Against politeness

noc-photosforstanddownorder-article-11-of-1

Photo by Zach D. Roberts for Nation of Change.

I have been made aware of my European identity early, and often. I was born in France, walked my first steps in Ireland, survived my growing pains in Northern Ireland, was educated in Germany, entered adulthood in Switzerland. Every one of those places is determined and defined by war, either present or past, the scars evident for a naked eye to see. Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, the Balkans, Austria, Poland, all those bright blue lakes of my childhood and the snow-tipped cold mountain ranges have carried ghosts, whispers and whimpers of the deported, the exterminated, the shellshocked, the wounded of two world wars, at the very least. When a 20 year old student from the University of Nevada called Peter Cvjenatovic says he attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA this weekend because the “European culture” means terrorizing the local population with torches and swastikas, brown shirts and black boots is his right, my stomach churned; I blinked at the photo of his comb-over, his facial traits distorted by fanaticism as he screamed “Blood and Soil” on American ground, and the image of a young Otto Van Wächter came to mind.

It’s a nightmare, a nightmare from which we are told not to wake up; it would be an “alternative” reality, a legitimate product of economic disenfranchisement, a “fringe” not present or represented in the current Trump administration, a “rise” contrary to the decades-spanning files of the FBI’s counter extremism task force. It is none of those things, and this piece aims at explaining two things: the issue of free speech absolutism in times of violent politics, and the necessity to call to action without concession.

Free speech absolutism in the age of Trump

 One of the glaring differences in constitutional rights between the US and European member-states – at range, for the purposes of this argument, states party to the ECHR – is the interpretation of the right to free speech, in freedom of expression, opinion, and information. Contained in the First Amendment to the Constitution in the US and Article 10 of the ECHR, the vast difference is of a historical nature, and can vary from state to state in Europe. When it comes to ban on political parties, memorabilia, symbols, or speech, the United States applies a blanket to free speech with a narrow hate speech caveat. In the case of France, a debate regularly arises on the criminality of denying the existence of the Shoah; in Germany, Nazi memorabilia and even performing the Hitler salute in public are banned. Those, to the outside eye, seem necessary given the specific political context inherent to those two countries. In the United States, it appears that events taking place during the 2016 electoral campaign and more recently in Charlottesville, VA have raised the issue of a narrowing, culling, and roughing up the edges of absolutism.

It started when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) represented the leaders of the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, after the mayor refused them a permit to march. And march they did: the night before the rally itself, the crowd descended on the University of Virginia (UVA) campus in Charlottesville with tiki torches, singing and chanting slogans while marching in pants and shirts, at night, startling the local population with imagery much too familiar to the South and eerily cognizant of its effect on the western world at large. Many felt the ACLU, an organization crucial to the respect of civil rights in the country and generally affiliated with the organized political left, had let them down. The ACLU had been fundraising since the January transition on a platform of opposing the Trump administration at every turn. In that, they delivered: they took the refugee ban to court; they protected journalists targeted by the president’s desire to control the narrative; they were front and center against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Representing a hate-filled, extremist movement’s right to protest was perceived as a betrayal. Politically, it may be. But the ACLU is a legal organization based on the equal and fair application of constitutional rights; they are not to blame, absolutism is.

There are plenty of arguments in favor of absolutism. They will all highlight that limits to free speech and freedom of the press would yield to state discretion, to judicial bias, to political suppression. They will misquote Voltaire and discern from the old English law that civil rights are not here to be restricted, and that civility will do part with the belief that all positions are equal. They will argue that it’s necessary for expression to take place so rebuttal can also be present and public, and that pushing extremist views further into darkness legitimizes their claim to oppression. In this specific example, they will say that the history specific to mid-20th century Central Europe and French occupation are not the same as the legacy of the Civil War in the United States. Meanwhile, statues of confederate leaders are tumbled down all across the South, and monuments are being used as meeting points for white supremacists. It is very possible to then argue that the legacy of the Civil War has in fact not been dealt with; that the criminal justice system in the United States continues to disproportionality punish black and ethnic minorities; that police violence is unabated and unrestricted; that affirmative action and voting rights are under attack. Is this a reason to curtail free speech? Is extending hate speech territory a violation of free speech? Should the ACLU not accept First Amendment complaints from white supremacist groups?

