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Published with permission from the Washington Spectator.

For those of us who think or write about surveillance, the events of May and June 2013 represented a crucial turning point in our sense of what was possible. Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents changed the way many Americans thought about their relationship to national security agencies. It shattered the beliefs of many news consumers that their online or virtual worlds were private, protected spheres.

White progressives, notably, expressed a sense of outrage that the government had been not only spying on them, but lying about it. Activists organized to learn about encryption and online hygiene; some even mobilized to push for stricter legislation on dragnet surveillance. Their indignant sense of violation, and their proposed means of self-protection, revealed the racialized gaze through which we talk or think about surveillance in a post-9/11 world, because when they spoke about mass surveillance, only certain bodies seemed to matter.

The surveillance of American Muslims should concern us all. It is they who have experienced some of the most invasive and traumatic manifestations of the state’s gaze, and it is their “dangerousness” that has justified the broader expansion of state surveillance. So, why were the experiences and perspectives of American Muslims so absent from the eyes and ears of post-Snowden America? Why aren’t we addressing ways to protect Muslims from state intrusion? And how does ignoring what they are subjected to affect our broader understanding of the aims of surveillance, and the nature of its power?


Last October, I broke a story about an undercover NYPD cop, “Mel,” who infiltrated and spied on a group of young, devout Muslim women who attended Brooklyn College. Mel first entered the students’ lives in the spring of 2011, by “converting” to Islam at an on-campus event, presumably as a means of gaining the students’ trust. Over the course of the next several years, the light-skinned agent with the lilting voice wormed her way into the young women’s lives—attending Islamic study groups and social outings. She even served as a bridesmaid in one woman’s wedding.

What is it like to know someone for years and then find out that she was a spy all along? For Shereen, one of the women who knew Mel from the start, the revelations induced a kind of trauma. “For three days I couldn’t eat, sleep,” she told me. “I covered all the cameras on my phone.”

What was unusual about the Brooklyn College case wasn’t that the student group had been infiltrated—it was that the women discovered it. Muslim-Americans have long known that the FBI and NYPD use informants and undercover operatives to monitor their communities. According to a 2011 estimate published by Mother Jones, there are 15,000 FBI informants planted around the United States, many of them tasked with spying on Muslim-Americans, in addition to an unknown number of formally employed FBI and NYPD operatives.

At times, the surveillance of Muslim-American communities has made intimate personal relationships all but impossible. “There are a few of us who trust each other, and that’s good that we have each other. Some don’t even have that,” Shereen told me. “But in the back of all our minds, there’s always that suspicion, that either you are [a spy], or you think I’m one.”

It is an experience of being watched that few of us can understand. “This is what real fear of surveillance looks like: not knowing whom to trust, choosing your words with care when talking politics in public, the unpredictability of state power,” Arun Kundnani wrote in a March 2014 Guardian op-ed.

“Snowden has rightly drawn our attention to the power of what intelligence agencies call ‘signals intelligence’—the surveillance of our digital communications—but equally important is ‘human intelligence’, the result of informants and undercover agents operating within communities,” Kundnani wrote.

As noted by both National Security Agency insiders like former agent and whistleblower William Binney, and more visible NSA critics like Glenn Greenwald, it was 9/11 that triggered the expansion of the American surveillance apparatus. Mass surveillance was justified by the alleged dangers posed by Muslims. The use of informants and undercover agents is just one example of what Muslims endure.


“I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded,” Snowden said in a July 2013 interview with the Guardian. He speaks of himself as a citizen who believes in his right to a private self and in a democracy that fundamentally exists to protect his interests.

This perspective obscures and erases what is at stake for poor people and people of color when it comes to being watched. “When surveillance is understood as a privacy issue, namely the privacy of middle- and upper-class white Americans, it invisibilizes its violent nature,” said Lara Kiswani, the Executive Director of the Arab Resource & Organizing Center, which has run community trainings in the Bay Area about the use of informants and undercover cops. “As Arabs and Muslims we understand the current targeting of our community as a way by which the state justifies policies, practices and institutions that further criminalize black and brown communities, bolstering the attacks on historically targeted communities in this country.”

