborate between agencies, and create and support high-performance teams operating on the edges of existing organizations.

Similar concerns had already been addressed a century earlier, during the U.S. colonial counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines, from which emerged the tools and methods necessary to pacify and control a civilian population. After his tour in the Philippines, Colonel Ralph Van Deman, the “father of Military Intelligence,” would later compile a large database of U.S. citizens targeted for surveillance, effectively employing at home the techniques which had been developed abroad. In his voluminous study on U.S. colonial pacification in the Philippines, worth quoting at length, Alfred McCoy writes:

During the social ferment that surrounded World War I, a mix of emergency legislation and extralegal enforcement removed the restraints of courts and Constitution that had protected Americans from surveillance and secret police for over a century. With the fear of spies and subversion everywhere, police methods that had been tested and perfected in the colonial Philippines migrated homeward to provide both precedents and personnel for the establishment of a U.S. internal security apparatus. Transformed by colonial warfare from a conventional army careerist into “the father of U.S. military intelligence,” Van Deman applied his experience of empire to establish the army’s Military Intelligence Division (MID) in 1917 as a comprehensive espionage and counterespionage agency. After years of pacifying an overseas empire where race was the frame for perception and action, colonial veterans came home to turn the same lens on America, seeing its ethnic communities not as fellow citizens but as internal colonies requiring coercive controls. […]

In building a U.S. intelligence capacity, empire’s stamp on the nascent national security apparatus was both broad and deep, from data management to larger design. In both colonial Manila and wartime Washington, counterintelligence was characterized by similarities large and small. […] Covert operational procedures for surveillance and infiltration. An ethnic or racial template for perception of threat. Mass relocation of suspect populations. The systemic use of scandal as political disinformation. And, above all, a sense of omnipotence over peoples deemed alien and therefore lesser. […] In this process of imperial mimesis, a state such as the United States that creates a colony with circumscribed civil liberties and pervasive policing soon shows many of those coercive features in its own society. As the metropole’s internal security apparatus starts to resemble the imperial, so its domestic politics begin to exhibit many attributes of the colonial. [Policing America’s Empire, pp. 294-295]

As well as the gaze of the surveillance apparatus, though, there is also the microphone. Indeed, sometimes the entire population becomes the target, this “other” onto which the propaganda apparatus turns. Miami Herald journalist Alphonso Chardy was told in 1987, refering to State Department activies during the Iran-Contra scandal, that “[i]f you look at it as a whole, the Office of Public Diplomacy was carrying out a huge psychological operation of the kind the military conducts to influence a population in denied or enemy territory” (“N.S.C. supervised office to influence opinion,” Miami Herald, July 19, 1987). Referring to the same OPD, Robert Parry and Peter Kornbluh stated in the Washington Post that “the campaign came to resemble the sort of covert political operation the C.I.A. runs against hostile forces overseas but is outlawed from conducting at home” (“Reagan’s Pro-Contra Propaganda Machine,” Washington Post, September 4, 1988).

What is important to realize, in my opinion, is that both surveillance and propaganda are ultimately about control, not information. Propaganda itself usually carries very little useful information, and blanket surveillance, we have seen, no matter how comprehensive, provides no absolute guarantee against every possible threat. As the revelations about NSA surveillance continue (here [PDF] is a good discussion by Susan Landau), my overall impression is that the concern is, and has always been, to prevent the existence of any private space inaccessible to the gaze of those in power, to create a world without shadows and blind spots, in which absolutely no one is exempt from scrutiny — in order to accomplish this, it is necessary to effectively have the option to treat the bulk of the world’s population as if it were the enemy. In other words, similar to a one-way mirror, a world in which certain institutions insist on a certain level of opacity through secrecy and classification, but endeavor to render the world around them as transparent as possible. Anyone even remotely concerned about living in a free society should vigorously resist this with all the tools at their disposal.


Update: Another important aspect of surveillance, closely linked to the central theme of control highlighted here, is the psychological effects it has on those subjected to it. It has been shown in numerous studies that the simple awareness of being monitored can alter one’s behavior, attitudes and mental performance. In order to engage in creative, innovative activities, allowing for people to reach their full potentials, it is essential to have recourse to private spaces where one is free from external influence and uninhibited. We need room to experiment, without fear of retribution caused by performing “before the eyes of others,” resulting in people “tailoring their behavior to fit what they believe the observer wants.” A researcher at the Cardiff University School of Psychology reminded readers, in an article penned for the Guardian yesterday, that “a future of universal surveillance will be a world bereft of anything sufficiently interesting to spy on – a beige authoritarian landscape in which we lose the ability to relax, innovate, or take risks.” I propose that this effect can be an intended consequence of surveillance, and not simply an unwanted artifact — that is, one purpose of the surveillance state is to transform a society into one where conformity of thought is encouraged, in which indeed no one really does have “something to hide.” Unfortunately, most people will accept a modest level of surveillance when “their security is being bought with someone else’s liberty” — a reminder that it is often the more denigrated and outcast members of society, or dissidents, who are subjected to repressive measures, which, once accepted in theory by the broader public, can then be applied more generally. In other words, much like the imperial gaze, totalitarian thinking always begins by targeting the “other” before turning on the rest of us, at which point we may realize that it’s too late.

For the effect to function, however, the population under surveillance must be aware that it is under surveillance, which may seem contradictory, as we tend to think of surveillance as being a mostly covert activity. Power centers must balance their need to continue operating by remaining in the shadows with the need to make their chilling presence felt to the wider public. In the interests of shaping and controlling a society, it may be desirable for a certain amount of surveillance to be openly acknowledged. One need only think of Britain’s ubiquitous CCTV cameras, whose simple existence, whether functioning or not, can have a deterrent effect, thus transforming their environment. In this way, surveillance can be considered an active presence as well as a passive one. Episodes from highly repressive societies, such as the former Soviet bloc countries, further illustrate the debilitating effects of surveillance on individuals, where the simple knowledge is “enough to prompt them to take extensive measures to guard against such spying, and cast a pall of suspicion over their lives.” We can find such illustrations closer to home as well: documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, the second person contacted by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, has recently relocated to Berlin while editing her next film “because I do not feel I can keep source material safe in my own country.”


Update II (Sept. 3): An interactive map with original documents from the NYPD’s Intelligence Division are now on the website promoting Apuzzo and Goldman’s book Enemies Within. It includes slides with information detailing the Demographics Unit’s surveillance of “ethnic hotspots,” monitoring of web activity, and the mapping out of “ancestries” and “communities of interest,” among other things.


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