When Kenneth Knight was in Brownsville to coordinate air support for the Zapata funeral, one of his prime objectives had been to set up the helicopter video feed, which was transmitted by direct downlink to a microwave antenna he had installed on the roof of the Border Patrol station. While I was there, Knight had pulled up the Big Pipe portal on a Border Patrol PC, logged in, and within a few mouse clicks we had that helicopter feed on the screen. The same feed could be pushed out through the Big Pipe to a local sheriff, the FBI, or any one of the hundreds of other local, state and federal “customers” with whom Knight works regularly. “We’re doing some really cool shit,” he had explained.
Several weeks later at his spartan office in Washington, Knight gave me the more comprehensive briefing he had promised. As things now stood, sitting at his own desk or at any registered computer (or tablet or smartphone) anywhere in the world, Knight could click from a feed originating from a helicopter or a Predator or a P3 surveillance plane to any other feed, including a new test sight—a DHS camera pointed at a security line inside Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Click, scroll, click; just like that.
I asked Knight how this might all work in practice, and he described a hypothetical mission in which a Guardian drone (the maritime version of the Predator) encounters an unidentified watercraft in the waters off Miami. The Big Pipe enables all the people from all the agencies who have an interest in the mission to be logged in simultaneously, each one watching the same video feed in real time, along with the same charts and maps and other mission data. The OAM drone operator might not be able to identify the craft, but a Coast Guard analyst could pronounce his take on the matter without having to wait for the pilot to verbalize what he thinks he’s seeing on the water.
That all sounded useful and efficient, but the real advantage, Knight continued, was not just being able to see things; it was being able to switch perspectives on the fly. Say the target vessel is approaching Miami, a major metropolitan area and therefore off limits. The drone could hand off the target to a manned Dash 8 aircraft. Then, as the vessel enters the port, it could be handed off again, now to fixed video cameras, whereupon ground personnel could also play a role. One platform can’t do it all—the air assets can’t stay airborne forever or go wherever you want them; the still cameras can’t move—“but if you start putting all these camera systems together, you’ve functionally closed the gap.”
It was becoming clear that the Big Pipe, with its persistent and pervasive surveillance capacity and its ability to archive everything into an easily accessible mission data package for intelligence analysis, could soon outstrip the command-and-control software used by American soldiers in war zones around the world. Knight wasn’t just talking about a specific operational zone like the Rio Grande Valley sector or the waters off the coast of Florida. He was targeting a much larger domain: the national air radar picture and the coastal marine surface radar picture, not just the surveillance cameras in the ports and along the border but also the surveillance cameras in metropolitan areas—airports, train stations, on the side of buildings, anywhere—such that the theater of operations was expanded to the widest possible extent. This broad spectrum of surveillance was really what Knight had in mind when he told me about total domain awareness, an operating picture that encompassed pretty much the entire country. Total domain awareness meant the ability to apply these tools, at will and as needed, anywhere in the U.S.
As I listened to Knight describe his vision, I recalled Borkowski’s skepticism about the ability of technology, by itself, to solve our border problems. It wasn’t clear, for example, that a fully robust Big Pipe could have prevented the gun that was purchased near Dallas and later killed Jaime Zapata from ending up in the Zetas’ arsenal—unless, of course, the movement of goods and people inside our borders were managed with the same rigor we apply to the traffic crossing the border. That level of operational control is beyond reach for now, but judging from the logistical expertise I saw demonstrated at the World Trade Bridge, it is far from unattainable. In October, a DHS official named Mariko Silver, testifying before Congress on border security, would make a similar point, explaining that President Obama’s border-security policy “requires us to move beyond seeing border management as simply guarding or policing the jurisdictional line between the United States and Mexico. The border and the interior are inextricably linked.”
The mission of securing our national borders has thus become indistinguishable from a new and still emerging understanding of what constitutes homeland security. The border has become a laboratory in which new security techniques can be perfected and where military tactics can be adapted for domestic application. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the border is slowly expanding to fill the entire continent.
Knight had tried to explain all of this to me back in Texas, but at that point I hadn’t fully understood what he meant. Now I could see. “The military does some of the same stuff, but they can’t do what we do. They work in the classified world. We actually cross domains,” he had said. “We are paving the way.”
Roger D. Hodge is the former editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of The Mendacity of Hope. He lives in Brooklyn.single page