Origins of State Surveillance

By Will Griffin, 7 February 2022

“State surveillance has been an integral part of American political life far longer than we might imagine.”

– Alfred McCoy, Tom Dispatch

The modern surveillance state is now ubiquitous; it’s everywhere, all the time. In 2013, Edward Snowden may have proved that the state, along with its corporations, were illegally spying on US citizens but state surveillance has been around for a long time and this isn’t the first time the CIA spied on US citizens. Let’s take a deep dive into the origins of this ubiquitous industry, where did it start, how did it develop, and how far does it actually go?

The following video documentary on thie origins of the Surveillance State was produced by Will Griffin for the Global Network in February 2022.

There are two relationships to pay attention during this video:

  1. The relationship between the foreign policy and domestic policy.
    a. A foreign policy of militarism abroad always has real impacts at home. What the US military tests and perfects overseas eventually makes its way towards the people of the US.
  2. The relationship between public and private sectors of surveillance.
    a. Surveillance State is also a Surveillance Industry, whereby state institutions, such as the FBI, CIA, the armed forces and so on, have an indispensable relationship with industry. Sometimes referred to the military-industrial complex, but as one may continue to learn about the reality of the US state and imperialism, we soon find that this term doesn’t go far enough.

Historian Alfred McCoy has tracked the origins and development of the current global surveillance apparatus and provides us a framework to help us understand this complex set of state institutions and corporate monopolies. In his book, In the Shadows of the American Century, he tracks the origin point and development of what he calls ‘information regimes’. Starting about 150 years ago, new technologies arose which provided the ruling classes of the US the methods to begin surveilling, tracking, spying and collecting information in a highly organized way. Since then, McCoy states that there have been 3 information regimes: the manual information regime, the computerized information regime, and the robotic information regime.

“[The US] military first created a manual information regime for Philippine pacification, then a computerized apparatus to fight communist guerrillas in Vietnam. Finally, during its decade-plus in Afghanistan (and its years in Iraq), the Pentagon has begun to fuse biometrics, cyberwarfare, and a potential future triple canopy aerospace shield into a robotic information regime that could produce a platform of unprecedented power for the exercise of global dominion—or for future military disaster.”

– Alfred McCoy, MotherJones 2012 Article


The first manual information regime was constructed during the US-Philippines War of 1899-1902. But before we dig into this event, we have to go back just a little bit further where a small technological revolution occurred, which gave rise to the first information regime.

New technologies such as the commercial typewriter, the quadruplex telegraph, the telephone, the punch card, photoengraving, the dewey decimal system, fingerprint classification, biometric identification systems and so much more. These innovations allowed for filing, tabulating, organizing, automating, recording and retrieving huge amounts of information. As McCoy states,

“In one extraordinary decade, from the 1870s to the 1880s, that information revolution arose from a synergy of innovations in the management of textual, statistical, and visual data creating, for the first time, the technical capacity for surveillance of the many rather than the few – a defining attribute of the modern state.”

-Alfred McCoy, In the Shadows of the American Century, pg.111

These new technologies led to the first standing military intelligence agency, The Military Information Division, set up in 1885.

Later, came the US occupation of the Philippines:

“The conquest of the Philippines unleashed the potential of these new technologies to form the country’s first information regime as the army battled an extraordinary arrays of insurgents – national army, urban underground, militant unions, messianic peasants, and Muslim separatists. In the process, the colonial government formed three new services seminal for the creation of a counterintelligence capacity: a Division of Military Information, which developed internal-security methods later applied to the United States; the Philippines Constabulary that pacified the new colony’s insurgency through pervasive surveillance; and the highly efficient Manila Metropolitan Police.”

– Alfred McCoy, In the Shadows of the American Century, pg.113

The US Army arrived in the Philippines with no maps, no knowledge of the land, people, or culture. The US military first found local collaborators who were willing to betray their own people in service to the foreign imperialist powers. The control of these local leaders and collaborators is crucial to understand. Much of today’s imperialist system relies on collaboration from local leaders in host country’s around the world. Together, this alliance coupled with the clandestine accumulation of data, the US military was collecting everything they could, whether it be routine data collection, intimate information about leaders, even physical appearances, networks of friends, family, finances, and political beliefs.

