‘The Watchers’ Have Had Their Eyes On Us For Years

As shocked as you may have been to learn about the secret National Security Agency programs leaked by Ed Snowden earlier this month, this type of surveillance is not entirely new or unheard of. In his 2010 book, The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State, journalist Shane Harris traced the evolution of these surveillance programs in the U.S. Harris says that as the digital age advanced, the NSA reached a crossroads at which they realized that analog tactics like phone tapping were quickly becoming obsolete: there was a whole new world of digital information to be accessed.

“[T]hey’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 United States was the central switching station for the global communications grid. The laws at the time, however, forbid much of that kind of intelligence gathering in the United States. But the law at the time forbid that kind of intelligence gathering in the United States.

“9/11,” says Harris, “changed that.”

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


Interview Highlights

On why T.I.A. (Total Information Awareness) was shut down

“[W]hat 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 it 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 anybody under the age of 35.’ or, ‘We won’t hire anybody who has expressed an interest in digital privacy rights.’”

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