The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State

The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State

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by Shane Harris

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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.


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.

Editorial Reviews

Eric Lichtblau
While Mr. Harris's examination covers a fair amount of ground that has already been well plowed, it uses smart technical analysis and crisp writing to put the reader inside the room with the watchers and to help better understand the mind-set that gave rise to the modern surveillance state…At its best The Watchers provides an insightful glimpse into how Washington works and how ideas are marketed and sold in the back rooms of power, whether the product being peddled is widgets or a radical model for intelligence gathering.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Harris, a reporter for National Journal, details the rise of a “band of mavericks” in national security and intelligence organizations that has erected “an American surveillance state.” In this timely and admirably balanced account, Harris focuses on the role of a handful of key figures, including Reagan-era National Security Adviser John Poindexter, as they campaigned for information technology to identify terrorists. The controversial Poindexter started the campaign after the 1983 bombing of Marine barracks in Lebanon; the mission was imbued with greater urgency after September 11; with the support of the Bush administration, the National Security Agency (NSA) acquired a research project that Poindexter had developed called Total Information Awareness that uses advanced data-mining techniques to collect mountains of data—and has trapped countless innocent citizens in the NSA’s “electronic nets.” After the NSA’s warrantless surveillance was exposed in 2005, Congress passed largely cosmetic reforms that left the surveillance state intact. Harris carefully examines how the nexus between terrorism and technology has complicated the age-old “conflict between security and liberty” and calls for a national debate on the issue. This informative and dramatic narrative is an excellent place to start. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
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 theintricacies 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. Agent: Tina Bennett/Janklow & Nesbit
From the Publisher
"Heyborne captures the tone of this book perfectly while describing a fascinating chronicle of America's war on terror using electronic technology." —AudioFile
Library Journal
Explores the history of attacks against U.S. interests; terrorism and the American response to it; and the debate between freedom and security in the networked era, as well as the lack of provable results from the increase of dragnet web traffic tracking. (LJ 2/15/10)

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

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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From the Publisher
"Heyborne captures the tone of this book perfectly while describing a fascinating chronicle of America's war on terror using electronic technology." —-AudioFile

Meet the Author

Shane Harris writes about electronic surveillance, intelligence, and counterterrorism for National Journal.

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The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Winterlight00 More than 1 year ago
Harris did a hell of a lot of homework for this book. Using Poindexter as the common thread, Harris gives a good look at the survalence culture, its recent history and the viewpoints of those inside it.
bobcaldwellusna58 More than 1 year ago
Very well researched. After "the Nightingale's Song" by Bob Timberg, this is an incredible insight into one of this Nation's greatest Patriots of all times - if you are smart enough to understand him!
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