Privacy SOS

Glenn Greenwald on civil liberties and the surveillance state

Constitutional lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald delivered the keynote at the 18th annual CAIR San Francisco dinner in November 2012. The following transcript of his talk comes from an attendee at the event who recorded and transcribed it.
Good evening everyone. Thank you so much, and thank you very much to CAIR for inviting me to come here and speak with you tonight. I speak at a lot of events and this is an extraordinarily vibrant and energetic event. Beyond that there really is no organization with which I'd rather be spending my time, or with which I feel more at home than CAIR. [applause]
That's especially true of the chapter that kicked it all off. And the reason I say that that's true is because this is an organization which over the last decade especially, despite being targeted with all sorts of malicious attacks and coordinated smear campaigns, including from our own government, and various other precincts, has continued to devote itself relentlessly and really quite heroically to the fight for what I think is quite clearly, far and away, the greatest civil liberties crisis of our generation, at least, which is the persecution of Muslim Americans, and Muslims generally, in the post 9/ 11 era, which is really an assault on the liberties of everyone.
I just want to share with you a recent experience that I had that underscores not only why I consider the work of CAIR to be so critically important, but also highlights several of the issues that I want to spend some time discussing with you tonight.
As (the host) said at the beginning, I travel quite extensively, and one of the reasons I do that, and why I consider it such a valuable opportunity, is because when I do that, I'm able to go to places and meet the human beings whose lives are severely harmed, often destroyed by the kinds of rights violations, and the kinds of civil liberties assaults, that we're talking about tonight. What it does is it vividly underscores that the things we're discussing, and the work which CAIR does is not an abstraction. They really are things that devastate the lives of countless human beings and their families. Traveling around and speaking directly to the people effected prevents one from conceiving of it as an abstraction. It's very emboldening for me personally it's what sparks my passion.
A few weeks ago I was headed to Qatar. I was doing election coverage by Al Jazeera, and out of the blue, very coincidentally, I was contacted by CAIR lawyers with whom I had worked in the past on several issues. They said to me, "we have this case that we're working on that, although it's a common civil liberties abuse, it's a particularly egregious and infuriating case." And it just so happened that the person they were representing lives in Qatar, in Doha, where I was going. They didn't know that.
So, I said, "Look I'm going there. Please arrange for me to speak with that person. I'll meet with him and then I'll write a story about it." When I got to Doha, and I met with the person in the case they were working on. His name was Saddiq Long.
Saddiq is an African American who is a convert to Islam. He converted in the 1990s when he was serving in the Air Force where he served for over a decade. Since he got out of the Air Force, in the late 1990s he lived teaching English and doing other jobs in Egypt and in the United Arab Emirates, and now in Qatar.
At the beginning of this year Saddiq got a call from his mother who lives in Oklahoma where Saddiq was born, and where he was raised. She told him some very sad news, which was that she was suffering from an extremely serious medical affliction, for which there's no treatment. The wish the she expressed to him was that he would come and visit her for what was clearly to be one last time.
He hadn't been to the United States in almost a decade. He didn't make very much money. He saved his money for months. He purchased a ticket to travel to Oklahoma his childhood home. He was about to travel, and 24 hours before he was to board the plane, in fact less than 24 hours before he was to board the plane, he got a call from KLM airlines informing him that they were not going to permit him to board the flight.
When he asked why that was they told him that the United States government had decreed him to be on a list of people prohibited to fly into or out of the country. He has never been indicted for a crime, never been charged with a crime. He'd lived in countries with governments extremely close to the United States for a decade. Not once has the US government even sought to question him or inform him about any wrong doing of any kind. Simply out of the blue they decided, in an invisible way, to deprive him of this right and prevent him from traveling to his own country to visit his extremely sick mother.
When I met with him I spent two or three hours talking to him, and he had this very quiet righteous anger, which is certainly understandable The fact that his own country, the one he served for 10 years, some invisible government official had deprived him of this core right of citizenship, which is to enter your own country, and did so invisibly, with no transparency. No notice of any kind. No indication of what the alleged wrong doing was. No evidence presented. Simply decreed that this right would be deprived.
