In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, western governments are moving fast to legitimize expanded powers of mass surveillance and controls on the internet, all in the name of fighting terrorism.
US and European politicians have called to protect NSA-style snooping, and to advance the capacity to intrude on internet privacy by outlawing encryption. One idea is to establish a telecoms partnership that would unilaterally delete content deemed to “fuel hatred and violence” in situations considered “appropriate.” Heated discussions are going on at government and parliamentary level to explore cracking down on lawyer-clientconfidentiality.
What any of this would have done to prevent the Charlie Hebdo attacks remains a mystery, especially given that we already know the terrorists were on the radar of French intelligence for up to a decade.
There is little new in this story. The 9/11 atrocity was the first of many terrorist attacks, each succeeded by the dramatic extension of draconian state powers at the expense of civil liberties, backed up with the projection of military force in regions identified as hotspots harbouring terrorists. Yet there is little indication that this tried and tested formula has done anything to reduce the danger. If anything, we appear to be locked into a deepening cycle of violence with no clear end in sight.
As our governments push to increase their powers, INSURGE INTELLIGENCE can now reveal the vast extent to which the US intelligence community is implicated in nurturing the web platforms we know today, for the precise purpose of utilizing the technology as a mechanism to fight global ‘information war’ — a war to legitimize the power of the few over the rest of us. The lynchpin of this story is the corporation that in many ways defines the 21st century with its unobtrusive omnipresence: Google.
Google styles itself as a friendly, funky, user-friendly tech firm that rose to prominence through a combination of skill, luck, and genuine innovation. This is true. But it is a mere fragment of the story. In reality, Google is a smokescreen behind which lurks the US military-industrial complex.
The inside story of Google’s rise, revealed here for the first time, opens a can of worms that goes far beyond Google, unexpectedly shining a light on the existence of a parasitical network driving the evolution of the US national security apparatus, and profiting obscenely from its operation.
The shadow network
For the last two decades, US foreign and intelligence strategies have resulted in a global ‘war on terror’ consisting of prolonged military invasions in the Muslim world and comprehensive surveillance of civilian populations. These strategies have been incubated, if not dictated, by a secret network inside and beyond the Pentagon.
Established under the Clinton administration, consolidated under Bush, and firmly entrenched under Obama, this bipartisan network of mostly neoconservative ideologues sealed its dominion inside the US Department of Defense (DoD) by the dawn of 2015, through the operation of an obscure corporate entity outside the Pentagon, but run by the Pentagon.
In 1999, the CIA created its own venture capital investment firm, In-Q-Tel, to fund promising start-ups that might create technologies useful for intelligence agencies. But the inspiration for In-Q-Tel came earlier, when the Pentagon set up its own private sector outfit.
Known as the ‘Highlands Forum,’ this private network has operated as a bridge between the Pentagon and powerful American elites outside the military since the mid-1990s. Despite changes in civilian administrations, the network around the Highlands Forum has become increasingly successful in dominating US defense policy.
Giant defense contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton and Science Applications International Corporation are sometimes referred to as the ‘shadow intelligence community’ due to the revolving doors between them and government, and their capacity to simultaneously influence and profit from defense policy. But while these contractors compete for power and money, they also collaborate where it counts. The Highlands Forum has for 20 years provided an off the record space for some of the most prominent members of the shadow intelligence community to convene with senior US government officials, alongside other leaders in relevant industries.
I first stumbled upon the existence of this network in November 2014, when I reported for VICE’s Motherboard that US defense secretary Chuck Hagel’s newly announced ‘Defense Innovation Initiative’ was really about building Skynet — or something like it, essentially to dominate an emerging era of automated robotic warfare.
That story was based on a little-known Pentagon-funded ‘white paper’ published two months earlier by the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington DC, a leading US military-run institution that, among other things, generates research to develop US defense policy at the highest levels. The white paper clarified the thinking behind the new initiative, and the revolutionary scientific and technological developments it hoped to capitalize on.
