For the last two decades, US foreign and intelligence strategies have resulted in a global ‘war on terror’ consisting of prolonged military invasions in the Muslim world and comprehensive surveillance of civilian populations. These strategies have been incubated, if not dictated, by a secret network inside and beyond the Pentagon.
Established under the Clinton administration, consolidated under Bush, and firmly entrenched under Obama, this bipartisan network of mostly neoconservative ideologues sealed its dominion inside the US Department of Defense (DoD) by the dawn of 2015, through the operation of an obscure corporate entity outside the Pentagon, but run by the Pentagon.
In 1999, the CIA created its own venture capital investment firm, In-Q-Tel, to fund promising start-ups that might create technologies useful for intelligence agencies. But the inspiration for In-Q-Tel came earlier, when the Pentagon set up its own private sector outfit.
Known as the ‘Highlands Forum,’ this private network has operated as a bridge between the Pentagon and powerful American elites outside the military since the mid-1990s. Despite changes in civilian administrations, the network around the Highlands Forum has become increasingly successful in dominating US defense policy.
Giant defense contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton and Science Applications International Corporation are sometimes referred to as the ‘shadow intelligence community’ due to the revolving doors between them and government, and their capacity to simultaneously influence and profit from defense policy. But while these contractors compete for power and money, they also collaborate where it counts. The Highlands Forum has for 20 years provided an off the record space for some of the most prominent members of the shadow intelligence community to convene with senior US government officials, alongside other leaders in relevant industries.
What at first appeared to be the Forum’s main website describes Highlands as “an informal cross-disciplinary network sponsored by Federal Government,” focusing on “information, science and technology.” Explanation is sparse, beyond a single ‘Department of Defense’ logo.
But Highlands also has another website describing itself as an “intellectual capital venture firm” with “extensive experience assisting corporations, organizations, and government leaders.” The firm provides a “wide range of services, including: strategic planning, scenario creation and gaming for expanding global markets,” as well as “working with clients to build strategies for execution.” ‘The Highlands Group Inc.,’ the website says, organizes a whole range of Forums on these issue.
For instance, in addition to the Highlands Forum, since 9/11 the Group runs the ‘Island Forum,’ an international event held in association with Singapore’s Ministry of Defense, which O’Neill oversees as “lead consultant.” The Singapore Ministry of Defense website describes the Island Forum as “patterned after the Highlands Forum organized for the US Department of Defense.” Documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden confirmed that Singapore played a key role in permitting the US and Australia to tap undersea cables to spy on Asian powers like Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Highlands Group website also reveals that Highlands is partnered with one of the most powerful defense contractors in the United States. Highlands is “supported by a network of companies and independent researchers,” including “our Highlands Forum partners for the past ten years at SAIC; and the vast Highlands network of participants in the Highlands Forum.”
SAIC stands for the US defense firm, Science Applications International Corporation, which changed its name to Leidos in 2013, operating SAIC as a subsidiary. SAIC/Leidos is among the top 10 largest defense contractors in the US, and works closely with the US intelligence community, especially the NSA. According to investigative journalist Tim Shorrock, the first to disclose the vast extent of the privatization of US intelligence with his seminal book Spies for Hire, SAIC has a “symbiotic relationship with the NSA: the agency is the company’s largest single customer and SAIC is the NSA’s largest contractor.”
The Highlands Forum has served as a two-way ‘influence bridge’: on the one hand, for the shadow network of private contractors to influence the formulation of information operations policy across US military intelligence; and on the other, for the Pentagon to influence what is going on in the private sector. There is no clearer evidence of this than the truly instrumental role of the Forum in incubating the idea of mass surveillance as a mechanism to dominate information on a global scale.
Official Pentagon records confirm that the Highlands Forum’s primary goal was to support Department of Defense policies on (...) information warfare. According to the Pentagon’s 1997 Annual Report to the President and the Congress under a section titled ‘Information Operations,’ (IO) the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) had authorized the “establishment of the Highlands Group of key DoD, industry, and academic IO experts” to coordinate IO across federal military intelligence agencies.
The following year’s DoD annual report reiterated the Forum’s centrality to information operations: “To examine IO issues, DoD sponsors the Highlands Forum, which brings together government, industry, and academic professionals from various fields.”
Notice that in 1998, the Highlands ‘Group’ became a ‘Forum.’ According to O’Neill, this was to avoid subjecting Highlands Forums meetings to “bureaucratic restrictions.” What he was alluding to was the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which regulates the way the US government can formally solicit the advice of special interests.
Known as the ‘open government’ law, FACA requires that US government officials cannot hold closed-door or secret consultations with people outside government to develop policy. All such consultations should take place via federal advisory committees that permit public scrutiny. FACA requires that meetings be held in public, announced via the Federal Register, that advisory groups are registered with an office at the General Services Administration, among other requirements intended to maintain accountability to the public interest.
But Government Executive reported that “O’Neill and others believed” such regulatory issues “would quell the free flow of ideas and no-holds-barred discussions they sought.” Pentagon lawyers had warned that the word ‘group’ might necessitate certain obligations and advised running the whole thing privately: “So O’Neill renamed it the Highlands Forum and moved into the private sector to manage it as a consultant to the Pentagon.” The Pentagon Highlands Forum thus runs under the mantle of O’Neill’s ‘intellectual capital venture firm,’ ‘Highlands Group Inc.’