What he said to me was that, although that made him so angry, the part that became so dispiriting to him, and so draining and frustrating, was not that injustice, which he knows other people have been subjected to, and worse, but the fact that he simply had no recourse.
He couldn't find out how he could challenge this determination. He called numerous organizations that were specially devoted to civil liberties and none would take his case. And it was only finally several months later when he called CAIR, and the lawyers from CAIR agreed to represent him did he finally feel empowered and emboldened.
They put him in touch with me. I was able to write an article that got a lot of attention about it. Lawyers at CAIR had been working to pressure the Department of Homeland Security and hopefully within a week, fingers crossed, he got a loan to be able to get on a plane and go and visit his mother who's now very very ill. [Takbir] [applause]
What really struck me about that was that ordinarily the kinds of civil liberties abridgments that we talk about, that I work on, that I write about, are ones that take place in obscurity. They are targeting people who have no defense. We don't normally even hear about them, or know their names because they resign themselves to the deprivation. They conclude that there's no recourse that they have.
What was so impressive to me, what really struck me, about the fact that CAIR worked on his behalf was how emboldened and empowered he became. He became extremely interested and engaged. He learned everything about his rights. He's an extremely articulate and passionate activist now, and who knows what impact he will now have on others.
This is something that repeats itself over and over. The civil liberties abridgments that we talk about are much much worse, and there's no organization like CAIR, and they lack the resources to be able to provide the kinds of services that they provided in the case of Saddiq. And that's why I'm really glad to be a part of anything that CAIR does, and to support the organization in any way that I can. [applause]
Now, I speak a lot about civil liberties. Civil liberties is what I think about in terms of my primary focus. I said earlier that I think that the greatest civil liberties crisis of this generation is the persecution of Muslim Americans, and this is a term that gets thrown around a lot. We talk a lot about our civil liberties.
The sign in front of me, the title of this event is "Upholding our Constitution" and there's lots of different ways to talk about that topic. There are different approaches we could take, but no matter what we do on this topic one of the things I think is most important is to spend a minute thinking about what it is that we even mean when we talk about civil liberties, when we talk about our core basic rights, or upholding the Constitution.
Because these terms get thrown around a lot in lots of different contexts without much attention being paid to what the terms denote So, I just want to spend a second focused on what that means, and why this term is so critical.
The good thing about asking that question, "What are civil liberties," "what are our core Constitutional rights" that we talk about being so important is that it's not a very complex question. It's not actually that difficult to answer.
The reason I say that is because when we talk about civil liberties or our Constitutional protections all you're really describing, all we're really denoting is the limitations and restrictions that we have imposed on the government in terms of what it is that they can do to us.
The theory of civil liberties, and of the Constitution is that we accept as legitimate the assertion of state power only on the condition that they adhere to the limitations that we as the citizenry, first at it's founding, and over the next 200 years, have required them to adhere to in exchange for recognizing that legitimacy.
The good thing about asking this question beyond the fact that it's a fairly simple answer, is that we don't have to go searching for this list of restrictions and constrains that are imposed on the government. They're all contained in one place. In one document called the Bill of Rights, or the Constitution.
The other good thing about this list, and about this endeavor to ask what this term means, this concept of liberty, is that the restrictions that are on this list, the constraints that we've imposed on the government, are not ambiguous, or murky. They're not situational, or circumstantial. They're extremely clear, and they are absolute in nature. They apply to every single group, and every single individual equally. They apply in every situation, without exception. They aren't suspended or diluted in cases of national security or war. They are absolutist in their prohibition. They apply to the government in all cases, and with regard to all people.
The way that you know that that's true, you don't have to be a scholar, or sombody who studies this topic for a long time, you can just look at what this list of restirctions says. You look at the first amendment and it says, "Congress shall make no law" abridging freedom of speech. You look at the fourth amendment that guarentees that we will be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, except with a finding of probable cause and the issuance of a search warrent by a court. You look at the fifth amendment that says that no person shall be deprived of life, or liberty without due process of law. These are clear and absolutist in their prohibitions.