In 1901, a new US Army officer sent to the Philippines would develop new doctrines for the entire US intelligence and counterintelligence apparatus, and he would later be known as the “father of US military intelligence. His name, Ralph Van Deman.

After the war, Van Deman pushed for a permanent military intelligence structure. But this effort wasn’t realized until the US entered the first world war in 1917. Why? The US military was unprepared for intelligence collection. On the US Army website, they say,

“When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the US Army’s intelligence efforts were nearly non-existent.”

Establishment of the US Army Military Intelligence section 1917

Now, entering the world’s largest war, at the time, the US seeked to develop a military intelligence structure and who did they rely on? Van Deman.

In 1917, the US established the Military Intelligence Section with Van Deman as the first employee. Drawing on his experience from the Philippines, Van Deman quickly grew the intelligence structure of the US military,

“The MIS experienced rapid growth throughout [world war 1]. From three main branches in the beginning, by the end of the war, the MIS grew to 12 different functional offices, including those for intelligence collection, espionage and counterespionage, codes and ciphers, attachés, translations, censorship, and graft and fraud. In 1918, the renamed Military Intelligence Division had more than 1,400 personnel, both military and civilian.”

Establishment of the US Army Military Intelligence section 1917 – LINK

This new surveillance apparatus wasn’t just used in the great war, it was used against civilians at home; dissenters, labor organizers, communists, immigrants and anyone caught in the mix.

Van Deman fused federal agencies and civilian auxiliaries which would install common operations for the next half century. In collaboration with the FBI and other federal agencies, and while presiding over wartime counterintelligence auxiliary, Van Deman’s efforts led to the creation of the American Protective League, an organization with 350,000 civilian employees who collected over one million pages of surveillance reports on German Americans within only 14 months – arguably the world’s most intensive domestic surveillance operation to date.

Van Deman’s military intelligence units eventually teamed up with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to expand intelligence across the country, and Hoover enlisted local police Red Squads, private security firms like the Pinkertons, and so-called “patriotic” organizations like the American Protective League and the American Legion, as well as an extensive network of informants from various groups across the country. At the war’s end in 1918, Military Intelligence, along with the American Protective League and the American Legion, engaged in two years of repression against the socialist left, marked by mob action across the Midwest, the notorious Lusk raids in New York City, J. Edgar Hoover’s “Palmer raids” across the Northeast, and the suppression of strikes from New York to Seattle.

In 1919, the FBI, who had another name the Bureau of Investigation, established the Anti-Radical Division, redesignated the General Intelligence Division (GID) in 1920, redesignated again in the 1940s as the Internal Security Section, again in 1954 as the Internal Security Division, and finally in the 1960s as the Internal Security Branch. These agents, regardless of the title of their branch, were assigned tasks of monitoring the activities of those who held radical ideas of anarchism, socialism, communism and syndicalism.

In 1919, Hoover compiled files on 150,000 people. By 1921, that number reached 450,000. From all these files, approximately 60,000 individuals were considered “Key Agitators”.

These methods were later used in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, where ten thousand miners in West Virginia began striking, armed with rifles and battling it out with local sheriffs and private security agents.

Over the next several decades, intelligence structures and counterintelligence networks were maintained, developed, and expanded.

In 1940, Van Deman, J. Edgar Hoover and the chief of army intelligence, in a confidential meeting, developed the Delimitations Agreement. This agreement basically divided the world up, with counterintelligence of the Americas overseen by the FBI and the rest of the world to Military Intelligence.

“…whereby the Military Intelligence Division (MID) and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) were to have cognizance over the services’ military and civilian personnel in espionage/counterespionage and sabotage matters, while the FBI would have that responsibility for civilians.”

