The Counterrevolution

How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens


By Bernard E. Harcourt

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A distinguished political theorist sounds the alarm about the counterinsurgency strategies used to govern Americans

Militarized police officers with tanks and drones. Pervasive government surveillance and profiling. Social media that distract and track us. All of these, contends Bernard E. Harcourt, are facets of a new and radical governing paradigm in the United States — one rooted in the modes of warfare originally developed to suppress anticolonial revolutions and, more recently, to prosecute the war on terror.

The Counterrevolution is a penetrating and disturbing account of the rise of counterinsurgency, first as a military strategy but increasingly as a way of ruling ordinary Americans. Harcourt shows how counterinsurgency’s principles — bulk intelligence collection, ruthless targeting of minorities, pacifying propaganda — have taken hold domestically despite the absence of any radical uprising. This counterrevolution against phantom enemies, he argues, is the tyranny of our age. Seeing it clearly is the first step to resisting it effectively.



ON DECEMBER 9, 2014, CALIFORNIA SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN made public a 547-page report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence documenting the widespread use of torture by the United States after 9/11. The Senate report revealed far more intensive applications of torture than had previously been known. One prisoner was waterboarded “at least 183 times.” At one point, within less than 24 hours, he was subjected to “more than 65 applications of water” during 4 waterboarding sessions.1

Another prisoner was subject to torture for almost 20 straight days “on a near 24-hour-per-day basis.” During the period, he was waterboarded 2 to 4 times a day “with multiple iterations of the watering cycle during each application.” During one waterboarding session, the prisoner became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth,” and “remained unresponsive until medical intervention, when he regained consciousness and expelled ‘copious amounts of liquid.’” During the same period, that prisoner was also subjected “in varying combinations, 24 hours a day” to “walling, attention grasps, slapping, facial hold, stress positions, cramped confinement, white noise, and sleep deprivation.” When he was left alone, it was either in a stress position, on the waterboard, or locked in coffin-size boxes. In fact, during the period, he “spent a total of 266 hours (11 days, 2 hours) in the large (coffin-size) confinement box and 29 hours in a small confinement box, which had a width of 21 inches, a depth of 2.5 feet, and a height of 2.5 feet.” His interrogators told him that “the only way he would leave the facility was in the coffin-shaped confinement box.”2

In addition to exposing the scope of these known torture techniques, the Senate report also revealed the previously undisclosed use of mock executions, ice-water baths, “rectal rehydration” (defined as “rectal feeding without documented medical necessity”), and “threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to ‘cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.’” The Senate report uncovered the true nature of seemingly restrained techniques. The use of sleep deprivation, for instance, involved “keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads.” The report documented at least one fatality: “A detainee who had been held partially nude and chained to a concrete floor died from suspected hypothermia at the facility.” (The late journalist Anthony Lewis documented another death, according to an autopsy report, by “asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression.”) The report also revealed orchestrated efforts to cover up the extent of the torture, making full documentation impossible. In one case, for instance, a review of the catalogue of videotapes “found that recordings of a 21-hour period [of interrogation], which included two waterboarding sessions, were missing.”3 Still today, the full extent of the use of torture by American personnel is unknown.

Only a few hours before the release of the Senate torture report, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that the United States had launched a Predator drone strike in the Shabwa province of Yemen. Yemen was not then, and is not now, a conventional war zone for the United States, like Afghanistan or Iraq. Yet the US military operation involved, in addition to the drone strike, at least forty US Special Forces. The attack was apparently intended to rescue two hostages, but they were killed in the operation. In total, thirteen persons were killed—eight reported to be civilians, one a ten-year-old child. One villager told Reuters that five of his sons were killed. According to a local elder, “Some of the villagers were awakened by the explosions, they looked out of their windows, and the Americans shot them dead. [American and Yemeni soldiers] shot anyone who was close to the house that the hostages were in and raided at least four homes.”4

The first armed drone reached Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, a few weeks after the World Trade Center attacks. Soon thereafter, President George W. Bush signed an executive order directing the creation of a secret list of “high-value targets”—known colloquially as the “kill list”—and authorized the CIA to kill anyone on the list without further instructions or presidential approval. Drone use proliferated greatly after President Barack Obama took office in January 2009. Between January 20, 2009, and December 31, 2015, the Obama administration reportedly launched 473 strikes outside areas of active hostility.5 As of June 2017, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism had documented the accidental drone deaths of between 739 and 1,407 civilians, of which 240 to 308 were children, in Pakistan (since 2004), Afghanistan (since 2015), Yemen (since 2002), and Somalia (since 2007).6 As the philosopher Grégoire Chamayou wrote at the time, the drone became “one of the emblems of Barack Obama’s presidency, the instrument of his official antiterrorist doctrine, ‘kill rather than capture’: replace torture and Guantánamo with targeted assassination and the Predator drone.”7