While Snowden’s leaked “truths” were fixed objects—documents and slideshows— they were contextualized and presented by reporters and documentary filmmakers. If the national surveillance narrative has been “whitewashed,” did those storytellers play a part?

“The people who were telling the story were white, and they were focusing on how this happens to everybody, this impersonal surveillance that happens to everyone,” Naz Ahmad, a staff attorney with the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility Project (CLEAR) at the City University New York Law School, told me. “Even the term ‘mass surveillance’ glosses over and erases who has been targeted for years.”


Shereen never has been allowed the privilege to believe such illusions about the nature of state power. Surveillance not only determines how or when we are watched, but how the state creates and defines the object of our fear—the terrorist. Shereen understands how her government has defined her.

The Brooklyn College case was closed in early 2012, according to the NYPD. Then in 2013, the department reactivated Mel’s identity to investigative two women from Queens, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui. In the spring of 2015, four years after Mel first appeared on Brooklyn College campus, Siddiqui and Velentzas were arrested on terrorism charges. The undercover detective appeared to have played an active role in the alleged plot.

Although the women from Brooklyn College did not know Siddiqui and Velentzas, they were deeply disturbed by their arrest. “[Mel’s] personality was very, very nice, very charming,” Shereen told me. “Had I not suspected [she was working undercover], it really scares me what kind of impact she would have had. What she could have done to me.”

Her fear was not unreasonable. In many terrorism arrests since 9/11, informants or undercover officers have preyed on vulnerable individuals, leading them to commit alleged “terror” plots that never would have occurred otherwise.

Still, media outlets continue to accept the government’s surveillance paradigm: because Muslims pose a threat, they should be watched. In fact, I was rejected by almost 10 different outlets before Gothamist agreed to run the Brooklyn College story. Several outlets told me explicitly that these women’s experiences with the NYPD did not warrant public attention.

One editor who I worked with briefly asked me to return to Shereen and my sources at Brooklyn College and ask them a question: If Mel’s presence at the college—her covert intrusion into their lives—had actually led to the arrest of “terrorists,” would they think the surveillance they had endured was justified? The fundamental assumption in the editor’s request was that the threat posed by the two arrested women was real.

While the use of informants or undercover agents is not the primary cause of every terrorism arrest since 9/11, this kind of surveillance has played a central role in “manufacturing” the very figure of the terrorist we so fear. In 2014, Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute released a report documenting the abuses of counterterrorism stings.

“Americans have been told that their government is keeping them safe by preventing and prosecuting terrorism inside the U.S.,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch and one of the authors of the report. “But take a closer look and you realize that many of these people would never have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring, and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts.”

In the post-Snowden era, surveillance is largely written about as a tool of social control. But there is little recognition of how surveillance is now and has always been a means through which bodies are both racialized and subjugated by the state. As Seda Gürses, Arun Kundnani, and Joris van Hoboken write in an April 2016 Media, Culture & Society Journalarticle: “The production of racialized subjects through surveillance has a long history, running through government censuses, police record-keeping, and colonial discourses of ‘tribal’ and ‘ethnic’ definition.”

For Muslims, surveillance does not just mean being watched—it means being fashioned into the very terrorists that the rest of us fear. “Racialization is essential to the surveillance mechanisms that are in turn intrinsic to the modern social order,” Gürses and her co-authors explain. “If we live in a panoptic society, it is also a racial panopticon.”

Muslim-Americans are the sacrificial lambs of our security apparatus; they are the means by which the government justifies spying on the rest of us. Unless we take into account the experiences of American Muslims, we will never confront the myth that is essential to our government’s crackdown on civil liberties—that the threat of terrorism is as real as the government claims, and that surveillance (“done right”) is our primary means of protection.


