Life During Wartime: Mass Surveillance, Intelligence, and Repression in the United States

Confronted with recent revelations concerning the shape and scope of NSA surveillance, liberal commentators have frequently expressed dismay and forwarded objections that the monitoring of ordinary citizens is a wasteful and dangerous distraction from the hunt for real terrorists.  As this selection from the new collection Life During Wartime makes clear, such protestations really miss the point, as they misunderstand both the strategy of wholesale surveillance and the ends it serves.

The following is an excerpt from “Insurgency, Counterinsurgency, and Whatever Comes Next,” the introduction to Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, edited by Kristian Williams, Will Munger, and Lara Messersmith-Glavin (AK Press, 2013)

Because insurgency is primarily a crisis of legitimacy, some counterinsurgency theorists argue that, conceptually, the “War on Terror” has been a mistake: first, because it identified “terror” as the problem; and second, because it proposed “war” as the solution.  As the Rand Corporation’s David Gompert and John Gordon write:

The idea of GWOT [the Global War on Terror] … has fixed official U.S. attention on terrorists, with insufficient regard for the hostility that exists among vastly larger numbers of Muslims…. The indelible image of jihadists scheming alone in remote mountain caves is less the reality of Islamic insurgency than is far larger numbers of jihadists moving freely among Muslim populations…. [T]error inspired by Islamic extremism is part of a larger pattern of Muslim ‘resistance’ that has significant popular appeal…. [Therefore,] terrorism cannot be defeated unless the insurgencies in which it is embedded are successfully countered.

Since the cause of the conflict is not just a subversive conspiracy, but necessarily connects to the broader features of society, the state’s agents cannot simply ferret out the active cadre, but need to aim at a broad understanding of the social system.

And so, a great deal of the US Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) is concerned with explicating basic social-science terms like “group,” “coercive force,” and “social capital.” In fact, the entirety of Appendix B is devoted to explaining “Social Network Analysis and Other Analytic Tools.” It offers this picture of how such analysis is practiced:

[A] social network is not just a description of who is in the insurgent organization; it is a picture of the population, how it is put together and how members interact with one another…. To draw an accurate picture of a network, units need to identify ties among its members. Strong bonds formed over time by family, friendship, or organizational association characterize these ties. Units gather information on these ties by analyzing historical documents and records, interviewing individuals, and studying photos and books.

Intelligence and Coercion

As Martin Libicki explains in the Rand report Byting Back, counterinsurgency requires that the security forces collect both “information on specific individuals” and “information in which the actions or opinions of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people are highlighted.”

“Why collect such information?” he asks rhetorically.

His answer is quite revealing. Properly analyzed, the information can be used in five types of activity: (1) police and military operations “such as sweeps, roadblocks, or arrests”; (2) assessments of progress in the counterinsurgency campaign; (3) “the provision of public services, whether security and safety services (e.g., an efficient 911 system) or social services (e.g., health care, education, and public assistance)”; (4) identifying insurgents; and, (5) the coercion of individuals for purposes of winning cooperation and recruiting informants: “information about individuals may be necessary to persuade each one to help the government rather than helping the insurgents.”

This last point shows something of the recursive relationship between intelligence and coercion. In an insurgency, both sides rely on the cooperation of the populace; therefore they compete for it, in part through coercive means: “Those uncommitted to either side should weigh the possibility that the act of informing or even interacting with one side may bring down the wrath of the other side.” Whoever is best able to make good on this threat will, Libicki argues, receive the best information: “The balance of coercion dictates the balance of intelligence.”

Hunting the Earth Liberation Front

Domestic law enforcement agencies have engaged in a decade-long campaign broadly targeting the environmental and animal rights movements. The peak of the campaign—thus far—was marked by “Operation Backfire,” a set of coordinated arrests launched in December 2005. The Backfire defendants were accused of a series of Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front arsons from the late 1990s—activities the FBI characterized as “domestic terrorism.” Altogether eighteen people were indicted.

