The Border-Security-Industrial Complex: A Conversation with Todd Miller

By Gabriel SchivoneOctober 3, 2018

The Border-Security-Industrial Complex: A Conversation with Todd Miller
IN SEPTEMBER 2016, author Todd Miller and I had planned an investigative trip to the Middle East trailing a labyrinth of state-corporate border intrigue. As writers focusing on US-Mexico borderlands issues, we had been closely following an emergent, free trade–modeled border-security-industrial complex whose publicly funded research and development leadership was based in Southern Arizona but fused a corporate manufacturing base in Sonora, Mexico, with a prospective Israeli high-tech security company clientele.

Shortly before our trip, we learned of yet another piece to the puzzle: the Obama administration had awarded the arms giant Raytheon half a billion dollars to build a 287-mile electronic barrier-surveillance zone along Jordan’s northern and eastern boundaries with Syria and Iraq, as well as a small triangular border area where Jordan, Israel, and Syria converge.

Given Jordan’s longtime military exchange program in Southern Arizona, along with a Raytheon division also based in the region, we decided to expand our overseas trip to dig into this enigmatic amalgam of state and corporate border projects — spanning both sides of the Jordan River — to see where it leads us.

As it turned out, we spent our time speaking with those who cross borders and tracking down those who build them.

The trip was punctuated, at times, by confrontations with paranoid or obtuse boundary forces. One such incident occurred at the Israeli-controlled Sheikh Hussein border crossing while we were returning, circuitously, from Amman, Jordan, to the city of Ramallah in the Palestinian West Bank, where we were based most of the trip.

We were walking the long distance from the gate to the port building on the sort of dry summer day near the Sea of Galilee where the blistering sunshine overhead saps your energy. Although we could only guess it at the time (September 2016), we were in the middle of then the hottest year on record, in one of the regions hardest hit by a rapidly warming planet. Droughts east of the Jordan River are projected to double by 2100 CE in what is already one of the driest country on earth, where freshwater access reaches below levels of “absolute scarcity” as defined by water scientists. Todd was then researching his newest title, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, which just won him a 2018 Izzy Award for investigative journalism. As we traveled together, I got the chance to view our surroundings through his eyes while researching my own work on a climate sci-fi graphic novel exploring climate change and borders in the year 2100.

Inside the port building, which was typically empty of crossers that day, the cooler temperature gave us some momentary relief before what happened next. Uniformed Israeli border guards had waved Todd through the port, ahead of me, and ushered him outside the building. No sooner was Todd out of sight when one of the soldiers stopped me after searching my backpack, apparently discovering some high-interest items. As I craned my neck to see what objects piqued his concern, he pulled out all the books I carried for the journey: some pamphlet reports from an Israeli-Palestinian research organization, Who Profits, whose staff researchers we interviewed the week prior; Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle; Jeff Halper’s War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification. And a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The guard stacked the books neatly in a pile on the static conveyer belt and walked over to his colleagues where they huddled for what seemed an extraordinarily long time, seldom looking my way but otherwise rapt in their conversation.

Todd later said he didn’t know what to do as he waited for me outside. What if they detained me long into the night, as they sometimes do?

But for me, what kept coursing through my mind was the similar tense encounter I had with the Jordanian secret police just days earlier. In between endless interviews and fatiguing day-trips to the Syrian border, Todd and I had taken a sightseeing walk from our hostel to the Roman Theatre, a historical landmark in downtown Amman. I sat writing in my diary on one of the giant stone steps at the base of the amphitheater. Having just finished the line, “I miss my friends,” and listed several names for whom I planned to bring some small trinkets to mark my visit, a shadow fell over my pages and I looked up at a group of three young men in plain-clothes pants and T-shirts, standing over me. They had me cornered, blocking every possible direction I could walk away, and demanded I show them my notebook and what I was writing.

The young men identified themselves as government agents. I didn’t have much cause to believe them until they reported with Jordanian military soldiers nearby who stood guard at the archway entrance. By then I had showed them my notebook pages while clutching deftly onto my knapsack. Not far away I saw Todd near the entryway standing helplessly, wondering what was going on. I shrugged at him quizzically.

Then, just as curt as the men approached me, they said I was free to go. I asked them, in English, why they detained me. They replied they thought I might graffiti the ancient theater stonework, disregarding the fact that my writing utensil of choice was a blue-ink ballpoint pen. Todd greeted me outside. I told him what happened. His reply: “Let’s get out of here. Seriously.” We quickened our step and spent part of the day looking over our shoulders.

Back at the Israeli port of entry now, I remembered Todd’s words from the amphitheater. I wanted to be out of there so that Todd, who was still waiting outside trying to guess when I’d show up, could say those words to me again: “Let’s get out of here.” After a while, the Israeli border guard gave me back my books and, just as tersely as his Jordanian counterparts, sent me on my way.

Todd and I should be used to these experiences, since this sort of thing happens at US-Mexico crossing points as well. But the more it happens to you — enduring nebulous security delays or mind games from laconic border guards — the more it reveals the reliable uncertainty of boundary enforcement. And the quailing, forbidding quality of 21st-century border policing from which seeking refuge is, naturally, one’s sensible next move.


