This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
In his approach to National Security Agency surveillance, as well as CIA renditions, drone assassinations and military detention, President Obama has to a surprising extent embraced the expanded executive powers championed by his conservative predecessor, George W. Bush. This bipartisan affirmation of the imperial executive could “reverberate for generations,” warns Jack Balkin, a specialist on First Amendment freedoms at Yale Law School. And consider these but some of the early fruits from the hybrid seeds that the “Global War on Terror” has planted on American soil. Yet surprisingly few Americans seem aware of the toll that this already endless war has taken on our civil liberties.
Don’t be too surprised, then, when, in the midst of some future crisis, advanced surveillance methods and other techniques developed in our recent counterinsurgency wars migrate from Baghdad, Falluja and Kandahar to your hometown or urban neighborhood. And don’t ever claim that nobody told you this could happen–at least not if you care to read on.
Think of our counterinsurgency wars abroad as so many living laboratories for the undermining of a democratic society at home, a process historians of such American wars can tell you has been going on for a long, long time. Counterintelligence innovations like centralized data, covert penetration and disinformation developed during the Army’s first protracted pacification campaign in a foreign land–the Philippines from 1898 to 1913–were repatriated to the United States during World War I, becoming the blueprint for an invasive internal security apparatus that persisted for the next half century.
Almost 90 years later, George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror” plunged the US military into four simultaneous counterinsurgency campaigns, large and small–in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and (once again) the Philippines–transforming a vast swath of the planet into an ad hoc “counterterrorism” laboratory. The result? Cutting-edge high-tech security and counterterror techniques that are now slowly migrating homeward.
As the “War on Terror” enters its ninth year to become one of America’s longest overseas conflicts, the time has come to ask an uncomfortable question: What impact have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq–and the atmosphere they created domestically–had on the quality of our democracy?
Every American knows that we are supposedly fighting elsewhere to defend democracy here at home. Yet the crusade for democracy abroad, largely unsuccessful in its own right, has proven remarkably effective in building a technological template that could be just a few tweaks away from creating a domestic surveillance state–with omnipresent cameras, deep data-mining, nano-second biometric identification, and drone aircraft patrolling “the homeland.”