At the same time as the drone strike in the Shabwa province, the press also reported that the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) had issued a classified order reauthorizing the Section 215 program of the USA PATRIOT Act for another ninety days. Section 215, passed by Congress following 9/11, provides for the bulk collection of telephony metadata held by American telecommunications companies. Under the program, the National Security Agency (NSA) amassed the telephone records of millions upon millions of American customers on a daily basis.8 In the words of a federal judge, Section 215 “enables the Government to store and analyze phone metadata of every telephone user in the United States.” That judge—appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush—called the NSA technology “almost Orwellian.”9

Section 215 was running alongside a number of other NSA programs for the massive bulk-collection and analysis of personal data of Americans and others, with ominous names such as PRISM, BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, BULLRUN, MYSTIC, UPSTREAM, and so on. The PRISM program, launched in 2007, gave the NSA direct access to the servers of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Paltalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, Apple, and more. In conjunction with other programs, such as XKeyscore, PRISM allowed NSA agents and contractors to extract any person’s e-mail contacts, user activities, webmail, and all their metadata; using other programs and tools, like the DNI Presenter, the agency could, according to the investigative reporting of Glenn Greenwald, “read the content of stored emails,” “read the content of Facebook chats or private messages,” and “learn the IP addresses of every person who visits any website the analyst specifies.” According to the Washington Post, already in 2010 the NSA was intercepting and storing 1.7 billion communications per day.10

While the FISC was reauthorizing domestic surveillance, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) was secretly targeting American Muslims in their investigations of domestic political activity. From at least 2010 to 2015, the NYPD directed 95 percent of its covert surveillance on American Muslim individuals or political activities associated with Islam.11 In doing so, the NYPD was continuing a decade-long history of monitoring American Muslims in and around the city.

Shortly after 9/11, the NYPD created a massive undercover surveillance operation that targeted American Muslim mosques, businesses, and community groups throughout New York City and the surrounding area. The NYPD had what it called “mosque crawlers” monitoring sermons and prayer services, infiltrating the faithful, and gleaning as much intelligence as possible from more than one hundred mosques, Muslim businesses, and student groups—without prior evidence of wrongdoing. The NYPD surveilled Muslim American citizens to determine where they lived, worked, ate, and prayed. It requested the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission to run a report on every Pakistani taxi driver in New York City. It even sent an undercover operative on a whitewater rafting trip with Muslim students from City College of New York to listen to their conversations and conduct undercover surveillance.12

By 2007, the NYPD intelligence unit had created what they called “secret Demographics Unit reports” of Newark, New Jersey (sixty pages long), of Suffolk County (seventy pages), and of Nassau County (ninety-six pages), among other locations, with multiple maps of neighborhoods, indexed and coded for mosques, madrassahs, and Muslim population density. These Demographics Unit reports mapped all the Islamic institutions, with photographs of the buildings and comprehensive profiles and notes, as well as intelligence reports on Muslim businesses detailing their addresses, telephone numbers, photographs, ethnicity, and “information of note” entries.13

And at the same time as the release of the Senate torture report, the drone strike in the Shabwa province, the reauthorization of NSA’s domestic surveillance, and NYPD’s targeting of American Muslims, a second wave of protests against police shootings erupted in Ferguson, Missouri—the site of the fatal police shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. The renewed protests were fueled in part by the decision of the grand jury in Staten Island, New York, to refuse to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Eric Garner. It was during those many waves of protests—in Ferguson and elsewhere around the country—that we witnessed the full militarization of police forces in the United States, now equipped with M4 rifles, sniper scopes, camouflage gear and helmets, tanks and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, and grenade launchers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Heavily weaponized police officers in fully armored vehicles faced-off mostly peaceful and unarmed civilian protesters. A new militarized police force was deployed on Main Street USA, and images like these flooded our news feeds and social media.

Waterboarding and coffin-sized confinement boxes. Drone strikes outside conventional war zones—alongside indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay and special military commissions. Total NSA surveillance. The secret infiltration of American mosques and Muslim student groups—without any evidence of wrongdoing. A hypermilitarized police force on American streets.