GABRIEL SCHIVONE: When the Israeli guard pulled me aside at the Sheikh Hussein port of entry and collected my books as if the books were a security threat — for you, how is this crossing point a dynamic location to witness the convergence of borders and climate change in your newest book, Storming the Wall? Plenty of people may not see a connection there.

TODD MILLER: It all comes down to witnessing borders, especially when slammed up against socioeconomic inequality and ecological disasters relating to climate change. In that crossing, we were very close to the Jordan Valley, which is going through increasingly severe droughts. We were also quite close to Syria, which is now almost famously known for its drought that occurred between 2006 and 2010, the worst in 900 years that climate scientists have connected with global warming. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the “impact and threat of climate-related hazards,” on average, displaced 21.5 million people every year between 2008 and 2015. Most of these climate-displaced people on the move internationally, without authorization, will sooner or later collide with the walls and armed border guards we met everywhere we went on our trip. A scenario of somebody fleeing such a situation to the Sheikh Hussein border crossing, or a border nearby, is not that much of a stretch. If you’re crossing borders, that port of entry is an example of where the global border system is heading. And Israel is the very country that’s leading the charge in terms of “homeland security,” walls, and the border surveillance systems that goes with them.

One of the things you always hear growing up in the United States is that you’re innocent until proven guilty. In a border situation, it almost feels like the opposite. You’re guilty until proven innocent. You have to prove your innocence to the authorities. But for them to target you, in a sense, it doesn’t matter who you are. They could suspect you of being from some sort of armed group or they just don’t like the way you think about things. And that’s clearly what was happening with the books. The fact that they looked through your bag with an X-ray machine and immediately opened it and pulled out the books, is what’s telling. The guards looked at my books, too. But, actually, in my case, I purposefully brought a book — I forgot what it was — but it was a book that wouldn’t raise any suspicion —

It was a tourist book.

Right, a tourist book and I also just had a novel, which I positioned at the top of my bag. The fact that the guards went straight for the books as if they were going straight for a weapon, is quite telling. “My word is my weapon,” as the proverb goes. And the fact that they took out your books, some of which described a worldview that was different from the dominant government narrative, is very important when it comes to this kind of bordered world, where the gap between “innocent” and “guilty” is whether you’re compliant or not compliant; between who’s considered a threat and who’s not considered a threat. And a criterion that’s being used is that you’re singled out and interrogated for books!

It’s also scary, too, because in that kind of situation, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I was waiting for you — probably only for 15 minutes but it seems longer when you’re waiting for your friend who’s not coming out and you’re wondering what happened. A startling thing about borders is that you can disappear into the system for a long time. Like the example just today, as we talk [June 23, 2018], the young French Canadian jogger, Cedella Roman, who accidentally crossed the Canadian border into the United States and was caught and detained by CBP [Customs and Border Protection] for two weeks! Two weeks in CBP custody, just because she jogged across the border and didn’t realize she was in another country.

You mentioned Israel leading the charge in homeland security. Everyone we had talked with over the past two weeks before we stepped foot into the Sheikh Hussein crossing, no matter their ideological position — from human rights workers and activists (both Palestinian and Israeli), to journalists and homeland security industrialists — all confirmed it for us. What does this tell you about how the high-selling “Israeli model” functions in the internationalization of borders that your forthcoming book, Empire of Borders, explores?

For one thing, per capita, Israel has the largest homeland security industry in the world. People in the business world know this, from Israel to Southern Arizona. Like when Bruce Wright, associate vice president of Tech Parks Arizona and their “Israeli Business Initiative,” told us that they look to Israel as an exemplar for their business model. Whereas Wright and his colleagues identified the largest “cluster” of border security companies in North America grouped here in Southern Arizona, he said, Israel has the largest security cluster in the world.

Every single piece of the technology deployed in the Palestinian West Bank or Gaza, or any sort of border situation under Israeli control, is simultaneously being showcased to the world. Just a few days ago, the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, toured the Israeli-Egyptian border, checking out the “smart walls” Israel has built there. They’re selling their products worldwide. They’re bringing the products that are used on Palestinians, in most cases, or to guard the border against Sudanese refugees and others in the region escaping ecological, economic, and political crises — what sociologist Christian Parenti calls the “catastrophic convergence” in the 21st century. And when the exclusion works — often violently — then it’s sold. It’s a high-selling point to the world, like you said. That’s exactly what’s happening.

Israel’s also not the only one building up its borders. With so many people on the move from Middle East and Africa, European Union countries have dug in their heels, creating enforcement budgets 50 times what they were in 2005.

A high-ranking Jordanian official, during an interview, told us the reason why Israel’s border is so strong is not only for US funding but Jordanian collaboration — which he said in a didactic tone suggesting that Jordan doesn’t get enough credit. How does Israeli-Jordanian border collaboration, and the United States being everywhere in the region, inform your concept of Empire of Borders?

