With American troops’ hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden finally admitted what millions of Americans have known for years: there would be no triumphant fanfare to mark the end of the War on Terror that is finally, mercifully, ending on his watch.
But who will lead the charge to wind down America’s domestic national security panopticon that, after decades of taxpayer funding and expansions of its opaque surveillance powers, still failed to anticipate critical developments like the rise of ISIS or Afghanistan’s swift collapse to the Taliban?
Over the past 20 years, our failures in Afghanistan have become synonymous with the overreach and blind arrogance of the War on Terror. But that didn’t just unfold on some distant desert battlefield. An equally treacherous surveillance state was built by American lawmakers right here at home.
Just three weeks after President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, a Senate supermajority voted 98-1 to enact a bundle of emergency counterterrorism measures known as the USA PATRIOT Act. Among a slew of authoritarian nightmares, the Patriot Act vastly expanded the federal government’s authority to spy on its own citizens without oversight, indefinitely detain immigrants even vaguely suspected of terrorism, wiretap Americans without probable cause and compile incomparably massive databases of Americans’ internet activities and cell-phone metadata.
The Act answered many Americans’ post-9/11 desire for ever increasing layers of domestic security theater. It also paved the way for the paranoia and authoritarianism that gradually consumed the Republican Party.
The Patriot Act helped Republicans cloak their growing antidemocratic tendencies in the language of urgent national security imperatives, a trend that continues unbroken in Donald Trump’s “migrant caravan” fearmongering and the FBI’s Trump-era efforts to treat Black Lives Matter activists as a national security threat.
By 2002, driven by the Bush administration’s dire warnings of future attacks, Republicans had already constructed most of what we now consider America’s post-9/11 national security apparatus. The new focus on domestic and foreign surveillance was given physical form by the creation of an imposing new Department of Homeland Security. 18 years later, DHS is now the third-largest Cabinet department behind Defense and Veterans Affairs. Homeland’s sway over Washington remains so powerful that Biden’s recent proposal to—gasp—stop increasing the DHS budget led to heated bipartisan outcry on Capitol Hill.
Anyone who lived through the early years of surveillance gone wild remembers the emergence of a new popular vocabulary designed to mask our new realities: torture became “enhanced interrogation,” government disappearings “extraordinary rendition” and torture facilities “black sites.” Guantanamo Bay, a strip of land on the Cuban coast, became both a prison into which Muslims disappeared and an international symbol of America’s abandonment of the rule of law.
As a senator, Biden enthusiastically supported the construction and gluttonous overfeeding of our domestic surveillance state. At $1.25 trillion, building the American surveillance state was roughly equivalent to funding more than a decade of war in Afghanistan. As president, the task of deconstructing the leviathan now falls in Biden’s lap. It’s a topic he and his administration have been conspicuously silent about even as they tout the end of the war in Afghanistan. There’s no end to America’s “forever wars” without dismantling the surveillance state here.
The Patriot Act expired in bits and pieces over the past 20 years, but key provisions still remain—and stripping them away must be a priority as Biden seeks to wind down the War on Terror. Any effort to end the federal government’s cataloging of its citizens will face opposition: just last year, lawmakers fought a pitched battle to extend key surveillance provisions.
When PATRIOT’s controversial Section 215 governing bulk collection of telephone metadata from U.S. citizens expired in 2015, Senate Republicans quickly passed nearly identical provisions with a fresh new face—this time called the USA FREEDOM Act. That the metadata-tracking program harms civil liberties, cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and provided “practically no useful information” didn’t seem to matter to lawmakers. And while USA Freedom includes several important limits on domestic spying not included in Patriot, it represents nothing less than Patriot’s survival into its fourth presidential administration.
Far from winding down along with the War on Terror, the surveillance state is expanding like never before. Private companies like Palantir now pledge to “empower organizations to effectively integrate their data, decisions, and operations.” If you’re a state or federal law enforcement agency, that “empowerment” means utilizing powerful new facial recognition and crowd surveillance technologies to track nonviolent protesters and other troublesome Americans.
If that seems like a far cry from monitoring the foreign-based communications of possible terrorists, that’s because it is. The technologies supposedly created to track a vague, undefined foreign “threat” have been turned against Americans with startling effectiveness. Atlanta’s Flock Safety recently raised a $150 million investment round on the promise that it could capture and analyze vehicles and license plates better than anyone else. For many of the lawmakers compromised by an influx of surveillance industry lobbying cash, America’s future is one where you are always being watched.
It might be a different story if this eye-wateringly expensive, rights-eroding proto-Skynet actually improved American safety. In fact, it’s actively jeopardizing national security. Take Palantir, the private surveillance technology firm that last year wrapped up a high-profile $500 million funding round. According to new reports first published in the New York Post, a massive glitch in Palantir’s confidential systems allowed unauthorized individuals to access sensitive FBI employee data for more than a year. But the FBI is small potatoes: the vast trove of private information Palantir helps the government scoop up is only as secure as Palantir’s least-interested programmer.
But America’s surveillance hell isn’t all high-minded data-mining by the boys at Langley and hunkered down in Silicon Valley. As citizens, we’ve been conditioned over the course of two decades to accept ever-greater incursions into our privacy. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the pernicious security theater produced and directed by the Transportation Security Administration.
A Congress eager to show Americans it would do anything necessary to protect them foisted the TSA on travelers in November 2001. Since then, airport security has become one of the nation’s greatest running jokes: according to research by Vox’s Dylan Matthews, there isn’t any solid evidence that TSA has made air travel—or Americans—any safer. But it has accustomed citizens to accept gradually more intrusive government requests on our freedoms.
As a frequent (until recent global health events) air traveler, I can barely imagine a world before TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, Clear, and a host of other services designed to ease the all-consuming inconvenience of War on Terror airport security measures. And that’s what’s so wrong. By placing theatrical but ineffective “security” roadblocks in front of Americans and then introducing a program like PreCheck, which required me to provide TSA with scans of my retinas, a full set of my fingerprints, and enough information to conduct a deep background check, TSA effectively inconvenienced me and most Americans into filling a database with our most personal data. And they charge 85 bucks for the privilege.
Sure, PreCheck is a choice you are free to decline—but by treating our privacy as a negotiable token to be traded off for a little convenience, we forfeit the chance to decide whether our government should even have the terrifying power to warehouse our eyes in the first place. It’s past time our elected officials had that conversation and accounted for the failure of our intrusive security apparatus to actually deliver better intelligence outcomes and a safer country for Americans. It’s time to restore our civil liberties to a pre-PreCheck world.
Only congressional Democrats and the Biden administration have the power to fully dismantle 20 years of deeply entrenched intrusion by the federal government into our private data and personal lives. That will be more difficult than withdrawing from Afghanistan, but inaction will do further damage to the already frayed relationship between our government and its people.
Democrats can begin our great national de-spyification process by revoking the sweeping surveillance powers successive Congresses have bestowed on organizations like the NSA and FBI. The past 20 years have demonstrated that our surveillance state is woefully ineffective at improving American national security.
Democrats can lead an overdue rethinking of the entire operational theory behind America’s use of surveillance. We must apply what we’ve learned from the past two decades of surveillance overreach to build a system that respects our most cherished rights.
A generation later, the War on Terror is drawing to an ignominious close. America’s surveillance state must not outlive it.