The Price of Freedom

The media and civil libertarians have quite rightly been exercised over Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the extent, reach and range of the intelligence services snooping on Americans (and foreigners) – snooping that’s been done in the name of security and justified as important in the fight against terrorism.

But there’s a sad reflection in today’s Washington Post on how little Americans on the whole care about privacy rights and their own civil liberties.

Walter Pincus notes the scant public interest in an open session this week of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a panel created by Congress on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. The panel examined the once-secret data collection programs but few people attended and Pincus observes: “I viewed the two-hour session Wednesday on C-SPAN, and it had generated only three Facebook recommendations and 52 tweets.”

 

 

And This Is Justice?

One of the worst knock-on consequences of the Northern Ireland troubles was the erosion of some key civil liberties by successive UK governments, both in the province and later on the mainland.

The right for the accused to remain silent, for example, when questioned by police and during a trial without adverse inference being drawn – a right embedded in English common law since the 17th century – was shredded. First in Northern Ireland with the Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 and then on the mainland with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Then we had the broadcasting restrictions introduced in 1988 by the normally sound Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd that banned from the airwaves 11 Irish Republican and Loyalist organizations. The absurdity of that ban was highlighted day after day when radio and television companies circumvented the ban by having actors read transcripts of comments made by members of any of the 11 organizations.

Far from undermining Sinn Fein, for example, the ban was a PR disaster for the British government, especially when it came to overseas opinion. It had the reverse effect of its intention — instead of being a useful weapon against the IRA, it was turned by the likes of Danny Morrison and Gerry Adams into a propaganda tool for Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, and allowed the government to be painted as illiberal.

The same mistakes are being made now in the UK and in the U.S. and there seems no easing up the further we get away from 9/11 or the terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005.

The Sunday Telegraph reports today that a handful of British police officers have lost their jobs in recent years when their security clearances were revoked by senior officers after checks were carried out because of fears of jihad “sleepers” in the ranks. The paper discloses the identity of one of the officers, who was suspected of being at a terror training camp in Pakistan in 2001.

According to the paper, Abdul Rahman had been a constable for about three years when MI5 warned that he might have visited a training camp in Pakistan. He resigned from the police force after losing an appeal against the revocation of his security clearance.

Obviously, it is disturbing to learn that al-Qaeda or any jihad group may be trying to place sleepers in the ranks of the British police, and vigilance is clearly needed to prevent this happening.

But far more concerning and corrosive is how this is being handled by the authorities, which, judging by the approach towards Rahman, have entailed severe breaches of natural justice and due process.

Rahman, a father of four, is suing for employment and racial discrimination and is seeking compensation from Scotland Yard. He admits he visited Pakistan – he was born in Bangladesh and raised in the UK – but claims he is entirely innocent and never attended a terror training camp, which would be a criminal offence under UK law.

He has never been charged with any criminal offences – nor even questioned or arrested under anti-terrorism legislation. After a five-year legal battle, according to the Telegraph, an Employment

Appeal Tribunal ruled that his case can’t be heard in public and should be held in secret and that Rahman and his lawyers can be banned from parts of the hearing.

Scotland Yard says that secrecy is needed to shroud the identity of sources and highly sensitive information. There is the hint that CIA sourcing may be involved – and as we know that agency never gets anything wrong!

A security-cleared “special advocate” will be appointed on Rahman’s behalf to listen to the closed-door evidence. What good that will do in terms of serving the former policeman’s interests is anyone’s guess. The special advocate will not be allowed to discuss what he or she hears with Rahman or his lawyers.

So, we have here national security once again overriding natural justice — another case of the authorities deciding when it comes to striking a balance between civil liberties and security to favor the latter.

Three weeks after 9/11, I wrote about the dangers of throwing out civil liberties in a column for the Washington Times.

The relevant passages are below:

“Some old rules about fighting terrorism, learned at bloody cost in Northern Ireland and during the Soviet-supported ‘wars of national liberation,’ need to be recalled and restated.

