Showing posts with label warrantless wiretapping. Show all posts
Showing posts with label warrantless wiretapping. Show all posts

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Snowden and The American Tragedy


“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” 
Patrick Henry 

Snowden has become a big embarrassment for America. It is not so much his information leaks about America’s post 9/11 spying mechanisms that have been awkward, but the US’s increasingly humiliating global chase to capture this one man. 

There was a time when the world and almost every country within it shook with trepidation or at the very least publicly showed a great deal of respect, when America roared about anything at all. Today, the picture we are seeing is vastly different. Forget respect. Country after country is also showing no fear, even when being threatened. And we are not talking about Iran or Venezuela here, but places like Hong Kong, with whom the US has great relations, strong diplomatic ties and even an extradition treaty. Russia, with whom the US shares a love-hate relationship, usually ends up co-operating in such matters, but not today. Even tiny countries like Ecuador and Iceland are showing the US the middle finger by entertaining Snowden’s asylum request and refusing to kow tow to US demands and threats of withdrawing trade benefits.

Seeing the world react this way, most Americans will be quick to blame Obama for being a weak leader who has been soft on Iran, Syria and on terror. They will claim that he has made America look feeble. Perhaps it is true that he has tried to show a softer side of America in order to counteract the shoot from the hip years of Bush-Cheney. His words might have done this, but if you look purely at his actions around his national security decisions, they tell a different story. Consider his vastly expanded use of drones, a unilateral raid on the soil of a sovereign democratic nation (to kill Bin Laden) and his expansion of the NSA domestic spying program; all show him to be as hawkish as his predecessors. But it is too easy to put the blame squarely on Obama’s shoulders, even though he does share part of the blame for America’s growing impotence in the world today.

The reality is that America’s response and particularly her actions in the years following the attacks on 9/11 are entirely responsible for her lack of standing and respect today. On the 11th of September 2001, the majority of the world shared in America’s pain and stood shoulder to shoulder with her. There was unanimous global support for American retaliation in going after the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for providing safe haven to Al Qaeda. Nobody questioned the justification for this war; in fact most nations supported it, and it was sanctioned by the UN barely a few months after the first American and British boots were on the ground. But it was Cheney and Bush’s obsession with Saddam and their subsequent unilateral actions for their War on Terror, many in violation of International Law and the Geneva Convention, that led to America losing the moral high ground and respect it had earned for more than a century. Under Bush’s leadership the world witnessed a great superpower turn into a powerful bully that turned a deaf ear to everyone, including steadfast and lifelong allies. Now, a little over a decade later, America is witnessing the realities and outcomes that have resulted from Cheney’s knee-jerk reactions and secret government decisions made in those fear filled months and fear-mongering years after 9/11.

If I were to describe a country that operated a detention center that is located on foreign soil, simply to allow it to be outside the jurisdiction of their courts and legal processes. A place where anyone can be held indefinitely and without charges filed against them. A country that allowed warrantless wiretapping on its own citizens. One that set up detention centers across the globe for the purposes of using torture and other interrogation techniques, like water boarding. A country that believes it can use drones to hunt down and kill anyone, on any sovereign soil, without burden of proof. A country that passed opaque and far reaching laws that allow secret courts to make secret decisions that will never see light of democratic process. A country that was willing to allow its domestic surveillance programs to collect unlimited amounts of communication data on its own people, without any probable cause; and one that claimed to do all this in the name of protecting its citizens - what country would come to your mind? Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria, Burma, China, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen…

Only through a combination of press leaks, public outrage, some congressional oversight and whistleblowers have we been able to piece together the extent of the secret decisions and frightening overreach made by our government in the name of security, in the years after 9/11. Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA’s massive domestic spying program are just the latest revelation to come to light. It is now abundantly clear that the vast majority of the decisions our government has made do not uphold America’s ideals, beliefs and democratic principles. The most distressing part is that each new disclosure serves to further weaken and erode America’s already diminished moral standing in the world, because her actions continue to be consistently incongruous with her stated character and ideals. I think someone once said that we see a person’s true character in times of adversity. This is not cause for celebration or an opportunity to point fingers; in fact quite the opposite. America for all her bad has been a responsible global citizen, and the most compassionate superpower in history, doing more to help the world than any other nation. Nobody is perfect but in the grand scheme of things America has always overwhelmingly stood for good, for democracy, for transparency and for rule of law and helped promote this cause across the globe. Today, it is hard for America to claim that China and Russia are thwarting the rule of law when lawyers in the White House have spent years writing-up legal arguments to defend US invasions of foreign lands, without any threat or provocation or UN backing. Creating new legal frameworks to justify drone strikes in any country, against anyone that the US deems a terrorist and without the burden of proof. Even justifying the murder of their citizens without any due process.

