Why High Technology’s Double-Edged Sword is So Hard to Swallow

Photo Source thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

“If big tech companies are going to turn their back on US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble…We are going to continue to support the DOD and I think we should.”

~ Amazon founder and DoD contractor Jeff Bezos at the WIRED25 summit

The world’s wealthiest individual went on to acknowledge, “Technologies always are two-sided. There are ways they can be misused.” Convinced that they are being misused, Google employees mounted a protest that caused Alphabet (Google’s parent company) to step back from a contract to develop AI pattern recognition technology for targeting military drones, worrying the Pentagon.

More recently, thousands of employees at scores of Google facilities worldwide staged a walkout (chronicled here) over gender inequality and sexual harassment. At a time when women in tech are demanding to be treated respectfully and paid and promoted equally, two pioneering women engineers in the male-dominated national intelligence community have quietly been shaping the technology landscape for three decades. Any complaints they may have had about working conditions along the way are presumably classified, but we can probably guess what they are.

At least one of the women, Sue Gordon, is among defense and intelligence officials scurrying to Silicon Valley on damage control missions, prodding tech leaders to “have the same fierce commitment to align technology with public purpose,” as Ash Carter, who directs the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center recently editorialized in Wired (9/14/18). The former Secretary of Defense, who also runs the Kennedy School’s Project on Technology and Public Purpose, disparagingly contrasted current high tech leaders to his “mentors in subatomic physics …from the Manhattan Project. They were proud to have created nuclear weapons that helped end World War II.” If those scientists were so proud of their work, why did they straightaway wind up that still-ticking Doomsday Clock?

The Bomb, digital computers, the Internet, Google Maps, and the Maven project that Google is abandoning were or stemmed from government-funded R&D projects employing scientists and engineers from government, academia and industry. NASA has long partnered likewise, as has the Department of Energy. The government likes to call such projects “dual use,” as they have both civilian and military applications. Yet, many serve a single purpose, which of course is to align corporate agendas with US foreign policy to achieve world domination.

This didn’t happen overnight. Odious fruits of technology—machine guns, tanks, aircraft, and chemical agents—made the Great War the Great Horror. In the next one, better-organized collaborations built weapon systems that defeated the Axis nations. After Japan’s surrender came a reorganized military and a new intelligence establishment that soon begat the military-industrial complex (MIC) that President Eisenhower warned us about in 1956. From the Korean “police action” onwards, that burgeoning war machine has evaded Congressional oversight and brainwashed Americans to acquiesce to one unwinnable war after another. It’s a long, sordid story, well told by David Talbot in his chilling biography of the CIA’s redoubtable Director (and fascist sympathizer) Allen Dulles, The Devil’s Chessboard.

The exception to the MIC’s failed ventures, of course, was winning the Cold War by way of bankrupting the USSR in an arms race. That surprise outcome must have come as somewhat of a disappointment to the MIC, which had managed to keep US forces engaged somewhere or another pretty much every single day since WWII. But détente with Russia left the war machine hard pressed to justify its muscle-bound posture. Writing in CounterPunch, Jason Hirthler depicts Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell’s lamentation that the gravy train was about to derail:

“Shortly after the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, made a candid confession to the Army Times, ‘I’m running out of demons, I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.’ Amid the general bonhomie of the military interview, Powell nicely encapsulated a central truth of empire: it doesn’t want peace. Never did. Imperialism, the monopoly stage of capitalism, is based on conquest. Peace is little more than an aftermath in the imperialist vision”

But Colin didn’t have to shed tears for long. The Iranian revolution and its war with Iraq, and then the Gulf War and 9/11 came along to top off his enemies list. War planners dubbed oil-rich nations “rogue states” and non-state Islamic insurgents “terrorists.” Subsequent US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan generated hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties that spawned revengeful jihadists, guaranteeing that we would be on a war footing for the foreseeable future, exactly the sort of outcome the planners had hoped for. Most of our new adversaries wielded weapons made in the USA that US export controls somehow had failed to interdict, requiring us to build more apace.

* * *

Ever since the WWII, computing technology evolved in lock step with “national needs.” The Internet—the mightiest surveillance system the world has ever known—was built by academics and corporations with DoD seed money in the early 1960s. But once high-tech employees started objecting to doing the DoD’s dirty work, their companies sought to distance themselves from the MIC, leading defense and intelligence thinkers like Ash Carter to criticize tech leaders as being insufficiently patriotic and have been campaigning to keep Silicon Valley from escaping its orbit around the Pentagon.

Currently, that campaign seems to be spearheaded by Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon, who unabashedly dubs herself the “chief operating officer of the intelligence community.” Gordon makes frequent forays out to the Valley to soften up tech execs. Emily Dreyfuss (Wired, 11/9/18) quotes Gordon as telling Google executives “We’re in the same business. And they’re like ‘What?’ And I said: ‘Using information for good.’” Yeah, right.

Beyond her talent for evangelizing, during her 30-year stint at CIA (a tenure as long as that of current CIA Director and ex-grand inquisitor Gina Haspell), Gordon has tirelessly fostered many “public-private partnerships,” building out the MIC one brick at a time. Two decades back, Dreyfuss notes that she inspired the agency to spin off In-Q-Tell, a venture capital tech accelerator perhaps best known for bankrolling Keyhole, whose mapping software spawned Google Earth and Maps. Google stores our geospatial inquiries, you know, and might not always keep that data to itself. There are hundreds more that CrunchBase has cataloged.

