All posts by Matthew Meyer

Intelligence Dilemma: an Ethical Crisis Right Beneath Our Noses

My research topic for the RBA is determining whether post-9/11 American intelligence policy, very similar to Cold War intelligence methodology, is within the best interest of the United States and its citizens. Specifically, I will discuss how there is an ethical dilemma with modern intelligence tactics that seek to protect the nation at the expense of civil liberties and privacy rights, citing the USA Patriot Act and airport discrimination as key examples. Then, I will explain the direction that US intelligence policy should follow to best align with the interests of Americans. Ultimately, there should be a balance between privacy and security in the United States, and exploring the ethics and shortcomings of current US intelligence policy will help illuminate the best way to achieve this balance. My brainstorming map illustrates this progression of both major arguments stemming from my topic.

Link to RBA brainstorming map:


Post-9/11 Espionage: Does History Repeat Itself?

My topic addresses the reemergence of a security and counterintelligence state following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and whether this new form of espionage/intelligence gathering is an extension of Cold War thinking or a new era of 21st century national security tactics. The contradictory beliefs surrounding modern counterintelligence and surveillance policies provide deeper insight into the ethics, effectiveness, and need for such tactics in the 21st century post-9/11 world.

The expansion of American counterintelligence and surveillance networks after 9/11 is widely agreed upon by scholars; the USA Patriot Act and the bolstering of the CIA and military budgets under the Bush Administration are sufficient evidence. Yet, there are contradictory perspectives on the direction and origin of espionage in the post-9/11 War on Terror. Two significant viewpoints emerge between Richard Aldrich and Joseph Masco, scholars conducting research in espionage and counterintelligence policy trends in the United States. Masco begins by acknowledging his opposition: “People labeled 9/11 as the start of a new epoch that replaced the logic about security and global order gained from the Cold War with new understandings of American strength and vulnerability” (Masco). However, he then articulates that the American counterintelligence response to 9/11 is remarkably similar to the tactics used against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. For instance, mass surveillance of citizens through the USA Patriot Act is rooted in underlying motives similar to the Red Scare in the Cold War. In contrast, Aldrich contends that the post-9/11 era of covert ops is fundamentally different than the American security state in the Cold War: “Most of the targets that intelligence agencies have been asked to address since the end of the Cold War have an increasingly globalized dimension and in response intelligence and security agencies are being forced to transform their activities.” Aldrich believes that border fluidity attributed to globalization gave rise to a more elusive enemy, causing American intelligence agencies to deviate from Cold War secrecy and gravitate toward international collaboration.

The research conducted in this topic points to some relevant and often overlooked questions: is America adapting to the context of the 21st century in a way that serves the best interests of citizens? Are the tactics America is using necessary or even ethical? In my RBA, I plan to address these questions and create an argument for what the US needs to do with its counterintelligence programs and role in the War on Terror to best serve its interests.

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Science Fiction: an Intergalactic Reflection of Earthly Folly

The Cold War marked a new era in American foreign policy: interventionism and the proliferation of American democratic principles. Accompanying this ideological transition was wave of media responses, many supporting American foreign policy in the spirit of patriotism. However, Nicholas Sarantakes points out that a silent form of media, namely science fiction, served as a social critique and opponent of American policy. Using Star Trek as an example, Sarantakes points to various episodes as allegories to US policy. For instance, “Patterns of Force” entails the USS Enterprise’s search for a missing Federation researcher, John Gill, whom the crew finds on Planet Ekos. Gill, disobeying the Star Fleet’s “Prime Directive” intervenes in the planet’s affairs by establishing a near-identical Nazi regime on the planet, even labeling himself as the führer. Captain Kirk and his crew side with the resistance force and apprehend Gill before he executes a plan to invade a nearby planet. To the crew’s surprise, Gill is drugged by the Ekonian Melakon who uses Gill as a puppet figurehead. Gill explains that he only implemented a Nazi regime in an effort to unify the planet and promote progress. Sarantakes explains that “Patterns of Force,” although entertaining, is really aimed at emphasizing that US intervention in other countries is a costly mistake. Sarantakes references Gill’s dying words: “the non-interference directive is the only way.” Highlighting the Nazi-like intervention by Gill as a tremendous failure, Sarantakes contends that Roddenberry used the episode to shed light on the potential for disaster in American international intervention during the Cold War.

Science fiction is commonly seen as solely a means of entertainment, and many people will see it as just that. However, the seemingly harmless genre, because of its perceived separation from politics and policy, is a vital medium for raising opposition to political ideology. As a form of entertainment, science fiction is never censored, but its growing popularity allows it to subconsciously influence the minds of millions of Americans. In other words, it is a way to introduce ideas of opposition to American ideology without being condemned or even detected. Another example of this theory is with Avatar, where humans develop space technology capable of reaching an alien planet with vital resources. In an effort to control the planet, the humans fight the indigenous species, who seek to protect their planet’s resources. This example of science fiction is an allegory to American imperialism in the Middle East and South America. Avatar subtly serves as an example that seeking to control other countries for the exploitation of resources undermines human rights and results in disaster.