The America that Bush and Cheney created and Obama has failed to dismantle has clearly lost its way. Bush and Cheney’s America trembled and succumbed to fear in the face of great adversity; taking the easier and more slippery path to safeguarding national interests. They chose the path travelled by nations that feign democracy and do undemocratic things to protect their people and beliefs, justifying it in the name of greater good. The America I knew and have respected was made of sterner stuff. She would have resolved to defeat terrorism by further upholding liberty and justice, while protecting her fierce democratic ideals and freedoms, above all else. By choosing this path Bush, Cheney and Obama have achieved the opposite. They have weakened America and thereby made an already dangerous world a far less safe place.

Friday, September 30, 2011

September 11 - Ten Years Later (Part 1)

“If we were about to be attacked or had been attacked or something happened that threatened a vital U.S. national interest, I would be the first in line to say, ‘Let’s go,’ I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.”
Robert Gates

This is what George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense said on being asked if he had any words of wisdom during his final interview before retirement. This lifelong Republican said that the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he has witnessed first-hand are far too great to start wars that were not necessary. He said he had learned clearly over the past four and a half years that wars “have taken longer and been more costly in lives and treasure” than anticipated.” The man George Bush handpicked to fix the mess his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld made in Iraq, effectively told America that the Iraq war was not something he would have embarked on; a war that was clearly one of America’s choosing. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/us/politics/19gates.html

Ten years after the September 11th attacks, Americans are still avoiding having an open, honest and meaningful discussion about the far reaching implications and long-term costs of the decisions their government made in the name of national security. I truly believe that until America has this conversation and in doing so faces the real ghosts of 9/11, they will struggle to move forward as a unified nation again. Instead, the country will continue down the post 9/11 path of a nation deeply divided and one that has never stopped living in and reacting out of fear. Nobody denies the fact that the country’s security should be a major concern when attacked in this way. Nor would anyone have a problem with the United States going after those responsible with any and all means possible; we can also expect and discount a certain amount of knee-jerk reactionism in the short-term. However, after a short period of time the elected leaders should have been the first people to step up and ensure that cooler heads prevailed. They should have been the ones to ensure that both the short-term costs and the long-term implications of every major decision was weighed and counter-weighed; that every plan was carefully examined before there was a rush to judgement. Now, ten years later, the best way to have this important conversation is to do it by looking at the facts and figures, and by studying the realities and outcomes that resulted from those decisions made by the Bush government in those fear filled months and fear-mongering years after 9/11. 

Let’s start by examining the financial burden of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. This figure now stands at a staggering $1.7 trillion and counting; and that is just for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans’ health care. It is worth mentioning that 1% - 2% of this total amount has been misplaced. The government now acknowledges that they have no accounting for this loss of taxpayer money. The Iraq war accounts for $872 billion (or 63%) of the total. Of that amount, $803 billion has been spent on military operations, $28 billion on local security and $41 billion that includes funds for reconstruction and foreign aid (source: “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11” prepared by the Congressional Research Service). Keep in mind this does not include the future cost of both these wars; which along with the estimated veteran care are projected to cost US taxpayers another $867 billion. Of course critics say these projections are too high but think back to when Cheney was lobbying for the Iraq war, he also repeatedly re-assured us that the price tag for this war - to oust Saddam, restore order and install a new government would not exceed $50-$60 billion. As we compile the total costs of post 9/11 government actions we are still not accounting for the increased expenditure from huge new additions to the government bureaucracy with the inception of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Department of Homeland Security and increased domestic intelligence budgets that were all non-war related expenses. In fact, if you tally all of this government expenditure, then George W. Bush has the distinction of “presiding over the largest increase in the size of government since the Great Society,” and those are John McCain’s words.

