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The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  222 ratings  ·  39 reviews
An explosive look at the domestic agencies charged with spying on all of us.

Given recent terrorist events in the U.S. and the document leaks by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, The Watchers is more timely than ever, drawing on access to political and operational insiders to create a brilliant exposé of why and how the American government spies on its own citizens. Born in
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published February 18th 2010 by Penguin Press HC, The (first published 2010)
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David Brown
Aug 01, 2015 rated it liked it
The Watchers, by Shane Harris, is both a history of modern surveillance and an account of those tasked with watching us. Rather than presenting these men and women as mustache twirling villains or anonymous ghosts in dark suits with a cigarette permanently clutched between their fingers, Harris, for the most part, presents the watchers for what most of them are, patriots dedicated with keeping us sage.

After reading several non-fiction books recently that were poorly cited, if at all, and contain
Apr 19, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Schnaucl by: Slate
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
Matthew Griffiths
Jul 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
For anyone interested in contemporary debates about privacy and surveillance in the networked world this is an engrossing account of a pivotal moment in time in this debate. The book follows several fascinating and perhaps worrying developments in the field of digital surveillance that came to pass in the wake of the attacks on 9/11. Shane Harris paints a vivid picture of the people involved in the battles for and against greater surveillance powers in the USA and also manages to describe in viv ...more
Marc Kirner
Dec 06, 2020 rated it it was ok
An outsider's (Shane Harris) very limited & naive look at the senior level players in national security. Mostly politics here & a semi-lovefest of Admiral John Poindexter. Shows the failure of national intelligence as each agency refuses to buckle under one leader. Agencies protect their own turf & are unwilling to share intelligence, meanwhile congressional princes diddle while American soldiers die. ...more
Oct 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shane Harris' book The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State" takes place for the majority in the past and present, stretching from Poindexter's days under the Reagan administration to his particularly freelance work after the failure of his brainchild TIA. To sum it up briefly, the book analyzes, well, the surveillance and spying agencies post and pre 9/11 world. It goes from an era of relatively lax restrictions and minor scrutiny to the world most of us are familiar with now, li ...more
Todd Martin
Apr 08, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: culture-politics
The Watchers details the rise of the US Government’s domestic spying program in the aftermath of the 911 attacks mainly through the eyes of John Poindexter (who gained notoriety as the individual who green-lighted sales of arms to Iran to fund Contra militants in Honduras). The text documents the shift from wire taps based on probable cause to unimpeded spying of phone, e-mail, web and every other form of digital communication (as well as video surveillance that includes face recognition capabil ...more
Cole Stratton
Shane Harris employs an interesting narrative style, writing prose like a thriller novel in place of the dry construction typical of the traditional academic or journalistic approach that what one would expect for such a topic. The veracity of his story might be harmed by its irreverent treatment of a contentious issue, with fictional dialog and narration based mostly on interviews with John Poindexter. Unfortunately, Harris seems to be a confessor of sorts for Poindexter, embarking on a narrati ...more
Sep 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Harris has titled this history The Watchers, but though it names many in the "intelligence" community, it is primarily about Admiral John Poindexter. That's actually a good thing, because the admiral seems to have been just about everywhere in the landscape of battles and befuddlements over warrantless eavesdropping and such. Had Harris not mentioned it, I would have had to: Poindexter's story amounts to a kind of American tragedy. First in his class at the Naval Academy and with aspirations tow ...more
Alex Shrugged
Oct 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed-books
I finished reading "Watchers, The: The Rise of America's Surveillance State". It is a balanced, non-technical book regarding privacy and government surveillance of the Internet. It also covers cyber-warfare briefly.

Given that the Flame Worm was recently found and apparently has been operating for years, it is clear that state-sponsored cyber-warfare is here. (Flame Worm is probably a US government produced worm.)

You may not like this book because it does not demonize the main actors, neither D
Andrew Tollemache
Jun 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
While this book is 5 years old at this point, it seemed quite timely that I was completing it while the Rand Paul filibuster on the PATRIOT Act was going on. "The Watchers" documents the US govt's evolving efforts dating back to the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 and the Achille Lauro hijacking up through 9/11 to monitor electronic communications to try and anticipate future terrorist attacks. Olddy enough it is also the tale of John Poindexter who most people know for his role in the ...more
Aug 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book should terrify you. Anyone who read this wasn not surprised by recent current events involving the intercepting of domestic phone calls and emails (aaaand I just got put on government watch lists).

This book was fascinating, as it started back during the Beruit bombings of the Marine Corps barracks . I learned a number of new things about the Beruit bombings (none of which made me any less upset), and a whole host of things about the Iran Contra affair. I had never heard of John Poindex
Neil Crocker
May 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
Interesting book. Author Shane Harris takes us behind the scenes of the intelligence machine that was running during the Bush administration, and is still running now. We meet the architects and the lawyers and the analysts. We get to see what works and what doesn't work. Good stuff.

The book is a little like the movie Groundhog Day. The same story keeps repeating itself. Vacuum up tons of information. Try to find useful information in it. Get in trouble with privacy advocates. Close it down. Sta
Curtis Seven
Nov 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Starts during Ronald Reagan's first term and details the rise of the modern information structure used by various government agencies in the United States to constitute anti-terrorism intelligence. Early figures include Oliver North and an admiral named Poindexter who many will recall from Iran-Contra fame etc. Also draws a parallel between HW Bush standing on the ruins of the Marine barracks in Beirut and W Bush in New York.