Legally, the ACLU is being consistent. This is the interpretation of the First Amendment as upheld by the Supreme Court. The aforementioned defense of absolutism makes legitimate points that have been demonstrated as correct: there is a long-standing trail of political bias in freedom of expression. One recent element comes to mind, and that is a much cited court case against former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen being booted off court after filing a defamation claim, the judge outlining in his decision that what is true can not be defamatory in nature: it is therefore legal to refer to Marine Le Pen as a fascist in the course of political debate. This did not prove that hate speech laws in France criminalizing historically verified facts or the ban on neo-nazi parties in Germany are a violation of a fundamental right. Speech is not, as much as one would like it to be, a fundamental right. It is not cited as an absolute because its very nature can pose a threat. What we consider when curtailing free speech is the imminence and reality of the threat said speech poses, and in that states do in fact exercise quite large discretion in determination and definition. Political positions are threatening if they dissent or attack the powers that be; religious beliefs can be seen as isolating and discriminatory. If we do consider human rights to be universal in both nature and scope, we must define them by what they are not. If we are to believe civil rights should be accessed by all, limit them to what they do not tolerate. If political rights are to be exercised safely and in the interest of the collective, they cannot be extended to beliefs that in nature are threatening and lethal. When it comes to the ghosts of slavery and Nazism, ghosts that are very much palpable and cyclically return to haunt the West, there is no debate. Refusing to tolerate such positions is not a question of specific party membership, or political affiliation. Refusing racial supremacy goes far beyond a flag, a border, or a constitution. It is committing to human rights. We should, and must, draw a line.

noc-photosforstanddownorder-article-18-of-1

Photo by Zach D. Roberts for Nation of Change.

Polarizing attitudes and the Free Ride Theory

 A rose may be a rose by any other name, but an old professor of mine coined the following concept as the Free Ride Theory, and it applies. The dominant narrative, in both glossed-over history reenactments or modern cinematography is that most French people were in the Resistance, the Vichy supporters were passive opportunists, the vote to grant Marshal Pétain full powers all but ignored. This was not the case. A small portion of the population was, in fact, supporting the Vichy regime; held anti-Semitic views; called for the end of Front Populaire policies; believed the Reich could restore order and glory to the fading empire. Another small faction found itself on the other side of the spectrum: they joined the Résistance, engaged in sabotage, conducted counter-intelligence missions, provided safe passage to England, dragged compromised comrades behind enemy lines. The large, vast majority was neither. To support Pétain was to support beliefs that could be unpalatable for many; to join the Résistance was to take incalculable risks. Activism was lethal, and for many, the decision was made for them: communists, Jews, gays, pacifists, artists, they would have died regardless. They were young, had no families to feed, and so many found themselves with the need to follow in exile, or simply rejected resistance because they rejected conflict.

When Paris was liberated in August 1944 and General De Gaulle marched on the Champs-Elysees, people rejoiced, cheered, embraced the Allied troops, whether they had been pro-actively engaged in their victory or had hidden in their rooms waiting for the war to end. The latter, according to my professor, benefited from the actions of a few: they were freed without having seen concentration camps, without having lost a limb or a relative. They rejoiced despite not sacrificing anything in the battle. It was, to him, the free ride all passengers on the merry-go-round win if one child grabs the prize. One fights for the many – and the many claim the same prize as the one. It’s the rule of activism: not everyone can contribute to the resistance as much as the other, but all must win. It is a basic fact of socio-political frameworks, and it must be understood that not every citizen was going to be physically present in Charlottesville, VA over that fated weekend during which fundamental values were tested in an almost unprecedented fashion.

But there is something to be said about commitment to those fundamental values, and to this extremely recent need not to polarize, not to draw lines, not to erect barricades, to compromise. Barack Obama was praised as a Democrat president for reaching across the aisle when most had elected him on a quite progressive platform. This created resentment, bitterness, a feeling of betrayal on the less centrist side of the Democratic party. What’s fundamental is however, by definition, not a question of bipartisanship. It is about collective identity: it is not about local policies or electoral cycles. Those values are often written (or described) in constitutional texts. As such, the United States will hold its First Amendment as a fundamental that cannot be taken away from any American. It however does not say that other American must consider this particular exercise of speech as of equal value to, say, the fight for universal health care, or a Gawker article.

Everywhere, human rights are under attack. They were held as a breakdown in national identity during the Brexit referendum. They were defined as responsible for the sharp divide between the presidential candidates in France. They are at the heart of a 5 year-long civil war in Syria. They are denied to millions of refugees in makeshift, sub-par refugee camps in Australia. Under the guise of civility and tolerance, we are accepting their violation as a legitimate political discourse. We are refraining from resisting and encouraging others not to protest them, we are classifying them as a fringe, a phase, a temporary ill to befell our otherwise civilized, evolved, democratic society. They are none of those things and history has proven that by never taking a stand, or by assuming there is a reasonable expectation of equal treatment and republican commitment, we will fail. Later, the fabric of society will be unraveled, slowly undone, until the law no longer protects the vulnerable and the body politic belongs to a violent few.

