Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World
by Maureen Webb. San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2007.
306 pp. $16.95 paper. ISBN 978-0-87286-476-4.
Maureen Webb is Co-Chair of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, a member of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada and a founder of the Campaign Against Mass Surveillance. Her first book, Illusions of Security, begins with the story of Ottawa residents, and Canadian citizens, Maher and Monia Arar. On the basis of a casual friendship between Maher and Abdullah Amalki, the brother of a coworker, Maher was renditioned from the United States, where he had been to waiting for a connecting flight to Montreal, to a Syrian prison. He remained in the prison for a year during which he was frequently tortured.
Amalki himself had been detained while passing through Syria and placed in a prison there for 19 months. He, too, was repeatedly tortured. His crime was...
...having worked with a Pakistani charity, called Human Concern International, operated, in that region of the world, by Ahmed Said Khadr. Khadr, it seems, had been a close associate of Osama Bin Laden.
While the stories of Arar and Amalki receive the most in depth treatment, there are other stories, in Illusions of Security, of terrorist investigations gone horribly wrong, other names that we may remember from some newspaper headline: Ahmad Abou El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin, Arwad Al Boushi, Khaled El Masri. Even these are but a small sample of the wreckage left behind by the wholesale tactics utilized to prosecute the "War on Terror".
These stories serve as the introduction to Webb’s commentary upon what she refers to as "corporate-security complex" (as opposed to the "military-industrial complex"). They give the innocent victims of the new supra-national security infrastructure a human face. The remainder of the book documents the myriad attempts of the executive branch of the United States government to establish a world wide surveillance network through fear-mongering, economic leverage and other means.
It is not a story that begins with 9/11, according to Webb, and her point seems well taken:
In the official Washington of the 1990s, there was a general scramble, not just on the part of the neoconservatives, but also on the part of the military and security apparatus. They needed to find a new rationale that would sustain the level of military spending on which their jobs and, to some extent, the American economy had come to depend after the World War II and during the subsequent Cold War. For this sector, the "war on terror" was heaven sent, offering them a new raison d’etre and an opportunity to acquire a long-held "wish list" of investigative and surveillance powers.
From out of this existential angst of the 90s came the infamous Neocon paper entitled "Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century" [pdf format]which outlined a plan for the United States to remain the dominant world power in perpetuity. Those who are not familiar with the plan need not feel insufficiently informed: it is embodied as the Bush Administration’s foreign policy from its rejection of the World Court to its invasion of Iraq.
The Neocons kept the plan alive for years, as members of various conservative think-tanks, while waiting for the right combination of circumstances to bring them to power. The George W. Bush presidency placed them in many of the highest appointed offices of government where they struggled to gain traction, for a time, amongst the stench of a galling peace. The fear and anger that followed 9/11 gave them a blank check to implement their program.
There is a constant pressure from within all intelligence communities, at all times, to increase their range, resources and freedom of covert operation. It is an intrinsic tendency of such communities that makes them natural proponents of the Neocon agenda. There had been more than one classified project, in the various intelligence agencies’ budgets, over the years prior to 9/11, to increase one or another of the agencies’ data collection and processing capabilities both within and without the borders of the United States. Funding came at the price of strict limitations and oversight. U.S. intelligence could only choose to attribute its failure to prevent the attack to restrictions placed upon its desires by "outdated" interpretations of the Constitution by a Congress and Judiciary composed of clueless amateurs.
Illusions of Security is an account of the programs that have been instituted since the fateful day that Osama Bin Laden killed some three thousand American citizens and unleashed the Neocon model of the new America to redefine the legal protections for those who remain. It is an account of similar trends among the various allies in the "War on Terror" that do not wish to be left behind as international players, and, therefore, are redefining their own citizens’ protections and participating in the creation of a huge international database intended to identify and preemptively remove potential criminals. It is also an account of countries that America once spurned as "oppressive regimes" and that it now embraces as highly useful allies, of the subsequent repackaging of their dissident populations as "terrorists".
As the result, there is a new paradigm in town. Or rather an old one adapted from its corporate original. It is the paradigm of risk-benefit analysis:
In this paradigm, the criminal law and due process protections that have been developed over centuries in democratic societies — such as the presumption of innocence; habeas corpus and rights against arbitrary, indefinite detention; attorney-client privilege; public trials; the right to know the evidence against one and to respond; the right against unreasonable search and seizure; and the right to remain silent — are viewed as intolerable risks. Judicial oversight over law enforcement agents and public officials is viewed as an intolerable risk. Statutory privacy and data-protection rights are intolerable risks. Constitutional guarantees, basic human rights norms, and the rule of law itself are now seen as compromising and intolerably risky. For the risk screeners, what matters is the avoidance of risk from the point of view of the state.
We are to have as much democracy as risk-benefit analysis will support. Opposition will be easily overwhelmed by fear-mongering tactics.
Maureen Webb struggles mightily to rally the troops in an attempt to turn back the tide. Her opponents shield themselves with the USA Patriot Act, their weapons are an endless alphabet soup of acronyms that is constantly being expanded: ECHELON, NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System), US-VISIT (U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology), ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), NSL (National Security Letter), CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act), SWIFT (Society for World Wide Interbank Financial Communications), TIA (Total Information Awareness), MATRIX (Multi-State Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange). Keyword identification programs prowl more and more of our travel, financial and personal data, looking for signs of risk. Soon, biometrics will be called upon to insure that there can be no escape either from the data harvesting of our lives or the unappeallable results of a computer flag.
For her part, Webb wields a solid journalistic prose style and a section of 782 endnotes comprising an index of the sources of her information many of them available on the web. The endnotes themselves are worth the price of the book.
But will Illusions of Security succeed in raising the desired hue and cry? Sadly, it does not seem likely. As George Monbiot points out, in his February 2006 AlterNet article "The Perpetual Surveillance Society" (cited in Webb’s endnotes):
There will be no dramatic developments. We will not step out of our homes one morning to discover that the state, or our boss, or our insurance company, knows everything about us. But, if the muted response to the ID card is anything to go by, we will gradually submit, in the name of our own protection, to the demands of the machine. And it will not then require a tyrannical new government to deprive us of our freedom. Step by voluntary step, we will have given it up already.
As governments are all too well aware, their citizens will readily accept changes quietly administered over time that would freeze their collective blood if instituted all at once. Should fear be able to be called upon, to assist in the process periodically, the acceptable rate of change need not be all that slow.
Should resistance arise, on the other hand, Webb herself makes clear what will happen: "When programs are canceled under political pressure, governments simply reintroduce them in new packages using new names." More often still, the program is included as part of an agreement undertaken solely by the Executive branch under the umbrella of an ongoing international treaty passed by Congress long ago and now beyond the checks and balances of our system. These simple tactics rarely fail to achieve their ends.
All the more reason, then, to hope that Maureen Webb’s Illusions of Security finds a dedicated audience undaunted by long odds.