The Watchers

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The Watchers

Praise for The Watchers:

“It uses smart technical analysis and crisp writing to put the reader inside the room with the watchers and to help better understand the mind-set that gave rise to the modern surveillance state…an insightful glimpse into how Washington works and how ideas are marketed and sold in the back rooms of power, whether the product being peddled is widgets or a radical model for intelligence gathering”–The New York Times

“A vivid, well-reported and intellectually sophisticated account of the surveillance state in the wake of the attacks on September 11th 2001.”–The Economist, Best Books of 2010

“A painstaking account…tells readers more than they could have learned from the mainstream media at the time of the events.”–Associated Press

The Watchers reads like a thriller, and the story is sadly on the mark in describing our limited oversight of the government’s surveillance powers.”–Gregory F. Treverton, Director, Center for Global Risk and Security, Rand Corporation

“This is an astonishingly detailed, well-researched narrative.”–James Mann, Author of Rise of the Vulcans

[Harris] has turned what could have been the driest of policy studies into a riveting yarn of skulduggery and betrayal.”–San Francisco Chronicle

A “timely and admirably balanced account…informative and dramatic narrative…” –Publishers Weekly

“Harris displays an exquisite understanding of the intricacies of his topic and a remarkable sensitivity to the genuine concerns of the watchers and their critics. …A sharply written, wise analysis of the complex mashup of electronic sleuthing, law, policy and culture.”–Kirkus Reviews

“What’s either most reassuring or most unnerving about The Watchers is that the men and women it depicts don’t appear to have hidden agendas. For them, technology and not ideology is the overriding concern, a matter of leveling the playing field and harnessing the Internet into one unlimited search engine.”–Los Angeles Times

“Harris sifts through a confusing array of acronyms, fascinating characters, and chilling operations to offer an absorbing look at modern spying technology and how it impacts average Americans.”–Booklist

Using exclusive access to key government insiders, Shane Harris chronicles the rise of America’s surveillance state over the past 25 years and highlights a dangerous paradox: Our government’s strategy has made it harder to catch terrorists and easier to spy on the rest of us.

In 1983, Admiral John Poindexter, President Reagan’s National Security Advisor, realized that the U.S. might have prevented the terrorist massacre of 241 Marines in Beirut, if intelligence agencies could have analyzed in real time the data they had on the attackers. Poindexter poured technical know-how and government funds into his dream–a system that would sift reams of information for signs of terrorist activity. Decades later, that elusive dream still captivates Washington. After 9/11, Poindexter returned to government with a controversial program, called Total Information Awareness, to detect the next attack. Today it has evolved into a secretly funded operation that can gather a trove of personal information on every American and millions of others worldwide.

Despite billions of dollars spent on this quest since the Reagan era, we still can’t discern future threats in the vast data cloud that surrounds us all. But the government can now spy on its citizens with an ease that was impossible-and illegal-just a few years ago. Drawing on unprecedented access to the people who pioneered this high-tech spycraft, Harris shows how it has moved from the province of right-wing technocrats into the mainstream, becoming a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s war on terror.

Harris puts us behind the scenes where twenty-first-century spycraft was born. We witness Poindexter quietly working from the private sector to get government to buy in to his programs in the early nineties. We see an Army major agonize as he carries out an order to delete the vast database he’s gathered on possible terror cells-and on thousands of innocent Americans-months before 9/11. We follow National Security Agency Director Mike Hayden as he persuades the Bush administration to secretly monitor Americans based on a flawed interpretation of the law. And we see Poindexter return to government with a seemingly implausible idea: that the authorities can collect data about citizens and at the same time protect their privacy. After Congress publicly bans the Total Information Awareness program in 2003, we watch as it secretly becomes a “black program” at the NSA, then engaged in a massive surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and e-mails.

When the next crisis comes, our government will inevitably crack down on civil liberties, but it will be no better able to identify new dangers. This is the outcome of a dream first hatched almost three decades ago, and The Watchers is an engrossing, unnerving wake-up call.

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Fresh Air Interview

I talked with Terry Gross about surveillance, data mining, and the recent revelations of NSA intelligence programs. Listen here.

Giving in to the Surveillance State

My op-ed in today’s New York Times looks at a decade of secret government surveillance and why we’re still powerless against it.

