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Enforcing Empire Through a Global Surveillance State

Thursday, September 07, 2017 By Alfred McCoy, Haymarket Books | Book Excerpt
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(Photo: Ep_jhu)(Photo: Ep_jhu)

Historian Alfred W. McCoy's new book peels back layers of secrecy to tell how the United States used covert intervention, surveillance, torture, trade pacts and military alliances to become a world power. Filmmaker Oliver Stone calls In the Shadows of the American Century "a hard look at the truth of our empire, both its covert activities and the reasons for its impending decline." Order this informative book today by making a donation to Truthout!

In this excerpt from In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, McCoy examines the role that surveillance has historically played in securing US hegemony -- a role that has only increased in recent years.

Although Washington began withdrawing many of its troops from the Greater Middle East in 2011, its sophisticated intelligence apparatus, built for the pacification of Afghanistan and Iraq, had already preceded them home, creating a US surveillance state of unprecedented power. Two years later, Edward Snowden's cache of leaked documents would reveal that the National Security Agency (NSA) was already using this technology to monitor the private communications of almost every American in the name of fighting foreign terrorists. But the roots of this domestic surveillance were, in fact, much deeper than anyone realized at the time. This kind of imperial blowback had been building a massive US internal security apparatus, step by step, war by war, for well over a century.

Just a decade after Washington finally pacified the Philippines in 1907 by forging the world's most advanced surveillance state, the illiberal lessons of that moment, too, migrated homeward during World War I to form America's first internal security apparatus. A half century later, as protests mounted against the war in Vietnam, the CIA and FBI built upon this system to conduct illegal counterintelligence operations to suppress or harass antiwar activists and American radicals.

In the aftermath of each of these wars, however, reformers pushed back against such secret surveillance, with Republican privacy advocates abolishing much of President Woodrow Wilson's security apparatus in the 1920s, and Democratic liberals creating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts (FISA courts) in the 1970s to prevent recurrences of Richard Nixon's illegal domestic wiretapping operations.

President Obama broke this bipartisan pattern for the first time in a century. Instead of retrenching the domestic surveillance built by his Republican predecessor, he seemed determined to maintain American dominion through a strategic edge in information control -- and so continued to support construction of a powerful global panopticon capable of surveilling domestic dissidents, tracking terrorists, manipulating allied nations, monitoring rival powers, countering hostile cyber strikes, protecting domestic communications, and crippling essential electronic systems in enemy nations.

During his first months in office, I observed that the so-called war on terror had seemed close to "creating a domestic surveillance state -- with omni-present cameras, deep data-mining, nanosecond biometric identification, and drone aircraft patrolling the homeland."

That prediction has, in fact, become our present reality with breathtaking speed, propelled by the bureaucratic momentum from a full century of state surveillance. Not only are most Americans living under the Argus-eyed gaze of a digital surveillance state, but drones are now in our skies, cameras are an everyday presence in our lives, and the NSA's net sweeps up the personal messages of millions of people worldwide, Americans included, and penetrates the confidential communications of countless allied nations. The past was indeed prologue.

Truthout Progressive Pick


In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power

"One of our best and most underappreciated historians takes a hard look at the truth of our empire." -- Oliver Stone

Click here now to get the book!


From the start of colonial conquest in August 1898, the Philippines served as the site for a seminal experiment in the use of surveillance as an instrument of state power. To break a nationalist revolution, the US Army plunged into a protracted pacification program, forming its first field intelligence unit that combined voracious data gathering with rapid dissemination of tactical intelligence. At this periphery of empire, freed from the constraints of courts, the Constitution, or civil society, the US colonial regime fused new technologies, the product of America's first information revolution, to form a modern police force and fashion what was arguably the world's first full surveillance state.

Over the past century, this same process has recurred as three other overseas pacification campaigns have dragged on, skirting defeat if not disaster. During each of these attempts to subjugate an Asian or Middle Eastern society, the American military has been pushed to the breaking point and responded by drawing together all its extant information resources, fusing them into an infrastructure of unprecedented power and producing a new regime for data management. Forged in such crucibles of counterinsurgency, the military's information infrastructure has advanced through three distinct technological phases: manual intelligence collection during the Philippine War; computerized data management in the war in Vietnam; and, most recently, integrated robotic systems in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This broad time frame indicates that, once introduced, state security becomes dependent on covert controls like surveillance, which prove remarkably resistant to reform and are easily revived in any crisis. Through such persistence, cyber operations have become a distinctive US strategy for the exercise of global power.

Copyright (2017) of Alfred W. Mccoy. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.

Alfred McCoy

Alfred McCoy holds the Harrington Chair in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His 2009 book Policing America's Empire won the Kahin Prize from the Association for Asian Studies. In 2012, Yale University awarded him the Wilbur Cross Medal for work as "one of the world's leading historians of Southeast Asia and an expert on ... international political surveillance."

