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The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State

Author Shane Harris peers into the tenuous state of our privacy.

Book Review: The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State

The Penguin Press

Big Brother is watching us. That message undergirds The Watchers, journalist Shane Harris's investigation of our national security system and "the rise of America’s surveillance state." But is Big Brother a bumbling voyeur or a vigilant sentinel of our security? And has the U.S. government's surveillance strategy made it harder to catch terrorists yet easier to spy on citizens? Harris, a reporter for National Journal, offers an informed take on how a small, elite tribe has decided our national-security policy for the last four decades.

At the center of The Watchers (Harris's term for this secretive clique) stands Admiral John Poindexter. In 1983, while serving as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, Poindexter spent countless hours and government dollars trying to develop an electronic surveillance system that could scan mountains of digital data and tease out potential terrorist threats. Over concerns about protecting American civil liberties, the system was only partly implemented.

But as The Watchers makes clear, life — and views about civil liberty — changed drastically after 9/11. Poindexter returned to government service under President George W. Bush in early 2002 with an updated — and controversial — version of his domestic surveillance system. Ominously dubbed Total Information Awareness (TIA), it monitored selected phone calls, money transfers, websites visited and even academic grades received (!) within the United States in a bid to provide early warning of the next terrorist attack. This time around, the government fully embraced TIA — until 2003, that is, when Congress banned the initiative after critics assailed its invasion of civil liberties. But TIA soon resurfaced as a classified program at the National Security Agency, and today it forms a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s national security policy.

Brimming with covert operations and portraying Poindexter as a controversial mastermind, The Watchers is a true story with all the elements of a compelling spy thriller. It may hold special appeal for the 50+ audience: The story covers ground that will feel discomfitingly familiar to those who recall four decades of administrations, both Republican and Democratic, as well as pivotal moments in our national-security history (including Iran Contra and the Beirut Marine Corps barracks bombing, to name just two).

Veterans of the protest era may not be surprised to discover how the government started monitoring them, but they will be intrigued to learn how that surveillance has evolved over the years. For them, the book’s boldfaced names will do more than just ring a nostalgic bell: Harris's skill at linking key figures such as Robert McNamara, Reagan, Oliver North, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Bushes I and II, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama helps the reader put national security in a historical context.

There’s also a boldfaced surprise in the author’s portrait of the shadowy Poindexter — until now the J. D. Salinger of the Washington intelligence community. In the course of the six years he spent researching The Watchers, Harris developed an unlikely rapport with Poindexter, a man 50 years his senior. At times their journalist-guru bond evokes Tuesdays with Morrie meets All the President's Men, as conceived in the secret conference room of Dr. Strangelove. Harris provides a vivid glimpse of this furtive lion in winter as he finally emits a small roar, but don’t count on a McNamara-style apology from Poindexter: He proudly maintains that he was "trying to change the world." (With Poindexter now in his 80s and semi-retired, the architect of these security systems is no longer involved in their implementation, which has been delegated to entities such as the CIA and the FBI.)

So where does that leave the nation?

Nine years after 9/11, the U.S. government still seems intent on collecting data once deemed private. But why are we collecting so many dots, the author asks, when we can't seem to connect them all? As proven by the near-downing of a Northwest Airlines flight on its approach to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, our glut of gleaned info can't stop a lone madman. The implication for Americans who recall a time of greater privacy is clear: Why impinge on civil liberties if it doesn't make us safer?

As John Poindexter fades from the picture, his legacy persists. The new crop of watchers, as recent headlines about terror attempts on American soil make clear, have plenty to keep their eyes on. Let’s hope they can spot what's worth seeing.

Dave Singleton works for AARP Publications and is the author of two books. He previously reviewed
The Year I Saved My (downsized) Soul: A Boomer Woman’s Search for Meaning...and a Job for AARP The Magazine online.