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'The Watchers' Have Had Their Eyes On Us For Years

In <em>The Watchers</em>, journalist Shane Harris tells the story of five intelligence professionals crucial to the rise of surveillance in the United States.
Joseph deFeo / Penguin Books
Penguin Books
In The Watchers, journalist Shane Harris tells the story of five intelligence professionals crucial to the rise of surveillance in the United States.

The revelations about secret National Security Agency programs, leaked by Edward Snowden earlier this month, have stirred great controversy, but this type of surveillance is not entirely new, according to journalist Shane Harris.

In his 2010 book, The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, Harris traced the evolution of these surveillance programs in the U.S.

He says that as the digital age advanced, the NSA reached a crossroads and realized that analog tactics like phone tapping were quickly becoming obsolete: There was a whole new world of digital information to be accessed.

"They're realizing," says Harris, "if we can get into this 'digital network' ... [that] they would effectively be able to monitor global communications."

Because these communications were traveling through lines inside the United States, the U.S. was the central switching station for the global communications grid. The laws at the time, however, forbade much of that kind of intelligence gathering in the United States.

"9/11 changed all that," Harris tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Harris is a reporter at Foreign Policy. He's also written about intelligence, surveillance and cybersecurity for the Washingtonian and National Journal.

Interview Highlights

On how the dawn of the digital era created a crisis for surveillance agencies

"The law changed such that in the future, whenever the companies built and installed these digital network systems for communications, they too had to be built in a way that law enforcement could execute a warrant quickly and easily ...

"So they basically had to install and build in an architecture that allows for digital surveillance at a high volume ... so essentially what you have now is a phone system that can be easily tapped and quickly tapped ... and there was a real debate about ... whether this would give the government even more intrusive access into communications because you can just swallow up so many more kinds of digital communication at once rather than tapping one phone line at a time."

On John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness (TIA) program of 2002

"His goal was to create a system that could access all of the digital information anywhere in real time — everything from phone calls and emails, text messages, rental car reservations, credit card transactions, prescription records.

"And the idea behind TIA was it would go out and look through this huge ... universe of data, and look for patterns of activity or patterns of transactions that analysts had predetermined were associated with terrorist attacks.

"Any movement that you make today leaves a digital signature, a digital trail. Investigators, after a terrorist attack has occurred, go back and use all of those digital signatures and trails to figure out who these people were and how they did the plot. Why can't we look at it before the event occurs and try to predict with some degree of certainty where we should then be focusing our attention and which people we should be closely monitoring? But to do that you had to collect all of the information available everywhere."

On why TIA (Total Information Awareness) was shut down

"What he was proposing at the time — and this is before we realized what had been going on in secret at the NSA, sounded Orwellian. It sounded almost absurd. The idea that you would want to go out and give the government access to every single person's record and let them root through it, really seemed just a step too far, even in the one or two years after 9/11 when the country was still very much on edge and we were fighting a war in Afghanistan; it just seemed like it was just excessive.

"The name creeped people out. It was called 'Total Information Awareness.' It had this logo of the pyramid from the great seal of the United States with this floating eye on it casing a beam over the globe; it looked very menacing."

On Snowden working for a private contractor

"What I'm surprised by is how it is that any employee at his level, whether a contractor or not, would have access to some of the information that he had access to. The NSA prides itself on being one of the most secure agencies in government. This is the agency, after all, that specializes in cryptology. They are code-makers and code-breakers. So how is it that these incredibly sensitive documents — particularly the court order related to metadata — was just accessible to anyone and to remove with a thumb drive, regardless of whether they were a contractor or not?"

On the generational value gap

"There is a cultural collision, a clash that's going on here with these organizations that are built on compartmentalization and secrecy and deceit to a certain degree, needing the expertise of someone like Ed Snowden who grew up in the digital age, who grew up using computers as if they were regular household items.

"That's the workforce that the NSA has to pull from. The value systems may not be compatible, however. It strikes me that, you know, there are a lot of people, though, who work for the NSA who probably do feel the way that Snowden did, who believe in this idea of freedom of information. ... But you make a commitment when you go to work for these agencies, to keep the secrets and to almost kind of push your own beliefs to the side.

"It used to be, perhaps, that commitment to that secrecy and that code of ethic was more likely to trump anyone's personal beliefs. But the more that you have these people coming in who do see things differently, I think it does increase the likelihood that you're going to have leaks like this in the future. At the same time, the NSA can't afford to say, 'We won't hire anybody under the age of 35,' or, 'We won't hire anybody who has expressed an interest in digital privacy rights.' "

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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