The Army-Navy-FBI Comint Agreements of 1942 – FOIA Release by NSA

This set the ground for the later development of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and later the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

During World War 2, the FBI conducted warrantless wiretaps, “black bag” break-ins, and illegal mail openings, mobilizing over three hundred thousand informers. By this time, surveillance and counterintelligence were directed against so-called “subversives” has become standard FBI procedure.

It’s important to note that in 1941 the creation of the Five Eyes Program was initiated. It was and still is a multilateral UK-USA Agreement for a joint cooperation in signals intelligence, usually abbreviated as SIGINT, between the UK, US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Five Eyes has, over the years, been called “Nine Eyes” and “Fourteen Eyes”, where more nations – mainly Europe – have been included within signal intelligence. The Five Eyes Alliance is basically an agreement where each nation-state spy’s on one another’s citizens and shares the collected information with each other in order to circumvent restrictive domestic restrictions.

In the aftermath of the second world war, the public-private security alliance grew stronger and began targeting the communist movement, later known as the Red Scare, or McCarthyism. Now General, Van Deman worked with the FBI and the Committee of Unamerican Activities to conduct witch-hunting operations against the Communist Party, but with severe collateral damage. State Senator Jack Tenney, drew upon General Van Deman’s massive archive of intelligence to crop-up a 709-page report denouncing hundreds of Hollywood’s celebrities and producers. Some names include Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra and Katharine Hepburn.

The domestic spying state grew after the second world war with the creation of the CIA in 1947 and the NSA in 1952.

Richard Nixon, infamously known for the Watergate Scandal, before becoming president used Van Deman’s files to red-bait and eventually defeat five-term Democratic congressman Jerry Voorhis. Years later, Nixon used the files again to win a victory against Representative Douglas in the race for Senate, which provided a path towards the Oval Office.

These witch-hunting activities, specifically aimed at citizens who sympathized with communism, eventually led to the creation of the Counterintelligence Program, also called COINTELPRO. This program was a series of covert and illegal projects conducted by the FBI aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic American political organizations. COINTELPRO gradually expanded its domestic surveillance towards the antiwar protests against the Vietnam War as well as organizations such as the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords Party and many other radical organizations. Some tactics involved attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize members from their professions, and provoke target groups into potentially fatal rivalries.

With this first regime of manual information collection, the modern surveillance state has been established and developed. Beginning with a technological revolution, then tested on a foreign population, and finally brought back home to use on its own people, the modern surveillance state has fully developed institutions and organizations to disrupt and infiltrate anywhere across the country.

Stage 2: The Computerized Information Regime

Just like the first information regime began overseas in the US-Philippines War, the second information regime began in the Vietnam War where data began to be computerized. In this imperialist endeavor, the US surveillance infrastructure made strides in computerized data management.

From 1967-1972, the Phoenix Program, led by the CIA, infused computerized data collection and localized coercion with the aim of defeating the Viet Cong. This program, as McCoy states, affected 41,000 extrajudicial killings without ever capturing a single high-ranking Viet Cong. It included torture programs, infiltration, capture, interrogation and assassination. The program became public, was heavily criticized, and eventually dismantled.

Furthermore, in response to Robert McNamara’s call to “design me something that will tell us the status of control in the countryside” of Vietnam, the CIA developed the Hamlet Evaluation Survey, or HES. Using IBM computers, the CIA produced dot-matrix computer maps meant to reflect the status of control of South or North Vietnamese in the countryside. These efforts to computerize the flow of information, in retrospect, ultimately contributed to the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam because it completely portrayed an incorrect analysis of the countryside, not taking into account the popular support for the North Vietnamese, but the innovations started in this war would, decades later, push Washington towards a third robotic information regime.

At home on US soil, in the mid to late 60s, Hoover initiated the COINTELPRO-New Left, an operation intended to destroy the effectiveness of predominantly-white leftist organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam. There was another operation, COINTELPRO-Black Nationalist Hate Groups, which was expanded to include 41 FBI field offices who targeted the Sounthern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), members of the Republic of New Africa, and the Nation of Islam.