The reason that I say that we have a great civil liberties crisis is because these are the core liberties that were supposed to define who we were as a nation, that are being violated not in isolated case by case ways, but fundamentally and systematically.
So, if we look at the way in which Muslims, but increasingly people who aren't Muslim in the United States, are being prosecuted for material support for terrorism, what you see is repeatedly prosecution based not on any acts that those people undertook, but on the ideology and political principles that they've expressed, which is a core violation of the first amendment free speech guarantee.
If you look at the massive pervasive surveillance state that has been erected one that targets not people for whom there's probable cause, or evidence of criminality, but law abiding innocent citizens who are targeted and monitored and surveilled for no reason other than their religion or ethnicity. This massive surveillance apparatus at the federal state and local level that infiltrates mosques and student groups and community centers and social communities of all kinds, what you see is a profound and fundamental violation of this guarantee that we wont be subjected to searches and seizures unless there's probable cause to believe that we've done something wrong.
If you look at the US government imprisonment, ongoing imprisonment of people, often for life without any charges of any kind. Or even now more recently the targeting of individuals for execution or assassination, even US citizens, without charges, without transparency, without due process. We see the supreme violation of the fifth amendment's prohibition on the deprivation of life or liberty without due process. It is a fundamental and systematic violation of these core liberties, and not one that is case by case.
And what is most amazing to me about all of that is that the precipitating event that triggered these assaults, in this manner, the pretext for it all, which was the 9/11 attacks, as we move further and further away from that attack these rights erosion actually worsen.
None of the powers claimed by state in the name of that event have been relinquished More and more continue to be acquired as we move further and further away from that event.
So, what I want to spend my time doing is asking two questions about that fact.
One question I want to ask is, "Why is it that that has happened?" Why is it that we've allowed this fundamental erosion of these core liberties which we are all taught is what defines who we are as a people and as a nation to take place with very little backlash.
And the second question that I want to ask is, "What are the implications, the consequences, of allowing that to take place for as long as we have?"
The reason those two questions are so important in my view is that only by understanding what has driven the trend, and understanding why it's so urgent to stop it, can we then figure out the best ways to arrest these trends and to band together to fight them.
So, let me look at that first question. Why is it that we've allowed these fundamental civil liberties erosions to take place for now more than a decade with no end in sight. There's a lot of reasons why, and I think there's a few worth primary attention.
The first one is that it's all taken place within the context of war. The United States is a country that for more than a decade now has decreed itself to be a nation at war. We're not at war with just one country. Even in the last three years under the current president there has been the application of lethal force in at least six different Muslim nations. This is a global war that continues endlessly
What is so profound about war, the reason why it is such a threat to these liberties, is because it's in war time when the power of political leaders is at it's peak, when it becomes most difficult to limit. And this has always been the case. 2000 years ago the Roman philosopher, Cisero said, "When men take up arms, the law falls mute." In times of war there are no limitations on the power of political officials.
What distinguishes our current time from past civil liberties abridgments justified in the name of war is that unlike in those prior wars when the abridgments ended when the wars ended, the Japanese Americans interned during World War II were released at the end of the war, the suspension of Habeas Corpus by Lincoln was restored at the end of the Civil War, the attempt to criminalize descent during World War I ended when that war did, this is a quote unquote war that by design can have no end.
In fact there was just a Washington Post article three weeks ago that described the way in which the Obama Administration is seeking to institutionalize their power to imprison people without charges, or kill whomever the president wants, based on the premise that the US government believes that this war will continue for at least another decade. So, we're talking about now, two decades of war with no end in sight.
When you have a war for that long, what you have are not individual abridgments of liberty but fundamental transformation of the kind of government that we have. And that's one thing that has made these abridgments continue unabated, that in a time of war it's very difficult to argue for limitations on state power.
