INTERVIEW

How the Afghan war shaped the surveillance state: Annie Jacobsen on what the DOD knows about you

Investigative reporter Annie Jacobsen says biometric tech means the Pentagon knows more about you than you do

By Chauncey DeVega
Published September 28, 2021 9:43AM (EDT)
Digital identity fingerprint scanner (Getty Images)
Digital identity fingerprint scanner (Getty Images)

During his speech before the UN last week, President Biden said that the United States had closed an era of relentless war in Afghanistan. That high-minded language was an overly idealized description of the American "withdrawal" and what comes next. The truth about America and Afghanistan is much more complicated and dark.

In reality, the U.S. military could not defeat the Taliban after 20 years of war and finally capitulated. The Afghan debacle was part of the larger "War on Terror," also known as the forever wars, that followed the traumatic events of 9/11.

The war in Afghanistan left 2,400 American troops dead and tens of thousands wounded — many of whom will need lifelong care for their physical, psychological and injuries. It is estimated that at least 30,000 current or former service members have committed suicide as a result of trauma suffered in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theaters of the forever wars. 

Almost a million people in Afghanistan and across the Middle East have died because of America's endless wars. Thousands of America's Afghan partners were abandoned last month. They and their families are now trying to escape the country or hide from the Taliban for fear of violent retaliation.

The war in Afghanistan cost the American people trillions of dollars, an amount that will continue to grow as interest accrues on the debt. Those vast sums of money could have been used instead to improve health care, infrastructure and education, to address wealth and income inequality and the climate crisis, and to improve the life chances of Americans more generally.

America's war in Afghanistan has come home in other ways. We now have an immensely expanded surveillance society that uses biometric technologies and other innovations out of dystopian speculative fiction, now made real in the present. To discuss these little-understood areas of technology, I recently spoke with investigative journalist and bestselling author Annie Jacobsen, whose books include "Area 51," "The Pentagon's Brain," "Operation Paperclip," and "Surprise, Kill, Vanish."

Her most recent book is "First Platoon: A Story of Modern War in the Age of Identity Dominance."

In this conversation, Jacobsen explains how biometric technology was used by the U.S. military in an attempt to create a database containing personal biological information (such as iris scans) on millions of Afghan civilians. Jacobsen explains that his kind of data collection is part of a great change in post-9/11 military planning, where highly detailed information about individuals is viewed as more valuable than intelligence about armies. Jacobsen warns that biometric information and surveillance are increasingly a part of day-to-day life in America, where privacy and other civil liberties are being imperiled and the public remains largely unaware.

Towards the end of this conversation, Jacobsen details how the Chinese government is using the biometric techniques and technologies used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan to empower state repression, including ethnic cleansing and a totalitarian "brainwashing" campaign directed against the Uyghur people.

We have just seen the withdrawal from Afghanistan, followed by the 20-year anniversary of Sept. 11 and, of course, the ongoing tsunami of daily news on the day-to-day about Trump, the pandemic and politics more generally. How are you feeling? How are you making sense of it?

I think of it as another day at the reporter's desk. It also just another day at the storyteller's desk. I try to look at events through the long lens of history.

These events in Afghanistan strike me as being part of a cycle of history that is repeating itself. On the anniversary of 9/11 and with what happened in Afghanistan, I am nodding my head as I reflect upon on what Eisenhower warned us about in his 1961 farewell speech, which is the military-industrial complex.

That phrase is now part of the vernacular. But what is the military-industrial complex, specifically? How does that concept help us to understand Afghanistan and the "War on Terror"?

The military-industrial complex is the idea that there is a need for weapons that is created by wars, that in turn creates a need for weapons. It is part of a very large system. It's actually been called a "system of systems" that pushes the idea of a military-industrial complex forward ad infinitum. It's not a self-fulfilling prophecy, it's a self-fulfilling situation.

How do the military-industrial complex and related actors see Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East more broadly?