During all of this, illegal operations like COINTELPRO continued, leading to the Church Committee investigations, a senate select committee which conducted a series of investigations into intelligence abuses from the CIA, FBI, IRS, and NSA, dubbed the “Year of Intelligence”. The committee’s efforts led to the establishment of the permanent U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. One of the most shocking revelations of the committee included the uncovering of Operation MKULTRA, which involved the drugging and torturing of unwitting US citizens as part of a human experimentation on mind control. The FBI admitted to conducting over 2,200 separate COINTELPRO actions from 1956-1971.

Other important operations uncovered include: Operation CHAOS, when Seymour Hersh exposed the CIA’s illegal surveillance of US citizens; Operation SHAMROCK and Operation MINARET, two sister organizations aimed at intercepting electronic communications; and the most common operation, COINTELPRO. These massive, illegal operations did not only conduct indirect monitoring, but also infiltrated private organizations as well as illegal burglary.

Eventually, these findings prompted the formation of the FISA Courts, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, to issue warrants for all future national security wiretaps. The intention of the FISA courts was to place constraints on state surveillance, but as we later learned through the leaked documents provided by Edward Snowden in 2013, these reforms were ineffective. We learned that these self-censorship efforts placed little, if any, constraints on the security state.

As mentioned earlier when the Five Eyes Alliance began in the 1940s, twenty years later a surveillance program – codenamed Echelon – came into existence. This secret surveillance program was headed by the United States, primarily the NSA, with the goal of collecting all signal intelligence, mainly satellite communications in the mid 20th century to all of today’s electronic communication . Echelon was a complete secret for decades. It was first uncovered by a British freelance investigative journalist, Duncan Campbell, in 1988. Its existence was officially confirmed in a report commissioned by the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament in 1998. Echelon is important because when it was uncovered, it created international talk about the kind of information being collected and its purpose. In addition, while Echelon was justified by the intelligence community as being used against the Soviet Union and communism, after the fall of the Berlin Wall Echelon continued the expansion of surveillance where it began spying on corporations to give US industry an advantage over its competitors in order to win large contracts. One example of this – out of hundreds – is in 1994 Brazil put out a contract bid to develop a surveillance system to cover the entire Amazon forest, called the SIVAM project. This deal was worth $1.4 billion. The two leading competitors were Thomson-CSF from France and Raytheon of the US. In early 1995, US mainstream media published articles alleging the Thomson-CSF of offering bribes to Brazilian government members. The award went to Raytheon, and Bill Clinton thanked the intelligence community for “covering bribes that would’ve cheated American companies out of billions of dollars.” (Echelon: The Secret Power Documentary)

Stage 3: The Robotics Information Regime

At the very beginning of the 21st century and after the attacks on 9/11 in an atmosphere of fear and panic, the Global War on Terror propelled empire’s insatiable appetite for information.

With two major interventions raging, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington accelerated its development of electronic surveillance, biometric identification, and unmanned aerial vehicles. These new technologies and methods are now creating a new, third robotic information regime. Some have argued that a “fourth branch” of government has been created, the Intelligence Branch.

The intelligence apparatus has massively grown in the past one hundred years, from 1917, when Van Deman first established the Military Intelligence Division with 1,400 personnel to today where nearly one million employees carry top secret security clearances. By 2010, over 854,000 employees across the country held top secret security clearances. Dana Priest and William M. Arkin from the Washington Post said,

“Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate.”

– Priest and Arkin, Top Secret America

They estimated, in 2010, that out of these 854,000 employees, 265,000 are contractors. From 2001 to 2010, 33 building complexes were built, with the sole purpose of top-secret intelligence work. All together, they occupy the equivalent of three pentagons, or 22 US capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet. Today, there are over 3,000 intelligence organizations that exist, public and private; all aimed at collecting the world’s data.

A huge development in the intelligence community has been the role of Signals Intelligence in the warfighting domain, specifically in satellite data collection. The US military has described space-based intelligence collection as a “key force-multiplier for future military operations.” As they say, the objective is to deliver, “precise military firepower anywhere in the world, day or night, in all weather.” Today, intelligence collection is the foundation of war planning. Satellites and other equipment in orbit, used by the US military and intelligence institutions, have given the surveillance industry a huge advantage for not only their enemies, but for everyone on or near this planet.

