Orwellian Surveillance of Tohono O’odham Nation – A Test Case for Entire US Border?

August 28, 2019

Will Parrish tells the story of how Israeli surveillance techniques originally developed to control Palestinians are now being used on Indigenous land near the border to control migrants, and could be expanded to the entire nation

Will Parrish tells the story of how Israeli surveillance techniques originally developed to control Palestinians are now being used on Indigenous land near the border to control migrants, and could be expanded to the entire nation


Orwellian Surveillance of Tohono O'odham Nation - A Test Case for Entire US Border?

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

The ability to monitor every aspect of our lives, seeing every moment in minute detail, is something out of Orwell’s futuristic warnings, but it’s being played out on our own borders, on the Tohono O’odham Reservation in Arizona on the US-Mexico border. And it’s being carried out with Israeli technology, was honed on its own separation wall, and is being used by the Customs and Border Protection agency. It’s known by its acronym CPB and it watches not just the border, but even our own American citizens.

In an extensive study published by The Intercept, Will Parrish reveals how the Israeli company Elbit Systems developed technologies, which were then procured by CPB to invade the privacy of the Tohono O’odham people themselves. Media outlets like PBS, ABC News, CBS, others, often report on the Tohono O’odham Reservation as a weak point in the US-Mexico border where some of the forces and the focus seems to be on blaming members of the Tohono O’odham Nation for smuggling drugs into the United States.

They do extensive reports and interview Customs and Border Protection people all the time, but rarely do they bother to interview any of the people on the res themselves. Here’s a rare interview on PBS with Francisco Valenzuela, who’s a member of that nation.

FRANCISCO VALENZUELA, TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION: I would compare the Border Patrol to the Gestapo.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, PBS NEWSHOUR: Francisco Valenzuela is a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe and a rancher. He says he’s been harassed repeatedly by Border Patrol agents.

FRANCISCO VALENZUELA: Every time I come down here, I experience something.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Like what?

FRANCISCO VALENZUELA: Well, literally being stopped and being searched and – point the guns at you.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, PBS NEWSHOUR: So you’ve had guns drawn at you.

FRANCISCO VALENZUELA: Oh yeah.

MARC STEINER: Now, Elbit Systems was selected for the contract because it boasts that its technology has been “field tested” in the occupied Gaza strip and the occupied West Bank in Palestine. Every device which is installed in the United States, has been tested against Palestinians first. Moreover, Elbit Systems’ business model is not just one of selling cameras or surveillance vehicles, such as drones. It also includes sending teams of Israeli former soldiers to install these devices, train local crews in how to use them, and maintain them over years. This means it seems that Israeli citizens are part of collecting data on American citizens, without our consent.

We’re joined by Will Parrish, an investigative journalist. His work has appeared in numerous publications including The Intercept, The Guardian, The Nation, East Bay Express, Counterpunch, and many more. He reports regularly on Indigenous struggles in this country for justice in the United States. His article for The Intercept, which was published on the 25th of August, is called “The US Border Patrol and an Israeli Military Contractor are Putting a Native American Reservation Under ‘Persistent Surveillance.’” Will, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

WILL PARRISH: Thanks so much for having me, Marc.

MARC STEINER: Let’s start with an understanding of how this surveillance really affects the lives of the people on that reservation, on the Tohono O’odham people themselves, and a bit about who they are and what this is about. Proponents of surveillance often argue that if you have nothing to hide, then why would you mind being under constant surveillance? What could it hurt? But talk a bit about that and the res and what’s significant about what’s going on at this moment on that reservation.

WILL PARRISH: Right. The Tohono O’odham reservation is a significant area of southern Arizona and it also straddles – it straddles the border essentially on either side of the Arizona border with the Mexican state of Sonora. It’s the third largest reservation in the United States. There’s people within the nation who live on the US side. There’s people within the nation who live on the Mexico side who have had their lives intensely disrupted over the past, especially 20 years or so. As the war on immigration has ramped up in the United States and the border has become increasingly militarized, there’s been a huge surge in Border Patrol agents and personnel and equipment in the reservation, which has led to intensifying harassment and surveillance of people living there. So kind of the coup de gras of surveillance is the development of these integrated fixed towers that are going to literally be able to monitor every movement that people make within a 7.5 mile radius of each individual tower. There will be 10 towers.

They’re positioned for the most part close to the border in fairly remote areas, but some are located right next to residential areas. So basically anything that anyone is doing living in those areas is going to be captured by these integrated fixed towers, which pipe images and other data back to Border Patrol command centers in southern Arizona. They have a back in time feature, sort of like a TiVo meets Google Earth kind of feature, where basically all the images and data are stored and can be pulled up across time, so the Border Patrol agents are able to monitor people’s movements over time, which is essentially what persistent surveillance means. It is this ability to tunnel back in time, as they say.

MARC STEINER: I want to explore a little bit about Elbit Systems, about the company that’s providing this surveillance technology. It’s an Israeli company. What makes what happened here with Elbit different than other companies? From what you wrote, they attempted to do this for several years beforehand, spent billions of dollars. It did not work. They brought Elbit in. Let’s talk about the significance of this relationship between Elbit as an Israeli security company, and the militarization of the border, and these things fit together in kind of a frightening way. Well, let me just stop there and let you kind of jump into that one.