Actually, it wasn’t Gordon who inspired In-Q-Tel, as Dreyfuss asserts. Rather, it was another influential secret team technologist, Ruth David (who headed the Central Intelligence Agency Directorate of Science & Technology in the 1990s). But Sue Gordon is no slouch. Her bio for Aspen Institute trumpets that in her 27 years of service at CIA, she rose to senior executive positions in each of the Agency’s four directorates: operations, analysis, science and technology, and support in her lifelong mission to use information for good.

Some fun facts about In-Q-Tel: according to Wikipedia, in its 19 years of existence In-Q-Tel has invested in 12 hardware, 50 software, 18 biotech, 8 energy, 10 electronics, 18 biotech, 8 electric power, 9 electronics, 13 video, 10 sensor network, and 9 data center and security start-up firms. From Internet protocols to autonomous vehicles and facial recognition, In-Q-Tel fueled private companies to push the technological envelope while serving their country in ways they can only imagine. Find more details about its investments at craft.co.

Dr. David went on to lead Analytic Services (ANSER, nee 1958), a Falls Church, VA nonprofit military think tank and project management firm, for 17 years, retiring in 2015 with three commendations and a medal from the national security agencies she had worked for. Bloomberg Research tells us that ANSER:

“focuses on agencies and analytic processes used to prepare for future global threats across the federal sector; helping clients to meet the challenges of a complex and uncertain global security environment characterized by persistent threats to the homeland and the U.S. national interests; and activities where government entities must work together to address national security challenges through the implementation of common and intersecting functions.”

The company reports that in 2001, under David’s direction, it “invested its personnel and assets to create the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, a center for exploring issues related to that critical subject.” Funded by DHS, its mission is to muster technology to analyze and mitigate security threats, vulnerabilities and risks. (It may have been involved with is the Obama-era Insider Threat Program that seeks to identify, profile, and monitor potential leakers of secret information that I have discussed here.) ANSER also brags, “for 60 years, the research and analysis we provide has ‘informed decisions that shape our Nation’s future.’ We can all take pride in that legacy” (just as Jeff Bezos does). Informed decisions like how best to militarize space, subject travelers to face and body scans, or implement martial law.

The latter was the specialty of one William Brinkerhoff, who joined ANSER after a long career, first in the Army and later at FEMA. There, from 1981 to 1984 he supported Oliver North (later of Iran-Contra fame) to detail a closely held plan to contain civil disturbances called REX-84 (short for Readiness Exercise 1984). Brinkerhoff, who wasn’t a lawyer, drafted executive orders providing for suspension of the constitution, the imposition of martial law, internment camps, and investing all government authority in the president and FEMA, since folded into the Department of Homeland Security.

There is no mention of him on ANSER’s website, and hardly anywhere else. But in a chatty 2002 article he wrote while at ANSER he argued that domestic deployments need not violate Posse Comitatus, the 1878 post-reconstruction statute civil libertarians enjoy citing in opposition to fielding federal troops as enforcers of civil law (such as at the US-Mexico border currently). He cites the Posse Comitatus Act in full:

“Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”

Brinkerhoff argues that Posse Comitatus applies only to the Army and the Air Force (formerly part of the Army), and not to the other armed services, the National Guard, even when under state control, or to military police units. Furthermore, it does not prevent

“…the President from using federal troops in riots or civil disorders. Federal troops were used for domestic operations more than 200 times in the two centuries from 1795 to 1995. Most of these operations were to enforce the law, and many of them were to enforce state law rather than federal law. Nor does it prevent the military services from supporting local or federal law enforcement officials as long as the troops are not used to arrest citizens or investigate crimes.”

He concludes:

“It is time to rescind the existing Posse Comitatus Act and replace it with a new law. The old law is widely misunderstood and unclear. It leaves plenty of room for people to do unwise and perhaps unlawful things while trying to comply with their particular version. It certainly does not provide a basis for defining a useful relationship of military forces and civil authority in a global war with terrorism. The Posse Comitatus Act is an artifact of a different conflict-between freedom and slavery or between North and South, if you prefer. Today’s conflict is also in a sense between freedom and slavery, but this time it is between civilization and terrorism. New problems often need new solutions, and a new set of rules is needed for this issue.”

So Freedom equals Civilization and Slavery Terrorism? Is that why the US has been fighting terrorism at the expense of freedom, posse comitatus notwithstanding? And from where will come the new solutions? Technology evangelists like Ms. Davis and Ms. Gordon, cloud seeders like In-Q-Tel, and insider policy mavens like ANSER are happy to help Americans to choose between civilization and terror and pay to fight and lose more wars. Wars that are planned and run by leaders who, of course, only use information for good, including the profiles of citizens they have amassed. It could turn out that one of those “persistent threats to the homeland and U.S. national interests” such as ANSER duly identifies could be you, should you object loudly enough. When they come for you because you spoke up, you’ll be given the right to remain silent. How civilized, how free we are. 

Geoff Dutton is a reformed geek turned columnist, novelist, and publisher hailing from Boston who writes about whatever distortions of reality strike his fancy. Turkey Shoot, his novel interrogating the lives and times of members of a cell of terrorists in Europe, recently received an award for Courage in Fiction. You can find more of his writing here and at Progressive Pilgrim Review. He welcomes correspondence at geoff-at-perfidy-dot-press.