Really one of the most striking things is the level of effort that wen
Apr 11, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a great book outlining the rise of the Intelligence Community and surveillance technology in the aftermath of 9/11. Despite the ominous title, it isn't a screed against the government or the NSA in particular. On the contrary, I felt like in some cases it seemed to be overly deferential to the gov't position.

However, my biggest critique against this book is that in a number of places it starts to feel like the 'John Poindexter Story.' While he was clearly a key personality in the rise o
Sep 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book was an interesting, nuanced look at the surveillance programs that have sprung up since 9/11, and the people who created them. It definitely made me think differently about John Poindexter, the former admiral and national security advisor, who is best known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. In some ways it was a bit of a tragedy, because of how quixotic the whole quest turned out to be. So many people who thought that they could find a way to uncover the patterns of terrorism, e ...more
Joe Nowak
The book covers the last 3 decades of events, people, politics, and technolog and how they all have contributed to the current state of surveillance that exists in America today.

My mistake was reading the book as an audio book. There are dozens of people who are mentioned throughout the book as well as an alphabet soup (CIA, FBI, TIA, IAO, NSA, etc.) of government agencies involved. Trying to remember them is rather difficult even with an index, which the hard copy of the book has.

For those inte
Dec 29, 2012 rated it really liked it
An excellent account of the American government’s electronic surveillance program. Mr. Harris actually gives the story a face and name and starts from the Reagan years to present day. Not as boring as one would think with the style he uses for this. After reading this book I actually feel a lot better concerning our governments programs. However, I am more worried by the fragments of information that illuminate how much our banks, credit card companies, hotels, airlines, and stores we shop keep ...more
Mar 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This is the true story of how we are becoming a surveillance state. It is creepy and truly frightening. I hope a lot of people read this and remember the Benjamin Franklin quote: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

We will never be 100% safe and allowing the government to spy on us in the name of safety is giving up too much of our cherished rights for no good reason.
Nicole Marble
Jun 24, 2010 rated it liked it
This is a history of the last 30 or so years and our reaction to Islamic terrorists as seen from the point of view of Adm. John Poindexter who is best known as a pivotal convicted criminal in the Iran-Contra scandal. Poindexter was hired by Bush/Cheney to figure out how to find the bad guys amongst us. Poindexters opinion is that our government could and should do anything it wants.
Fascinating,distubing reading.
Dick Stapleton
May 21, 2011 rated it liked it
Interesting and thought provoking. I have respect and fear for John Poindexter (yes, Iran-Contra Poindexter) who is doggedly brilliant with no respect what-so-ever for the law when it gets in his way. The large story of course is finding the balance between security and privacy - ironic in a day when we seem so willing to voluntarily toss privacy out the window in the name of beig social. Be a good book club read as there is lots to discuss.(well told, too)
Jun 18, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Decent account of the rise of a 'surveillance state' in the U.S. Style is breezy, mildly annoying at times, but easy to read.

Focus on John Poindexter, with emphasis on Erik Kleinsmith (Information Dominance Center), Michael Hayden (NSA and CIA), and Mike McConnell (Booz Allen and DNI).

Might have been stronger had he published a year or two later with the benefit of additional public disclosures of relevant information.
Sep 25, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, 2011
A journalist's exploration of the personalities, politics, technology, and approaches to spying and surveillance from the 1980s to present day, focused primarily on the post-9/11 world but framing it with events that started in the 1980s. It seemed thoroughly researched, based on interviews with a lot of the major players. Some of the "dramatization" of actual events seemed a little cheesy, but I get that the purpose was to liven up the material so I can forgive it. ...more
Feb 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics
This is an eye-opening book of how the government uses technology to passively and actively surveil US citizens with minimal oversight or checks on their power. Harris discusses the historical and political factors that allow this behavior, the technology and techniques used, and the conflict of safety vs liberty. The books is full of citations but is written in a way that draws the reader in and makes for a quick read that is full of information.
May 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
Well written, interviews with a great cast of frontline pioneers.
The Author means this to be a warning of bad things to come. I agree thoe I can respect the position the Intelligence community was in their actions were and still are just wrong and a infringement on our constitutional rights.
Jun 20, 2013 rated it liked it
Overall, The Watchers is a dense but ideal primer on the American surveillance state, and suggests that as long as we are afraid—as a people, as a country, as a government—our inclination toward knowledge at the expense of liberty will be a potent force in shaping policy.

Roger Cottrell
Feb 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing
A chilling insight into how the privatiation of warfare and repression and the shredding of citizenship by the coercive state have proceeded hand in hand. A must read for anyone concerned about the decline of democracy in the USA and Britain. Lucid, informative and very, very readable
Steven Farmer
Oct 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I think this book was pretty amazing for a first time author. I think the author should re-purpose his research to produce a biography of John Poindexter.

I generally read more fiction than non-fiction -- but this read like a Tom Clancy thriller.
Adam Bender
A well-researched book chronicling increasing surveillance in the U.S. Scary topic, so why does it often feel like a slog getting through the book? The debate between privacy and national security is intriguing, but the author spends a little too much time giving background on the players' careers. ...more
Matt Heavner
Jun 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
A bit person driven (Poindexter rehab!). But very thought provoking and a good read. Conclusion is that we need to get cyber/spycraft fixed/right now (do the hard work!) rather than wait for the next crisis and get it wrong..).
Temple Dog
Jun 19, 2013 rated it liked it
The Watchers was illuminating, but not particularly enlightening.

I realize this is almost a contradiction, but at a broad level, so much of what was written, is public knowledge.

If did appreciate Harris’ insider’s perspective and I am glad that I read it.

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