Book review The World Trade Centre was still smoking when US lawmakers hastily passed the PATRIOT Act; in the UK, it wasn't much longer before Parliament enacted the comparable Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act) Objections to the PATRIOT Act are legion, and they have been well documented. Less well documented – until now – is how the PATRIOT Act and the mindset accompanying it have played themselves out in the lives of real people.
Canadian human rights lawyer and activist Maureen Webb begins Illusions of Security with the chilling tale of Ottawa resident Maher Arar, whose life was taken apart because a month after 9/11 he had lunch with a co-workers's brother.
Unfortunately for Arar, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been monitoring his acquaintance since 1998, and under 9/11-fuelled pressure the RCMP's desire just to talk to Arar as a possible witness turned him into a suspect. When Arar flew back early from a family holiday via New York in September 2002, he was detained, questioned, and finally deported to Syria, the country he had left at 17. There, he was imprisoned and tortured for ten months before finally being released and returned to Canada.
Meanwhile, the Bush Administration embarked on a secret programme of warrantless eavesdropping, even though it's officially illegal in the US. Under orders, the National Security Agency began surveilling and datamining all sorts of communications – voice conversations, email, fax. When Bush was eventually challenged, he defended the practice by saying that one end of the communication must be outside the US, and that the NSA was working on "probable cause" standards.
Foreigners have not done well under this regime. A visitor to the US can now expect to be fingerprinted (all ten digits), registered, and monitored. More than 80,000 people were registered in the first year of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which requires registrants to report changes of address, employment and other details. At the same time the US government ethnically profiled and rounded up Arab and South Asian men, often for trivial reasons. In one case Webb notes, a man was arrested after casually saying he'd like to learn to fly one day. More than 13,000 people were detained and put into deportation hearings in NSEERS' first year.
These tales are the tip of the iceberg. Many countries, including the UK, are shifting to biometric passports (if not ID cards) and putting in the infrastructure for a global surveillance system. The much-maligned Total Information Awareness programme that proposed to mine commercial and government databases never really went away; instead its spirit lives on in programmes such as the National Intelligence Program and Secure Flight.
The key to understanding all this a major shift in thinking to "pre-emption of risk". Instead of waiting for a crime to be committed and suspects to be investigated, prosecuted, and convicted, the US government adopted the idea of preempting and disrupting terrorism. Such a profound policy shift justifies any amount of surveillance or guilt by association. And it isn't just the US: governments share suspects, intelligence operation, and policing, and are willing to jettison democracy in return.
The preemptive model means our liberty and lives can be removed at any time on the most uncertain evidence, denied any right to face our accusers, and presumed guilty. Is that greater security? Not to Webb. ®
Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World
By: Maureen Webb
Publisher: City Lights (www.citylights.com)