Some observers view these incidents as isolated, improvised, or unrelated excesses, or even as necessary but temporary deviations from our core American values during times of global terrorism and domestic turmoil post-9/11. Other commentators suggest that they constitute a new “state of exception”—a provisional radical mode of governing outside the rule of law.

But far from exceptional or aberrant or isolated—or temporary—these measures exemplify a new way that we, in the United States, govern ourselves abroad and at home: a new model of government inspired by the theory and practice of counterinsurgency warfare. These episodes are not spasmodic moments of temporary excess. They are not brief departures from the rule of law. Rather, these measures fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in a far broader and more momentous historical and political transformation: not from the rule of law to a state of exception, but from a model of governing based on large-scale battlefield warfare to one modeled on tactical counterinsurgency strategies.

Police advance on unarmed protester in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 11, 2014. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images, reproduced by permission.)

Police take up position at protest in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 12, 2014. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images, reproduced by permission.)

The central tenet of counterinsurgency theory is that populations—originally colonial populations, but now all populations, including our own—are made up of a small active minority of insurgents, a small group of those opposed to the insurgency, and a large passive majority that can be swayed one way or the other. The principal objective of counterinsurgency is to gain the allegiance of that passive majority. And its defining feature is that counterinsurgency is not just a military strategy, but more importantly a political technique. Warfare, it turns out, is political.

On the basis of these tenets, counterinsurgency theorists developed and refined over several decades three core strategies. First, obtain total information: every communication, all personal data, all metadata of everyone in the population must be collected and analyzed. Not just the active minority, but everyone in the population. Total information awareness is necessary to distinguish between friend and foe, and then to cull the dangerous minority from the docile majority. Second, eradicate the active minority: once the dangerous minority has been identified, it must be separated from the general population and eliminated by any means possible—it must be isolated, contained, and ultimately eradicated. Third, gain the allegiance of the general population: everything must be done to win the hearts and minds of the passive majority. It is their allegiance and loyalty, and passivity in the end, that matter most.

Counterinsurgency warfare has become our new governing paradigm in the United States, both abroad and at home. It has come to dominate our political imagination. It drives our foreign affairs and now our domestic policy as well.

But it was not always that way. For most of the twentieth century, we governed ourselves differently in the United States: our political imagination was dominated by the massive battlefields of the Marne, of Verdun, by the Blitzkrieg and the fire-bombing of Dresden—and by the use of the atomic bomb. It was an imagination of large-scale war, with waves of human bodies and columns of tanks, military campaigns, battlefields, fronts, theaters of war. And alongside those vast military engagements, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched an equally massive economic and political campaign—the New Deal. J. Edgar Hoover declared a large-scale War on Crime. Lyndon B. Johnson, in an effort to create the Great Society, inaugurated a society-wide War on Poverty. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan initiated a massive War on Drugs. Others, President Bill Clinton among them, reinvigorated a vast law-and-order assault that would give rise to what we now call “mass incarceration”: by the turn of the twenty-first century, a full 1 percent of the adult population was behind bars in the United States, about seven million or more people were under correctional supervision, and seventy-nine million had criminal records—collectively amounting to one of the broadest public initiatives in American history with a devastating human toll, all organized around the model of large-scale battlefield warfare.

Yet the transition from large-scale battlefield warfare to anticolonial struggles and the Cold War in the 1950s, and to the war against terrorism since 9/11, has brought about a historic transformation in our political imagination and in the way that we govern ourselves. In contrast to the earlier sweeping military paradigm, we now engage in surgical microstrategies of counterinsurgency abroad and at home. This style of warfare—the very opposite of large-scale battlefield wars like World War I or II—involves total surveillance, surgical operations, targeted strikes to eliminate small enclaves, psychological tactics, and political techniques to gain the trust of the people. The primary target is no longer a regular army, so much as it is the entire population. It involves a new way of thinking about politics, about strategy, and about victory. Counterinsurgency warfare foregrounds the political, or more precisely, fuses the military and political in a way earlier models of warfare had not. And it produces a counterinsurgency warfare model of politics—a new political way of thinking and governing that has come to dominate America’s military, then its foreign affairs, and now its domestic policy.

Long in the making, this historic transformation accelerated after 9/11. Over the past decades, the change has come about in three major waves.