By no means am I suggesting that there is some cloak-an-dagger situation where people are sitting around and saying, "Let's start a war." What exists are these different systems that are entwined and work with one another. Consider Afghanistan. In my book "First Platoon," I write about the origin story of what is known as "biometrics."

Most among the general public do not know what biometrics is. But they should start to care, because biometrics will be part of everyone's life very soon — and it actually already is, but most people don't know it yet.

Biometrics includes such things as fingerprints, iris scans, facial images and your DNA. Biometrics exist in the civilian and private sector and also in the defense world. Biometrics have long been applied in the criminal justice world. These elements are now merging together.

After 9/11, the Defense Department was shocked. The organizations inside the Defense Department that are involved in strategic planning suddenly realized: "Oh my God, here we are looking at the threat from satellite technology and how armies are going to be positioned." That had been the way of war throughout the Cold War for some 50 years. Then suddenly 9/11 happens, and the focus goes from extraordinarily wide and high satellite images to the myopic, literally down to one person. Nineteen individual men hijacked those planes and created 9/11 and then created the War on Terror.

The focus of the Defense Department swung around, and suddenly it was all about the individual. There is an organization that is part of the Defense Department called the Defense Science Board. They are made up of former military generals and members of the intelligence community — people who think about the next wave of weapons.

The secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, goes to the Defense Science Board after 9/11 and says, "What are we going to do? How are we going to win the War on Terror?"

And the Defense Science Board says, "We've got a great idea. We must create a Manhattan Project like program to tag, track and locate individual people." That is the birth of biometrics.

If you flash forward to the war in Afghanistan, the Defense Department was collecting biometrics and their goal was to include 80% of Afghan civilians. That is why soldiers were sent into the field with biometric capturing devices.

These are the young soldiers I interview in "First Platoon." They thought they were going to fight the Taliban. Instead they found themselves walking around in some of the most dangerous places in the world, stopping farmers in their fields and saying, "I need your fingerprint scanned." They were stopping women and saying, "Please lift up your veil. I need to take your iris scan." The enmity that created is astonishing. How could we possibly have thought that was a good idea, and a good way to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people?

What role did biometrics play on a daily basis for American soldiers and other warfighters in Afghanistan? How was the technology used, and to what ends?

The ultimate idea was that the Defense Department wanted to create a database of the Afghans' biometrics, their fingerprints, their iris scans, their facial images and their DNA, so that they have a big database of people. So in the event that someone committed a crime they could use that information to come up with what is called a "match hit."

We have the same system here in the United States. It is used by the FBI, but you have to have been a criminal or a criminal suspect to come in contact with it. If I get pulled over and the police decide to take my fingerprints, they're not going to get a match hit. They do not have my fingerprints because I have not been arrested. But this is changing, because they now have my iris scans because I went through U.S. customs when I came back from abroad.

To get biometric data on the Afghan people, the Defense Department pursued a program where they gave out these little biometric capturing devices — some were called "hides" and some were called "seeks." These devices all had different names and acronyms. There would be one person tasked with that responsibility per platoon. Once the patrol returns with biometric information, that soldier links up to another system and uploads the new information into the database.

What are some of the other systems interfacing with biometrics? It sounds like science fiction made real with a total surveillance society and detection of "pre-crime."

When I interviewed soldiers for "First Platoon," only the person from the COIST team knew about the biometric mission. That knowledge is partitioned. But the real "aha" moment for me, when I was doing my reporting, was when I learned about something called a PGGS Airship. This is a giant balloon that was not visible to the soldiers on the ground from their outpost. It is tethered to a steel cable. The PGGS flies high in the air and is outfitted with a number of surveillance cameras that watch the soldiers on patrol. That system was gathering surveillance footage, what's called "full motion video," That sounds generic, but it actually has geolocating technology embedded into it.

That footage is then uploaded. The U.S. Army uses Palantir software, which aggregates the data and helps the Defense Department to identify targets. These "targets" are human beings. Based on that information a drone strike will be ordered on individual people or a group of persons.