The Highlands Forum
The co-author of that NDU white paper is Linton Wells, a 51-year veteran US defense official who served in the Bush administration as the Pentagon’s chief information officer, overseeing the National Security Agency (NSA) and other spy agencies. He still holds active top-secret security clearances, and according to a report by Government Executive magazine in 2006 he chaired the ‘Highlands Forum’, founded by the Pentagon in 1994.
New Scientist magazine (paywall) has compared the Highlands Forum to elite meetings like “Davos, Ditchley and Aspen,” describing it as “far less well known, yet… arguably just as influential a talking shop.” Regular Forum meetings bring together “innovative people to consider interactions between policy and technology. Its biggest successes have been in the development of high-tech network-based warfare.”
Given Wells’ role in such a Forum, perhaps it was not surprising that his defense transformation white paper was able to have such a profound impact on actual Pentagon policy. But if that was the case, why had no one noticed?
Despite being sponsored by the Pentagon, I could find no official page on the DoD website about the Forum. Active and former US military and intelligence sources had never heard of it, and neither did national security journalists. I was baffled.
The Pentagon’s intellectual capital venture firm
In the prologue to his 2007 book, A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity, John Clippinger, an MIT scientist of the Media Lab Human Dynamics Group, described how he participated in a “Highlands Forum” gathering, an “invitation-only meeting funded by the Department of Defense and chaired by the assistant for networks and information integration.” This was a senior DoD post overseeing operations and policies for the Pentagon’s most powerful spy agencies including the NSA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), among others. Starting from 2003, the position was transitioned into what is now the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. The Highlands Forum, Clippinger wrote, was founded by a retired US Navy captain named Dick O’Neill. Delegates include senior US military officials across numerous agencies and divisions — “captains, rear admirals, generals, colonels, majors and commanders” as well as “members of the DoD leadership.”
What at first appeared to be the Forum’s main website describes Highlands as “an informal cross-disciplinary network sponsored by Federal Government,” focusing on “information, science and technology.” Explanation is sparse, beyond a single ‘Department of Defense’ logo.
But Highlands also has another website describing itself as an “intellectual capital venture firm” with “extensive experience assisting corporations, organizations, and government leaders.” The firm provides a “wide range of services, including: strategic planning, scenario creation and gaming for expanding global markets,” as well as “working with clients to build strategies for execution.” ‘The Highlands Group Inc.,’ the website says, organizes a whole range of Forums on these issue.
For instance, in addition to the Highlands Forum, since 9/11 the Group runs the ‘Island Forum,’ an international event held in association with Singapore’s Ministry of Defense, which O’Neill oversees as “lead consultant.” The Singapore Ministry of Defense website describes the Island Forum as “patterned after the Highlands Forum organized for the US Department of Defense.” Documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden confirmed that Singapore played a key role in permitting the US and Australia to tap undersea cables to spy on Asian powers like Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Highlands Group website also reveals that Highlands is partnered with one of the most powerful defense contractors in the United States. Highlands is “supported by a network of companies and independent researchers,” including “our Highlands Forum partners for the past ten years at SAIC; and the vast Highlands network of participants in the Highlands Forum.”
SAIC stands for the US defense firm, Science Applications International Corporation, which changed its name to Leidos in 2013, operating SAIC as a subsidiary. SAIC/Leidos is among the top 10 largest defense contractors in the US, and works closely with the US intelligence community, especially the NSA. According to investigative journalist Tim Shorrock, the first to disclose the vast extent of the privatization of US intelligence with his seminal book Spies for Hire, SAIC has a “symbiotic relationship with the NSA: the agency is the company’s largest single customer and SAIC is the NSA’s largest contractor.”
The full name of Captain “Dick” O’Neill, the founding president of the Highlands Forum, is Richard Patrick O’Neill, who after his work in the Navy joined the DoD. He served his last post as deputy for strategy and policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence, before setting up Highlands.