The investigation into the ELF started to gain traction in 2001 when a woman in Eugene, Oregon called the police to report her truck stolen. She named her roommate, Jacob Ferguson, as the likely thief, and the police, noticing that the theft coincided with an arson at an SUV dealership, deduced that Ferguson might have started the fire. Both the roommate and the cops were mistaken, but the error proved lucky for law enforcement. Twice Ferguson was called before a grand jury and, in 2004, when the cops finally threatened him with prosecution, he offered them information on more than a dozen Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front actions, naming the people involved. Ultimately, he would provide details on 22 separate acts of sabotage. Ferguson then spent months traveling the country and wearing a wire to collect evidence. He recorded 88 hours of audio, representing 40 conversations. After each new arrest, the police pressed the suspects for information on others. A few of those arrested fought the charges, or plead guilty without implicating anyone else; most, however, gave evidence against their comrades in exchange for lighter sentencing.

Backfire succeeded largely thanks to a single lucky break, followed by a systematic effort to turn activists into informants. But to be able to take advantage of their good fortunes, the cops needed a substantial amount of more general background information about the community they were investigating. That effort started at least as early as 1999. The anarchist journal Rolling Thunder describes the approach:

What we know of the early Backfire investigation points to a strategy of generalized monitoring and infiltration. While investigators used increasingly focused tools and strategies as the investigation gained steam—for example, sending ‘co-operating witnesses’ wearing body wires to talk to specific targets—they started out by sifting through a whole demographic of counter-cultural types…. Police accumulated tremendous amounts of background information even while failing to penetrate the circles in which direct action was organized. The approximately 30,000 pages of discovery in the Oregon cases contain a vast amount of gossip and background information on quite a few from the Eugene community.

It’s likely that the documents released in preparation for trial are only one small portion of the information actually collected: circumstantial evidence suggests that at least some of the Backfire defendants were subject to warrantless wiretaps managed by the National Security Agency.

“Disruption Mode”

Of course, the purpose of identifying the insurgent network is to disrupt it.

Consider the police efforts to frustrate protests against the 2008 Republican National Convention: A year in advance of the demonstrations, police informants began attending protest planning meetings around the country, while local cops and the FBI kept anti-RNC organizers under intense surveillance— following them, photographing them, going through their garbage.  Among the organizations targeted were Code Pink, Students for a Democratic Society, the Campus Anti-War Network, and most famously, “The RNC Welcoming Committee” (which later produced “the RNC 8” defendants).

Simultaneously, the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center invested more than 1,000 hours coordinating with other “fusion centers” around the country to collect, analyze, and disseminate information on suspected anti-RNC activists. The fusion center drew its information from a staggering array of sources, using law enforcement and Defense Department databases, as well as DMV records, court document, and information provided by private businesses.

In the days before the Convention, police used this information to mount raids of activists’ homes and meeting places, seizing banners, political literature, video equipment, and computers.  By the Convention’s close, more than 800 people had been arrested, many rounded up en masse.  The majority—584—were released without charges, or had their cases dismissed. Only ten arrests resulted in felony convictions.

But the conviction rate may be beside the point. One commander stated frankly that the police weren’t building prosecutable cases, but were instead acting in “disruption mode.”   The law, in other words, was a secondary concern; politics was primary.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy, and an editor of Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency.

Selected Bibliography

For the full list of sources, see the Notes included in Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, eds. Kristian Williams, et al. (Oakland: AK Press, 2013).

David C. Gompert and John Gordon IV, et al.,  War by Other Means: Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency (Santa Monica: Rand, 2008).

United States Army, FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency (December 2006).

Martin C. Libicki, et al., Byting Back: Regaining Information Superiority Against 21st Century Insurgents (Santa Monica: Rand, 2007).

Will Potter, Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2011).

“Green Scared? Preliminary Lessons of the Green Scare,” Rolling Thunder (Spring 2008).

G.W. Shulz, “Assessing RNC Police Tactics, [Parts 1 and 2],” Center for Investigative Reporting, September 1, 2009 and September 2, 2009.

Heidi Boghosian, The Policing of Political Speech: Constraints on Mass Dissent in the U.S. (New York: National Lawyers Guild, 2012).