Now is the time for a strong moral, ethical and legal line to hold against what have constituted the backbone of modern human rights law as we know it. There is no equivalency to be drawn and no position to “agree to disagree” when fundamental rights are so directly at stake and leaders of the movement discuss creating an “ethnostate”. For all the signs that dystopian pop culture has created in the last few years and the success it’s generated – from Black Mirror to The Handmaid’s Tale – the difficulty to translate this generation’s anxieties and fears for the future has not made it onto the streets nor has it formed a substantial support of the recent warning issued by Human Rights Council treaty bodies. An innate and otherwise legitimate denial of violence in any shape or form from centrist corners has yielded passivity, an apathy, lulling vast portions of the population into a false sense of security. Those movements are not “fringe”; they are not “lone extremists”; they are an armed militia, and they have long claimed casualties. For 74% of the attacks committed on US soil to be attributed to extremists in the last 9 years, it is long, long time to show solidarity in disagreement and initiate false parallels. We are who we stand up against.

Advertisements

It’s been a really trying year

I saw the date approach in my calendar with a nostalgic reminder of the sense of loss I felt then. A year ago, I had landed back at Heathrow in a rush in the hours before the polls opened all across the then-united Kingdom, queuing with other European citizens in the European passports line, a little uncomfortable with the referendum being held in the first place, but otherwise confident. I walked passed several magazine and newspaper stands on my way out, glanced at issues celebrating an upcoming victory for the far-right: an “independence day”, according to Nigel Farage, “freedom” from an institution few understood as anything else but a regulatory body, and most of all, “control”.

Back in New York, expats and Americans alike kept asking for predictions. Of course, 2016 was the year I was constantly proven wrong: I was firmly convinced Donald Trump, for instance, would never win the Republican nomination. I knew Europe always journeyed through cyclical bursts of far-right approval. I wanted to be receptive to criticism of EU institutions – a pet peeve of mine are references to “the EU”, just like “the UN”, neither being homogenous entities – that I often emitted myself. I had been tested, like many Europhiles, by the Commission’s reaction to the refugee crisis. I had been in opposition to a secretive and adversarial EU Council, that Ian Dunt qualified as “shady”. But it was so painfully obvious to me, from the continent, that the Leave camp as lying, over and over again, that I felt confident the British public knew better. We had spent enough time correcting statements that a Brexit vote would mean a withdrawal from the ECHR for it to be understood.
Of all the things I hate (people calling Bushwick “East Williamsburg”, forgetting the h at the end of my first name, anything written by Alan Dershowitz): being wrong. Needless to say, June 23rd was not a good day.

I work in Strasbourg. It’s not Brussels, but close enough thanks to being another seat of the EU Parliament, that the shockwaves radiated all the way to the Rhine. My colleagues and I were at the office early that day, snacking, nervously drinking coffee and checking our phones. It’s not necessarily a strange scene for people working in counter-terrorism. But this vote was about something else. It was about dismantling something we all believed in, although with different degrees of devotion. We were, are, all Cold War kids, children of Mitterrand and Kohl, great-grandchildren of Verdun, Eurostar frequent passengers, some of us coming of age with the Good Friday Agreement, Erasmus-educated, border-hopping staffers. My reaction to Brexit continues to be bipolar. On one hand, I react to it as a lawyer, interpreting article 50, issuing concerns about the Northern Irish border, attacking the arrogance of a bespoke agreement with Europol. On the other hand, it feels deeply personal. It’s a betrayal of my identity, of one growing up thanks and through the European Project – an idea separate from the European Union, with the end goal being that the two should reconcile through democratic, progressive values, pro-immigration, pro-human rights, pro-workers’ rights, an evolution a political finger to De Gaulle and Thatcher and a legal assertion away from US exceptionalism.

I was given the opportunity to let my heart on my sleeve for the legal commentary blog Opinio Juris about Europe, the European Union, the European project, and the fears the referendum brought to light as a Northern Irish citizen. I still haven’t corrected the typos.