The Watchers wins the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism

I’m happy to report that The Watchers won this year’s Bernstein Award for excellence in journalism! This is a huge thrill, and I’m honored to be included in such fine company of past winners and finalists. You can read more about the award here. And here’s a write up of the evening ceremony, which was held this week at the New York Public Library.

The Watchers–in paperback!

The Watchers is on sale today in paperback. You can pick up a copy in your favorite bookstore or online. It’s got a nifty new cover, as well as a new afterword on the Christmas Day bombing attempt. That event occurred as the hardcover was going to press, so we couldn’t work it in. I’m glad it’s in the new version, because it ties up the theme of the whole book very nicely.

Here are some links to bookstores selling the paperback:


Barnes & Noble






The Watchers makes The Economist’s Best Books of 2010

The Economist has named The Watchers one of its best books of 2010! I’m honored to be included in such a fine group of authors. The magazine calls the book, “A vivid, well-reported and intellectually sophisticated account of the surveillance state in the wake of the attacks on September 11th 2001.”


C-SPAN has been re-airing my book talk from the International Spy Museum in Washington. This was on February 18, publication day for The Watchers.

Do surveillance cameras stop terrorism?

Or do they just help investigators find someone after he’s blown something up? In light of the failed attack on Times Square, I joined “Word of Mouth” on New Hampshire Public Radio to talk about the pros and cons of surveillance cameras. Do we need more? Or are they giving us a false sense of security?

Book talk at Book Passage in San Francisco

Here’s a video of my talk at Book Passage last week.

West Coast Tour

I’m back from a great book tour on the West Coast. My trip took me to Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco. More than a dozen interviews and three book talks in four days! Thanks to everyone who came out to the events and asked such great questions, and thanks to all the terrific radio and TV hosts and their producers for welcoming me onto their shows. Here’s a quick wrap up of some of the appearances, with links.

KATU “AM Northwest”


KUOW FM, “The Conversation”

KGO AM 810, “The Ronn Owens Show”

KRON, Henry Tenenbaum

On the Media interview

I was pleased to be a guest on NPR’s “On the Media,” a terrific weekly show hosted by Brooke Gladstone. You can listen to our interview here, and also check out the full program.

Democracy Now interview

Democracy Now had me as their guest this week. We discussed the scope of electronic surveillance and the government’s take on privacy.

Reason interview

My friend and Reason magazine editor Katherine Mangu-Ward interviewed me for Reason TV. You can read the transcript here. Video coming soon.

Associated Press review

The AP gave The Watchers a favorable review. Read it here!

The Watchers in the New York Times

The New York Times review is in today’s paper. Eric Lichtblau, no stranger to the opaque world of surveillance, gave it strong praise:

“it uses smart technical analysis and crisp writing to put the reader inside the room with the watchers and to help better understand the mind-set that gave rise to the modern surveillance state.”

“At its best ‘The Watchers’ provides an insightful glimpse into how Washington works and how ideas are marketed and sold in the back rooms of power, whether the product being peddled is widgets or a radical model for intelligence gathering.”

Slate Book Club: Debating The Watchers

This week, I’ll have an online discussion at Slate with my friend and fellow intelligence author, Patrick Radden Keefe. We’ll be talking about The Watchers, my relationship with John Poindexter, the limits of surveillance, and the future of privacy.

The Watchers at Politics and Prose

I’ll be speaking Tuesday night, February 23, at DC’s great bookstore, Politics and Prose. The event is free and open to all. After my talk, I’ll be signing books, as well. Thanks to P&P for hosting me.

The Watchers on “To the Best of Our Knowledge”

This week’s broadcast of “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” from Wisconsin Public Radio, features an interview about my book, the rise of the surveillnace state, and the future of cyber war.

The Watchers in the Wall Street Journal

Check out this essay in the Wall Street Journal based on my book.  I take an in-depth look at what’s wrong with the U.S. security system, and how to fix it.

The Watchers–coming February 18!

My new–and first–book will be out February 18. I’ll be posting news and updates here, including reviews and dates for personal appearances,  both in stores and on the air. To follow all the action, sign up for this site’s feed, follow me on Twitter (shanewharris), or join The Watchers on Facebook.  And if you want to read more about the book, just click on the tab above titled “Book.” Thanks! And enjoy the story!