Tonight the non-profit advocacy organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) hosts a national security themed town hall featuring presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, moderated by NBC’s Matt Lauer. Here are some basic facts you probably won’t hear from either candidate of the major parties.
1. Mass surveillance does not protect public safety.
One or both candidates will probably say something about surveillance at tonight’s debate, but it likely won’t be this fundamental truth: Mass surveillance doesn’t keep us safe. The NSA makes the intelligence organizations’ work more difficult when it sucks up huge quantities of information about everyone’s phone and internet use. Contrary to popular misconception in the post-9/11 period, staying true to the old-fashioned criminal predicate is a much better way to protect the public. Mass surveillance didn’t stop the attack on the Boston Marathon, or the attacks last year in France—despite laws in both countries that allowed intelligence and law enforcement to spy on people even if they aren’t suspected of wrongdoing. Since the Snowden disclosures three years ago, officials in the US have had to admit that none of their mass surveillance programs have ever stopped a single terrorist attack.
Bottom line: when the government spies on everyone, it facilitates social and political control—not safety. As Edward Snowden has said, these programs are fundamentally about power.
2. National security and public safety are not the same.
For a phrase that can send a country to war or strip away its constitutional protections, “national security” is a troublingly amorphous concept. Tonight, both candidates will likely wax nationalistically about what they’ll call national security, but they probably won’t say what they think it means. (They might even repeat the lie that protecting national security is “The number one responsibility of the Commander in Chief.” It’s not; the president’s number one job, and the only thing the president swears to do, is to protect and defend the US Constitution.) Unfortunately, national security is often confused with public safety, but they aren’t remotely the same things. In fact, things governments do in the name of “national security”—like torture, indefinite detention, extrajudicial killing, and mass surveillance—often harm public safety. As I wrote earlier this year for the Baffler, “national security centers on ‘national interests,’” which just so happen to typically correspond to the interests of major US corporations. “Public safety, on the other hand,” I wrote, “is concerned with whether you live or die, and how.”
Too often, the claim of “national security” is wielded as an excuse to keep secret information a democratic public must know. When agencies like the FBI, NSA, and CIA invoke “national security” to keep things secret, history shows they are most likely doing so because the information is embarrassing to officials, or because the public wouldn’t like what it learned, and would demand change. That’s illegitimate, as so many invocations of “national security” are. Be careful any time you hear a politician using that phrase; it likely means bad news for your rights, without any attendant public safety benefit—and maybe even significant harm.
3. Terrorism is not the greatest threat to Americans. It’s not even close. But we nonetheless waste billions of dollars each year violating people’s civil rights trying to fight it.
It’s terrible when anyone is killed in an act of violence. But in the United States, while we spend trillions of dollars in the name of fighting terrorism, relatively few people are killed by terrorists compared to, say, babies with guns. Our government has spent the last fifteen years militarizing our police, violating human rights across the globe, and stripping away core civil rights and civil liberties protections, all supposedly to stop terrorists from hurting us. But the government can’t point to any of these measures—not DHS-funded ‘fusion centers,’ not police militarization, not mass spying, not torture, not indefinite detention—as the reason an attack was stopped. Far more people in the US die each year from falling out of bed and being hit by buses than the number killed by terrorism. Imagine if we spent billions of dollars a year—violating people’s civil rights along the way—trying to stop people from falling out of bed. Meanwhile, the oceans are rising, which is a true threat to our security—particularly in coastal cities.
4. Torture is immoral, illegal, counterproductive, and won’t keep us safe. Those responsible for the Bush administration’s torture regime must be held legally accountable.
Under no circumstances should the United States engage in torture, which violates both domestic laws and US obligations under the international Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. When the US engages in torture, it puts Americans all over the world—and particularly US service members—at risk of similar cruel treatment. If the purpose of the US terror wars is to stop terrorism, torture is also counterproductive, because it creates hostility, further enflames existing tensions, and makes a mockery out of justice. It’s unfortunate to have to write this, but science also shows that torture doesn’t “work,” in the sense that torturing someone won’t make them give you the information you’re seeking.
The ACLU is calling for accountability for the Bush torture regime. What would that look like? Obama (or the next president) should:
- appoint a special prosecutor;
- reform the CIA;
- provide apologies and compensation to victims;
- honor the courage of US servicemembers who refused to torture or blew the whistle on the practice; and
- release the full torture report, along with other documents about the torture programs.
5. “Countering violent extremism” (CVE) and programs like it won’t protect public safety, but they do violate core constitutional rights and unfairly target Muslims.
The latest craze in the anti-terrorism industry is something called “countering violent extremism,” known as CVE. In the United States, the Obama administration is pushing CVE initiatives modeled after a United Kingdom program called PREVENT. These are programs that aim to fold educators, social services providers, and health care workers into the counterterrorism world. In other words, they seek to turn these critical human services employees into spies for the FBI and local law enforcement. In the UK, the PREVENT program has produced a number of disasters, including a school reporting a four year old to anti-terror authorities after they thought he said “cooker bomb,” when he really said “cucumber.” If the UK is any indication of where these nascent US programs will go, CVE will not protect public safety, but will unfairly target and alienate Muslims, stoke mistrust in service providers, and violate core constitutional freedoms of speech, association, and religion. Whenever you hear the candidates talk about “countering radicalization,” they’re probably referring to programs like CVE. These programs may sound like a softer, gentler war on terrorism, but they are bad news.