A supplemental factor in the war, that makes it such a particularly hard menace to combat, is that the number one priority of a government in war is to dehumanize whomever the target of the violence and aggression is. The reason for that is because no population will be willing to tolerate having continuous decade long violence, lethal force used, against a group of people whose humanity they're able to acknowledge and internalize. It's only by removing the humanity from that group, dehumanizing them, rendering them invisible, can the state sustain prolonged protracted support for war.
The target of America's quote unquote war has been exclusively Muslims. And although political leaders explicitly say we're not at war Islam, and there are only a small segment of Muslims that we're actually fighting, the real message that is sent whenever the US government kills large groups of people and reflexively labels them militants or terrorists, or locks people up without charges, but assures the citizenry that they just assume that they're guilty of something, is that most Muslims are a real menace. That even when there's no evidence against them presented, they probably deserve whatever the government is doing to them. This is a message that has been indoctrinated into the American citizenry for over a decade now. It's really the way in which war not only degrades the population at whom it's directed, but degrades the national character of the country that wages it as well.
This message, this indoctrination, makes it very challenging to get people to object to these kinds of civil liberties abridgments because they assume it's being directed at the group of people who probably deserve it. So, that's one reason why this is happening.[applause]
The second reason that I want to talk about is one that's related to that, and that is that there is a perception that has been purposely cultivated that there's only one group, one marginalized powerless group that is at risk of these civil liberties abridgments, and that's American Muslims, and that therefore the rest of country need not worry about, or object to, or care about these abridgments because it's confined only to this group.
This is the tactic of states that abuse their power historically in every case. That is the strategy that they use when they want to use power they in the first instance target a group that they believe will be unsympathetic and the expectation, usually true, is that the rest of the society will acquiesce to it or ever support it.
The problem is that whenever a group is targeted with civil liberties abridgments those abridgments always, not sometimes, not usually, but always extend beyond their original application. The problem is that if you acquiesce to it in the first instance they become institutionalized, they become the norm, and then impossible to fight them any longer.
If you look at the history of the last 10 years this is exactly what you see. If you look at the Patriot Act which was enacted in the name of terrorism what you find is that overwhelmingly it is applied in cases having nothing to do with terrorism.
If you look at the FBI tactic of creating their own terrorist plots, financing those plots, and then trying to lure Muslims into joining them, and then disrupting their own plot at the last minute, and heroically announcing to the country that they've saved us all from their own FBI plot. Now we see this tactic being used against a wide array of dissidents in the United States, against anarchists, against protesters of NATO policy, against the Occupy Movement.
What you really see is support of what has been called the war on terror now being imported into domestic American life. So, you see the para militarization of our police forces based on tactics perfected in Baghdad, and the importation of drones, a fleet of which is inevitably coming to surveil the United States in the way that Muslim cities are no surveilled and ultimately armed drones which will be in the hands of police officers.
It is never the case that abridgments of civil liberties are confined to their original group but perception that they will be is a major factor in how governments are able to seize these powers without much opposition.
Another factor that I think is important in understanding why this has all happened and that is the role that partisan allegiance plays in how these polices are perceived. I think there was an expectation that by simply going to the ballot box once every four years and electing a better leader, someone who seems like he's more committed to these freedoms than the one who proceeded him, that magically all of these rights violations were going to come to an end, that a civil liberties nirvana would descend upon us.
I think it doesn't take much work at this point to convince people that none of that has happened. That the abuses of the prior administration have continued and in many cases even worsened under the current president, who many people thought would end it.
I think the lesson from that, there are a lot of lessons, but the real lesson is that the way in which you fight for liberty, the way in which you battle civil liberties abridgments is not by going to the ballot box and thinking that if you empower a particular politician that he's going to do the work for you, that isn't how liberty is protected or injustice is battled.
The way that happens is when citizens band together and fight for and defend their own liberties. [applause]
The last point that I want to make about why I think this is all happening is that it's very for what in one minute is radical and extremist to become normalized very rapidly If you think back to the post 9/11 weeks and months after the attack, when the Patriot Act was first introduced, it was considered extremely controversial.