Although the story about the women at Brooklyn College was read over 11,000 times on Gothamist, one story can’t shift the national conversation on surveillance. Yet I could see the pain and hopelessness on my sources’ faces: they had shared their story, and nothing changed.

The NYPD confirmed to the media and attorneys engaged in litigation that Mel was sent to spy on the Brooklyn College students, insisting it was a legal and warranted investigation. The president of Brooklyn College did not apologize to the students nor did she admonish the NYPD for intruding so flagrantly into her students’ lives. Even in a post-Snowden world, where the word ‘surveillance’ trips across everyone’s tongue, many white Americans have few concerns about what these women endured, or for the routine practices of state surveillance that have traumatized Muslim-American communities and left young men locked up for life.

I wonder how things might be different if Shereen’s name and narrative were known in households across the nation, if she were thought of as the niqabi-wearing whistleblower who followed Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. My sources risked a great deal in sharing their stories for the sake of the public good. When will we recognize them as heroines?

Aviva Stahl is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about prisons, national security, and immigration detention.

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

Think of it as a war system that's been coming home for years. The murder of George Floyd has finally shone a spotlight on the need to defund local police departments and find alternatives that provide more genuine safety and security. The same sort of spotlight needs soon to be shone on the American military machine and the wildly well-funded damage it's been doing for almost 19 years across the Greater Middle East and Africa.

Distorted funding priorities aren't the only driving force behind police violence against communities of color, but shifting such resources away from policing and to areas like jobs, education, housing, and restorative justice could be an important part of the solution. And any effort to boost spending on social programs should include massive cuts to the Pentagon's bloated budget. In short, it's time to defund our wars, both at home and abroad.

In most states and localities, spending on police and prisons outweighs what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once described as "programs of social uplift." The numbers are staggering. In some jurisdictions, police alone can account for up to 40 percent of local budgets, leaving little room for other priorities. In New York City, for instance, funding the police department's operations and compensation costs more than $10 billion yearly -- more, that is, than the federal government spends on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, more than $100 billion annually goes into policing.

Now, add to that another figure: what it costs to hold roughly two million (yes 2,000,000!) Americans in prisons and jails -- roughly $120 billion a year. Like policing, in other words, incarceration is big business in this country in 2020. After all, prison populations have grown by nearly 700 percent since 1972, driven in significant part by the "war on drugs," a so-called war that has disproportionately targeted people of color.

The Elephant in the Room: Pentagon Spending
In addition to the police and prisons, the other major source of American militarized spending is, of course, the Pentagon. That department, along with related activities like nuclear weapons funding at the Department of Energy, now gobbles up at least $750 billion per year. That's more than the military budgets of the next 10 countries combined.

Just as prisons and policing consume a startling proportion of state and local budgets, the Pentagon accounts for more than half of the federal government's discretionary budget and that includes most government functions other than Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As Ashik Siddique of the National Priorities Project has noted, the Trump administration's latest budget proposal "prioritizes brute force and militarization over diplomatic and humanitarian solutions to pressing societal crises" in a particularly striking way. "Just about every non-militarized department funded by the discretionary budget," he adds, "is on the chopping block, including all those that focus on reducing poverty and meeting human needs like education, housing, labor, health, energy, and transportation."

Spending on the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the deportation of immigrants through agencies like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and Customs and Border Protection totals another $24 billion annually. That puts U.S. spending on police, prisons, and the Pentagon at nearly $1 trillion per year and that doesn't even include the soaring budgets of other parts of the American national security state like the Department of Homeland Security ($92 billion) and the Veterans Administration ($243 billion -- a cost of past wars). Back in May 2019, Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight and I had already estimated that the full national security budget, including the Pentagon, was approximately $1.25 trillion a year and that estimate, of course, didn't even include the police and the prison system!

Another way of looking at the problem is to focus on just how much of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon and other militarized activities, including federal prisons, immigration enforcement, and veterans benefits. An analysis by the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies puts this figure at $887 billion, or more than 64 percent of the federal discretionary budget including public health, education, environmental protection, job training, energy development, housing, transportation, scientific research, and more.

