The US military’s surveillance of the private lives of service members and their families takes this already extreme invasiveness to a far more detailed personal level, in which even partners' own careers or their relationship conflicts with service members can be construed as threats to national security.
Shortly after Sam and I moved in together, he announced that it’s likely someone will be calling me to do a background check. They will want to know whom I associate with, particularly my connections in the country where I do research as part of my work for a nonprofit.
The problem here is that I am under professional obligations not to reveal my own connections, for my contacts’ protection. I tell Sam:
“Well, what if I don’t cooperate?”
And he says, “Then I can lose my security clearance.”
I think, What kind of job of Sam’s would ask me to sacrifice my own professional ethics?
A job with an institution that assumes partners have little to lose by revealing the details of their professional lives. An institution that assumes partners are not in positions of power that make their own knowledge private property. Or one that simply doesn't care. Yep. Probably the latter.
Sam adds, as though it were no big deal, that the navy probably has detailed access to my financial records. Damn. I guess they will learn of my top secret plot against the government, what with the use of my piddling salary to purchase academic books on Amazon about autocratic regimes and their terror strategies.
Now here’s what really gets me: The navy can monitor all emails exchanged between service members and their families while the former are at sea. With the NSA scandal, it was macro-level telephone data that the government could monitor—who called whom, when, and the length of calls. As we know, this pissed people off.
The NSA surveillance nonetheless pales in comparison to that which military families, who have all but signed their lives over to national security, experience daily.
The captain of a submarine has the right to screen all incoming emails from families onto the ship, blocking these emails as he sees fit. The captains of submarines can and do intercept emails they may find to be too upsetting to sailors, such as a woman's desire to leave her husband, for example.
The navy authorities are not policing for suspicious connections with terrorist organizations. They are policing emotions. The logic of monitoring email is that if I write that I am about to overdose on heroin or make away with all of our combined worldly belongings, Sam might need to be shielded from that information so he doesn’t lose his mind.
I have some thoughts about that. Sailors are given a ton of responsibility and deal daily with intense interpersonal crises—within their families, among their colleagues, and presumably, with representatives of hostile nations. What’s more, by choosing a job that makes them unavailable to do the great bulk of the work of running households and raising families, they demonstrate on a regular basis that they are able to make their jobs a priority over their family lives. If the navy thinks that bad news is going to cause a person like this to jeopardize the safety of over a hundred people, then they probably should not hire him to work on a submarine in the first place. After all, forget email for a moment--a lot of really bad things can happen when you’re underwater in a steel tube on territory that might not be our own.
What little control military families are given over the terms of contact belongs, of course, to the men on the boat. When sailors sign on to a ship, they are asked to indicate whether or not they wish to receive bad news from family members who email them while the boat is at sea. So it is the sailors rather than their partners who get to further define the terms of contact with their wives and girlfriends, with the latter having no say whatsoever.
All of this points to a really strange paradox about the navy and the way it treats service members. On the one hand, they and their families are given huge amounts of responsibility, and the navy makes a big deal of that responsibility and purports to honor it every day. On the other hand, the navy’s policing suggests these families have the emotional maturity of ten year olds.
The contradictions inherent in all this surveillance as a "security" measure makes me think that it isn’t just about security at all. I’d say that this hyper-censorship is about constantly showing service members and their families that the military is in control, is ever present, and knows best about their safety. After all, aren’t these the hard-to-swallow messages that military families are expected not just to believe, but to internalize?