Veteran British antiterrorist experts say the first rule is to remember that terrorists feed on overreaction. Democratic societies that alter themselves by introducing draconian security measures that restrict civil liberties undermine the morale of their own people. Unleashing overly harsh retaliation garners sympathy for the terrorists, is counterproductive and risks making new enemies and inspiring more gunmen and bombers.

How do you defeat an elusive and fanatical enemy who fights in unconventional ways and doesn’t observe the Geneva Convention or worry about greater geostrategic constraints? And how do you do all of that without becoming like the foe you fight and closing your open society?

Some British politicians have reckoned they ignored those rules for too long in Northern Ireland. British prime ministers would march their troops to the top of the hill, only to have to march them down again. Pledges were made. Forecasts offered of victory. Threats thundered. And overreaction increased as successive governments implemented law-and-order measures that may have made life a little more difficult for the Irish Republican Army and occasionally foiled a plot, but which corroded the democracy and orderly society that the British saw themselves as defending.

Out went the right to jury trials in Northern Ireland; out also went the right of a defendant to remain silent, both fundamental principles in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence.”

 

A 9/11 Memory

I was late talking my son to Takoma Park elementary school and was phoned by my foreign editor who said that in light of what had happened all editorial plans for the day were scrapped. Being the veteran I was I muttered, “Of course,” while wondering what the blazes he was on about. He asked me what I had heard and I said,”Bear with me, things are very fluid here and I need to make some more calls.”

The car radio in my old Fiat Spyder wasn’t working and I drove like the wind back to my home and switched on CNN in time to see the second plane strike the twin towers. I thought to myself, “Al Qaeda.” And then thought, “Life is going to be very different from now on.”

I then worked like fury. Business AM got a European press award for coverage that day. Much later in the day I toured the outside of the still-smoking Pentagon, had a drink on the way home in one of the few bars open in an eerily deserted DC and drafted in my mind my column for the Washington Times Corp. It was a plea not to throw out civil liberties in the fight against terrorism. Next day I tried to explain to my son about the bad people….

Ron Paul Favors Ground Zero Mosque

Texas Congressman  Ron Paul — the spiritual godfather of the Tea Party movement — has come out in support of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.  On his blog he writes: “The debate should have provided the conservative defenders of property rights with a perfect example of how the right to own property also protects the 1st Amendment rights of assembly and religion by supporting the building of the mosque.

Instead, we hear lip service given to the property rights position while demanding that the need to be ‘sensitive’ requires an all-out assault on the building of a mosque, several blocks from ground zero.”

He blames neo-conservatives for starting the hue-and-cry over the mosque. He says they “demand continual war in the Middle East and Central Asia and are compelled to constantly justify it. They never miss a chance to use hatred toward Muslims to rally support for the ill conceived preventative wars. A select quote from soldiers from in Afghanistan and Iraq expressing concern over the mosque is pure propaganda and an affront to their bravery and sacrifice.”

Good to hear a leading U.S. libertarian staying true to his principles. He won’t be so popular among the Tea Party types after this.

In Defense of the American Soul

“We are engaged in a battle for the soul of America,” TV actor Joseph Phillips writes in the Daily Caller – a political journalism site I contribute to. Apparently the building of a mosque dedicated to the principles of integration, tolerance and inter-faith understanding two blocks from Ground Zero would mean America losing its soul.

Phillips’ argument goes thus: if the Muslims who want to build the mosque were really tolerant and understanding, they would build the mosque somewhere else, and anyway the only Americans supporting the mosque are leftists who just hate America. In fact, about half of Phillips’ article opposing the mosque is dedicated to a rant against leftists. An argument can be correct even if you don’t like the people making it.

He adds: “It is important to point out that there have been no pronouncements from opponents of the mosque that the American Society for Muslim Advancement does not have a right to build the mosque wherever they wish.  Opponents have simply asked that the building not be built in that location. What remains unclear and unanswered is why the supporters of this mosque are choosing to move forward in spite of its offense and emotional injury to others.”