Now the Patriot Act gets renewed every four years without anybody noticing. Nobody talks about the Patriot Act anymore because it's become embedded in our political framework. We've become accustomed to it, and therefor what was once deemed so radical has now been normalized.
I just want to share with you an experience that I had that really underscored for me, and really shaped my thinking on this and has stuck with me in a real emotional and visceral way.
I was speaking last year at a University in Indiana and three high school students from Kentucky drove several hours to hear me speak and after I was done speaking, I spoke about civil liberties, I spoke about a lot of the topics I'm speaking about tonight, they came up to me and they talked to me.
One of the young ladies who was a sophomore in high school said to me, "You know you keep speaking about these radical changes that took place after 9/11, and all these liberties that we've lost, and how we have to restore what we had, but for people my age, I'm 15 years old, so I was 4 years old at the time of the 9/11 attacks, there is no such thing as a pre 9/11 and post 9/11 world. The post 9/11 world is all that we know, the people who are my age." That's the totality of their political consciousness.
Every year that goes by, that we allow these liberty abridgments to linger the harder it becomes to uproot and the reason is is that we're training our citizenry to accept these views of our fellow citizens who are Muslim, and the views of what the proper roll of government is, as normalized as permanent, and it's much more difficult to combat them each year that goes by.
So those are the reasons why I think these abridgments are happening. Now I just want to spend a little time talking about I think is the primary implication. There are lots of implications from allowing the government to abridge these core liberties, to removing free speech rights, to putting people in prison or killing them without due process, to engaging in massive surveillance and lots of them are obvious but there's one that I think is not obvious, that's kind of illusive, but probably the most insidious, and the most consequential.
That is that when you allow the government to transgress the limits that define what freedom is you radically transform the relationship between the citizenry and the government. By that I mean that in a free society, by definition, those who wield political power, people in government feared the citizenry, they feared the consequences of what would happen if they abused their power.
In a tyranny by definition, and this is true with every tyranny in the world today, and everyone that has existed for centuries, the exact opposite framework prevails. The citizenry fears the government.
That is what happens when you allow government to transgress these limits, to violate these liberties, not to uphold our Constitution so that a climate of fear emerges that is more effective in denying freedom than anything the government could do overtly.
I just want to share with you an anecdote that lead me to really understand this not in an abstract way very viscerally. It occurred in January of 2010.
I had spent a lot of time over the past two and half years or so writing about the organization Wikileaks and defending what they're doing. January 2010 was the very first time that I ever wrote about Wikileaks and that was a time when almost nobody had heard of this group. It was before most of their news making leaks about Iraq and Afghanistan.
Very few people had heard about them. The way I had come to learn about Wikileaks in January 2010 was that in 2008 the Pentagon had prepared a top secret report in which the Pentagon decreed Wikileaks to be an enemy of the State. They talked about how Wikileaks is posing a profound national security threat to the United States and the report plotted ways to destroy Wikileaks. To render in inoperable and ineffective.
Ironically enough this top secret report from the Pentagon got leaked to Wikileaks which then published it on it's website where the New York Times found out about it, read about it, and wrote a short article saying that there's this strange obscure transparency group that the Pentagon has for whatever reason decreed to be an enemy of the state.
I read the article. I stumbled upon it. And I remember at the time thinking that any group that the Pentagon had decreed to be an enemy of the state and was plotting to destroy was one that merited a lot more attention and probably a lot of support.
So I went and I researched it, and I found the great transparency that they had brought to various parts of the world, and I wrote a long article about the promise of Wikileaks. And the reason why this transparency model was so important. And I interviewed the groups founder, Julian Assange, and I posted the audio of the interview.
At the end of the article I encouraged my readers to go and donate money to Wikileaks, because I knew that they were suffering from budgetary constraints that were preventing them from processing really important leaks. I posted the PayPal link where people could donate money by PayPal and instructions on how people could wire money to Wikileaks.
