The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been consistently generating some of the most creepy projects for surveillance and security systems from biomimetic nano-humingbirds to cyborg super-soldiers.
One of the latest is entitled ‘Upward Falling Payloads’ (UFP) and is a call for proposals to develop distributed robotic systems that will ‘hibernate’ at the bottom of the sea potentially for periods of years, and then, when called for, ‘fall upwards’ to the surface to release whatever surveillance or weapons platform they contained. They are particularly interested in merging this kind of platform with UAVs or drones, as the press release says, “an example class of systems might be small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that launch to the surface in capsules, take off and provide aerial situational awareness, networking or decoy functions.” The language used in the press release is also particularly interesting for its use of post-Fordist supply chain management terms like ‘just-in-time’, a perfect example perhaps of the increasingly hybrid nature of security and neoliberalism in US military policy discourse.
The USA has established organized Pacific and Atlantic surveillance UAV squadrons (of 12-24 aircraft each) for the first time, for border and sea lane monitoring. These are a variant of the Northrop-Grumman MQ-4 drones I mentioned the other day, which Japan are also buying. The order establishing the program can be found via Cryptome here. Cryptome has also published the locations of the bases from which they will fly, Ventura Country naval base in California and and Mayport naval base near Jacksonville in Florida.
It is increasingly seeming like UAVs will continue to form the core of Obama’s military strategy, and it seems no coincidence that he has nominated John Brennan, described as the ‘architect’ of his drone policy, to be the new head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Meanwhile, Canada is more likely to have widespread use of drones by police and the private sector before it gets any military models. It was reported just at the end of last year that the Canadian military drone program is now not likely to be in operation until 2017 and the cost has gone up to over $1Bn (Can). This doesn’t seem to have attracted anything like the attention that has been given to the ingoing farago surrounding the Canadian government’s attempt to purchase US Lockheed F-35 fighter jets, although admittedly that is no estimated as being something in the region of 50 times as expensive…
(Thanks to Chris Prince for keeping me updated on this!)
On January 1st this year, US President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that, amongst other many other provisions, allows for the US military to indefinitely detain without trial anyone suspected of terrorists acts inside the United States and, the same for anyone captured in battle wherever it is in the world. Even the UK’s provisions, which were widely criticised, were nothing like this, indeed the argument was not about indefinite detention at all, but simply over how many days someone suspected of terrorism should be allowed to be detained without trial: 14 or 28. That’s some way short of indefinite.
Of course, the infinitely compromising and slippery Obama is trying to have his cake and eat by promising that he will not actually allow this power to be used except in strict accordance with the constitution. That may provide some temporary relief for US citizens accused of terrorism, at least and until a more gung-ho President is elected or Obama gives in to demands that he must use it – something military sources are looking forward to, it seems. However the provisions on the treatment of foreign captives effectively provide a legal footing in domestic law for the extrajudicial actions of former President Bush’s establishment of Guantanemo Bay and the associated global network of extraordinary rendition and torture / interogation sites. They undoubtedly contravene the Geneva Conventions (see 75 UNTS 135, for example)and several other aspects of International Law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
But, this is far from the only current assault on the rights of those who remain innocent in law of any criminal act in the USA. In New York, for example, the New York Police Department in conjunction with the CIA was last year revealed as operating a secret surveillance program against Muslims, titled ‘Ancestries of Interest’. It is unlikely to be the only such program. Like Obama’s indefinite detention provision, this is a perversion of the constitutional rights of US citizens. US police forces from the FBI downwards are not generally permitted to use undercover agents without there being some kind of specific allegation or exisiting evidence of crime. Essentially, this makes a whole community subject to categorical suspicion and permanent infiltration and investigation. It seems that every level of policing and justice in the USA from investigation to trial to sentencing has been indelibly stained by the War on Terror.
But this has all happened several times before of course, and happily not everyone has forgotten their history. Now black Christian pastors who remember the FBI/NSA COINTELPRO operations of the 1960s against black radical and civil rights groups, are reportedly joining with Islamic groups in opposing the NYPD’s racist and islamophobic surveillance program. Along with the challenges being mounted to Obama’s new law by ACLU and others, there are signs that Obama is no longer being given the benefit of the doubt by many of the groups who supported him first time around. How successful any of these moves will be is anyone’s guess but solidarity that moves beyond American Islamic groups having to defend themselves against the howling mob is something of a step forward.
Top Secret America is a really excellent project from The Washington Post with some excellent articles and classy and educative graphics. It traces the huge current US security-intelligence complex, and is partituclarly interesting for noting the massive private sector involvement. This isn’t actually entirely new – private technology companies have been intimately involved in both the manufacture and the servicing and operation of intelligence for a long time – look at the example of RCA and the early history of the National Security Association, for example. However, this blurring of the boundary between state and private sector now goes much further into the operations of intelligence. The Post alleges that “out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors.” That’s almost a third. And the database of companies involved is enormous – nearly 2000. The searchable database is also going to be very helpful in our current work at the Surveillance Studies Centre on the involvment of private companies in Canadian border control!
PS: I should be back up and posting regularly now. I’ve had one of my occasional anti-blogging periods!
A lot of my current thinking is based around the dynamic of opening / closing. I’ve been considering the way in which elements of state power, and in particular the military and intelligence agencies, regard openness per se as a threat. Now, Wired’s Threat Level blog (just about my favourite reading right now), has an excellent take on the response to what has been termed (in a deliberately mixed-up phrase) the ‘open-source insurgency’. This is the way in which the ex-head of US intelligence, now working for ‘contractor’*, Booz Allen Hamilton, Michael McConnell. is promoting the re-engineering of the Internet. This is necessary, it is argued, because the current openness of the Net means that terrorists and criminals can flourish. This re-engineering would “make attribution, geo-location, intelligence analysis and impact assessment — who did it, from where, why and what was the result — more manageable”. In other words to close the Internet. remove everything that is innovative and democratic about it, and make it easier for agencies like the NSA to monitor it.
Along with a whole raft of measures like extending ‘lawful access’ regimes, introducing corporate-biased copyright and anti-peer-2-peer legislation, censorship and Net filtering, this is an attack on what the Internet has become and to turn it into something simply for consumption – something, in other words, more like television. But there is another layer here too – the US military, I suspect, still has a nostalgic longing for when the Internet was its private domain. It’s a long way from its origins, and now perhaps the military want it back. But it isn’t theirs anymore, it’s ours and we need to fight for it.
* or, more accurately, arm’s length consulting agency of the US state.