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Urban Destruction Then and Now: Implications of the Cold War Nuclear Scare and Modern Terrorism

The Cold War was perhaps the most frightening period in American history. Each new day, as millions of Americans set out to reap the benefits of American freedom and prosperity, presented a chance of complete devastation from a nuclear attack. The most significant factor fostering such widespread national fear was the mere inability of knowing when that day would come. Matthew Farnish discusses the implications of this Cold War national mindset in his essay “Disaster and Decentralization: American Cities and the Cold War.” Farnish emphasizes the central realization of American weakness by paraphrasing Bernard Brodie’s beliefs: “The atomic bomb…radically altered the ‘significance of distance between rival powers’, raising ‘to the first order of importance as a factor of power the precise spatial arrangement of industry and population within each country.'” In other words, the centralized and highly populous American cities prevalent during the Cold War were “inviting targets” for a nuclear strike, meaning spatial separation of the population and industry was crucial for survivability after such a strike. If America were to maintain a superior position amidst a nuclear war, it would have to decentralize and disperse its urban centers. Farnish reflects that  various forms of media, through dramatization of nuclear attacks on cities like New York and Washington, fueled the paranoia and facilitated a natural migration from cities to suburbs. Naturally, he claims, suburbs allowed a more natural and secure life, free from the dangers of nuclear devastation. However, Farnish labels cities as both “threatened from above and within,” highlighting that social tension in urban areas likely would hinder efforts of post-attack reconstruction involving different interest groups, such as blacks and whites. The vulnerability of the city as a populated nuclear target and disorganized system elevated decentralization as a key factor of the Cold War civil defense program in maintaining American strength.

Throughout his essay, Farnish also describes the haunting images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki post-nuclear detonation. These images, making their way into the American public, stimulated media responses of images of New York and other profound American cities devastated by nuclear attack that incited fear and anxiety among Americans. Similarly, the image of the Twin Towers burning and falling after the 9/11 attack is etched into the minds of all Americans: an image reminiscent of Cold War fears of atomic attack on a city center. The main difference in this imagery is that an atomic attack never occurred on American soil whereas 9/11 was a reality: American cities truly are vulnerable to fatal attacks. Today, Americans are weary of tall buildings, and we even plan our new skyscrapers with structural supports designed to withstand a plane crash. We are also hesitant, especially in my case, to insert ourselves into large crowds or urban centers in fear of a terrorist attack. This paranoia is supported by the reality of terrorism and illustrated by the burning twin towers, much like the reality of a nuclear attack in the Cold War.

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Pointing Fingers: an Irrational Means of Security

In his first chapter “G.W. Bush Administration Narratives of Threat and Containment,” Lugo investigates George W. Bush’s rhetorical association between terrorism and sexuality. Bush’s antipathetic rhetoric towards terrorists and campaign to uphold the sanctity of traditional marriage and social norms regarding sexuality in the wake of 9/11 conflate to an image of being un-American. Thus, Bush affectively revived the “us vs. them” mentality prevalent in the cold war by outcasting homosexuals and same sex marriage. Unlike the clear Soviet threat in the Cold War, however, Americans were confronted with a level of uncertainty of who the enemy actually was, leading the government and public to cling onto a common enemy, the LGBT community. Lugo describes that “what has often been rendered un-American has been treated with suspicion and ‘othered.'” In other words, Americans identified same sex couples and homosexuals as scapegoats amidst the uncertainty and fear after 9/11.

I find the silence in opposition to such finger pointing quite interesting considering America’s stance on scapegoating in World War II. As Nazi Germany at the mercy of Hitler blamed the Jewish community for post-WWI economic instability, Americans protested the inhumane and ludicrous incrimination. After all, the U.S. worked to liberate concentration camps across Europe and host Jewish refugees fleeing many European countries. Yet, Americans remained remained passive as history repeated itself with the rising disdain surrounding the LGBT community after 9/11. This rejection demonstrates that intense fear and feelings of insecurity on a national level naturally promote irrational behavior, even with the so-called “good guys.”

Person of Interest: a Modern Depiction of Cold War Sentiments

The September 11, 2001 attack on New York City was the largest organized terrorist attack in U.S. history, resulting in the loss of nearly 3,000 American lives. Unexpected and devastating, it spurred a nationwide emergence in paranoia surrounding potential threats to the American lifestyle not seen since the Cold War. The possibility of sleeper cells conducting major attacks on U.S. soil gave rise to a movement entailing widespread national surveillance spearheaded by the Patriot Act, enabling personal data collection and enhanced investigatory techniques for suspected terrorists. Most Americans eagerly embraced the sacrifice of privacy, motivated by fear and insecurity.

Person of Interest (2011-) is a TV series following ex-CIA agent John Ries and computer genius Harold Finch, accomplices in fighting petty crimes in New York City. In an attempt to improve national security in a post 9/11 world, the government commissions Finch to create a surveillance supercomputer, dubbed “the Machine,” capable of tapping into every security camera and cell phone in New York. With access to millions of citizens’ personal data, the government apprehends suspected terrorists, many of whom are found by Finch to be innocent. The government’s corrupt use of the Machine and infringement on personal privacy rights highlights the moral dilemma of such extensive surveillance, even in the interest of national security.

Person of Interest embodies the Post 9/11 mentality that increased privacy is subordinate to national security. Yet, this mindset is simply a modern re-emergence of Cold War containment culture, specifically resembling the “Red Scare” and the national call for vigilance in weeding out Communist threats to American society. Afraid of perceived threats to American society from Communist infiltrators during the Cold War, the government organized files on suspected communists and urged American citizens to spy on neighbors and even family. Large scale surveillance was the most effective perceived method to combat national threats. Person of Interest assesses these Cold War aspirations of certainty and safety as natural human behavior. To what extent does surveillance infringe upon human rights? The means of seeking security, then and now, may be unethical, but fear and suspicion are overwhelming sentiments capable of driving an entire nation to take drastic measures; privacy is readily abandoned in a world of insecurity.

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