Blogs > Liberty and Power > The NSA Nation Moves to the Next Level

Aug 12, 2014

The NSA Nation Moves to the Next Level

tags: NSA,Wendy McElroy,Minerva Initiative,data collection,DoD

The social sciences in America have been militarized to produce tools that assist the government in understanding and suppressing dissent. Anthropology, linguistic analysis and sociology now serve the police state.

One program is called the Minerva Initiative after the Roman goddess of war. A June 12th article in the Guardian explained, “A US Department of Defense (DoD) research programme is funding universities to model the dynamics, risks and tipping points for large-scale civil unrest across the world, under the supervision of various US military agencies.” [Note: Minerva funding is typically channeled through less controversial agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.] Established in 2008, Minerva was budgeted to fund approximately $75 million worth of behavioral research over a five year period. It is now six years later. In 2014 to date, Minerva has distributed approximately $17.8 million


A typical project: over the next three years, Cornell University will model "the dynamics of social movement mobilisation and contagions." The university will locate the tipping point in uprisings such as the revolution in Egypt of 2011. Then the data can be extrapolated to make observations about uprisings in general. The Minerva site states,

The Department of Defense is interested in better understanding what drives individuals and groups to mobilize to institute change. In particular, models that explain and explore factors that motivate or inhibit groups to adopt political violence as a tactic will help inform understanding of where organized violence is likely to erupt, what factors might explain its contagion, and how one might circumvent its spread. 

In practice, Minerva makes little distinction between violent and non-violent dissent. In 2013, one of funded projects asked and answered the question “Who Does Not Become a Terrorist, and Why?” The primary researcher, Prof Maria Rasmussen of the US Naval Postgraduate School, described the project's mission, “In every context we find many individuals who share the demographic, family, cultural, and/or socioeconomic background of those who decided to engage in terrorism, and yet refrained themselves from taking up armed militancy, even though they were sympathetic to the end goals of armed groups. The field of terrorism studies has not, until recently, attempted to look at this control group. This project is not about terrorists, but about supporters of political violence."

In other words, a person who is sympathetic to the justice of a violent group's goals is an integral part of terrorism even if he is a pacifist. A belief, not an action, is what makes him a terrorist supporter. For example, a weaponless writer could sympathize with gun owners who defend the second amendment by drawing weapons on their own property. A commentator might argue for the release of free speech activists who are imprisoned for resisting arrest. To sympathize with dissent and to argue against authority suddenly becomes part of political violence.

Nafeez Ahmed, a journalist on international security, authored the June 12 article in the Guardian. He asked Rasmussen why non-violent activists were lumped together with violent ones, and precisely which people were investigated. One of his questions: “Does the US Department of Defense consider political movements aiming for large scale political and economic change as a national security matter? If so, why?”

No reply. Finally, the programming director of Minerva sent what amounted to a form letter from the press office that used many words to say nothing.

Minerva is not the first program to militarize social scientists. The Human Terrain System (HTS), for example, was launched in 2005. Through it, social scientists provide the military with an understanding of a population and culture with which they are interacting. Roberto J. Gonzalez, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at San Jose State University, is a prominent critic of HTS. He traces the origins of the project back to “the perceived threat of the Black Panthers and other militant groups." In short, it sprang up from a perceived need for domestic social control.

Last month, Ars Technica reported on the Social Media in Strategic Communications project run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which seeks to chart how ideas spread in social media. Another project went further. Funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the study “Containment Control for a Social Network with State-Dependent Connectivity” explicitly aimed at manipulating the “end” toward which ideas flow electronically. Ars Technica explained, “The research demonstrates that the mathematical principles used to control groups of autonomous robots can be applied to social networks in order to control human behavior. If properly calibrated, the mathematical models developed by Dixon and his fellow researchers could be used to sway the opinion of social networks toward a desired set of behaviors...”

These and other programs will almost certainly be applied domestically, if that is not happening already. On the Civil Arab site (June 18), human rights lawyer Zaha Hassan commented, “This research is unlikely to be limited to understanding uprisings and large-scale protests overseas, in some distant corner of the planet. In a post-9/11 world, the borders and contours of US national security are more fuzzy and fluid. Activists in the US, or those who support progressive change, ought to expect that they will fall under Minerva’s radar whenever they share a Facebook posting on Palestine or tweet a catchy little diddy on Twitter supporting other political activists in Syria, Egypt, or Iraq.” 

The drift toward social and ideological control is inevitable. In fact, that has been a key goal of Minerva since it was first established. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates signaled it in an April 2008 speech in which he announced Minerva. “[E]ventual success in the conflict against jihadist extremism will depend less on the results of individual military engagements and more on the overall ideological climate within the world of Islam. Understanding how this climate is likely to evolve over time, and what factors – including US actions – will affect it thus becomes one of the most significant intellectual challenge [sic] we face.”

Minerva will also be used to impose unpopular political agendas against which the public might revolt. For example, in 2013, a three-year $1.9 million project with the University of Maryland was tasked to assess the risk of civil unrest in the event of climate change. People do not rebel because of a rise in temperature; they rebel against government measures that 'respond' to climate change.

Government officials will never admit Minerva is being used or will be used domestically and for social control; they will deny it as the NSA did with its mass recording of average Americans. They will do so until denial is no longer possible. And, even then, they will continue to hide the scope of their attempt at thought control. They will do so because their fear is mounting.

On July 18, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke to a conference in Detroit about the social crisis sparked by the Obama administration's cynical use of illegal immigrants, especially children. (That wasn't Biden's take on the situation, of course.) Addressing the perceived problem of immigrants stealing jobs, he paid faux homage to the middle class, which was "the glue that has enabled us to be the most stable political and stable social system in the world.” From praising social stability, Biden immediately pivoted toward the possibility of civil unrest in America. "When that [the middle class] begins to fray, much more will fray than the loss of economic opportunity." 

Biden is correct to fear. Americans are increasingly aware that politicians are the enemy and widespread revolt is becoming more likely. But rather than change their own behavior, the rulers want to change how and what people dissident at a time.

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