Policing America’s Empire

Book by Alfred W. McCoy, University of Wisconsin Press, 2009, 672 pp.

As the U.S. continues to slug it out in its current conflicts with seemingly no end in sight, Alfred W. McCoy has published an important new book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State, which provides an historical corrective to the flawed analysis and hubris of the war hawks. He lays bare the coercive and fundamentally illiberal consequences of U.S. imperial influence in the Philippines during the first half of the 20th century, which set a precedent for subsequent interventions.

McCoy chronicles how the United States developed a coercive policing apparatus to ensure colonial domination, incorporating a mixture of covert penetration and violence to gradually subdue remnants of the nationalist resistance. Over time, the U.S.-created constabulary endured as a pivotal mechanism of state power and control and contributed to a legacy of political authoritarianism and repression, which has persisted to the present. Many of the secret police methods were appropriated back to the United States and paved the way for the creation of a formidable surveillance apparatus during the era of the first Red Scare. In this respect, individual civil liberties and democracy were severely impeded by imperial expansion—a fact evident today with the USA PATRIOT Act.

McCoy begins the book by comparing U.S. imperial strategies in the Philippines and Iraq. He points out the vital difference—in Iraq the Bush administration disbanded Saddam Hussein’s former army, the backbone of the anti-occupational resistance, whereas in the Philippines, the Roosevelt administration recruited members of the defeated nationalist movement to help complete the pacification. At the time, the Philippines was viewed as an important stepping stone into the vast Asia-Pacific and China market.

From 1899-1902, the U.S. military waged a relentless campaign to suppress the nationalist movement, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 200,000-700,000 Filipinos and the destruction of their societal fabric. As the fighting waned, the Philippines Commissions under future president William H. Taft focused on building an indigenous police force capable of finishing off the insurgents and establishing "law and order." Modeled after the Cuban Rural Guard, the constabulary engaged in patrols for over a decade to suppress nationalist and messianic peasant revolts in the countryside. It frequently employed scorched earth tactics and presided over numerous massacres—including hundreds of civilians at Bud Dajo in the Moro province of Mindanao, where Muslims refused to acquiesce to American rule.

The constabulary’s success owed much to the role of military intelligence officers in imparting new methods of data management and covert techniques of surveillance, enhancing the ability to monitor subversion against American colonial rule. Under the command of Harry H. Bandholtz, the Secret Service became especially effective in adopting novel psychological warfare techniques, such as the wearing of disguises, fabricating disinformation, and recruiting paid informants and saboteurs in their efforts to "break up bands of political plotters." They monitored the press, carried out periodic assassinations, and compiled dossiers on thousands of individuals as well as information on the corruption of America’s Filipino proxies, which was used to keep them loyal to the occupation.

The declaration of martial law ensured minimal governmental oversight and enabled them to carry out surveillance and make arrests without the application of due process. One of the crowning achievements was improving communication, including the installation of a Gamewell police and fire alarm system in Manila to curb dependency on the public telephone. The Philippines Commission proudly reported that this "put the city on equal footing with any in the United States."

The U.S. on the whole provided much technical aid and support, including new fingerprinting methods that allowed for an expansion of the police’s social control capabilities. The reach of the constabulary became so deep that it was able to effectively infiltrate and sow dissension within radical organizations, including an incipient labor movement, and even played a role in apostolic succession by undermining the influence of Bishop Gregorio Aglipay through the spread of disinformation. He was a nationalist with socialist sympathies whose services were attended by thousands of the urban poor.

During the 1950s, the U.S. resumed police assistance to combat the Huk peasant insurrection, which was driven by the demand for agrarian reform. CIA operative Edward Lansdale played a particularly important role in developing all kinds of psychological warfare methods designed to sow dissension and intimidate the Huks into submission. He also cultivated hunter-killer squads within the constabulary which provided a forerunner to the Phoenix death squad operations in South Vietnam. American support for massive state terrorism continued during the reign of Ferdinand Marcos, where the USAID’s Office of Public Safety trained specialized riot control units within the police to crush student dissidents following the declaration of martial law. American trained police were implicated in wide-scale extra-judicial killings and torture, leaving the cadavers of their victims on city streets to discourage further dissent.

When Marcos was overthrown in the mid-1980s, the U.S. continued to provide police and security assistance to successor Corazon Aquino, who re-mobilized the police apparatus for repressive purposes after refusing to negotiate with the left-wing New People’s Army (NPA) and address its underlying demand for social reform. Police torture and the assassination of labor leaders and suspected guerrilla cadres remained commonplace, as did the use of covert tactics promoted under the U.S. Army’s low intensity warfare doctrine designed to destroy the leftist movement from within. Governmental and police corruption all the while reached unprecedented levels, as Aquino and successor Joseph Estrada funded their campaigns through control of gambling and narcotics sales.

After a brief interlude during the 1990s with the closing of American military bases, Washington resumed extensive police and military assistance as a result of the declaration of the War on Terror. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo shrewdly appropriated U.S. weaponry and funding to help suppress her political rivals, and remobilized violent paramilitary organizations to destroy Islamic separatists in the Moro provinces as well as supporters of the Communist Party which remained active as a result of lingering social inequalities. While the Bush administration and conservative ideologues such as Max Boot heralded the Philippines as a successful front in the "war on terror," human rights groups as well as the United Nations have censured the Arroyo administration for its atrocious record, which is reminiscent of that of Ferdinand Marcos during the dark days of the martial law period. As McCoy makes clear, much like with the Cold War, the "war on terror" is being used as a pretext to encourage the adoption of extra-legal violence and repression by privileged elites to suppress social movements pressing for the rectification of long-standing structural inequality. Covert assassination methods to dismantle the Abu Sayaff terrorist network, meanwhile, have served as a model for American military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, with a similar disregard for international law.

Through extensive research in military archives, McCoy analyzes how constabulary veterans such as Ralph Van Deman, known as the "father of U.S. military intelligence" and of the "American blacklist," played a crucial role in applying their expertise in the clandestine arts to spy on and repress radical organizations such as the American Communist Party and International Workers of the World. Many of the methods pioneered by the constabulary—including the recruitment of local informants and defectors, the use of agents provocateurs and spread of disinformation—proved effective in facilitating their demise. The surveillance apparatus would remain in place throughout the Cold War, resulting in myriad constitutional abuses, and has most recently re-appeared with the advent of the "war on terror."

Policing America’s Empire fits well with the theme of McCoy’s previous scholarly books which have exposed CIA complicity in the global narcotics trade and its promotion of torture techniques during the Cold War and "war on terror." He has also written poignantly on the destructive consequences of the CIA-run secret war in Laos, which literally tore the society to shreds and caused the displacement and death of thousands of rice farmers who had never even heard of the United States. McCoy’s latest work is among his most important in showing the corrupting influence of American imperial interventions.


Jeremy Kuzmarov is assistant professor at the University of Tulsa and author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs. He is currently working on a book, tentatively titled Modernizing Repression: Police Training, Nation-Building and Political Violence in the American Century.