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Surveillance and the ‘Open-source Insurgency’

February 19, 2009

The US military-industrial complex is always trying to identify new threats to bolster its budgets. There was a minor outcry a few years ago when US military powerpoint slides on strategy seemed to indicate that it regarded international civil society organisations, including the Red Cross, as a potential source of such threat. Then came 9/11 and the war on terror and for a while it didn’t need these phantom menaces as there were real global enemies, and fortunately for the military-industrial complex, it seemed that those enemies might be infinitely expandable and malleable into what was briefly termed the ‘long war’.

But the war on terror isn’t what it was. So there seems to be some effort to resurrect previous threats. One of these is ‘the war on drugs’ now rebranded as ‘narco-terrorism’ or ‘narco-insurgency’. And the particular focus of the concern is closer to the United States: Mexico. Writing in the self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool’, Forbes magazine, Reihan Salaam argued that Mexico’s ongoing struggle with drug-related violence was a major threat which could ‘blind-side’ the USA. Now, Republicans like Salaam are struggling to find anything important to say when its obvious what the major global problems are, and the US electorate has decided that the Republicans aren’t the people to solve them. He is of course correct that there is a serious situation in Mexico – and indeed elsewhere in Latin-America: the drug-trafficking gangs are also the major problem for the Brazilian government in any attempt to include their excluded favela communities. However, he makes no mention of the other underlying cause of destabilization in the USA’s southern neighbour – the way in which NAFTA has transformed Mexico into a subordinate economic role to the USA as source of cheap production facilities and cheap labour, all the while being told that its people are not wanted in the USA. The EU has its critics, but at least its building of free-trade has been accompanied by a far greater degree of free movement of people and reciprocal political rights. Nor is there any reference to the consumption of cocaine and crack in the USA that is driving the trade (as the first comment on the article notes).

Instead Salaam tries to analyze the Mexican situation using a recent strategic theory, and one which is profoundly worrying in its implications. In an essay in the New York Times in October 2005, John Robb argued that the Iraq war had turned into what he termed an ‘open-source’ insurgency, “a resilient network made up of small, autonomous groups”. He argued that those resisting the US occupation and other armed groups were like open-source software developers in that “the insurgents have subordinated their individual goals to the common goal of the movement”. (Never mind once again, that there is an obvious underlying common goal – that of getting rid of an occupying foreign power!).

Now of course, in many ways this was just a restatement of the whole post-Cold War, network-centric warfare hypothesis. There are also echoes back to the kind of language which has been used to describe ‘eastern’ or ‘foreign’ peoples for centuries – the British in India being unable to tell ‘them’ apart, the faceless and numberless ‘yellow peril’, the ‘godless communists’ who subordinated their individual will to the collective, and the ‘clash of civilizations’. It’s the hive-mind, the fear of humans who don’t appear to act ‘like us’. Without the overt racism of course: this is Orientalism 2.0, the politically-correct version!

However the addition of the label ‘open-source’ is no accident. Hierarchical, national and corporate bodies are profoundly afraid of the openness, apparent lack of interest in conventional goals (profit, advancement, etc.), and absence of obvious leadership or deference that is represented by the new collaborative networks like Open-source. They are not ‘under control’.

So how to bring them ‘under control’? John Robb’s first (and rather refreshing) answer was that in many ways you probably can’t and that in Iraq, the US should have probably ‘let them win’. But this is an unpopular response for the uneconstructed military-industrial complex. For them the first answer is a consistent one, and as usual it combines strategic military and economic goals. This answer is surveillance. For the Internet, we have seen, and continue to see, attempts in multiple countries to attack the basis of what makes the Internet creative and free, in the name of all kinds of ‘risks’ (mainly terrorism, identity crime, pirating and paedophilia). Of course these risks are no greater on the Internet than in the material world, but the Internet is still for many people, and many politicians in particular, a vast, unknown terrain which they do not understand: ‘here be dragons’ as the old maps used to have it of any such ‘terra incognita’.

For countries afflicted by the new ‘open-source insurgency’, the answer is the same. The Defense Industry Daily today starts off its story on Mexico with the apparently uncontentious statement that “Mexico needs surveillance.” It then lists with the usual kind of techno-pornographic relish of these publications, all the mainly Israeli UAVs and surveillance craft that the Mexican state is buying. We are supposed to cheer. We are supposed to think that this is evidence of Mexico’s growing maturity. Soon Mexico will be monitored and ‘under control’. No evidence of whether surveillance ‘works’ (even in military terms) troubles these kinds of stories. That is taken as self-evident. And certainly there is no question of whether this could in any way be the wrong approach, or even a counterproductive strategy. As the Brazilian parliamentarian to whom I was talking yesterday said, about the favelas, the only answer to both crime (because, let’s not forget that’s what ‘narco-terrorism’ really is) and the poverty on which it feeds, is in the long-term (and that means starting now not later): sanitation, schools, hospitals, transport, jobs – in other words providing the poor with access to the same society that the wealthier enjoy. Extending intensive high-tech military surveillance across the global south is not only a complete failure to address these underlying issues, it also diverts much-needed money away from social priorities. It is the wrong answer to the wrong question… except for the defense industry.

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