In response to that article I had dozens and dozens and dozens of people literally, from all kinds of venues, in the comments section of that article, by email, at events they came up to me would basically say something along the lines of, "Look, I understand what you're saying about Wikileaks. I share the enthusiasm you have. I actually want to support them and donate money. But I am afraid that if I donate money to Wikileaks I will end up on a government list somewhere. Or even be subjected to criminal liability for aiding and abetting, or providing material support to a terrorist organization."
The reason that struck me, and affected me so profoundly is because these were American citizens who had decided to relinquish their own core Constitutional rights which is what donating money to a political organization whose cause you support is, not because those rights were taken away, but because they were intimidated by a climate in which they know the government can act against them in any way without limitations.
That is the climate of fear that gets created. You can offer all the rights you want on a piece of paper, or a piece of parchment and call it the Constitution, but if you put the citizenry in a state of fear, and make them afraid to exercise those rights, those rights because completely worthless.
I see the same dynamic whenever I speak to American Muslims or go into the American Muslim community where people expect that if some new person showed up at their mosque they have to be extremely cautious with what they can say out of fear that the person is there to surveil them, trick them, or induce them into joining a plot.
Or they're afraid if they send emails or speak on the telephone that the government is listening. Of if they express critical view of the foreign policy of the US that can be used to target them for entrapment or material support for terrorism.
It's this pervasive fear that relinquishes constitutional and core liberties more effectively that if they are denied overtly because people with this fear convince themselves that they are actually free. They tell themselves that if I just hide and stay in the corner, which what I prefer to do, I have nothing to worry about. And when you hide and stay in the corner its very each to convince yourself that you're actually not being repressed.
The socialist activist Rosa Luxemburg said, "He who does not move does not notice his chains."
He who does not move does not notice his chains.
The way in which this climate of fear is so insidious because it convinces people that they are free when they are anything but.
Now, the last point I want to make with the little time I have left is to talk about this climate of fear and the reason why, as tempting as it is to succumb to it, it's actually something that should be and can be confronted.
It's interesting because you can go and have a night like this and talk about some of the injustices that are taking place and the rights abridgments and the persecutions that are occurring and there's a danger that you can sort of spread this gloominess. A dark kind of defeatism where people think I just listened to all these things I think I'm even going to go hide a little bit more carefully now.
The reason why I think that's not the right reaction is, why it's such an ill advised way of thinking is because what history proves more than anything, as we've heard from pretty much every person we've heard from tonight, is exactly the opposite lesson.
I think the Arab Spring, in which the most deprived populations on the planet, populations that have been kept purposefully deprived, and yet stood up to and subverted the most entrenched tyrannies should be the permanent antidote to this defeatism. But I think even American history offers all kinds of examples to prove how compelling that is.
What I want to leave you with is this episode, which is when the founders of the country went to the constitutional convension in Philodelphia and sat in secret and wrote this document, and when they came out Benjamin Franklyn exited the hall and there was a woman who passed by in the street who said, what is it you created in there" and he said famously, "We created a republic, if you can keep it."
What he meant by that is that this document in which these rights are enshrined is nothing more than a piece of paper. That it's your obligation, and all of our obligations to defend them, and demand them, and to claim them. These are rights which belong to all of you, all of us equally.
The history of the United States is one in which these injustices have been subverted only by groups resisting that temptation to give into the climate of fear and band together and create coalitions and alliances and empower themselves in order to demand these rights.
This is a slow process, and it's painful, and it's difficult but inevitably this succeeds if the passion and the commitment is there. I think that ultimately what the real lesson of current history is, of recent and past history is that any human structure, any structure created by human beings, no matter how formidable or how intimidating, no matter how invulnerable it seems, can always be torn down and replaced by other human beings when the right passion and commitment and strategy is found.
The good news is that there is an organization that has taken it's bullets and stood up to this climate of fear and intimidation that is working very vigorously and often successfully and effectively to defend these rights. And there's probably all kinds of ways that you can support them, whether it's with your time or your talent or you money or your abilities, so whatever it is that you decide to do I think the animating belief has to be that there should be no doubt and no question that you need to give into that fear, that instead by refusing to give into it, that's the way that these injustices inevitably will end. So with that I thank you very much [applause]

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