(Shane Harris, Penguin Group, 2010)
On 23 October 1983, the United States had its first deadly encounter with suicide terrorist bombings. Just over 300 people were killed when two truck bombs were detonated at the United States Marine Corps barracks and the Drakkar building in Beirut. Though even before the dust began to settle on the wounded and dead in Beirut, it became clear to certain members of the American Government that the bombing was a spectacular intelligence failure. The catastrophic inability to foresee and therefore prepare for and act against such an attack was the catalyst that set a handful of people into motion. These men and women, these watchers, would each play an important part in constructing the modern American surveillance state. One of the most prominent of these men and women is Rear Admiral John Poindexter. Readers who were politically aware during the administration of Ronald Reagan will remember Poindexter as one of the principle architects of the Iran-Contra scandal that threatened to topple President Reagan. The Watchers is the story of how failures in intelligence gathering and expedient analysis lead to a revolution in surveillance and law in the United States that would splash the headline news right up until the 2008 election of President Obama.
It is with great skill and elegance that Shane Harris weaves a narrative of what would otherwise be a very dry and technical affair. Not only is The Watchers the intertwined and overlapping histories of men and women like Fran Townsend and Mike McConnell, but also of how the culture and society of the United States was changed. A society confronted by both domestic and international terrorism, leaps and bounds in telecommunication technology as well as laws from a time gone by that constrain the government agencies tasked with fighting terrorism. Harris’ experience as a investigative journalist with years of experience reporting on the developments in intelligence and technology shines throughout The Watchers.
Although this is my second time reading The Watchers, I still find it a compelling read. For me it is a book that anyone interested in intelligence gathering and surveillance must read. Really, I recommend it to anyone concerned about government oversight, privacy and how the evolution of technology continues to influence government, warfare and society. It delves into programs by the US government defend the nation both prior and post 9/11, and within the backdrop of that change how is it easy to give up one’s privacy for the semblance of security. The Watchers asks questions that are more relevant now than ever before. Questions such as: Where do the limits between personal privacy and public safety lie? At what cost to privacy will be chase after security? What are the legal frameworks designed to keep us safe? How effective are they? And ultimately, who watches those who watch us?