Next, we need to examine the current state of the regions within which these conflicts reside to fully understand the very real outcomes from both a regional stability and geopolitical stand-point. In the Middle East, the US’s closest ally Israel finds itself increasingly isolated and alone in the region. Meanwhile, Iran’s influence and power has grown substantially, directly as a result of America removing enemies on her borders, Iraq and Afghanistan.  What’s more, today Iraq is one of Iran’s largest trading partners, and Iran is rapidly strengthening trade ties with Afghanistan, giving it unparalleled clout and influence in both countries.  Ironically, Bush’s War on Terror has resulted in unimaginable gains and geopolitical power for this “axis of evil” country. The US has inadvertently helped change Iran’s status from an isolated pariah state, in 2003, to a major regional power broker by 2009. One wonders if America had not taken its eye off the ball when it had the Taliban and Al’ Qaeda on the run, and finished the job, if the situation would be different today with Iran. By taking the entire focus away from the Afghan conflict and relying instead on writing blank cheques to Pakistan and a corrupt Afghan government, it seems America was hoping they could have their cake and eat it. The US expected to wrap up a quick and cheap Iraq war – we all know how that turned out. This decision is even more amazing given that the US was fully aware of the murky history between the ISI and Taliban and acutely aware of Pakistan’s paranoia about India’s growing influence in a new Afghanistan. By 2008 the Taliban had the opportunity to fully re-group, and had turned Pakistan’s tribal regions into a new safe harbor for themselves and a host of other affiliated terrorist networks, including Al Qaeda. Pakistan is still the launching point for all attacks on US troops in Afghanistan, and arguably closer to being a failed state, with nuclear weapons, than ever before in its history. I believe there is a strong argument that things would be very different in this region, today, had the US not diverted all its military resources, assets, support and political focus and diverted it to a war of choice in Iraq. 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, between warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation, water boarding, the patriot act and illegal domestic surveillance programs, we are only now starting to scratch the surface of secret government decisions made in the name of our security. It is also apparent that many of these decisions did not uphold America’s high ideals, beliefs and strong democratic values. Rather than get into a discussion about civil rights violations, let us examine the net result of the actions of creating a huge new domestic security apparatus with the TSA, Homeland Security and a mega-billion dollar domestic intelligence gathering network. One that starts with a SAR (Suspicious Activity Report) that local police officers are encouraged to fill out on their beats, which gets stored in a massive database without any further scrutiny or investigation of the person named in the report. All this information is then analysed using sophisticated software that is meant to stitch disparate pieces of information together, distributing it to federal “authorities” in real-time. In the context of this enhanced security apparatus, let’s review the last three major terrorist plots against the US, starting with the Christmas Day bomber.  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab managed to board a flight to Detroit with an explosive device hidden in his underwear. Luckily this device failed to detonate, after which he was wrestled to the ground by a fellow passenger. What boggles the mind is the fact that this new and improved multi-billion dollar security apparatus completely missed him - this after his father, a respected Nigerian banker, called US authorities and warned them that his son was becoming radicalized. Despite being on a no fly list Abdulmutallab was not stopped at two different airports, and even though he bought a one-way ticket (like all the 9/11 hijackers) it was not picked up as a red flag by all our new and highly sophisticated security algorithms and apparatus. We are told that his name was misspelled on the no-fly list; clearly our government’s multi-billion dollar taxpayer funded state-of-the-art software does not contain a basic spell check or even the level of sophistication that Google’s search box provides with its query suggestions. Next we had the Times Square bomber who was caught, not by our enhanced security, but only because some alert citizens noticed a man acting strangely after parking his SUV near Times Square. A couple of street vendors called police after seeing what looked like smoke and some strange apparatus inside the abandoned vehicle, Finally, we had another close call with two packages located on separate cargo planes bound for the US from Yemen. Both had home printers with plastique explosives and a sophisticated detonating mechanism timed to blow up in mid-air over US cities. The only reason we discovered and disarmed them was thanks to a call from a reformed Al Qaeda terrorist to the head of Saudi intelligence. It begs the question of what all this increased prying, searching, and snooping has resulted in. Clearly it has not served as a deterrent, because the number of terrorist attacks has actually increased dramatically worldwide* (see footnote for sources), and in the US, in the past decade and at a much greater rate than before the Iraq war. The point is that securing the country is important but finding the right balance between technology, paranoia and human intelligence is equally important. Think about the fact that every new action by terrorists has led to a knee-jerk and piece-meal reaction to our growing security paranoia. First, we were asked to remove our shoes, then our belts, then gels were prohibited, next liquids had to be less than 3.4 ounces, and put in clear plastic baggies. Now since they cannot ask us to take off our undergarments we are instead virtually strip searched. Arguably, all this money is not being well spent because it is being done in a completely reactionary fashion rather than as part of a well thought out plan. We know that the terrorists will stop at nothing to kill us, so the only question is where will we draw the line?




*NOTE: Sources: The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from September, 2006.  The NIE is issued by the President’s Director of National Intelligence and their conclusions are based on analysis of raw intelligence collected by all the US spy agencies.  It is an assessment on national security.  The 2006 NIE said that the number of terrorist attacks (defined as “as an act of violence or the threat of violence, calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm”) had risen dramatically worldwide since the Invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The same NIE also cited the Iraq war as a major factor in this startling rise in global jihadist terrorist attacks.   We also have the US State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism, 2006 which stated that there had been a 29% increase in terrorism worldwide in 2006, over the previous year; terrorist attacks on non-military targets rose to 14,338 with an increase of deaths to 20,498.  If you need any more data then I can point to another independent global study on terrorism conducted by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, research fellows at the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law.  They found that there was a 607 percent rise in the average yearly incidence of attacks since the Iraq invasion. It is true that Iraq and Afghanistan do cause a huge blip and together account of 80 percent of attacks and 67 percent of fatalities; however, if you exclude these two countries you still see a solid 35 percent per year increase in the number of terrorist attacks in the rest of the world.