Shortly after President Trump took office, I wrote a column that traced the evolution of the post-9/11 national security state from Bush to Obama, and offered some predictions about what this world might look like under President Trump. Now, with Trump’s first midterm elections approaching, I thought it was time to revisit those predictions and hazard a new set in light of intervening events.
As I wrote before, Bush and Obama responded to the threat of trans-national Islamic terror with a combination of ideology and technology. Particularly during the first four years, the neoconservative ascendancy in the Bush administration led it to favor a prominent, muscular US presence abroad, which in turn produced highly visible campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq characterized by large US military bases and thousands of American troops in theater.
Because boots on the ground inevitably lead to prisoners in a cell, the Bush administration also recognized that it would be in the business of questioning suspects. Here, the unfortunate Manicheanism of some members of the administration led it to develop a special and untested regime, rejecting the longstanding success of FBI interrogators and ginning up the ill-advised “enhanced” interrogation program.
By contrast, the Obama administration, which lacked the neoconservative bent of its predecessor, favored a far less visible military/intelligence presence that was dispersed over a much wider geographic range. Instead of massive military buildups in just a few places, the Obama administration expanded its strategic partnerships with the security forces in a great many countries. This led it to shrink the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan but replace it with “advisory” relationships in places that were believed to have a radicalized Muslim population, including especially parts of Africa, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Meanwhile, advances in drone technology led the Obama administration to replace aerial bombing campaigns with what it believed to be more surgical drone strikes, while an ideological opposition to torture and dramatic advancements in surveillance technology led the administration to rely far more heavily on SIGINT—signals intelligence—than HUMINT—the human intelligence favored by the Bush administration. Bombs and interrogations became relatively inconsequential parts of the war on terror, while military drones and signals surveillance became ubiquitous.
In my column, I predicted that Trump, despite his ferocious antipathy to all things Obaman, would largely continue the national security direction set by his immediate predecessor. Despite his vow to refill Guantanamo, for instance, I thought our island outpost would remain more symbol than substance. This has come to pass. Since he took the oath of office, the prisoner population at Guantanamo has changed by precisely one. A single prisoner has been released. Meanwhile, two prisoners who Candidate Trump would’ve imprisoned at Guantanamo, President Trump charged in civilian court (Sayfullo Saipov, an alleged ISIS sympathizer who is accused of killing eight people when he drove a truck onto a Manhattan sidewalk, and Mustafa al-Imam, a suspect in the Benghazi attacks who was arrested by US forces in Libya).
Also like his predecessor, Trump has continued to neglect the military commissions, which President Bush began with such fanfare in 2002. Long before Bush left office, the commissions had bogged down, a disuse that continued throughout the Obama administration. Though they perennially attract a great deal of attention, the commissions have never played a meaningful part in the war on terror. In my earlier column, I predicted they would remain an irrelevant but extravagantly expensive sideshow.
This too has come to pass. The military judge presiding over the commission trial of Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, for instance, suspended the trial indefinitely before announcing his retirement from the military. The case has been in limbo for virtually the entirety of the Trump administration and shows no signs of life. And just last week, the judge presiding over the trial of the alleged 9/11 hijackers delivered a serious setback to the government when he ruled that prosecutors could not use statements made by the accused to the FBI. The military commissions are, and have always been, a farce that matter only to a few politicians and conservative pundits who invoke them as a reliable applause line in partisan gatherings. Most assuredly, they serve no national security function.
Likewise, the use of drones has continued to expand. Their primary use remains in military surveillance, and according to a recent report by Goldman Sachs, drone sensor technology currently in development will be able to map an area of 2.7 million square miles—nearly equal to the size of the lower 48 states—in a single flight. The accelerating use of drones as a substitute for aerial bombing has also continued. In fact, given their current ubiquity, it seems impossible that the first use of a militarized drone did not take place until February 2002, when the CIA launched an unsuccessful drone strike against Usama bin Laden. In the Trump administration, the military has begun experimenting with “cluster” drones that, as reported by one observer, “communicate autonomously with each other and use collective decision making to coordinate movements, finding the best way to get to a target, even flying in formation and healing themselves—all without a human telling them how.” There seems no question that this movement toward unmonitored drone strikes will only continue.
Then there is the surveillance state. The Obama administration embraced surveillance as an alternative to interrogations and in my column, I predicted the Trump administration would enthusiastically follow suit. Indeed it has. Like its predecessor, the Trump administration has made aggressive use of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes warrantless surveillance of foreign targets abroad. In addition, as chronicled by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Trump administration has been an active participant in the accelerating international campaign to make surveillance data more widely available and more easily shared among national security services around the world.
Yet because I was focused on the Trump administration, I underestimated the growth of the surveillance state in a critical respect. I had not foreseen the extent to which local and state governments would embrace surveillance as a panacea. The use of facial-recognition technology, for instance, is now widespread. In an age when school shootings are all too common, even public school systems are adopting facial-recognition software. RealNetworks, the online streaming company, recently offered the software to public schools for free.
In addition, dramatic advances in technology over the past several years have created the prospect of facial recognition in real time. The companies that make these systems boast that their software will allow a government to monitor the whereabouts of an entire country more or less without instantaneously. Though they have been early adopters of facial recognition, American police departments have thus far resisted the real-time software. That day, however, when an entire population can be surveilled from cameras mounted throughout a location—whether it be a single neighborhood, a train station or airport, an entire city, the length of an international border, etc.—do not seem far off. The potential threat to privacy seems obvious.
In sum, the national security state under President Trump looks a great deal like the national security state under President Obama, only expanded. And I believe past is prologue. The use of drones and global surveillance will continue to increase; the use of detentions, interrogations, and trials will continue to decline. Because the public seizes upon what it can see, terrorism trials and high-profile interrogations—on the rare occasions when they occur—will probably continue to play a symbolic role, but all the real work in the war on terror, as Dick Cheney predicted in 2001, will take place in the shadows, invisible to the public.
In time, no one will consider it unusual that cameras perch above us everywhere we go, monitoring each of us in real-time. No one will give the drones that buzz around us a second thought. No one will recall a day that was any different, and the time we used to mark as a departure from the past with the designation, “post-9/11,” will simply be our normal. I leave the implications of this to another day.