Expanding secrecy and diminishing privacy in Obama’s America

The US government might not have enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant for a US citizen but it claims the right to kill such a person and to keep secret its reasons for doing so.

The U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi is now on the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command capture-or-kill list of suspected terrorists. He is not however on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list and has not been indicted. It is believed that he is being hunted down and that he will be killed, if his exact whereabouts become known, but even if that is the case, this “does not foreclose Anwar al-Aulaqi’s access to the courts,” claim Barack H Obama, Robert M Gates and Leon E Panetta, the defendants in a federal case brought by Aulaqi’s father.

Nasser al-Aulaqi has an old-fashioned conception of justice and believes his son has a right to due process and not be subject to a summary execution.

As Glenn Greenwald points out:

[W]hat’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”: in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.

At the very same time that this administration is pushing to expand the boundaries of state secrecy and extra-judicial power it also wants to restrict citizens’ rights to privacy as it seeks sweeping new regulations for the internet that would provide the government with the means to access all electronic communications.

The New York Times reports:

Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications — including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype — to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.

In the post 9/11 national security culture, arguments in favor of the expansion of government power are invariably framed in terms of enhancing the security services’ ability to track down “bad guys.” But as the article notes, enhanced surveillance capabilities will also create opportunities of others.

Several privacy and technology advocates argued that requiring interception capabilities would create holes that would inevitably be exploited by hackers.

Steven M. Bellovin, a Columbia University computer science professor, pointed to an episode in Greece: In 2005, it was discovered that hackers had taken advantage of a legally mandated wiretap function to spy on top officials’ phones, including the prime minister’s.

“I think it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” he said. “If they start building in all these back doors, they will be exploited.”

The Greek case — sometimes referred to as the Greek Watergate — is interesting for several reasons. As the Times in another report today on the Stuxnet attack notes, “The level of skill needed to pull off the [Greek] operation and the targets strongly indicated that the culprit was a government.”

Indeed, the list of targets alone makes it hard to imagine that this was anything other than an intelligence agency-run operation. The phones bugged included not only those of the Greek prime minister and his wife but also, IEEE Spectrum reported, those of:

…the ministers of national defense, foreign affairs, and justice, the mayor of Athens, and the Greek European Union commissioner… Others belonged to members of civil rights organizations, peace activists, and antiglobalization groups; senior staff at the ministries of National Defense, Public Order, Merchant Marine, and Foreign Affairs; the New Democracy ruling party; the Hellenic Navy general staff; and a Greek-American employee at the United States Embassy in Athens.

Given the context of the then-upcoming 2004 Athens Olympics which were widely regarded as a potential target for a major act of terrorism, it seems quite likely that this was a CIA-run operation.

Since we live in what is still widely regarded as the “freest” nation on earth, as the Obama administration quietly moves to expand its powers, we should have no doubt that the national security culture that is being established here as a new normal, will also serve as a model for other nations that will justify even more extreme restrictions on civil liberties by virtue of the similarities these measures bear to the American way.

The architecture of world government is not being crafted at the United Nations but behind closed doors at the NSA and the CIA. The people we should be most afraid of are the people who promise to make us feel safe.

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2 thoughts on “Expanding secrecy and diminishing privacy in Obama’s America

  1. Fillmorehagan

    The nation is rapidly sliding towards the kind of totalitarian regime decribed by George Orwell in his classic novel 1984. Three salient features of that regime were never ending wars abroad, the torture of dissidents, and government spying on citizens 24/7.

    Sound familiar?

  2. Christopher Hoare

    government power are invariably framed in terms of enhancing the security services’ ability to track down “bad guys.”
    Who needs to track down the bad guys — they are the ones doing all this usurpation of power.
    Yep, the US needs a new motto — a very simple one — “1984”.

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