National Journal Intelligence and Homeland Security correspondent Harris investigates how the American government has acquired unprecedented surveillance power.
When the details of the Total Information Awareness system that John Poindexter was building for the Pentagon became public in 2002, civil-liberties advocates indignantly objected to what they saw as a vast, creepy surveillance program that spied on Americans, notwithstanding any protection it provided against terrorist attack. The fallout forced Poindexter to leave government for the second time—the first followed his involvement in the Iran Contra Scandal—but his dream of an electronic surveillance system that could detect security threats, digest information and convert it into a useful picture to preempt terrorism survived, albeit without the attendant privacy protections Poindexter had envisioned. Those safeguards were rejected ultimately as too costly and technologically demanding by the “watchers” who inherited the program and later enshrined many of its practices in law. Their names and deeds loom large in Harris’s story about the emergence of the surveillance state, but the author rightly centers on Poindexter, whose high-level, hands-on experience with terrorism dates back to the ’80s attack on the Beirut Marine barracks and the Achille Lauro hijacking. Despite his past, the government desperately needed his expertise in the wake of 9/11. Whether discussing the relationships among various intelligence agencies, the political component of any strategy, the trade-offs between security and privacy, or recounting the riveting story of the Army’s aborted Able Danger program, Harris displays an exquisite understanding of the intricacies of his topic and a remarkable sensitivity to the genuine concerns of the watchers and their critics. Although he’s skeptical about whether pattern analysis of data really catches terrorists, the author acknowledges the new administration’s disinclination to dismantle what’s been assembled and their fear of the endless recriminations that would follow another attack on the order of 9/11.
A sharply written, wise analysis of the complex mashup of electronic sleuthing, law, policy and culture.