John Poindexter—Navy veteran and national-security advisor during President Reagan’s second term—resigned in disgrace after congressional hearings revealed that the United States, with Poindexter’s approval and with the help of an enterprising young lieutenant colonel named Oliver North, was selling arms to Iran and giving the profits to the Nicaraguan Contras to support their guerilla war against the Sandinistas. Poindexter disappeared from the public scene for almost a decade, yet his vision of an all-encompassing intelligence-gathering network proved irresistible.
In those Tom Clancy days of “Soviet infiltration” and the Cold War, national security seemed simple, if not simpleminded. Today, we might very well prefer to sell arms to a secular left-wing government and use the proceeds to support Muslim moderates. Who wouldn’t want a few Sandinistas to kick around, rather than (another) nuclear Islamic state? As usual, U.S. policy was long on technological know-how and expense and short on historical context or long-term goals.
The Watchers is a well-written and gripping account of the emergence of the “surveillance state,” seen primarily through the prism of Poindexter’s career. Shane Harris, a journalist who has long covered national-security issues, describes the surveillance state as