Making the Connection: The 1033 Program
Ever since images of the police deploying armored vehicles against peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, hit the national airwaves in 2014, the Pentagon's program for supplying "surplus" military equipment to local police departments has been a news item. It's also gotten intermittent attention in Congress and the Executive Branch.

Since 1997, the Pentagon's 1033 Program, as it's called, has channeled to 8,000 separate law enforcement agencies more than $7.4 billion in surplus equipment, including Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles of the kind used on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, along with rifles, ammunition, grenade launchers, and night-vision devices. As Brian Barrett has pointed out at Wired, "Local law enforcement responding to even nonviolent protests has often looked more like the U.S. Armed Forces." Political scientist Ryan Welch co-authored a 2017 study suggesting, when it came to police departments equipped in such a fashion, "that officers with military hardware and mindsets will resort to violence more often and more quickly."

Under the circumstances and given who's providing the equipment, you won't be surprised to learn that the 1033 program also suffers from lax oversight. In 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) created a fake law enforcement agency and was able to acquire $1.2 million worth of equipment through the program, including night-vision goggles and simulated M-16A2 rifles. The request was approved within a week of the GAO's application.

The Obama administration finally implemented some reforms in the wake of Ferguson, banning the transfer of tracked vehicles, grenade launchers, and weaponized aircraft, among other things, while requiring police departments to supply more detailed rationales describing their need for specific equipment. But such modest efforts -- and they proved modest indeed – were promptly chucked out when Donald Trump took office. And the Trump administration changes quickly had a discernible effect. In 2019, the 1033 program had one of its biggest years ever, with about 15,750 military items transferred to law enforcement, a figure exceeded only in 2012, in the Obama years, when 17,000 such items were distributed.

As noted, the mere possession of military equipment has been shown to stoke the ever stronger "warrior culture" that now characterizes so many police departments, as evidenced by the use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams armed with military weaponry for routine drug enforcement activities. It's hardly just SWAT teams, though. The weaponry and related items provided under the 1033 program are widely employed by ordinary police forces. NBC News, for instance, reported that armored vehicles were used at least 29 times in response to Black Lives Matter protests organized since the murder of George Floyd, including in major urban areas like Philadelphia and Cincinnati. NBC has also determined that more than 1,100 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have been distributed to local law enforcement agencies under the MRAP program, going to communities large and small, including Sanford, Maine, population 20,000, and Moundsville, West Virginia, population 8,400.

A report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has similarly documented the use of Pentagon-supplied equipment in no-knock home invasions, including driving up to people's houses in just such armored vehicles to launch the raids. The ACLU concluded that "the militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a 'warrior' mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as battering rams, flashbang grenades, and APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers]."

Who Benefits?
Companies in the military-industrial complex earn billions of dollars selling weapons, as well as building and operating prisons and detention facilities, and supplying the police, while theoretically dealing with problems with deep social and economic roots. Generally speaking, by the time they're done, those problems have only become deeper and more rooted. Take, for example, giant weapons contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon that profit so splendidly from the sales of weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, weaponry that, in turn, has been used to kill tens of thousands of civilians in Yemen, destroy civilian infrastructure there, and block the provision of desperately needed humanitarian assistance. The result: more than 100,000 deaths in that country and millions more on the brink of famine and disease, including Covid-19.

Such major weapons firms have also been at the front of the line when it comes to benefiting from America's endless post-9/11 wars. The Costs of War Project at Brown University estimates that the United States has spent over $6.4 trillion on just some of those overseas conflicts since 2001. Hundreds of billions of those dollars ended up in the pockets of defense contractors, while problems in the U.S., left far less well funded, only grew.

And by the way, the Pentagon's regular budget, combined with direct spending on wars, also manages to provide huge benefits to such weapons makers. Almost half of the department's $750 billion budget goes to them. According to the Federal Procurement Data System's latest report on the top recipients of government contracts, the five largest U.S. arms makers alone -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics -- split well over $100 billion in Pentagon awards among them in 2019. Meanwhile, those same five firms pay their CEOs a total of approximately $100 million per year, with hundreds of millions more going to other top executives and board members.

