Private Spies and Our Growing Surveillance State

By Kade Crockford

In early August, WikiLeaks released another cluster of the 5 million e-mails it obtained in late 2011 from Stratfor, a private intelligence agency Barron’s has called “The Shadow CIA.” The first batch had been made public early this year, revealing, in the Guardian’s words, “not simply the military-industrial complex that conspires to spy on citizens, activists and trouble-causers, but the extremely low quality of the information available to the highest bidder.” Among the most intriguing items disclosed in the latest document dump was the existence of a spooky-sounding company called TrapWire, sparking an online uproar among surveillance researchers and transparency advocates. The e-mails describe TrapWire as a surveillance system so advanced, so networked and intelligent, that it can sniff out threats to critical infrastructure before they materialize—a ‘pre-crime’ detection technology. Surveillance watchers rang the alarm: TrapWire, they warned, is the constellation of our greatest fears.

Undermining the excitement were other e-mails, showing that Stratfor had struck a deal to aggressively promote TrapWire to its intelligence, military and law enforcement clients, in exchange for an 8 percent cut of any resulting sales. This arrangement appeared to pay off, particularly in Texas. In one e-mail, Fred Burton, vice president for intelligence, boasted that he “wrote the plans for eventual TrapWire roll-out Statewide, in addition to the Texas State Capital.” In another, he speculated on the profits his company might reap in the event of a terrorist attack in Texas. “Positive developments continue with TrapWire in light of the Texas State Capital shooting,” he wrote, referring to an incident in 2010 that had prompted the state to increase security. “…We should see the system roll out fairly soon.” Perhaps most disturbingly, one company employee implored Burton to deploy TrapWire against activists in San Francisco: “Regarding SF landmarks of interest—they need something like Trapwire more for threats from activists than from terror threats. Both are useful, but the activists are ever present around here,” she wrote.

A central, oft-cited claim put forth to buttress the worst-case scenario pronouncements about TrapWire comes from an interview with the founder of the company that produced it, who said the technology is “more accurate than facial recognition.” A storm of speculation followed the discovery of this statement, one unproven allegation among many that would fill a series of articles resting on the claims of other private intelligence executives with a financial incentive to cast their product as all-powerful. Headlines included: “Wikileaks: Americans Being Monitored By Top Secret Surveillance System ‘TrapWire,’” “TrapWire tied to White House, Scotland Yard, M15 and others,” and “WIKILEAKS: Surveillance Cameras Around The Country Are Being Used In Huge Spy Network.” Reports warned that the system had been “installed…across the U.S. under the radar of most Americans.”

Adding to the intrigue, information on the TrapWire, Inc. website began mysteriously disappearing, including the page listing the names and biographies of top executives at the firm. This followed a strange press release from Cubic Corporation, a defense, intelligence and transportation services firm that bought TrapWire’s parent company in 2010, announcing: “Cubic Corporation Has No Affiliation with TrapWire, Inc.” (A true statement, although the company retained the trademarks for a number of products related to the sale until June 2011, including TrapWire.) What did the company have to hide? And why would a billion-dollar company move so quickly to distance itself from TrapWire?

We don’t have answers yet. But those are also not the most important questions. TrapWire certainly merits further attention and investigation—but not because it is so exceptional or unique in and of itself. TrapWire is symptomatic of an alarming transformation we have witnessed over the past ten years when it comes to Americans’ privacy versus government power. In a democracy, we should know nearly everything about the government and its operations—we, after all, pay for them—and the government should know very little about us, unless it has good reason to suspect we are engaged in criminal activity. But the past decade has seen a perilous inversion of this relationship. State secrecy is now the name of the game, from the White House all the way down to local governments, which have been quietly accepting federal funding for a variety of invasive surveillance and identification tools without so much as a basic public conversation on the associated benefits and risks. Most Americans have little idea of the extent to which their everyday, ordinary activities are pervasively monitored by government agencies and private spying outfits like TrapWire.

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TrapWire is the brainchild of Abraxas Applications, Inc, a subsidiary of the Abraxas Corporation. Founded shortly after September 11 by CIA veteran Richard “Hollis” Helms, the Abraxas Corporation was the first private intelligence firm to take advantage of the post-9/11 chaos and navel-gazing in the intelligence community—and Congress’ promises of limitless funds—to correct “what went wrong.” As one CIA official told the Washington Post last year: “Hollis is brilliant; he realized there was a huge market out there to exploit…. He was the first agency guy to figure it all out.” As Tim Shorrock writes in his indispensable book, Spies for Hire, Helms “became…notorious for recruiting new employees in the CIA cafeteria,” and was asked to please stop. By 2008, the company was worth $65 million and had a couple hundred former spooks on the payroll, according to Shorrock.

Among Helms’ first hires was Barry McManus, who served as the CIA’s chief polygraph examiner for ten years and became Abraxas’ vice president of “Deception Detection Services”—a dubious but lucrative product marketed to law enforcement and corporate managers who paid to be trained in spotting dishonesty during interrogations and interviews. (The same 2011 Washington Post story reported that one of McManus’s first purchases upon leaving the agency for Abraxas was a $160,000 black Maserati.) Another notable hire was Richard Calder, a former deputy director of administration at the CIA, who presided over a wave of outsourcing and downsizing at the agency in the late 1990s. This trend, and the redirection of resources away from human intelligence field officers and towards desk-bound “intelligence analysts,” would lead one long-time CIA operative, Robert Baer, to leave the agency and write a number of books blasting it as inefficient, bureaucracy-laden and corrupted by political and monied interests. “Like the rest of Washington, the CIA had fallen in love with technology,” Baer writes in See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, describing how the agency failed to protect the nation from the 9/11 attackers. “The theory was that satellites, the Internet, electronic intercepts, even academic publications would tell us all we needed to know about what went on beyond our borders.”

But instead of heeding Baer’s call for more human intelligence and better training for field operatives after 9/11, the CIA and the intelligence community doubled down on outsourcing and technology. Enter Abraxas—along with Booz Allen, Lockheed Martin, SAIC, and innumerable other private corporations, which together constitute a shadowy world of unaccountable and fabulously rich intelligence contractors. Today, nearly 5 million people in the United States have a security clearance, many of whom are contractors working for the 1,900 or so private intelligence corporations that collectively rake in billions of dollars of taxpayer money every year. TrapWire is just one product in a sea of unaccountable, secretive, private intelligence corporations.

So why the uproar?

TrapWire comprises three products that are marketed to law enforcement, financial services corporations, the armed forces and intelligence agencies. Its website lists them: TrapWire Critical Infrastructure, TrapWire Community Member and TrapWire Law Enforcement.

TrapWire’s Critical Infrastructure program uses existing surveillance cameras and license plate readers at military installations, corporate complexes and other “high-value targets” to spot security weaknesses, providing clients with “threat assessments” and advising them on how best to plug any gaps in monitoring coverage.

TrapWire Community, according to the website, “supports the online reporting of suspicious behavior by community members, such as the iWatch programs in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, and See Something Say Something in Las Vegas and New York.”

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