Privacy SOS

Terror Tuesday: Turning back from the abyss

On this Election Day 2012 let us pause to remember what the national security landscape was like four years ago in the months before Barack Obama was elected president. 

The Bush Administration proposed extending the powers granted it under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and adding new targets.  Because the US is still engaged in “armed conflict with al Qaeda,” the proposal stated, Congress should “reaffirm that for the duration of the conflict the United States may detain as enemy combatants those who have engaged in hostilities or purposefully supported Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated organizations.”

Vice president Cheney vigorously defended waterboarding and stated that the US could not responsibly close Guantanamo prison until “the end of the war on terror” whenever that might be.

Vice presidential candidate Joe Biden asserted  that “no one is above the law” and indicated that the Obama Administration would examine whether there was a basis to pursue criminal charges against the Bush Administration because of its treatment of detainees. 

The Department of Homeland Security, together with the National Reconnaissance Office and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, was reportedly was planning to deploy space-based Predator B drones above the United States for “disaster management.”  These are the same drones that were carrying out “targeted assassinations” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.  

Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project, warned the House Homeland Security Committee that “Congress needs to act before this potentially powerful surveillance tool is turned inward upon the American people. The domestic use of spy satellites represents a potential monster in the making, and we need to put some restraints in place before it grows into something that will trample Americans’ privacy rights.”

The FBI got new guidelines that would make it easier for them to track people based on their race and ethnicity without the standard of “suspicion” required by the Fourth Amendment. 

Then came the election and the change was in the air.

 Seymour Hersh and other journalists were confident that when the new Administration was installed, an army of whistleblowers would emerge and “open the spigot on the truth” about the extent of  warrantless wiretapping by the NSA and other Bush Administration Constitutional violations. 

“You cannot believe how many people have told me to call them on January 20,” Hersh wrote.  “You wanna know about abuses and violations?  Call me then.”

Over the next four years, the Obama Administration would bring an unprecedented number of criminal prosecutions against whistleblowers and is now strenuously opposing ACLU and Amnesty International efforts in the US Supreme Court to uncover the extent of warrantless wiretapping.

It has never made any serious effort to examine the Constitutional and human rights violations of its predecessor Administration. 

It declared waterboarding to be torture but backtracked on its pledge to close Guantanamo and made Bagram prison in Afghanistan a new Guantanamo.

It has greatly enlarged the use of drones to carry out “targeted assassinations,” and has expanded its drone bases, and CIA and Special Operations forces to carry out “counterterrorism wars in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

The Bush Administration proposal that “war on terror” powers should be indefinitely extended and new targets added is now the law of the land, thanks to President Obama’s signature on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012.

The globe is fast becoming a battlefield in a war without end, while many powerful surveillance tools are being turned against the American people.

Did it have to be this way? 

Shortly before the 2008 election, two British anti-terror experts – Stella Rimington and Ken Macdonald – criticized the US for its “overly militaristic approach to fighting terrorism.” 

Rimington, the former head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency M15, called the response to September 11 “a huge overreaction” which “got us off on the wrong foot because it made people think terrorism was something you deal with by force of arms primarily.” 

According to Ken Macdonald, the top prosecutor for England and Wales, “You can have the Guantanamo model.  You can have the model which says that we cannot afford to give people their rights, that rights are too expensive because of the nature of the threats.  Or you can say, as I prefer to, that our rights are priceless.  That the best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions rather than to degrade them.”

We should ponder their words as we contemplate the road taken by both Administrations since 9/11.  Of one thing we can now be certain: neither major political party will change direction without a huge push from below. 

Are we prepared to demand a different approach that respects Constitutional rights and international law?  Or will we simply acquiesce as the next Administration – whichever it will be – takes us further into the abyss of repression and a Forever War?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.