What will it mean to the average American when this technology is used here in this country?

It is already here. These biometric and surveillance systems, such as the PGSS aerostat system, were born of war and have now come home to the United States.

This is all very tricky because of the ways in which biometric capture can occur. Here is one example. A person used to have to take an iris scan by putting a device up to your eyes. Going through U.S. Customs, you are told to put your face in a certain position. You think that a picture of your face is being taken. That is true, but your iris is also being scanned. DARPA is now actually planning to be to get a person's iris scans from 500 feet away.

For "First Platoon" I interviewed a police chief who explained the controversial aspects of something called "Clearview," which is a type of facial recognition technology. The police chief wanted to show me how it worked. We walked out to the street, and he said, "Turn that corner and walk around and come toward me." He pointed his iPhone in my direction.

Now there were all these photographs of me. I'm a public figure, so a person could reasonably conclude that is pretty easy to accomplish. However, there were private photographs of me there as well that had been posted elsewhere. It was all at the policeman's fingertips before I even reached him.

The technology itself is moving forward at science fiction-like speed. By comparison, these questions of privacy, search and seizure, and other constitutional rights are being debated at a snail's pace by the courts. The biometric systems will never go away. The courts cannot keep up with it. I believe that this is a real canary in the coal mine situation.

How are the American people going to be convinced that these biometric systems are a good thing? I am thinking specifically of how people willingly surrender so much personal information when they go to the supermarket or any online retailer, which is tracking their behavior in exchange for a discount. Another example would be people who give their DNA to online companies for supposed genealogical research or health purposes.

As you said, a person wants a discount at a store, for example. You quickly weigh the costs and benefits. Biometrics is just information about you. What the Department of Defense really wants is "identity dominance." In practice, this means that the Defense Department wants to know more about you than you know. A person may reply with, "How is that possible? No one can know more about me than me!" Well, I do not know what my heartbeat is right now. But the Defense Department is creating a biometric to be able to figure that out and identify me by my heartbeat. In that way, they know more about me than I do.

How should we explain to the public how dangerous this is?

It's the "if then." If I'm just walking down the street and all this information about me exists, it doesn't matter. But it's the "if then." If the police want to use the database for whatever reason, it is there.

Consider what is happening in China, where the government is persecuting the Uyghur people. They have decided that the Uyghurs are bad, so the Beijing government now requires that the Uyghur population undergo something called "physicals for all." That is the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda line. What is really means is that they must have their biometrics taken. This includes fingerprints, iris scans, facial images and DNA. If you are Uyghur, you must do that. There is now a Uyghur database that is being used to identify an entire population. That reminds me a lot of Nazi Germany.

It gets even worse, because we now know from satellite footage that the Chinese government is digging up cemeteries where Uyghur people are buried. This suggests to me that the Chinese government is looking at familial DNA. They are planning to cast that net wider. People who might not look like a Uyghur but are of Uyghur descent will be drawn into the pool of people who have been identified as "suspicious" and may need to be sent to a "re-education" camp.

This is terrifying. I would ask human rights organizations: Are you aware that what the Chinese are doing to the Uyghurs with biometrics is a page right out of the playbook of the U.S. Department of Defense in Afghanistan? We did it before the Chinese. We gave the Chinese the idea. No one comments on that.

Where is this information being stored in the United States? Is it possible to opt out or have your biometric information deleted?

There is now a biometric center in West Virginia where lots of the information is housed. Moreover, it is actually the first time on U.S. soil where the FBI and the Defense Department are collaborating on a program, which raises a whole bunch of other issues about posse comitatus. The Biometric Technology Center is new, it only opened in 2018. Its databases are growing. The State Department recently agreed to share some 80 million passport photos with other federal agencies. All of those facial images are going into the database.

There is no opting out. You're more than likely already in the system. The only people who are not in that database are those of us who do not have a driver's license or a passport, have never used Facebook or other social media, or have never had a problem with law enforcement.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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