When the result was officially announced, my office fell quiet. Sure, the referendum was not legally binding. Sure, the margin was not significant enough to call it a political mandate. Sure, the question itself was vague enough not to give a time frame for withdrawal or how exactly the UK will divorce from the rest of us. There was barely time to grieve, really. Jean-Claude Juncker became aggressive, Donald Tusk chose the bleeding heart route, and all around me, lawyers were suddenly dragged in the spotlight, a place where we feel either really comfortable or really uncomfortable, having to respond to questions for which there was never supposed to be an answer at all. If anything, to me, the UK had entered a historic phase: as a long-time partner in the creation and construction of what would later become the European Union, a major player in its most destructive wars, and an unparalleled ally in security, seeing the island decide to float away on its own in the choppy, freezing waters in the North Sea and taking Northern Ireland with it was impossible to fathom. It wasn’t “control”. It was the sort of “freedom” that one can only achieve when they jump off a bridge, for a split second suspended outside of the laws of gravity, but inevitably about to hit the ground in free fall.

As lawyers, we then had to find a way out, a legal answer to a political question. Immediately, what came to mind was a simple truth, a statement of fact: it was not legally binding, so why do anything? But David Cameron had resigned, and “mandate” and “will of the people” became such imposing terms we outlined Article 50 for everyone else. Article 50 says nothing. It provides a time frame. I started writing a few paragraphs everyday, a mock-diary of post-referendum news coverage, that I titled “Weimar Britain”. Every morning, I would call the hour in GMT, list a few highlights of the absurd positions taken by Theresa May or Michael Gove the day before, mention if Juncker or Barnier had gone for a round of golf, and finish with the weather forecast, the last sentence being, “the UK is still in the European Union”. I did that for a few months, the ritual becoming quite popular in my circles, so convinced I was that Article 50 would never be triggered. It just was inconceivable to me. Repealing every EU provision in British common law? Alienating the country from security agreements at a time of heightened security threats? What was that constant logorrhea about a sovereignty that was never questioned nor eroded in the first place? Everything was baffling, incorrect at best, surreal most of the time. And then I was told, in December if I remember correctly, by a certain British journalist, that I was delusional if I believed Article 50 would never be triggered. A few months later, he was proven right, and I was once again proven wrong.

The otherwise excellent Remainiacs podcast, started a few weeks ago, used the term “trauma” to refer to the feeling many experienced in the aftermath of the referendum. I won’t use the term, because my field of work reserves it for a different type of experience. I will continue to say what I feel is loss: a sense of unity, that was never there in terms of EU-wide political consensus; a sense of togetherness, certainly not correct considering how many opt-outs the UK placed on many EU treaties; a sense of belonging, that never extended to many immigrants much like my parents. The European project remains an idea, but it is an idea I firmly believe can translate if we empower the Parliament to oppose the Commission more and if, really, the Council conducts its work in a less shady manner. The role of EU Courts, so often maligned by UK politicians, is paramount. Brexit will not affect the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe, and the country remains part of the ECHR, at least for now. But the days are numbered: leaving the EU was never about renegotiating trade agreements or “taking control” of agricultural regulations. It was about shutting down immigration, about refusing to implement ECJ rulings on civil liberties, about the immaturity and irresponsibility of removing one state from transnational regulations that provide for medical progress and housing safety, among other things. It was a vote not based on concern for the lack of reform in the EU: it was about misplaced and misunderstood British identity, that was placed as superior to other states, and perfectly capable of raising the flag of the Empire after centuries of outward progress.

It’s been a year. It’s been a year of we, in Belfast, Derry, Newry, Enniskillen, having to remind everyone that our region has always been fragile and precarious, that our peace process was ongoing and needed attention. It’s been a year of sharing and re-issuing reports compiled by EU officials on the dire effects of a EU withdrawal on devolved administrations. It’s been a year of my colleagues publishing paper after opinion on the impact of Brexit on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Mostly, it’s been a year of reading about the fear, anxiety, and panic at the prospect of the border being raised. Typing this, I found myself capitalizing the word – Border – out of habit. It’s not just any border; it’s a border that symbolized a civil war. It’s a fault line I had known my entire life and that I still shudder, even if it is now disembodied, whenever I ride what is now a commuter train between Dublin and Belfast. It’s a border we were told we were never going to see again, one that Theresa May apparently just found out about, one that Secretary of State James Brokenshire discusses to provide assurances of our safety but without the necessary presence or authority required by the position of neutrality the UK is supposed to hold. There is nothing neutral about Brexit and its complete lack of interest in Northern Ireland. And so, we are entering our sixth month without a government or a Speaker of the Assembly; Dublin finds itself having to be a buffer between London and Brussels while being the key player on the chessboard, without its consent, without it having a say in the referendum being carried out in the first place. Northern Ireland voted to stay, because, as I wrote at the time, it is survival for most of us. It is for many others across the Union.

