We hear a lot about militarization of the police, but hardly anything about the opposite: The military’s transformation into a global police force.
I don’t mean police force in the sense of policing the world for the American Empire. I mean, quite literally, cops, people whose crime-fighting abilities are valued as much if not more than soldierly skills. Forensics has caught hold in the ranks, and such skills are being institutionalized—soon to persist as a standard military component, like artillery or air defense.
The implications are two-fold. For one thing, the increasing prominence of police work in the military further positions and strengthens the role of the military in our domestic lives. More existentially, the embrace of police work by the military influences the crucial question of just what the “war” on terror is. Because, ironically, if military’s role is merely collecting evidence, then the fundamental post-9/11 talking point that terrorism is not a law enforcement matter needs to be revised.
In 2010, with the end of two wars and defense budget cuts looming, the office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence said that the military needed to preserve capabilities developed since 9/11: “Innovative concepts and technologies at lower costs will ensure BEI [biometrics enabled intelligence] and FEI [forensics enabled intelligence] continue to mature and endure as robust, force multiplying capabilities in DoD,” the office said.
To do so, in 2012, the Pentagon activated the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency (DFBA), a move that at first could have been interpreted as a post-Iraq consolidation. Biometrics and forensics focus had grown willy-nilly as part of both high value targeting and the counter-IED fight and the new director of the merged organization referenced “a natural and powerful synergy” between the two disciplines … “forensics on the front-end, the exploitation of captured enemy materials or evidence [providing] undeniable scientific relationships for the back-end biometric links between individuals, materials, events and places.”
But after ISIS emerged and Yemen fell into chaos, consolidation and drawback were never implemented. Inside the Army, a strong constituency was arguing that the very nature of the military was changing. A 2014 Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) report on “Identity Operations for Strategic Landpower” asserted that:
“the range of military operations have continually demonstrated the importance of determining and ‘owning’ an individual’s identity in winning the tactical, operational, and strategic fight… These operations have illustrated the need to dramatically reshape and reengineer the structure, skill set, and tactics, techniques, and procedures of our forces. … The evolving nature of warfare indicates that adversarial military forces may employ individuals to operate within the local populations, refugees, and detainees to disrupt friendly operations.”
It is an expansive argument, both about the evolving nature of warfare and what constitutes “adversarial military forces,” as if the experiences of the past 14 years governs or should govern how the United States forms, trains and equips its military.
But it’s not without its detractors. There’s been a vigorous debate inside the military about focusing on big versus small wars; or whether conventional or unconventional combat is the future. With its Asian “pivot” the Obama administration even attempted to pull the military back to a traditional big war footing and now the decline of relations with Russia even more challenges the hegemony of the war on terror.
And yet earlier this year, the 2015 Defense Biometric and Forensic Strategy issued by the Pentagon went even further, trumpeting the reality of the Defense Department’s self-image as more consequential than either civil departments or law enforcement in its new-found task:
“Over the past decade, one marked by conflicts similar to, but distinctly unique from, prior military engagements, the DoD made unprecedented investments in biometric and forensic RDT&E [research, development, test and evaluation]. From refining biometric modalities to exploring ‘game changing’ forensic technologies such as rapid DNA to the near real-time updating of technologies to maintain a competitive advantage such as those supporting digital and multimedia exploitation, the DoD grew to be a leader in biometric and forensic research across the federal government.”
Traditional and non-traditional tasks are being subsumed into a policing-focused forensic community.
The Defense Intelligence Agency has been given responsibility for intelligence activities and programs related to forensics.
The Navy, always the single manager for explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technology, which includes technical exploitation of recovered explosives, explosive devices, and other explosive hazards, is more heavily involved in weapons technical intelligence and exploitation than ever before.
The Army has been appointed the DOD Executive Agent for forensic disciplines relating to DNA, serology, firearms and tool marks, latent prints, questioned documents, drug chemistry, and trace materials, as well as forensic medicine disciplines. It is also the Pentagon-wide executive for biometrics, the field that uses measurable biological and behavioral characteristics to uniquely identify people.
The Air Force has become the executive agent for digital and multimedia forensics relating to computer and electronic device forensics, audio forensics, image analysis, and video analysis.
Counter-IED operations, what I wrote about yesterday, have also been institutionalized. The Joint Requirements Oversight Council has directed the institutionalization of Combined Explosives Exploitation Cells (CEXC) and the Joint Expeditionary Forensic Facilities (JEFF) in regular force structure of the Marine Corps and Navy. Even to this day, an Exploitation Fusion Cell operates alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, combining forensics and intelligence analysis.
Many readers yesterday asked if we merely called IEDs bombs would they would be as effective a mobilizing war cry. And there is always an element of fundraising in everything the military does, that delicate balance between belief in mission and winning bureaucratic wars. One could argue, if we are going to be so singularly focused on high value targeting to attack terror groups and extremists wherever they are that we would also want the best positive identification that money and expertise can buy.
There was a time mid-war in Iraq and post-Rumsfeld when it—the military element of the war against terrorism—was all about the troops. Then the new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired the Air Force’s top officer and chis civilian boss for not doing enough for the troops (even if the learned pretense was nuclear weapons). A Joint Staff officer who had gained Gates’ trust, Gen. Norton Schwartz, was selected to be the 19th chief of staff of the Air Force, and he quickly moved out to embrace the ideal of Army first, stressing that Air Force personnel were on the battlefield—whether specialized air combat controllers or truck drivers and cooks, were there to support the ground forces. The corporate Air Force scrambled to prove itself worthy by inventing and then genuflecting at the altar of the “battlefield airman.” The catechism annoyed the airpower-first believers no end, and once Schwartz was gone and boots were withdrawn, the new term was circumscribed to mean only Air Force special operations forces.
Boots gone, the battlefield was returning to its robo-makeup, even if again there is the simplistic view that the United States can do better with more bombing to defeat ISIS, even as others promiscuously argue for a return of boots.
The struggle to define an enduring strategy for the never-ending war provides a useful parable to understand the complexity of the embrace of forensics. Lost is the question of why we are fighting at all, let alone what a military is for. I don’t mean to go all Clausewitz or posture about vital national interests. I mean merely to argue that we have built certain capabilities over the last decade and a half and those dominant capabilities—intelligence collection, targeting, remote airpower, network analysis and forensics—merely feed a cycle that becomes the entirety of what we are even able to do. People like Gates who are now arguing for a greater commitment of U.S. ground forces in Iraq do so based upon the false pretense that the surge turned the tide in the additional number of boots deployed—that more power won, which is certainly a simplistic way of applying old-war thinking to the Iraq case, ignoring exhaustion and escape that indeed facilitated the emergence of ISIS.
With a presidential election looming and no conventional military strategy in sight to defeat ISIS, a third Iraq war is not in the cards. So further policing it is. “SPOLIARE HOSTEM PERSONAE”—Deny the Enemy Anonymity—the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency crest says in gold letters. The chain, the Army says, “suggests the need to process casework through search and perseverance to achieve the mission.”
Process the paperwork of war? The world has become a crime scene.
[Photo courtesy of the US Army, 89th Military Police Brigade.]
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