In the digitized world of robotics, the state surveillance industry is ubiquitous. Operations, commands, and programs such as: Operation Stellar Wing, launched by the NSA to collect bulk telephone and internet metadata without any warrants beginning in the early 2000s, and the domestic spymaster who headed this operation was Keith Alexander, a former NSA director, more on him in a moment; In 2002, Congress erased the legal barrier which prevented the CIA to spy domestically, granting the agency access to US financial records, all electronic communications, aimed mostly at political organizations, private citizens, and religious groups; In 2004, the FBI’s IDW, or Investigative Data Warehouse, was launched with a goal of storing all of their collected data. They describe it as, “the single largest repository of operational and intelligence information.” The IDW is a centralized, web-enabled, closed system archive for information collection. FBI agents have described it as “one-stop shopping”, an uber-google, per se. Within one year, this warehouse accumulated half a billion documents. Within 5 years, it acquired over a billion documents – including intelligence reports, social security files, driver’s licenses, private financial information and more. All of this was accessible to 13,000 analysts.

In the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency, a new program was launched but wasn’t exposed until Snowden’s documents became public in 2013. This program eventually became the number one source for raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports. Today, it accounts for 91 percent of the agent’s internet traffic acquired. The program’s codename: PRISM.

PRISM worked, and still does, with nine internet service providers to transfer billions of emails to its massive data farms, and cooperates with as many as 100 trusted US companies, as well as the FISA courts.

In 2008, Keith Alexander – mentioned earlier as a former NSA director, while working at Menwith Hill – a US/UK military base and satellite ground station – here Alexander posed a question,

“Why can’t we collect it all? All the signals, all the time? Sounds like a good summer homework project for Menwith!”

Christian Sorenson, author of Understanding the War Industry, describes “intelligence as nothing more than information.” And he says that information technology is just “networking equipment, servers, hardware, and software that process, relay, and distribute data.”

“NSA’s implicit mission is to “Collect It All”. This mission generates too much information, flooding the system and overwhelming the analysts, linguists, and technicians on the receiving end in Fort Meade, Fort Gordon, Lackland Air Force Base, Hawaii Cryptologic Center, and facilities around the world. The “Collect It All” approach is ineffective – it doesn’t even stop the handful of people who rarely attempt to attack US civilians. “Collect It All” is nonetheless promoted for two reasons: (1) The flood of information allows the war industry to develop, market, and sell very expensive information technology, including but not limited to software and hardware that aggregate or merge information, allegedly simplifying the big picture. (2) Collecting it all requires, more broadly, the expansion of the surveillance state – additional technology, contractors, maintenance and repair, upgrades, facilities. The corporations that have captured the War Department know a good thing when they have it. They’ll never willingly surrender this self-licking ice cream cone.”

– Christian Sorensen, Understanding the War Industry, pg. 243

In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked a massive collection of documents which exposed the global surveillance order. These revelations provided more detailed information on other programs and operations. XKEYSCORE being one of them.

XKEYSCORE is an NSA search and analysis system for data collected by other surveillance programmes. The system is described by Snowden as a search engine that provides a “one-stop shop” for access to content, metadata and real-time tracking and monitoring of user activities. Access to XKEYSCORE is shared with a number of other intelligence agencies including GCHQ. In 2012, GCHQ’s TEMPORA programme was the largest source of XKEYSCORE data.

Snowden’s documents also revealed the NSA’s MUSCULAR program, which could capture over 180 million records within 30 days from Google and Yahoo alone. Operation TEMPORA could process 30 billion pieces of information in a single day. Although these repressive state institutions publicly say these programs exist to capture terrorists and extremists, much of these programs are aimed at finding political influencers across the country. McCoy asks us to just think about it:

“As of April 2013, the NSA had 117,675 “active surveillance targets” at home–a figure that represents many if not most of those providing active leadership in American political life. Think about it. If the NSA were to monitor the entire US cabinet and Congress as well as the governors and all 7,382 legislators in the fifty states, we would still have to account for another 109,782 targets. Even if we were to add an average of five students and faculty at every one of the 7,398 college campuses in America, we would still have 72,792 targets to go. Throw in the editor and four reporters at each of the country’s 1,395 daily newspapers, and you would still have another 65,817 targets to account for. In sum, that number 117,675 is a reasonable approximation of almost every politically active leader in America.”