It’s been a year and I’m swimming against the tide of colleagues and friends leaving the UK to head to the continent, where their legal status is ensured, where they will not be asked for a visa and where their children can stay with their parents: I am moving to London. As I flew back to Europe a few days ago, once again from New York, but this time into Switzerland, I realized my biggest privilege wasn’t the most obvious necessarily. It wasn’t my education that the EU subsidized. It wasn’t my safety from war that the EU launched and protected. It wasn’t my health coverage that the EU ensured and funded. It is my freedom of movement. It’s the two passports – I am a citizen of nowhere – I hold, two EU citizenships, two possibilities of fast-tracking at airports, two possibilities of visa waivers. One is a Schengen nationality, the other is a Common Travel Area one. European citizens are trading this freedom at quite a cost: first the Schengen Information System (SIS II) database, and the Passenger Name Record (PNR) agreement with the US. Those will need work, reform, scrutiny, checks. We have a Parliament, we have Courts. UK citizens may lose their freedom of movement. They may be restricted, suspended, will have to re-negotiate. Education, family life, work, internships, travel, tourism, experience, all of this is dangling off the edge of a cliff.

It’s been one year. Imagine. One year, and no answer.

Can we define terror, or should we let terrorism define us?

In May 2013, the renowned International Institute for Counter Terrorism, the ICT, held a global workshop of legal scholars, experts, analysts, in order to work toward an international definition of terrorism. Without exception, all panelists worked against the effort led by Dr. Boaz Ganor. In his closing remarks, he lamented the frustrating and sterile experience. “We will never reach the level of counter terrorism efficiency and cooperation that is needed (…) without agreeing on the basic issue. What are we fighting? What is the common denominator? (…)  The first issue is that it is a subjective term, and you can not use subjective tools to a subjective term.”

Dr. Ganor later outlines the fundamental issue: that any global cooperation in counter-terrorism is based around sanctions, blacklisting, arrests, detention, prosecution, extradition, and use of force around a concept no one has grasped, but perhaps most dangerously, has refused to grasp. Any international or transnational response to counter-terrorism is based on a loose definition, that is the lowest common denominator of all current legal translations of terrorism in domestic criminal systems. It is therefore unreliable and extensive to the point of creating crimes of terrorism where there are none, because of the Venn diagrams it forces upon an international or transnational arrest warrant, extradition treaty, or intelligence cooperation. Terrorism has become meaningless as a term, say political analysts, because if everything is terrorism, nothing is terrorism. It is a complete fallacy. It is not that everything is terrorism. It’s that everything is made to be terrorism.

In opposition to the exactitude that is required of criminal law, we have resorted to vague concepts denounced by human rights activists around the world. Terrorism creates and implements a system of criminal and state response that is beyond regular counter-criminal systems: it demands extensive human rights and civil rights derogations, sometimes suspensions; it automatically implements resolutions on wider and less restrictive intelligence and military intelligence sharing protocols; it extends and inflates the presence of law enforcement and special counter-terrorism units. The state response to terrorism being a constant state of emergency – called hyper-vigilance-, its use can only be restricted and restrictive. The trend, however, has been to extend it until everyone is under constant threat, at any given time. This is not threat assessment. This is threat permanence.

This essay is not aimed at defining terrorism; we are far from a consensus in what constitutes terrorism in our day and age, as the definitions are as fluctuant as the crimes themselves, and the battles around how a suspect is treated has just as much to do with pre-emptive action as it is immediate reactionary legislature. If terrorism is terror, it is so effective it has paralyzed any political movement in the face of its action; has the power to immediately shut down civil society debate; takes over the media by storm in a way that reinforces what it expresses, and silences what it in fact reflects. If each era had its own society-defining crime – from war to organised crime to arms trade – terrorism is the most modern criminal creation to date, and we have a part to play in its success.

fear

 

Terrorism: the diktat of political ideology

Terrorism and self-determination

Terrorism is commonly understood as being political violence. But not all political violence instils fear in society and state authority. The target of the terrorist attack is just as much a red herring in whether the attack can be called terrorism as much as those referring to it as such. The now-cliché saying of “every man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a sad idiom that has effectively been at the heart of many legal debates: is there a legal framework of considering political violence legitimate? It appears so: insurgency or rebellion against a colonial or tyrannical force, in order to promote the self-determination of peoples, is understood as legitimate violence. It targets an authority that can not be endorsed by principles of international human rights law and has been used to oppress. But because terrorism often targets civilians or civilian buildings, properties, or assets, it loses its legitimacy. Hardly has the history of the IRA in Northern Ireland been so embattled with the question of legitimacy as, perhaps, the case of Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories. If violence is to be understood as a last resort by a desperate group unable to reach towards political or judicial organs to achieve their goals, insurgency it is, but not terrorism.

