Schnaucl's Reviews > The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State

The Watchers by Shane Harris
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Apr 23, 10

bookshelves: april, library, non-fiction, read_2010, recommended_reading
Recommended to Schnaucl by: Slate
Read from April 19 to 22, 2010, read count: 1

I picked up the book because of this discussion with the author.

This is a deeply fascinating book, but it's also very one sided. This is a book about and from the perspective of the people at the top in the intelligence community, particularly John Poindexter and the NSA. For a while it felt almost insidious, everything seemed perfectly logical and reasonable and I had to take a step back and remember all the egregious abuses of power (some of them are mentioned, but not until the last 1/3 - 1/4 of the book which in some ways makes sense since it's a chronological narrative).

I did come away from this with a very different take on John Poindexter. He was the person who introduced e-mail to the White House. He's clearly a man with a great vision and he gets high marks for appearing to actually care about privacy. He did think about it, and was still working on a way to make it happen when TIA was made public and everything went to hell. Not surprisingly, when TIA was folded into the NSA the attempt to keep American's privacy while still collecting data was left behind. I got the impression that Poindexter wasn't just paying lip service to the notion of privacy and it wasn't entirely motivated by trying to stay within the law.

It was also interesting and a bit sad to hear about how Raegan's Alzheimer's disease was affecting him while he was still in office.

I take comfort from the fact that at least some people at the top seem to realize that the problem is not getting more information, it's filtering the information and connecting the dots in a timely manner. That's long been my take on the situation and I'm just a regular person. (I, however, thought at least part of the problem was that the agencies continued to be stingy with information sharing but that's not the impression I got from this book). The book ultimately suggests that there may not be a good technological solution to connecting the dots. On a small scale it seems to work, but on a larger scale every system chokes on the amount of data and becomes useless. No doubt there are bright people still working on that problem.

The book also highlighted how incestuous and hidebound much of the intelligence community is. Contracts go to former people who were formerly in government intelligence and are now at private firms. The same people pop up over and over. Just because a person left in disgrace doesn't mean he can't reappear years later.

I also want to say something about John Ashcroft. I'm not a huge fan of the man, I think he helped the Bush administration do a lot of harm to this country. However, something Liberals seem to forget is that when Ashcroft thought that the warrantless wiretapping was illegal he refused to sign the order, even when the Bush administration sent people to pressure him while he was in his sickbed in the hospital recovering from a major illness. If memory serves, he would go on to resign in protest over the policy. He deserves credit for that.

As I've mentioned, the problem is that the book does feel one sided. Yes, there is mention of the public outrage that eventually forced TIA underground and then its merger with the NSA. But what isn't mentioned is that the government almost immediately after 9/11 handed over private data to private industry, there's no mention of the No-Fly List and how completely screwed up it is (really, a book about surveillance and the No-Fly list isn't covered?), the fact that the FBI has really been pulled from it's former duties to focus on terrorism (there's a few mentions that the FBI wastes a lot of time chasing down terrorism leads from the NSA but no real mention of how all the crimes the FBI used to pursue are falling through the cracks). What really surprised me is that there's no mention of the fact that the privacy advocates were right. Most of the warantless wiretapping has been used for garden variety non-terrorist criminals.

It's a very interesting book and a good read, just remember it's not the whole story.
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