– Alfred McCoy, pg. 169

Surveilling active political leaders inside the US is just the tip of the iceberg. The Snowden leaks showed that NSA is conducting surveillance on the political leaders of thirty-five nations worldwide – reaching as high as presidents and prime ministers from Brazil and Germany to obvious targets in Iran and beyond. This information is used as a diplomatic advantage. In one case, the NSA helped US ambassador Susan Rice in the UN Security Council vote on Iran sanctions in 2010 by monitoring members from Uganda, Nigeria, and Bosnia.

These intelligence operations have an intention to collect everything, including phone taps and electronic surveillance of leaders of all countries– including Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s personal phone, emails from former president of Mexico, intercepts from Chancellor Angel Merkel of Germany, Indonesia’s president, and so on.

Snowden says,

“They even keep track of who is having an affair or looking at pornography, in case they
need to damage their target’s reputation… These programs were never about terrorism:
they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re
about power.”

– Edward Snowden, McCoy, pg. 129

In 2009, the US Armed Forces set up US Cyber Command, one of the eleven combatant commands. Its first commander, Keith Alexander. Under his leadership, he declared cyberspace an “operational domain” for both offensive and defensive warfare.

In 2016, the National Reconnaissance Office launched its seventh super-secret Advance Orion Satellite into space, the world’s largest, equipped by a mesh antenna bigger than a football field with a goal of eavesdropping from a geostationary orbit.

The NSA has also built a network of listening posts around the world:

  • In 2012, a complex in Savannah, GA that cost $286 million to focus on the greater middle east
  • In 2013, retrofitted a Sony chip facility in San Antonio, TX to focus on Latin America which cost $300 million
  • A complex in Oahu that cost $358 million to focus on Asia and the Pacific
  • And added supercomputers to Menwith Hill which could process two million intercepts an hour
  • In 2013, the NSA built a data warehouse to store all this information in Bluffdale, Utah, employing 11,000 workers that cost $1.6 billion
  • All of this under the Obama, a man who promised us “hope”

In the past decade, the biometric identification market has exploded – from being tested on Iraqis and Afghans to now being used by local law enforcement on US citizens. In 2011, the army’s Biometric Identity Management Agency (BIMA) collected fingerprints and iris scans of 10 percent of the Iraqi population, about 3 million. In 2012, it held 10 percent of the Afghanistan population, about 2 million. Two years later, BI2 Technologies, a multimodal biometric identity company, began marketing a mobile app that allows police to use their phones to take photos of suspects, which then uses facial recognition technology to compare the photo to a database of other photos. Similarly, the Biometric Optical Surveillance System, or BOSS, was first developed to identity suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan was then transferred to Homeland Security, which continued developing the technology for future domestic use by local police. Today, there is a Global Iris Recognition System Market, specifically focused on building an entirely new industry for iris recognition alone, much of it based on the technologies developed during the global war on terror, where innocent Iraqi and Afghan people were used as test equipment.

Intelligence is clearly an integral part of the US empire, to both perpetuate its global power as well as repress any dissent within. The “intelligence branch” of the 21st century is marked by the development of what McCoy calls, the Pentagon’s “triple-canopy” of pervasive surveillance systems, a fusion of aerospace, cyberspace, and artificial intelligence completing a new military regime of robotic warfare.

In the end, these three information regimes provide us a framework for understanding the historical development of the modern surveillance industrial complex. It begins with tests and experiments overseas, technologies become refined and used on the people at home. Some call this the “boomerang effect”, others understand this as the true nature of the capitalist-imperialist state. No country, no nation can sustain both an empire abroad and democracy at home.