A 2004 UN document titled “A More Secure World: A Shared Responsibility” addresses, in part, the threat of terrorism. Without defining what terrorism is, it defines what its consequences are: end of the rule of law, attacks on civilians. It also mentions that counter-terrorism as applied between 2001 and 2004 was already in violation of human rights law, specifically its fundamental part, the right to life. The UN panel in charge of suggesting how to secure said world talked about addressing the causes of terrorism. And in that, arose the concept of political violence in self-determination: occupation. Para. 148:

A thread that runs through all such concerns is the imperative to develop a global strategy of fighting terrorism that addresses root causes and strengthens responsible Stats and the rule of law and fundamental human rights. What is required is a comprehensive strategy that incorporates but is broader than coercive measures. The United Nations, with the Secretary-General taking a leading role, should promote such a comprehensive strategy, which includes:

Dissuasion, working to reverse the causes or facilitators of terrorism, including through promoting social and political rights, the rule of law and democratic reform; working to end occupations and address major political grievances; combating organized crime; reducing poverty and unemployment; and stopping State collapse.

Much has been written about the historically convenient and politically fluid concept of a national security threat. Recent FOIAs filed by MIT researcher Ryan Shapiro on the FBI’s assessment of Nelson Mandela and the ANC‘s role in defeating the apartheid government of South Africa have reminded the collective consciousness that Mandela,this beloved figure whose funeral was attended by the leaders of the free world, was once deemed a terrorist by those very governments, the ANC being removed from the State Department’s terrorist organisation list only in 2008. That Mandela later became a head of state in his own right, reaching the high office after a democratically held election changed the US vision – to the point of the FBI suspecting Mandela would then, in turn, be a victim of terrorism. Would anyone today consider Mandela’s fight less than honourable? Would anyone condemn sternly the actions of the ANC before his rise to power as a people oppressed under state authority based on race? Because the very concept of self-determination implies and involves a rejection of the authority in place, to the point of removing it by force if necessary to install a form of governance that pleases the population, acts of terrorism are often perceived as political violence against the state apparatus itself, the civilian casualties being collateral to the point being made that the authority itself isn’t legitimate. The necessity invoked by the state to protect itself from terrorism is in turn invoked by the fighters to express their will for freedom. The labeling of terrorism, therefore, is a political accusation of the state against which it is aimed: this authority isn’t legitimate and is oppressive. Considering Mandela a terrorist, at the time, meant supporting the apartheid regime of South Africa against an insurgency hell-bent on destroying the status quo.

Do you want… John Brennan to define terrorism? (Reuters)

 

Maintenance of the international standstill

Yet, despite this acknowledgement that crimes of occupation, crimes of aggression, and state corruption are causes of political violence, international bodies of law, by treaty or doctrine, never define terrorism. An interesting passage is the preface to the 1998 International Covenant on Terrorist Bombings recalling the UN General Assembly resolution 49/60 of 9 December 1994 on Measures to Eliminate Terrorism; Article I (3),

Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.

As the first UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin, explained in a 2006 report, this intentional vagueness on the part of international bodies not to define terrorism leaves it up to the states themselves to provide a definition according to what is the threat they perceive to their own apparatus. Inevitably, however, this leads a state-sponsored definition of terrorism not in regards to the fear it provokes in the population the state is supposed to protect, but within the authority itself, therefore opening the door to the legitimization of tyrannical regimes labeling their opposition “terrorism”, as opposed to the right to self-determination under oppression.

Calls by the international community to combat terrorism, without defining the term, can be understood as leaving it to individual States to define what is meant by the term. This carries the potential for unintended human rights abuses and even the deliberate misuse of the term. Besides situations where some States resort to the deliberate misuse of the term, the Special Rapporteur is also concerned about the more frequent adoption in domestic anti-terrorism legislation of terminology that is not properly confined to the countering of terrorism. Furthermore, there is a risk that the international community’s use of the notion of “terrorism”, without defining the term, results in the unintentional international legitimization of conduct undertaken by oppressive regimes, through delivering the message that the international community wants strong action against “terrorism” however defined.