In 1995, a year after William Perry appointed O’Neill to head up the Highlands Forum, SAIC — the Forum’s “partner” organization — launched a new Center for Information Strategy and Policy under the direction of “Jeffrey Cooper, a member of the Highlands Group who advises senior Defense Department officials on information warfare issues.” The Center had precisely the same objective as the Forum, to function as “a clearinghouse to bring together the best and brightest minds in information warfare by sponsoring a continuing series of seminars, papers and symposia which explore the implications of information warfare in depth.” The aim was to “enable leaders and policymakers from government, industry, and academia to address key issues surrounding information warfare to ensure that the United States retains its edge over any and all potential enemies.”
Despite FACA regulations, federal advisory committees are already heavily influenced, if not captured, by corporate power. So in bypassing FACA, the Pentagon overrode even the loose restrictions of FACA, by permanently excluding any possibility of public engagement.
The Highlands Forum doesn’t need to produce consensus recommendations. Its purpose is to provide the Pentagon a shadow social networking mechanism to cement lasting relationships with corporate power, and to identify new talent, that can be used to fine-tune information warfare strategies in absolute secrecy.
Total participants in the DoD’s Highlands Forum number over a thousand, although sessions largely consist of small closed workshop style gatherings of maximum 25–30 people, bringing together experts and officials depending on the subject. Delegates have included senior personnel from SAIC and Booz Allen Hamilton, RAND Corp., Cisco, Human Genome Sciences, eBay, PayPal, IBM, Google, Microsoft, AT&T, the BBC, Disney, General Electric, Enron, among innumerable others; Democrat and Republican members of Congress and the Senate; senior executives from the US energy industry such as Daniel Yergin of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates; and key people involved in both sides of presidential campaigns.
Other participants have included senior media professionals: David Ignatius, associate editor of the Washington Post and at the time the executive editor of the International Herald Tribune; Thomas Friedman, long-time New York Times columnist; Arnaud de Borchgrave, an editor at Washington Times and United Press International; Steven Levy, a former Newsweek editor, senior writer for Wired and now chief tech editor at Medium; Lawrence Wright, staff writer at the New Yorker; Noah Shachtmann, executive editor at the Daily Beast; Rebecca McKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices Online; Nik Gowing of the BBC; and John Markoff of the New York Times.
Due to its current sponsorship by the OSD’s undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the Forum has inside access to the chiefs of the main US surveillance and reconnaissance agencies, as well as the directors and their assistants at DoD research agencies, from DARPA, to the ONA. This also means that the Forum is deeply plugged into the Pentagon’s policy research task forces.
In 1994 — the same year the Highlands Forum was founded under the stewardship of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the ONA, and DARPA — two young PhD students at Stanford University, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, made their breakthrough on the first automated web crawling and page ranking application. That application remains the core component of what eventually became Google’s search service. Brin and Page had performed their work with funding from the Digital Library Initiative (DLI), a multi-agency programme of the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA and DARPA.
But that’s just one side of the story.
Throughout the development of the search engine, Sergey Brin reported regularly and directly to two people who were not Stanford faculty at all: Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham and Dr. Rick Steinheiser. Both were representatives of a sensitive US intelligence community research programme on information security and data-mining.
Thuraisingham is currently the Louis A. Beecherl distinguished professor and executive director of the Cyber Security Research Institute at the University of Texas, Dallas, and a sought-after expert on data-mining, data management and information security issues. But in the 1990s, she worked for the MITRE Corp., a leading US defense contractor, where she managed the Massive Digital Data Systems initiative, a project sponsored by the NSA, CIA, and the Director of Central Intelligence, to foster innovative research in information technology.
Brin and Page officially incorporated Google as a company in September 1998, the very month they last reported to Thuraisingham and Steinheiser. ‘Query Flocks’ was also part of Google’s patented ‘PageRank’ search system, which Brin developed at Stanford under the CIA-NSA-MDDS programme, as well as with funding from the NSF, IBM and Hitachi.
From inception, in other words, Google was incubated, nurtured and financed by interests that were directly affiliated or closely aligned with the US military intelligence community: many of whom were embedded in the Pentagon Highlands Forum.
In 2003, Google began customizing its search engine under special contract with the CIA for its Intelink Management Office, “overseeing top-secret, secret and sensitive but unclassified intranets for CIA and other IC agencies,” according to Homeland Security Today. That year, CIA funding was also being “quietly” funneled through the National Science Foundation to projects that might help create “new capabilities to combat terrorism through advanced technology.”
The following year, Google bought the firm Keyhole, which had originally been funded by In-Q-Tel. Using Keyhole, Google began developing the advanced satellite mapping software behind Google Earth. Former DARPA director and Highlands Forum co-chair Anita Jones had been on the board of In-Q-Tel at this time, and remains so today.
Then in November 2005, In-Q-Tel issued notices to sell $2.2 million of Google stocks. Google’s relationship with US intelligence was further brought to light when an IT contractor told a closed Washington DC conference of intelligence professionals on a not-for-attribution basis that at least one US intelligence agency was working to “leverage Google’s [user] data monitoring” capability as part of an effort to acquire data of “national security intelligence interest.”
In sum, many of Google’s most senior executives are affiliated with the Pentagon Highlands Forum, which throughout the period of Google’s growth over the last decade, has surfaced repeatedly as a connecting and convening force. The US intelligence community’s incubation of Google from inception occurred through a combination of direct sponsorship and informal networks of financial influence, themselves closely aligned with Pentagon interests.
The Highlands Forum itself has used the informal relationship building of such private networks to bring together defense and industry sectors, enabling the fusion of corporate and military interests in expanding the covert surveillance apparatus in the name of national security. The power wielded by the shadow network represented in the Forum can, however, be gauged most clearly from its impact during the Bush administration, when it played a direct role in literally writing the strategies and doctrines behind US efforts to achieve ‘information superiority.’