I almost don’t even differentiate. Obviously, to some degree, there’s differentiation with Israel having the biggest per capita border industry, and the United States being everywhere. But the Jordanian border they’re erecting along Syria is practically impassable. From all the reports, they’re shooting at everything that moves that’s crossing the border, as the Jordanian official, who knew the boundary policies intimately, told us himself.

You mean the “great wall of Jordan” border zone being built by the Raytheon Company, which drew us into Jordan to follow that lead in the first place.

Right, it’s Raytheon, a US company, that’s building it. In one way you can differentiate it through different countries. In another way, you almost have to think of the world not divided by countries but divided into a transnational corporate nexus of elites within countries over which the United States and Israel play a huge part, versus the rest of us who aren’t supposed to play any part.

Is that what you mean by a border “empire” referring to the title of your forthcoming book? Are you talking about US empire or are you talking about this global nexus where, at some point, you don’t even differentiate?

I think we’re really talking about both now. When you talk about US empire, you think of a traditional territorial empire. The empire nation takes over and occupies other countries, utilizes their resources.

But in another way, we really have to challenge the concept of “empire” in the 21st century, which is something I learned while writing this next book. You have to ask: is it like a traditional territorial empire anymore? When you think of US international border cooperation worldwide, it’s not only proxies following orders. It’s also elite governments cooperating with other elite governments. They’re sharing intelligence and creating cross-border zones that are mostly going after the poor or whoever’s organizing from below. It’s not just a US phenomenon. In 1988, when the Berlin Wall fell, there were 15 border walls in the world. Now, according to border scholar Elisabeth Vallet, there’re 70. It’s both territory enforcement and cooperation within the state-corporate nexus.

In 21st-century “empire” terms, the nation-state has been reduced to a security role. Under neoliberalism everything else in the nation-state, all the basic services, has been cut. But at the same time, the security apparatus of the nation-state has been bolstered and built up. So, pretty much now the nation-state serves this transnational corporate class wherein corporations can cross borders freely but people can’t. If I have a mining company I can go set up shop in Mexico without any problem. I’m embraced by the system. But if I’m a person in that community who’s displaced because my children and I start drinking cyanide from the mining company’s processing chemicals, which has happened many times in the Global South, and then I cross into the United States — then I’m a criminal. That’s how the system is set up.

You’ve attended border security conferences all over the world, some we’ve attended together, such as a drone conference on our trip. But what was so unusual about the activist “shadow conference” that took place alongside a security conference that you attended in Tel Aviv some months later?

The shadow conference I attended in Tel Aviv was organized to protest the ISDEF conference [International Defense and Security Expo], Israel’s largest military and homeland security conference. The shadow conference happened in the same area and the organizers rallied a protest of ISDEF.

Normally these conferences just proceed without any contestation. There’s very little pushback on what’s going on. When lots of private sector gather in places like that, they’re there to sell their products. They’re not used to anything but enthusiasm for what they’re doing.

But this time, the ISDEF conference vendors, panelists, and attendees were getting questioned about — what I would argue as — the key questions of our age that we need to be asking.

Like what?

Like what sort of impacts an increasingly militarized world is having on people and on planet Earth, the sorts of violence it brings, and who’s profiting from it.

At the ISDEF shadow conference, I was thinking of the sort of energy and resources, money and profit-making that’s going to borders and militaries and making sure that the status quo, including the fossil fuel industry, remains as profitable as ever.

Yet there are so many other ways to spend that money to create a better world. The prevailing state-corporate wisdom is: Let’s put a wall here, let’s put a surveillance tower there. Instead, we should be asking: why aren’t we putting more energy into mitigating the impacts of climate change and adapting to it? Because climate change is the biggest threat that humankind is facing.

There are so many relatively inexpensive biological preservation and restoration projects that, if they saw even a fraction of the same funding as border enforcement budgets, could do wonders for the world. Not far from here, just east of Agua Prieta in the Mexican state of Sonora, the Cuenca Los Ojos organization has a water-harvesting project that uses gabions, steel cages filled with rocks, placed along the banks and beds of a nearby wash. The use of the gabions is an ancient technique to slow down the rushing rainwaters during the summer monsoon season; they act as sponges on the soil to replenish the diverse plant life, the flowing ponds and creeks, and the animal life in the shared ecosystems of the US-Mexico borderlands.

And it’s worked marvelously. At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes. In this parched area, amid a 15-year drought, the water table had risen 30 feet! To me, it was a miracle. It showed me that another “border wall” is possible, one that restores life instead of excludes it. We need more of these kinds of hopeful, practical examples of sustainability in an era where human survival is at stake.


The above was edited from an interview conducted in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday, June 23, 2018.


Gabriel Schivone is the author of Making the New “Illegal”: How Decades of US Involvement in Central America Triggered the Modern Wave of Immigration(Prometheus Books, forthcoming). He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona and has been commissioned to produce his climate sci-fi graphic novel, Into the Sun.

LARB Contributor

Gabriel Schivone is the author of Making the New “Illegal”: How Decades of US Involvement in Central America Triggered the Modern Wave of Immigration (Prometheus Books, forthcoming). He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the University of Arizona and has been commissioned to produce his climate sci-fi graphic novel, Into the Sun.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!