For the vast majority of my adolescence, it would be safe to say that I didn’t care about the news. It’s hard to when you’re a kid—news is just a lot of grown-ups talking about things that seem boring, or complicated, or at the very least not nearly as exciting as Legos. If I’m being honest, it probably wasn’t until college that I really thought, “Huh. Things are going on in the world and I should probably know about them.”
As a result of my youthful Lego predilections—and longstanding struggle to remember things learned in history class—there are enormous gaps in my knowledge of What Hath Happened Before. And yet I, like everyone else, reacted to news of the NSA’s spying operations with a definitive lack of surprise. “Of course the government is spying on us,” I thought to myself while reading Edward Snowden profiles and snickering at the name Booz Allen. “I just assumed they always were.”
I wasn’t alone in this reaction—whether you think Snowden is a hero or villain, outrage over the actual content of his leaks has been relatively muted—and so I thought it might be interesting to fill in some of the missing details. How long have these programs been a thing? Who started them? Why? Should I really be all that worried?
The Watchers (released in 2010) seeks to answer those questions. A multi-decade exploration of the rise of surveillance in America, the book is a comprehensive and often complex assessment of the people, situations and decisions behind programs like the one Snowden revealed, as well as the motivation behind such programs’ creation. Though chock full of detail, The Watchers boils down to one main assertion: This stuff has been going on a long time—since Reagan, at least—and is extremely unlikely to stop.
According to author Shane Harris, the modern surveillance state finds its roots in 1983, when terrorists truck-bombed the barracks of a group of Marines in Beirut. Heretofore unfamiliar with suicide bombers, the U.S. saw that attack—and others like it—as a clear directive to improve intelligence-gathering and, more importantly, intelligence-analyzing. (Though various government agencies had long been keen on collecting information, they struggled to effectively “connect the dots.”) Surveillance then, as now, was born of a desire to preserve safety, and to prevent future harm.
From the 1983 attack, The Watchers embarks on a sprawling tour of history, and goes into rigorous detail on the events and decisions that led to where we are today. At the heart of the book is John Poindexter—of Iran-Contra fame—National Security Advisor for the Reagan administration and, later, director of the DARPA Information Awareness Office for the George W. Bush administration. Though The Watchers clearly relies on years of reporting, Harris’ interviews with Poindexter are at the heart of its findings, and prove exceedingly informative.
The Watchers feels longer than its 370-odd pages, and if you’re not the type to commit names and acronyms to memory quickly, it’s easy to get lost. There’s DARPA, JSOC, CALEA and the IDC. Plus of course the NSA, NSC, FBI and CIA. (Fun fact: The man behind one of the government’s early intelligence systems wanted to call it “Collaborative Crisis Understanding and Management,” until someone pointed out the unfortunate acronym.) Harris tries to present a compelling and streamlined narrative, but The Watchers is still weighed down by its own depth—I couldn’t decide whether it might have helped for him to include more information, or less.
What The Watchers does do is offer some great takeaways. Perhaps what’s most striking—at least in the early parts of the book—is how inefficiently various defense/intelligence groups worked together. Some of this disconnect was a product of technology—or the slow acceptance thereof—but much of it was political, the result of jealousy and grandstanding among government agencies eager to protect their own intelligence and tout their own successes. On the surface, the bickering is annoying and superficial. On closer inspection, it’s almost offensive. After all, lives are at stake here.
The Watchers also suggests—inadvertently—that we can all slow our roll on worrying about the government reading our Facebook statuses (stati?). Yes, the kind of data sweeps employed by programs like PRISM are capturing the digital details of U.S. citizens, and yes, the implication that said citizens are therefore kinda sorta being “investigated” is accurate, and said investigations are illegal-ish without a warrant. But surveillance programs pull together vast amounts of data, and use that data to identify meaningful information—ultimately shaking out what’s frivolous. In other words, your “I wish I could blow up the whole subway today!” e-mail is almost assuredly getting lost in the shuffle.
Perhaps most interestingly, The Watchers essentially renders PRISM as non-news. Yes, Edward Snowden outlined details heretofore unknown—or unconfirmed—about how exactly the government is spying on American citizens. But many of the essential details are included in Harris’ book: how these programs came to be, what exactly they collect, and the legal implications of doing so. (As well as how high up these mandates originated, and how non-unique it is for a lowly peon like Snowden to have significant security clearances. From a memo sent to senior CIA officials from then-director George Tenet, five days after 9/11: “The agency must give people the authority to do things they might not ordinarily be allowed to do. If there is some bureaucratic hurdle, leap it.”) Indeed, were the recent news not probably doing good things for book sales, Harris might even be annoyed that people are going apeshit over stuff he outlined three years ago.
Overall, The Watchers is a dense but ideal primer on the American surveillance state, and suggests that as long as we are afraid—as a people, as a country, as a government—our inclination toward knowledge at the expense of liberty will be a potent force in shaping policy. (Indeed, a decent portion of The Watchers is devoted to the notion that we might have legitimately prevented 9/11 had some of these systems been in place, and utilized.)
Given all the vitriol surrounding Snowden—who is, for all intents and purposes, just an IT guy with good intentions and a dubious sense of professional loyalty—Harris does a phenomenal job of withholding judgment on the things he writes about. Rarely in The Watchers’ 350+ pages does one sense Harris’ personal opinions on surveillance, so busy is he outlining the competing viewpoints of his story’s various players. This is perhaps The Watchers’ most appealing element. After all, we don’t need Harris to tell us how to feel about what the government is up to; judgment is the one thing our current media coverage has down pat.
TITLE: The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State
AUTHOR: Shane Harris
PAGES: 432 (in paperback, with notes)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: Edward Snowden on steroids
FIRST LINE: “This is a mistake, Erik Kleinsmith told himself as he stared at the computer and placed his finger on the delete button. We shouldn’t do this.”