You Are Being Watched

The United States’ long history of turning citizens against one another.

Nishat Akhtar

In the eyes of authority—and maybe rightly so—nothing looks more like a terrorist than the ordinary man.

—Giorgio Agamben

Almost immediately after the Cold War, American politicians, propagandists, and their allies brought the battle back to the homeland. Dusting off a discourse that had dissipated since the 1960s, in the 1990s “terrorist” replaced “spy” as the unidentifiable enemy du jour. Occasional outbursts of “domestic extremism” fueled panics about the terrorists among us—especially in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, when countless commentators fretted about the emergence of blue-eyed, All-American terrorists like Timothy McVeigh. The media response to the Oklahoma City bombing, of course, hardly had the effect of marginalizing young white men in the United States, as we had seen with previous wartime persecutions of German Americans, Japanese Americans, and citizens of the left; it did, however, rekindle the discourse of the unidentifiable enemy (or, as Daniel Levitas put it, “the terrorist next door”).

Of course, this legacy of “radical ambiguity” found its most pernicious expression after the September 11th attacks. Solidifying the homeland’s role in the Global War on Terror, in June 2002 President George W. Bush proposed the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. According to Bush, this massive overhaul of the federal government—which he boasted would be “the most significant transformation of the US government in over a half-century”—was necessary to combat new threats against the homeland: “The changing nature of the threats facing America requires a new government structure to protect against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons.” While Bush’s rhetoric of the “invisible enemy” wasn’t new, his transformation of the federal government was truly historic: since its founding in 2003, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has become the nation’s third-largest Cabinet department. With more than 240,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $60 billion dollars, the DHS has slowly engulfed more than twenty other federal agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Security Administration, the US Coast Guard, and the US Customs Service. The consolidation of these agencies under the banner of the OHS—which was founded to fight the enemies in our midst—contributed to a militarization of the homeland not seen since the previous world wars.

Under the George W. Bush administration, these rhetorics of the invisible enemy fueled the hasty development of lateral surveillance programs and intelligence analysis systems designed to process citizens’ tips. In the summer of 2002, Bush launched Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System), in which American professionals with routine access to others’ homes—such as cable installers and delivery personnel—were instructed to be on the lookout for the symptoms of terrorist activity. Soon after the TIPS program was initiated, Vermont senator Patrick Leahy condemned it as “a nationwide program giving millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others a formal way to report suspicious terrorist activity. . . . Nor would this program start small: the Administration planned a pilot program that alone would have enlisted one million Americans.” While Operation TIPS lived a short life as the Homeland Security Act was debated and revised, it was eventually killed by a bipartisan congressional coalition led by Republican Dick Armey, the House majority leader, who insisted: “Citizens will not become informants. Citizens will not be spying on one another.” Thus when the Homeland Security Act was passed in late 2002, the Operation TIPS provision was stricken and the program—which called for the development of a nationwide system of federally trained citizen-spies—died in its infancy.

Over the course of the next decade, however, Americans would see the rapid rise and fall of several other domestic surveillance initiatives. In 2003, the Total Information Awareness program—whose Orwellian name was quickly softened to Terrorist Information Awareness—gathered indiscriminate data about citizens’ drug prescriptions, credit card purchases, emails, bank deposits, plane travel, academic grades, and online habits. DARPA’s LifeLog program, also begun in 2003, used pervasive technical surveillance to create profiles of citizens and their associates, as did the ADVISE system (Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Environment) until its official demise in 2007. Although these programs were formally short-lived, Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks demonstrate that their methods continued more or less unabated under the aegis of the National Security Agency (NSA) throughout the Bush and Obama presidencies. These programs, of course, relied in part on citizen intelligence initiatives that demanded lateral surveillance from the public. The TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice) system, for example, emerged in 2003 as part of a Department of Defense initiative to “capture non-validated domestic threat information, flow that information to analysts, and incorporate it into the DoD terrorism threat warning process.” According to a leaked classified memorandum issued in May 2003 by then deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a TALON report “consists of raw information reported by concerned citizens and military members regarding suspicious incidents.” These reports, produced by civilians or military personnel, were directed into the Counterintelligence Field Activity agency (CIFA), a massive Department of Defense intelligence analysis program whose budget and size remain classified. Like TALON, an allied DoD program, the Air Force’s post—9/11 Eagle Eyes initiative was created to serve as “the Department of Defense’s ‘Neighborhood Watch’ program.” The still-extant program, which urges civilians and DoD employees to “Watch. Report. Protect.” has promoted a familiar range of seeing/saying activities in the fight against terror. In 2003 a DoD spokesperson, Sergeant First Class Doug Sample, encouraged citizens to be vigilant in reporting suspicious activities as part of the fledgling Eagle Eyes program: “You don’t know it’s innocent until you report it. . . . We’re much less concerned about too much reporting than too little. When lives are at stake, it’s better to be safe than sorry.” These reports would be filed alongside other surveillance data, allowing security officials to discover patterns, build profiles, and eventually share this intelligence with other agencies.

