The national security state has an annual budget of around $1 trillion. Of that huge pile of money, large amounts go to private companies the federal government awards contracts to. Some, like Lockheed Martin or Boeing, are household names, but many of the contractors fly just under the public’s radar. What follows are three companies you should know about (because some of them can learn a lot about you with their spy technologies).
L3 is everywhere. Those night-vision goggles the JSOC team in Zero Dark Thirty uses? That’s L3. The new machines that are replacing the naked scanners at the airport? That’s L3. Torture at Abu Ghraib? A former subsidiary of L3 was recently ordered to pay $ 5.28 million to 71 Iraqis who had been held in the awful prison.
Oh, and drones? L3 is on it. Reprieve, a UK-based human rights organization, earlier this month wrote on its Web site:
“L-3 Communications is one of the main subcontractors involved with production of the US’s lethal Predator since the inception of the programme. Predators are used by the CIA to kill ‘suspected militants’ and terrorise entire populations in Pakistan and Yemen. Drone strikes have escalated under the Obama administration and 2013 has already seen six strikes in the two countries.”
Unsurprisingly, L3 Communications is well connected beyond the national security community. Its chief financial officer recently spoke at Goldman Sachs, at what the financial titan hilariously refers to as a “fireside chat.”
L3 also supplies local law enforcement with its night-vision products and makes a license-plate recognition (LPR) device, a machine with disturbing implications. LPR can be mounted on cop cruisers or statically positioned at busy intersections and can run potentially thousands of license plates through law enforcement databases in a matter of hours. In some parts of the country LPR readers can track your location for miles. As the Wall Street Journal noted, surveillance of even “mundane” activities of people not accused of any crime is now “the default rather than the exception.”
L3 Communications embodies the totality of the national security and surveillance state. There is only minimal distinction between its military products and police products. Its night-vision line is sold to both military and law enforcement. Its participation in the drone program is now, as far as we know, limited to countries in the Middle East and North Africa. But in the words of the New York Times editorial board, “[i]t is not a question of whether drones will appear in the skies above the United States but how soon.” The NYT estimates the domestic drone market at $5 billion, likely a conservative estimate, and contractors will vie for that money in the public and private sphere. L3’s venture into airports, the border of where domestic policy meets foreign policy in the name of national security, is therefore significant both symbolically and materially.
In many ways, that is the most important story of the post-9/11 United States: the complete evaporation of the separation of foreign and domestic polices. Whether we’re talking about paramilitarized police, warrantless wiretapping, inhumane prison conditions, or drone surveillance, there exist few differences between a United States perpetually at war and a United States determined to police and imprison its people in unacceptable ways and at unacceptable rates.