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Enforcing Empire Through a Global Surveillance State

Thursday, September 07, 2017 By Alfred McCoy, Haymarket Books | Book Excerpt
  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size
  • Print

(Photo: Ep_jhu)(Photo: Ep_jhu)

Historian Alfred W. McCoy's new book peels back layers of secrecy to tell how the United States used covert intervention, surveillance, torture, trade pacts and military alliances to become a world power. Filmmaker Oliver Stone calls In the Shadows of the American Century "a hard look at the truth of our empire, both its covert activities and the reasons for its impending decline." Order this informative book today by making a donation to Truthout!

In this excerpt from In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, McCoy examines the role that surveillance has historically played in securing US hegemony -- a role that has only increased in recent years.

Although Washington began withdrawing many of its troops from the Greater Middle East in 2011, its sophisticated intelligence apparatus, built for the pacification of Afghanistan and Iraq, had already preceded them home, creating a US surveillance state of unprecedented power. Two years later, Edward Snowden's cache of leaked documents would reveal that the National Security Agency (NSA) was already using this technology to monitor the private communications of almost every American in the name of fighting foreign terrorists. But the roots of this domestic surveillance were, in fact, much deeper than anyone realized at the time. This kind of imperial blowback had been building a massive US internal security apparatus, step by step, war by war, for well over a century.

Just a decade after Washington finally pacified the Philippines in 1907 by forging the world's most advanced surveillance state, the illiberal lessons of that moment, too, migrated homeward during World War I to form America's first internal security apparatus. A half century later, as protests mounted against the war in Vietnam, the CIA and FBI built upon this system to conduct illegal counterintelligence operations to suppress or harass antiwar activists and American radicals.

In the aftermath of each of these wars, however, reformers pushed back against such secret surveillance, with Republican privacy advocates abolishing much of President Woodrow Wilson's security apparatus in the 1920s, and Democratic liberals creating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts (FISA courts) in the 1970s to prevent recurrences of Richard Nixon's illegal domestic wiretapping operations.

President Obama broke this bipartisan pattern for the first time in a century. Instead of retrenching the domestic surveillance built by his Republican predecessor, he seemed determined to maintain American dominion through a strategic edge in information control -- and so continued to support construction of a powerful global panopticon capable of surveilling domestic dissidents, tracking terrorists, manipulating allied nations, monitoring rival powers, countering hostile cyber strikes, protecting domestic communications, and crippling essential electronic systems in enemy nations.

During his first months in office, I observed that the so-called war on terror had seemed close to "creating a domestic surveillance state -- with omni-present cameras, deep data-mining, nanosecond biometric identification, and drone aircraft patrolling the homeland."

That prediction has, in fact, become our present reality with breathtaking speed, propelled by the bureaucratic momentum from a full century of state surveillance. Not only are most Americans living under the Argus-eyed gaze of a digital surveillance state, but drones are now in our skies, cameras are an everyday presence in our lives, and the NSA's net sweeps up the personal messages of millions of people worldwide, Americans included, and penetrates the confidential communications of countless allied nations. The past was indeed prologue.

Truthout Progressive Pick


In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power

"One of our best and most underappreciated historians takes a hard look at the truth of our empire." -- Oliver Stone

Click here now to get the book!


From the start of colonial conquest in August 1898, the Philippines served as the site for a seminal experiment in the use of surveillance as an instrument of state power. To break a nationalist revolution, the US Army plunged into a protracted pacification program, forming its first field intelligence unit that combined voracious data gathering with rapid dissemination of tactical intelligence. At this periphery of empire, freed from the constraints of courts, the Constitution, or civil society, the US colonial regime fused new technologies, the product of America's first information revolution, to form a modern police force and fashion what was arguably the world's first full surveillance state.

Over the past century, this same process has recurred as three other overseas pacification campaigns have dragged on, skirting defeat if not disaster. During each of these attempts to subjugate an Asian or Middle Eastern society, the American military has been pushed to the breaking point and responded by drawing together all its extant information resources, fusing them into an infrastructure of unprecedented power and producing a new regime for data management. Forged in such crucibles of counterinsurgency, the military's information infrastructure has advanced through three distinct technological phases: manual intelligence collection during the Philippine War; computerized data management in the war in Vietnam; and, most recently, integrated robotic systems in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This broad time frame indicates that, once introduced, state security becomes dependent on covert controls like surveillance, which prove remarkably resistant to reform and are easily revived in any crisis. Through such persistence, cyber operations have become a distinctive US strategy for the exercise of global power.

Copyright (2017) of Alfred W. Mccoy. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.

Alfred McCoy

Alfred McCoy holds the Harrington Chair in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His 2009 book Policing America's Empire won the Kahin Prize from the Association for Asian Studies. In 2012, Yale University awarded him the Wilbur Cross Medal for work as "one of the world's leading historians of Southeast Asia and an expert on ... international political surveillance."