The rest of the report addresses the key issue: we know what terrorism is not. We are not sure exactly what it is. Proscription of terrorism conduct refers to the act itself, and led to a partially satisfying treaty – the 1998 Covenant on Terrorist Bombings. This is only part of what terrorism can represent to a nation or a region. But if we do not know what it is, it is difficult to legally justify that terrorism is set apart from the rest of criminal offences within domestic law.

Why terrorism is saved a special place in criminal justice is often justified by the risk it poses: it is an existential threat to the nation as a whole, its stability, and the freedoms it guarantees. After 9/11, the United Kingdom derogated from its obligations under Article 5 ECHR – protection against abusive detention – as a response to “a public emergency threatening the life of the nation”. No other member of the Council of Europe deemed it necessary. However, the decision was respected, both by political allies and by the ECtHR itself. But the conflation of a political threat and the existence of protection against it is legitimate and legal. The state can’t be surprised by an act of terrorism, and therefore should act pre-emptively. David Anderson QC, the Independent Terrorism Legislation Reviewer, wrote in 2013:

… It cannot be suggested that the general run of anti-terrorism laws is justified only in the case of a public emergency or the threat to the nation’s life. A permanent emergency would be a contradiction in terms; permanent anti-terrorism law, as we have seen since 2000, is not.

Later, referring to the named specifics of modern terrorism – international networks, suicide attacks, mass civilian casualties – Anderson concludes:

To take an understanding of terrorism that is derived from history or social science, and allow it to serve as a justification for any number of specific legal powers, is a dangerous course. However serious or unique the problem of “terrorism”, it does not follow merely from its seriousness or uniqueness that special powers are necessary to combat it. If special powers are to be justified, it must be by reference to the particular demands of policing and prosecuting terrorism.

But the permanent emergency to which Anderson refers to is very much present. The constant of anti-terrorism legislation in itself is not representative of the political discourse around which it is centered. The permanent threat is highlighted with the constant, painful, reminder of violence and victimhood past, as well as everything done since in order to prevent it from happening again. Being efficient in the fight against terrorism has become more of a litmus test in leadership than, say, social upheaval or economic stability.

Do you want… Theresa May to define terrorism? (Getty)

 

Global counter-terrorism efforts and the lowest common denominator: salus rei publicae suprema lex?

The only way nations brought together not in the name of a common interest – initially – but of a common enemy work alongside one another around a concept they refuse to communally define can only be done once they reach common ground. The definition of terrorism as applied to international or transnational protocols can not possibly accommodate every intrinsic mechanism of domestic law, especially human rights safeguards. To that effect, collaborating in counter-terrorism means working around the lowest common denominator of what constitutes terrorism. In doing so, the effects of making anything a threat – pre-emptively, hypothetically, and retroactively – contaminates the hyper-vigilance of one given state to all of its allies. This is what happened when the United States sought global counter terrorism partnerships with EU states bound to the Convention on Human Rights and their own domestic applications, hereby making the counter terrorism partnership at odds with a culture of preserving habeas rights even in cases of serious crimes. The UK, having already experienced the dangers of overreaching counter-terrorism legislation with the Prevention of Terrorism Acts (PTAs) in the 1970s made efforts, in 2000, to create a framework specific to terrorism; but as of today, compliance with the Convention is now purely theoretical. In fact, it has become a topic of high contention in the UK as to whether human rights law could still be applied in an “adequate” fight against terrorism.

To explain how EU member states, and specifically the UK, have aligned their own counter-terrorism policies to that of the US’, even after being at the center of a human rights debate in the application of their former legislation, one needs to take a look at transatlantic cooperation and how it drastically evolved between 2001 and 2008. A 2011  research paper authored by Annegret Bendiek for the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute frames it:

To make matters worse, all past attempts to work out a universal definition of terrorism within the framework of the United Nations have failed. The United States still claims the right t act unilaterally and to use the military means in cases in which the UN refuses to support it. The United States justified its military actions in Pakistan and Yemen by pointing to its right to self defense and id not even try to get formal authorization from the Security Council. In sum, US counter terrorism policy will be characterized by an instrumental use of multilateral structures also under President Obama. The essential difference between the United States and the EU remains that the US combats terrorism by military means, whereas the EU and its member states concentrate on policing and intelligence measures.