While Phillips recognizes Muslims constitutional right to build the mosque he can’t help but wonder why the federal government can’t step in to prevent it – a point that totally undermines his recognition of the rights of American (sic) Muslims. “I am fascinated that the same people who have been able to find a Constitutional right to government control of education, health care, and the energy industry are unable to divine from that same document any rational basis for the government to prevent a mosque from being built on Ground Zero,” he writes. So much for the constitutional rights of Muslims – if Phillips could have his way the feds would step in.

Why exactly the building of a mosque would be of such an affront necessitating the intervention of the federal government is not explained overtly, except for that talk of “offense and emotional injury.” So all we get in terms of true substance is a tautological argument – the mosque is an affront because it has caused offense. And then his article relies on the “secondary” argument: the mosque should be opposed because “hard-core leftists” who “do not respect America’s traditions or institutions” support it — in other words, traitors.

So, presumably Mayor Bloomberg is a leftist traitor. And apparently I am as well, even though I am an American by choice and not by accident. By the by, my 25 years of writing and journalism has seldom been characterized as leftist.

I don’t disagree with Phillips that this fight over the mosque is a fight for the soul of America. From my point of view the fight is over whether the country will stay true not only to the letter but more importantly the spirit of the Declaration of Rights and the U.S. Constitution – the bedrocks of the United States of America. I can’t recall reading anywhere in either document any comments suggesting either that Muslims should not be allowed to build mosques or that they should not be permitted to build one in a place deemed sensitive or out-of-bounds by others. Yes, we have local zoning rules nowadays but the so-called Ground Zero mosque apparently does not infringe them.

In fact, the First Amendment of the Constitution is uncompromising when it comes to the practice of religion – any religion and not just religions deemed “American” by Phillips or anyone else for that matter. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Rights are at their most important when most under threat, when the clamor is at its loudest to deny them. Alas, when the Patriot Act was being forced through too few people were raising a hue and cry about the tremendous and disturbing civil rights violations it brought with it. Anyone who truly values the Constitution should be supporting the building of the mosque – and this has nothing to do with the left-right spectrum of American politics, or shouldn’t have.

The real affront that is going on in the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque is that of seeing the First Amendment as unimportant or something that one is loyal to when convenient rather than uniformly and consistently.

There are other affronts, too. The opposition to the mosque relies on two other arguments, sometimes made openly and sometimes issuing more covertly. It relies heavily on the notions that American Muslims are somehow not real Americans and that all Muslims are somehow collectively responsible for 9/11 and the odious Osama bin Laden.

This is exactly what is implied when Newt Gingrich argues, as he did the other day, this: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a sight next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.” These are emotive but erroneous comparisons: German Nazism was a political ideology and Japan is a nation – Islam is a religion with Americans who are also adherents. The real comparison to make would be German Nazism with Al Qaeda – and as far as I am aware no one has shown that the proposed mosque is going to support Al Qaeda or the philosophy espoused by Osama bin Laden.

So now we have the added affronts from those who oppose the mosque – namely, their suggestion that there are different classes of Americans – some real and others not – and that a whole religion, or all the adherents of a religion, should be held accountable and responsible for the actions of a small minority claiming to speak in the name of that religion. That is the kind of language and thinking of Osama bin Laden and his medieval ilk. Are we to allow him and the radical Islamists to change us – to make us the mirror image of them? If we do so, then we have allowed him a victory and handed him something even more damaging to us than 9/11. We would have added to the risk of a war of religions.

And that is precisely the point that answers Phillips’ when he writes: “What remains unclear and unanswered is why the supporters of this mosque are choosing to move forward in spite of its offense and emotional injury to others.” The Ground Zero mosque should go ahead in defiant answer to Osama bin Laden and to all those who would damage the soul of America and who fail to understand that you can’t pick and choose when it comes to the fundamental rights announced by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. It should go ahead because the people who want to build are American and want commemorate those who died at 9/11. It should go ahead because we don’t believe in collective punishment, unlike Al Qaeda.

Gingrich and those Republicans opposing the mosque may think they have stumbled on a Willie Horton moment ahead of the mid-term elections. But it is a Willie Horton moment profoundly damaging to the soul of America and one that they may well regret indulging in.