First, militarily. In Vietnam and then in Iraq and Afghanistan, US military strategy shifted from a conventional model of large-scale battlefield war to unconventional forms of counterinsurgency warfare. As a result, war began to be fought differently. New techniques were developed to control anticolonial rebels and to repress anti-imperialist, often Communist revolutions. They were refined during the 1950s and 1960s in the colonies by Western powers, especially Britain, France, and the United States. And since 9/11, they have been deployed aggressively in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. First, the NSA surveillance programs and the tortured interrogations provided total intelligence in order to distinguish between an insurgent minority and the passive general population in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, drone strikes, special operations, targeted assassinations, and indefinite detention—as well as the most brutal forms of torture—served to terrorize and eliminate the active minority. And third, the US military attempted to win the hearts and minds of the masses through minimal humanitarian interventions, including building infrastructure and handing out goods; curating digital media (such as YouTube videos by moderate imams) and targeting them to individuals identified as being more susceptible to radicalization; and deploying armed drones that communicated the unique power of the United States to control territory.14

Second, in foreign affairs. As the counterinsurgency paradigm took hold militarily, US foreign policy began to shift to accommodate and embrace the core strategies of unconventional warfare—turning to total information awareness, targeted eradication of radical groups, and psychological pacification of the general populations abroad, even outside the confines of particular wartime conflicts. Drone strikes proliferated outside of war zones—in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia—and with them, complicated international negotiations over airspace and the use and location of military bases. NSA total information awareness went global, and digital propaganda campaigns extended across the globe. Counterinsurgency strategies, and especially counterinsurgency needs, gradually began to dominate foreign policy. To be sure, the international implications differed at different times. During the administration of President George W. Bush, foreign relations were deeply affected, for instance, by the rendition of suspects to cooperating countries; under President Barack Obama, by joint special operations and drone strikes within accommodating countries, as well as the sharing of intelligence with allies; and under President Donald Trump, by immigration bans, the construction of a wall on the southern border, and an actual or threatened withdrawal from multilateral agreements and organizations. But in truth, these differences are just variations on a counterinsurgency model of foreign affairs.

Third, at home. With the militarized policing of African American protesters, the monitoring of American mosques and targeting of American Muslims, and the demonization of Mexican Americans and Hispanics, the counterinsurgency has been domesticated. Big and small cities across America amassed counterinsurgency military equipment and know-how, and increasingly deploy these strategies in routine encounters—not only to fight terrorism, but also as an integral part of their day-to-day policing. At least one state, North Dakota, has already passed legislation authorizing the use of armed drones by law-enforcement agencies; in another state, Texas, a local police department deployed a robot bomb—in effect, an armed drone—to assassinate a criminal suspect. Counterinsurgency strategies are beginning to permeate the routine policing of democratic protest. Muslims and persons with Arab surnames are increasingly suspected and treated like high-value targets—along with antipolice protesters, minority youth, and undocumented residents. Programs like PRISM, Section 215, and others now provide the US government access to Americans’ personal data. Total surveillance has been turned on the American people.

It is we, Americans, who have become the target of our government’s counterinsurgency strategies. The three core strategies now shape the way that the United States, and increasingly the broader Euro-American West, governs: total NSA surveillance of domestic communications, relentless targeting of suspected minorities, and the continuous effort to win the allegiance of the passive masses. From domestic antiterrorism law enforcement to ordinary street policing, from schools to prisons, from our computers and smart TVs to the phones in our pockets, a new way of seeing, thinking, and governing has taken hold at home—and it is founded on a counterinsurgency war paradigm.

The result is radical. We are now witnessing the triumph of a counterinsurgency model of government on American soil in the absence of an insurgency, or uprising, or revolution. The perfected logic of counterinsurgency now applies regardless of whether there is a domestic insurrection. We now face a counterinsurgency without insurgency. A counterrevolution without revolution. The pure form of counterrevolution, without a revolution, as a simple modality of governing at home—what could be called “The Counterrevolution.”

Counterinsurgency practices were already being deployed domestically in the sixties. In the United States, the FBI’s treatment of the Black Panthers under J. Edgar Hoover took precisely the form of counterinsurgency tactics at exactly the same time that those strategies were being developed in Vietnam.15 As James Baldwin correctly diagnosed decades ago, “the Panthers… became the native Vietcong, the ghetto became the village in which the Vietcong were hidden, and in the ensuing search-and-destroy operations, everyone in the village became suspect.”16 Elsewhere as well. In Britain, for instance, the government brought home counterinsurgency strategies it had developed and refined in Palestine and Malaya to combat the Irish Republican Army and police the homeland.

But since 9/11, the counterinsurgency strategies first developed and tested abroad and occasionally used at home have been deployed across the United States in an unprecedented and pervasive manner. The tactics have been refined, legalized, and systematized. New digital technologies have made possible techniques of surveillance and drone warfare that were simply unimaginable forty years ago. Generations of American soldiers have been steeped in counterinsurgency training and are now back home. The strategies and methods have come to permeate the political imagination.

