Sunday, October 22, 2006

Samuel Nunn: Information Feeds to the War on Terror

Tell Us What's Going to Happen: Information Feeds to the War on Terror
Samuel Nunn

We want to know things before they occur. Anticipate, react, prevent. This idea is embedded not only in counter-terrorism policy, but in the cultural narratives produced by television and cinema. Television programs such as 24 or CSI, and movies such as The Conversation, The End of Violence, Minority Report, and The Siege are self reflexive mirrors of the U.S. war on terror. Through tricky technology systems like the Multi-State Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (MATRIX) and Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) and Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) and TIPOFF and AFIS and VICAP, America seeks policies and programs -- read this as machines and software -- that will anticipate terrorist attacks in order to stop them before they can occur.[1] The desired outcome is complete deterrence. If this outcome was achieved, it would be the most mighty feat of prognostication and prevention ever conceived.

The reason? Doing so would require the real time synthesis and analysis of volumes of data equal to something like the number of stars in the universe. Criminal justice technology systems produce voluminous information flows. Billions of bytes of data are constantly on the move among police agencies describing individuals, their criminal histories, assets, debt, locations at particular times, purchase patterns, biometric identifiers (fingerprints, photographs, DNA samples) and other aspects of the people or the activities they are thought to have performed. At any given moment, thousands of inquiries are sent through dozens of regional, national, and international systems seeking answers to questions about people's identity, where they are, what they have done, or what more other agencies and agents know about these individuals. In 2005 the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) averaged 4.5 million inquiries per day.

Within this storm of data, terrorism is the boogeyman of the 21st century. And there is only one way to assuage our fears of sudden, brutal terrorist attacks: convince us that we will always uncover the conspiracies before the explosion, always know who the perpetrators are before they act, always stay one step ahead of them, always arrest them before the carnage. It is a process identified by Richard Grusin as premediation: a shift of focus to controlling the future and stopping attacks before they occur or, more simply, profiling the future.[2] It is the premediation of the future, an advance word about what is going to happen. This model helps us accept 9/11 as an interruption or aberration. Looking back, we had the pieces if only someone had put them together: the plot was within our grasp. Heroic FBI agents wrote memos, villainous or incompetent supervisors ignored them or, worse, destroyed them.[3] Mohammed Atta is on the surveillance tapes; why didn't someone see him? Ziad Jarrah, pilot of UA flight 93 (destined for a Pennsylvania farm field, and now the subject of an A&E made-for-cable movie, Flight 93 and Hollywood's United 93), gets a speeding ticket in Maryland on September 9th; why didn't someone stop him? Someone always knows. The truth is out there.

The U.S. war on terror places stock in this belief: if we know who the terrorists are, we can capture and contain them, prevent them from putting their schemes in play. If we know a sleeper cell is operating in a city's neighborhood, the authorities can place the cell under surveillance with visual monitoring, communications interception, dialed number logs, video taping, credit card purchases, and other transaction footprints used to build a virtual sphere of information control. Alternatively, we can figure out what terrorists 'look like' through profiling, find them, surveil them, uncover their plans, and incarcerate them. We will process information to prevent terrorism.

Building on a theoretical foundation of panopticism and social control, Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson coined an appropriate concept for the variety of technological systems used by state and non-state entities to monitor citizens: the surveillant assemblage.[4] The assemblage is composed of many discrete technological forms used to observe and infer patterns of behavior in the interests of control, investigation, and crime prevention. This includes closed circuit TV, governmental and corporate data bases, data mining and synthesis software, electronic surveillance systems, data-based profiling techniques, scenario analysis, the integration of criminal justice data bases, biometric identifiers, and so on. Information feeds to the war on terror can be conceived as representative components of a surveillant assemblage -- a combination of surveillance tools used for various forms of social control, in particular those devoted to uncovering terrorist and criminal conspiracies and preventing violent crime. It is the set of surveillance components pulled together to provide information used to detect or stop crimes of violence.

Surveillant assemblages have been depicted in various ways by films and TV, and it's possible that a few movies and television shows can be read as information feeds to the war on terror. Sometimes we use technologies to prognosticate and prevent violence, the theme of The Conversation, Minority Report, and The End of Violence. The preventive scheme of Minority Report is the most direct: you're under arrest for the crime you almost committed. But at other times, in the event violent actors strike before we can stop them, there are policies, plans, and contingencies -- ways to make us safe again, tactical technologies. That's the hard-edged, reactive theme of The Siege. And for those situations where a crime is committed, at least one TV program presents an argument that our technologies will uncover truths that no one but the perpetrator could know. That's the theme of CSI.

These films show how humans generate and process surveillance information into fuel against crime and terror (as they perceive it), and offer cultural representations of the surveillant assemblage. The examples examined in these films and TV suggest a complex relationship between the social and political realities of wars on crime or terror or drugs and their representation in film and media. The relationship is based less on whether one or the other is a better reflection of 'reality' than the idea that both filmed renditions and police policies are drawn from dominant cultural beliefs about criminal and terrorist behaviors. Shortly after 9/11, a brigadier general chaired several meetings of selected Hollywood writers, producers, and directors to develop terrorism scenarios that had not been considered before, as potential fuel for the development of preventive strategies.[5] Hollywood imagination would supply the fuel for actual anti-terrorism tactics. The meetings were held in Los Angeles at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, whose operating revenues come in large part from military contracts. James Castonguay called meetings like this the "cultural production of the war on terror."[6] Numerous Hollywood productions and planned television shows were altered or postponed after 9/11 because of government concerns they would spark creative criminal imitation and intensify public fears of future attacks. Causality is always a bit mixed up in the blend of make-believe and reality.

The surveillant assemblages depicted in film and TV create another source of fear in society -- the fear of all-encompassing 24/7 observation by unspecified others, usually the 'state', and the subliminal belief that there must be some reason for all this surveillance, some kind of danger out there against which we must be protected. This fear feeds social acceptance of the very technological systems we ostensibly fear -- as well as the perceived likelihood of criminal attacks against which they are arrayed. Because films and TV offer popular culture's perceptions of crime and terror, their visual and narrative messages -- and their strength -- are especially complex feeds to the war on terror.[7]

Stopping crimes in action and hiding in plain sight: The End of Violence

Machines that can monitor peoples' activities in space are part of modern law enforcement technology.[8] Surveillance systems are important, and we should quickly recognize that any reasonably sophisticated monitoring system -- whether wiretaps, video surveillance, or computer eavesdropping -- potentially generate so much information they challenge interpretation. Nevertheless, one key to uncovering the plot of conspiracies is interpreting the information that has been collected in ways that anticipate the commission of a crime and allow law enforcement agents to stop the plot before execution. Vast, disconnected data bases exist from which investigators can draw criminal intent. Information from wiretaps, snitch reports, BOLOs ('be on the look out'), watch lists, criminal incident descriptions, and many other sources are the data that will feed prevention efforts. But how can all this information be interpreted in a way that defines the actions to be taken? Who sits and watches, then decides to do something?[9]

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