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The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State Hardcover – February 18, 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 49 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Harris, a reporter for National Journal, details the rise of a band of mavericks in national security and intelligence organizations that has erected an American surveillance state. In this timely and admirably balanced account, Harris focuses on the role of a handful of key figures, including Reagan-era National Security Adviser John Poindexter, as they campaigned for information technology to identify terrorists. The controversial Poindexter started the campaign after the 1983 bombing of Marine barracks in Lebanon; the mission was imbued with greater urgency after September 11; with the support of the Bush administration, the National Security Agency (NSA) acquired a research project that Poindexter had developed called Total Information Awareness that uses advanced data-mining techniques to collect mountains of data—and has trapped countless innocent citizens in the NSA's electronic nets. After the NSA's warrantless surveillance was exposed in 2005, Congress passed largely cosmetic reforms that left the surveillance state intact. Harris carefully examines how the nexus between terrorism and technology has complicated the age-old conflict between security and liberty and calls for a national debate on the issue. This informative and dramatic narrative is an excellent place to start. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In 1983, following a terrorist attack on U.S. Marines in Beirut, John Poindexter, a national security advisor, lamented that better surveillance and analysis could have prevented the attack. That lament resounded again on 9/11 when the “watchers”—information technologists working for the nation’s intelligence and national security services—fretted that ongoing debates about privacy versus national security continued to hamper their incredible capabilities. Between those attacks and even since then, Poindexter has worked tirelessly, in and out of government, with a band of “warrior geeks” to develop a Total Information Awareness system that can track potential terrorists. The problem is that the system also sweeps innocent U.S. citizens into its net, collecting data from phone calls and e-mails. Harris chronicles the rise and fall and revival of Poindexter (made infamous by his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal) and others, and the inherent contradictions of protecting American liberty by spying on U.S. citizens. He details the electronic tracking systems, the internecine conflicts between spy agencies, the complex of laws and regulations, and the political machinations that have resulted in the secret funding of this controversial operation. Harris sifts through a confusing array of acronyms, fascinating characters, and chilling operations to offer an absorbing look at modern spying technology and how it impacts average Americans. --Vanessa Bush

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; First Edition edition (February 18, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202451
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202452
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #601,101 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. A. Walsh VINE VOICE on January 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Soon after the man now variously known as the "underwear bomber," or even the "crotch bomber" attempted to blow up a Detriot-bound flight on Christmas Day, Americans became rapidly familiar with what Shane Harris' book outlines word-for-word: our intelligence system is very good at "collecting the dots," but not always very good at "connecting the dots."

In The Watchers, Harris goes on to take a very close look at the development of what the subtitle calls the American "surveillance state," particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and through the lens afforded by his access to John Poindexter, a former Reagan administration national security advisor and a director of the Information Awareness Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) during the George W. Bush, post-9/11 years.

As someone who was working in intelligence in a Defense Department capacity during this time period, I have to start with kudos for the accuracy and vividness with which Harris captures the kaleidoscopic speed of the changes in regulation and standard operating procedure during this time. Those of us in the field were left in a constant state of uncertainty as to what we might collect, on whom, and what could be done with it, notwithstanding the questions of with whom it could be shared, for what purposes and on whose orders.

While Harris keeps a pretty even keel, I think it is difficult to walk away from the book with anything but a sense that he disapproves of the liberties that were taken by the Bush administration and "the Watchers" - in the NSA, DIA, CIA and elsewhere - in infringing on civil liberties in the name of national security.
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Format: Hardcover
I had expected this book to be an overview of the mechanisms by which the United States has become a surveillance state, and had even hoped that it would provide historical insights into how surveillance states inevitably become police states.

That was not this book. It seemed to be written mostly from the perspective of Admiral John Poindexter (USN Ret.), and did not get too much into the details of how the government monitors us. (There was NO mention of misuse of information by government agencies.)

It was worth my time, but I am still waiting for someone to write the book that I had hoped this would be.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Several things leapt out at me as I read this book. The first is how well the book is written. Unlike many books about national security and intelligence, this is actually readable without having to be an expert in the field. Most are so technical and dry that it is nearly impossible to sit down and read them enjoyably, while this reads in a manner that reminds me of a novel.

The second thing that is that, despite spending tens of billions of dollars, breaking the law by collecting data illegally and increasing the amount of intelligence information by an alarming magnitude, we are no closer to actually being able to use computers to analyze this data than we were 30 years ago. The computers in use today can siphon of incredible amounts of data, and are doing just that, but the ability to analyze that data still takes numerous human technicians and days of research. So, despite all the research and breaches of privacy of American citizens, we really are no safer than we were in the days and weeks before 9/11.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the national security picture, as well as anyone who is concerned about the civil liberties of all Americans.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Many people are under the assumption that as a country, we only began to voluntarily sign away many of our rights of privacy and freedoms from unwarranted searches the day the Twin Towers came crashing down. Those assumptions are wrong. This books takes us back a couple of decades earlier to another egregious act of terrorism, this time in Lebanon and to the Terrorist attack on the Marine baracks in Beruit that shocked the Reagan Government into action, looking for ways to access data in real time and gain access to intelligence in a more timely fashion to hopfeully block similar future attacks. The architect of that dream was Admiral John Poindexter working both in government and then in the private sector to bring these intelligence capabilities to the place they are now.

As strange as it may seem, this is NOT a partisan attack on Republicans nor is it an endorsement or indictment of the system we have now that is essentially a " A Surveillance State" that seems to be here to stay. No, this book is merely a well-researched and carefully considered historical examination of how we went from the aftermatch of the attacks in Beruit and wound our way around to a state where "business as usual" includes facial recognition software in places you wouldn't even dream of, background checks and a vast data cloud gathered on privated citizens all under the umbrella now of Black Ops and thefore operating without any congressional oversight. It's clear that the assembly of this vast data collection network has enabled the Intelligence community to analyize "chatter" in real time and may in fact has made us "safer" than we were before 9/11 but the question the author asks us to consider is .. "at what cost?
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