WILL PARRISH: Yeah. Well, as you mentioned in your intro, Elbit Systems markets their products as being “field proven” on Palestinian people. And so, they have a lot of experience with these kinds of monitoring operations through having been a lead contractor on Israel’s border and separation walls in the Gaza Strip, West Bank as well as on the northern border of Israel with Lebanon and Palestine, on its border with Egypt. Elbit Systems has been involved in all these projects, so they were able to bring that expertise to this project with Customs and Border Protection. And in 2014, Customs and Border protection was looking for an experienced contractor to run this kind of surveillance operation in the wake of a failed attempt by a US-based military contractor, Boeing, to get a similar project up and running. It became a huge boondoggle.

Elbit was able to come in and say, “Hey, we’ve done this before. We are able to do this relatively inexpensively compared to other companies like Boeing.” And they got the contract and they’ve – based on the metrics and ways that Border Patrol is looking at this project, they’ve been very successful technologically in accomplishing what Border Patrol is looking for, and they’re poised to expand further. Elbit Systems is interesting because they have a division in the United States and they do a lot of their cutting edge research and technology developed in the United States because they benefit from the United States military aid to Israel, which under a condition of the Obama administration’s aid package to Israel, companies based in the United States have to receive that money. Elbit Systems actually has an increasing operation in the United States that is tied to the use of US military aid money that goes to Israel.

MARC STEINER: That’s a really interesting synergistic relationship you’re outlining. I think most people are not aware of that all the billions we give to Israel in terms of for its defense, giving it to its military, this is a reciprocal relationship if you have to have a company in this country to take some of that aid money to develop systems for this country’s surveillance systems and other things. That’s something that’s been really rarely explored other than what I’ve seen you try,  what you’re doing in this article.

WILL PARRISH: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think most people don’t realize that this money that goes to Israel in the name of supposedly deterring terrorism in that part of the world is actually being used here in the United States to develop technologies that then place, in this case, people living on US soil under surveillance. There’s this entire relationship, this relationship is much more complicated than people understand.

MARC STEINER: Very complicated and there’s—

WILL PARRISH: And it has a lot more direct impacts than people understand.

MARC STEINER: And as you point out in your article, the Border Patrol has authority a hundred miles from the border and the edge of the country on the ocean sides, on the border side as well. So it takes in the whole reservation and goes beyond. The majority of people in America really could end up being under the surveillance of the Border Patrol and the federal government. That’s something that we don’t think about very much.

WILL PARRISH: Right. Yeah. Border Patrol has this authority dating to some sort of obscure piece of legislation that was passed in the 1950s, like you say, to operate within a hundred miles of the southern border, the northern border and the coastlines, which technically places about two thirds of the United States population under the—Two thirds of the population is potentially subject to Border Patrol operations.

Most of the way that has manifested so far has been through, for example, Border Patrol checkpoints. The Border Patrol has dozens of checkpoints that they operate across that area that we just talked about, but they also have this increasingly sophisticated surveillance apparatus. And while, of course, there’s many police agencies that engage in intensive surveillance of people in the United States, Border Patrol has probably the most sophisticated of any police agency. So what we’ve seen in some instances and as I pointed out in the article in a few cases, for example at Standing Rock where the police in North Dakota were looking for more intense surveillance capabilities, they turned to the Border Patrol’s drones in order to enhance their surveillance of protesters at Standing Rock. And there’s a couple other instances I named in the article.

MARC STEINER: You mentioned San Diego, as well.

WILL PARRISH: I think it’s an under-studied, kind of under-reported aspect of what the Border Patrol does.

MARC STEINER: You mentioned in San Diego where they wanted to watch demonstrators who could be dangerous and they used it there. Then you quote Meredith Mingledorff, who is the spokesperson for the agency itself, for the Border Patrol, saying Elbit technology is a force multiplier for them. And which is really military jargon when you look at it and think about this huge force of 61,000 employees, $16 billion budget, and you can think of itself in some ways as a military force. I think that’s something we don’t think about as well. And let me just, think about that, but let’s look at this Jay Stanley quote you have in your article, Jay Stanley of the ACLU. Jay Stanley is a Senior Policy Analyst with the ACLU’s Speech Privacy and Technology Project, and he said in your article, “The border is the natural place for the government to start using them, surveillance material, since there is much more public support to deploy these sorts of intrusive technologies there.” When you look at this stuff, they’re getting involved in this because there’s a real danger about how this technology is going to be used, where it can go. They’re already expanding it. Talk a bit about that and the kind of things that you yourself want to question, given the work you just did.

WILL PARRISH: Yeah. Deploying the integrated fixed tower project, for example, provides an opportunity for these technologies to be further refined and for, through developing new forms of expertise and studying the technology, it becomes easier to use elsewhere. You know, the cost comes down, more people become proficient at it. It also helps to normalize the use of this technology. Who can imagine 20 years ago the use of this kind of technology on US domestic soil, as it were? But because of the sorts of political changes that have happened in our society in the last 20 years, this is happening, and there’s not widespread outrage about it. It seems almost normal to many people that this would happen, right?

One of the aspects of this story is that, yes, there’s this creeping technological proto-fascist kind of society being had tested out in the borderlands, where everyone is potentially subject to surveillance at all times and in incredibly intrusive ways. It’s sort of, if you look at it in a historical context, very fitting that this sort of technology is being used on an Indigenous reservation where the people who predominantly live there are an Indigenous population. Indigenous people, in many cases, have been the canaries in the coal mine of technologies that are later used more broadly in society. That is something to be aware of in the case of this technology.

MARC STEINER: Will Parrish, I want to thank you for the work you put out for The Intercept. This is really an important article. I think you’ve done some really great work here connecting the dots. Thank you for taking the time to join us here on The Real News. I look forward to many more conversations with you. Thanks so much.

WILL PARRISH: Okay, thank you so much for having me on.

MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.