Meanwhile, in the Trump years, the militarization of the border has become a particularly lucrative business opportunity, with General Atomics, for instance, supplying ever more surveillance drones and General Dynamics supplying an ever more intricate and expensive remote sensor surveillance system. There are also millions to be made running privatized prisons and immigrant detention centers, filling the coffers of firms like CoreCivic and the GEO Group, which have secured record profits in recent years while garnering about half their revenues from those two sources.

Last but not least is the market for even more police equipment. Local forces benefit from grants from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase a wide range of items to supplement the Pentagon's 1033 program.

The True Bottom Line
Much has been written about America's failed post-9/11 wars, which have cost trillions of dollars in taxpayer treasure, hundreds of thousands of lives (American and otherwise), and physical and psychological injuries to hundreds of thousands more. They have also propped up sectarian and corrupt regimes that have actually made it easier for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS to form and spread. Think of it as the ultimate boomerang effect, in which violence begets more violence, while allowing overseas terrorist organizations to thrive. As journalist Nick Turse has noted with respect to the militarization of U.S. Africa policy, the growth in American military operations on that continent has proceeded rather strikingly in conjunction with a proliferation of new terrorist groups. Put the best light on them and U.S. counterterror operations there have been ineffective. More likely, they have simply helped spawn further increases in terrorist activities in the region.

All of this has, in turn, been an ongoing disaster for underfunded domestic programs that would actually help ordinary Americans rather than squander their tax dollars on what passes for, but obviously isn't, "national defense." In the era of Covid-19, climate change, and an increased focus on longstanding structural racism and anti-black violence, a new approach to "security" is desperately needed, one that privileges not yet more bombs, guns, militarized police forces, and aircraft carriers but public health, environmental protection, and much-needed programs for quality jobs and education in underserved communities.

On the domestic front, particularly in communities of color, police are more often seen as an occupying force than a source of protection (and ever since the 1033 program was initiated, they've looked ever more like such a force as well). This has led to calls for defunding the police and seeking other means of providing public safety, including, minimally, not sending police to deal with petty drug offenses, domestic disputes, and problems caused by individuals with mental-health issues. Organizations like the Minneapolis-based Reclaim the Block have put forward proposals for crisis response by institutions other than the police and for community-based programs for resolving disputes and promoting restorative justice.

Shifting Priorities
Sharp reductions in spending on police, prisons, and the Pentagon could free up hundreds of billions of dollars for programs that might begin to fill the gap in spending on public investments in communities of color and elsewhere.

Organizations like the Movement for Black Lives and the Poor People's Campaign are already demanding these kinds of changes. In its moral budget, a comprehensive proposal for redirecting America's resources toward addressing poverty and away from war, racism, and ecological destruction, the Poor People's Campaign calls for a $350 billion annual cut in Pentagon spending -- almost half of current levels. Likewise, the platform of the Movement for Black Lives suggested a 50 percent reduction in Pentagon outlays. And a new youth anti-militarist movement, Dissenters, has called for defunding the armed forces as well as the police.

Ultimately, safety for all Americans will depend on more than just a shift of funding or a reduction in police armaments. After all, George Floyd and Eric Garner -- just two of the long list of black Americans to die at the hands of the police -- were killed not with high-tech weapons, but with a knee to the throat and a fatal chokehold. Shifting funds from the police to social services, dismantling police forces as they now exist, and creating new institutions to protect communities should be an essential part of any solution in the aftermath of Donald Trump's presidency. Similarly, investments in diplomacy, economic assistance, and cultural exchange would be needed in order to help rein in the American war machine which, of course, has been attended to in ways nothing else, from health care to schooling to infrastructure, has been in this century. When it comes to both the police and the Pentagon, the sooner change arrives the better off we'll all be. It's long past time to defund America's wars, both abroad and at home.

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Copyright 2020 William D. Hartung