In 2006, future Obama advisor Stephen E. Flynn and a colleague of his in the Department of Defense, Daniel B. Prieto, argued that citizen mobilization schemes like TIPS, TALON, and Eagle Eyes were essential to tackling the problem of terror in the twenty-first century. In fact, Flynn and Prieto’s frame of intelligibility relies on a historical analogy of wartime civic mobilization: “In the fifth year of this long war, the nation’s state of preparedness should be much higher. It is long past the time when we truly engage our private industry and private citizens in this struggle. In his first budget message after 9/11, President George W. Bush reminded the nation that not since World War II have our values and our way of life been so threatened. But in that war that ended half a century ago, it was not just the military that was called upon to fight.” In the shadow of World War II, they argued, the state called on all citizens to take action. Today we should all follow this sense of shared responsibility, Flynn and Prieto argued, by reforming our lives in order to contribute to the war effort: “Gray-haired executives trade in pinstripe suits for uniforms to organize our defenses at home; factories stopped making cars and started making weapons and munitions; and mothers left their children in the care of neighbors and relatives so that they could work the assembly lines.” During the war against the Axis powers, everyone played a part by getting active in the fight. No effort was too small or too insignificant—the important thing was that the population got actively involved. This collective mobilization, Flynn and Prieto argued, drew the nation together during its time of war and crisis. Thus our victory in World War II, they maintained, can teach us a model of citizenship based in collective mobilization against the terrorist threat: “As a nation, we were forever changed by the experience [of World War II]. Recognizing this parallel, the president has called homeland security ‘our new national calling.’ Sadly, national efforts to date on homeland security are nowhere near the kind of effort this nation can produce when called to service.” Flynn and Prieto argued that, just as our homefront mobilization helped us triumph during the World War II, we are at risk of losing the War on Terror because we have yet to develop effective strategies for mobilizing the domestic population against its enemies. Judging from the massive opposition to the Bush administration’s lateral surveillance campaigns that emerged in 2002 and 2003, there appears to be a kernel of truth in Flynn and Prieto’s critiques.

While the administration used programs like TIPS, TALON, and Eagle Eyes to fill the intelligence databases of defense and security agencies, public outrage prevented lateral surveillance programs from becoming a prominent intelligence fixture during the Bush era: TALON and Eagle Eyes remained mostly confined to the Department of Defense, and Operation TIPS was quickly shut down by civil libertarians in Congress. While citizens still registered antiterror tips with local and federal authorities, the Bush administration never developed a robust, nationwide seeing/saying campaign that integrated citizens into the war effort.

Yet after more than eight years of war, the civil libertarians were finally defeated when President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security launched its ambitious “If You See Something, Say Something” program. Modeled on the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority campaign of the same name, the “If You See Something, Say Something” initiative stressed the “invisible enemy” theme touted nearly ten years earlier in the Bush administration’s Homeland Security Act. Launched in July 2010, the federal “If You See Something, Say Something” program was founded as “a national campaign that raises public awareness of the indicators of terrorism and terrorism-related crime, as well as the importance of reporting suspicious activity to state and local law enforcement.” The program has become so successful, in part, because of its partnerships with the private sector and local law enforcement agencies. These DHS partners help the campaign distribute its message throughout the country at retail stores, sports stadiums, music venues, and transportation centers.

Upon its launch in 2010, the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign produced a series of propaganda posters and videos aimed at teaching the American public how to respond to suspicious activities. The pedagogical voice narrating the initiative’s major 2011 propaganda film begins by encouraging citizens to report activities that exceed their faculties of interpretation: “It’s not easy to put all the pieces [of a terrorist threat] together, and we don’t expect you to. That’s the job of law enforcement and intelligence analysts. But homeland security is a shared effort and responsibility for each of us. When you see things that just don’t seem right, that seem somehow out of the ordinary, reporting what you’ve observed can be invaluable to the work of law enforcement and intelligence analysts in this shared effort. Acts of terrorism against the United States can be large or small.” Citizens are thus encouraged to report “unusual” activities—of whatever scale—that defy their expectations of the ordinary. Illustrating a number of these ostensibly unusual, terrorist-signifying activities, the video presents a European American man who appears to be in his late teens recording video under an overpass. The narrator informs viewers that, “before they strike, many terrorists watch and study their targets.” He then lists a number of supposedly suspicious situations that warrant contacting authorities—warning that terrorists “gather information,” the scene shifts to an outdoor cafe, where a young, blonde European American woman is speaking to a cop. According to the video, potential terrorists also “test security” (a middle-aged African American man in a red sweatshirt leaves something in his pocket as he goes through airport security); “acquire funds and supplies, often through criminal activities” (two white vans are parked next to each other, as two men transfer barely visible items between the vans); and “rehearse their plans” (a middle-aged European American woman leaves her purse under a bench in a bus station). After this lesson in the semiotics of terror, the narrator instructs the viewer, “Any of what we call these ‘precursor activities’ might be observable and reportable by a vigilant member of the public. You are in the best position to spot these precursor activities as you go about your everyday activities in your community.” Operating on this preemptive security logic, virtually anything can be a “precursor” to terrorist acts—as the video shows, taking photographs and speaking with cops can be precursor activities; and now, since the 2013 Boston Marathon attacks, walking across a college apartment complex with a pressure cooker has become a precursor activity that warrants the scrutiny of “vigilant members of the public.” The video then reminds us of the preemptive logic that governs antiterrorist outreach strategy. After fostering ambiguity under the guise of a boilerplate antidiscrimination statement, the narrator instructs the viewer how to respond to suspicious activities: “It’s important to carefully consider what you observe. Reporting suspicious activity should not be based on a person’s race, religion, or gender, but rather on behaviors that seem suspicious. . . . So if you see something that just isn’t right, report your observations to your state or local authorities.” Although this statement is the sort of bland, patronizing fare that one would expect from a federal outreach campaign, it is part and parcel of a recurrent wartime rhetorical strategy that governs the population by circulating ambiguous, unidentifiable threats.


Civic Life, Civil Rights, Democracy, Ethics, Power


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