Even more importantly, what is truly novel and unique today is that the counterinsurgency paradigm has been untethered from its foundation. It is now a form of governing, domestically, without any insurrection or uprising to suppress. Yes, there are a handful of deeply unstable individuals who gravitate toward radical Islamic discourse (as well as toward white supremacy and radical Christian discourse) and wreak terrible damage—alongside a daily drumbeat of more ordinary multiple-victim shooting attacks in the United States. (In 2015, there was on average more than one shooting per day in the US that left four or more people dead or wounded.)17 But there is simply no veritable insurgency at home.

This is a difference in kind, not just in degree, and it produces a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. The Counterrevolution creates, out of whole cloth, the specter of a radical insurgency in this country that can then be embraced by unstable individuals—such as the San Bernadino shooter or the Chelsea bomber—and through which we can then imagine them as an active minority. In effect, The Counterrevolution produces the illusion of an insurgency—an illusion that then radically transforms our public imagination and our perception and treatment of minority communities. It generates a narrative of insurrection that turns whole groups and neighborhoods—of American Muslims or Mexicans, of African Americans, of Hispanics, of peaceful protesters—into suspected insurgents. In the process, entire families, blocks, and neighborhoods that could benefit from public services are transformed into counterinsurgency military targets.

The United States has turned the techniques of counterinsurgency on its own people. The torture, indefinite detention, and drone strikes are a vital part of how we got to this point, but it would be a mistake to stop there. Those strategies form just the basis of a much larger historical transformation that has fundamentally altered the way that we govern ourselves abroad and at home.

This book traces the arc of that transformation: from the development and refinement of counterinsurgency practices in the 1950s and 1960s, to its deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, to its domestication and use on American soil, and finally to the ultimate stage of a domesticated counterinsurgency model of governing in the very absence of any domestic insurrection—The Counterrevolution.

The Counterrevolution was well in place before the election of President Donald Trump, but his election, if anything, sealed the historical transformation. Despite Donald Trump’s campaign endorsements of waterboarding, of the indefinite detention of American suspects at Guantánamo, of a travel ban on Muslims, and of renewed surveillance of American mosques, Trump won the Electoral College with over sixty-two million votes, reflecting that a vast number of Americans are perfectly comfortable or actively embrace the domestication of counterinsurgency.

In his first months in office, President Trump filled his cabinet with counterinsurgency warriors, appointing tried-and-true practitioners to the highest security positions: retired Army lieutenant general H. R. McMaster as national security adviser, retired four-star Marine general James Mattis as secretary of defense, and retired four-star Marine general John F. Kelly first as secretary of homeland security and then as chief of staff at the White House. All three have extensive counterinsurgency backgrounds, and practiced and refined those strategies in Iraq. Also in his first months, Donald Trump signed executive orders that targeted Muslims (what became known as the “Muslim ban”), Mexicans (through his enhanced enforcement and deportation of undocumented residents and executive order to build “the wall”), police protesters (by lifting federal consent decrees with local police departments and encouraging new antiprotest legislation at the state level), and the LGBTQ community (by singlehandedly undoing progress on workplace antidiscrimination and then banning military service).


  • "As far as I can tell, Bernard Harcourt has never had an uninteresting thought."—Malcolm Gladwell
  • "Bernard Harcourt's The Counterrevolution is searing and indispensable. From this richly researched and powerfully argued account, we come to appreciate the full depth and scope of the crisis we now face in our country."—Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy
  • "Bernard Harcourt has written a brilliant and disturbing book, which shows that James Madison was right when he said that 'no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.'... This book should be required reading for every American."—John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
  • "Harcourt brilliantly recasts the premises, the terminology, and the consequences of post-9/11 policies of surveillance, detention, torture, and targeted killings.... The Counterrevolution will no doubt become a must-read for any student of the era."—Karen J. Greenberg, author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State and editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib
  • "I'm not on board with the premise, and I found something to disagree with on nearly every page, but make no mistake: The Counterrevolution is an important and deeply challenging book. It should be mandatory for anyone who cares about the future of the Republic, especially to challenge those who want to believe, as I do, that we aren't doomed."—Noah Feldman, author of The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President

On Sale
Feb 27, 2018
Page Count
336 pages
Basic Books

Bernard E. Harcourt

About the Author

Bernard E. Harcourt is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. The author of several books, including The Illusion of Free Markets and Exposed, he lives in New York City.

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