If the UN repeatedly asked for cooperation among states in the fight against terrorism, this has led to various international and transnational abuses, due to the necessity to stoop down to the lowest common denominator in the fight against terrorism. In international law enforcement, the blacklisting and surveillance of terrorist suspects – through Interpol’s Orange notices, the Schengen’s Article 99 system and so forth – has to abide by a definition of a criminal conduct all states can adhere to. Although the United States, as stated above, will not shy from using lethal force, the transatlantic cooperation in counter-terrorism has made the strengths of both “visions” of counter-terrorism – militarisation and intelligence – mutually beneficial for US counter terrorism partners. It strengthened existing intelligence sharing agreements, it reinforced military cooperation on already existing bases, and helped disseminate massive defense spending in the name of the war on terror.

It is a testament to the power of terrorism that contradictory perceptions of the threat as seen by the US and by the EU have found a way to reconcile within international security cooperation. The historical experience of the EU – specifically France and the UK – differs from the US, relatively “new” to its status of victim of political violence. If US national security demands are violent in their response and unwavering in their commitment to wage war, the EU sees it as a long-haul, cooperative and interdisciplinary method to combat the threat, from deradicalisation to international deployment of intelligence operations. After 9/11, it becomes obvious in the European Security Strategy that the EU saw it fit to align with the US, specifically the UK, upping the ante in terms of legislation, force, and, namely, surveillance. Because of EU safeguards in terms of data protection, judicial review and the supranational power of the Convention on Human Rights, the pooling intelligence information with the US presented many civil rights and human rights challenges. In so, US-EU counter terrorism agreements are intergovernmental rather than at European level. Wyn Rees, studying the effects of transatlantic counter-terrorism cooperation in 2006, explains:

Bilateralism, rather than multilateralism, has been the watchword for post-war intelligence sharing. Information can be shared with one country, but not with another, thereby rendering difficult to build up broader patterns of dissemination. The US has recognized the value of sharing information, but it has done so through close bilateral relationships with allies. Certain EU countries have established a privileged intelligence relationship, namely the UK, France, and Germany, and this has given them a vested interest in ensuring that the relationship continues (…) The challenge for the transatlantic relationship has been to find a framework in which intelligence can be shared multilaterally. There are enormous advantages for both sides if they can obtain information from single, central sources rather than engage in cross-cutting bilateral contacts. This need not mean that all information be shared with all parties(…) Trust is something that takes a long time to foster, and the transatlantic allies have wrestled with the problem that there is no obvious framework in which to share information.

Following the Snowden documents, which welcome release have inevitably strained the bilateral and multilateral relationships cultivated by the US under the pretense that the necessity to counter terrorism could still be compliant with the legal framework of the countries in which it operated, data sharing and intelligence sharing agreements are put back into question, and observed through a transparency prism that had seemingly never been requested of counter-terrorism partnerships before. These are, namely, the actions of Europol and the European Arrest Warrant; the collection of flight passenger data under the EU-US PNR agreement, and the extensive retention of names and information under US counter terrorism protocols; and negotiations around the EU-US TFTP agreement, a tracking system implemented in order to identify and block any financing of terrorism activities. Those, however, are negotiated at EU level, under EU safeguards. It is necessary for EU member states to individually denounce the human rights violations of their own bilateral agreements, which is unlikely to happen under this new new war against ISIS. Not defining terrorism allows for terrorism-specific arrangements and agreements to remain in place for as long as a threat is identified – a threat, not the threat.

Do you want… Tony Abbott to define terrorism? (TheAustralian)

One system that has inflated rather than deflated even in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations was the system of terror blacklisting, already decried by Bendiek in 2011 for not being transparent enough so blacklisted individual can seek redress. In a world where terrorism isn’t defined, supporting terrorism, associating with terrorists, or promulgating terrorist material can mean anything – and many of the systems in place to block supporters of terrorism fail the most basic human rights standards. In fact, the UNSC Res 2178 against foreign fighters, passed hastily in September under unanimous consent, demands of UN member states to not only cooperate further in terms of intelligence-sharing, but to also stop the flow of foreign fighters to the twin conflicts of Iraq and Syria, and ensure that their financial resources are dried up. It would be impossible to track unless, of course, the blacklisting system incrementally upgraded and increased to meet this unprecedented threat. Bendiek, in 2011, concludes that the EU is well ahead of the US in developing judicial safeguards against blacklisting following the Kadi I decision. It might be correct on paper: there is no blacklisting case brought against the Council of Europe that the executive body has won. However, the issue of transparency remains for the blacklisted individuals, still unable to bring their case before a court unless they are notified that they have been placed under surveillance, blacklisting, or a no-fly list. All instances of invalidation of a blacklisting, except one, have been made on grounds that there was no information available to the appellant or the Court to motivate and justify the blacklisting – the information remains classified in the name of national security. The one exception, the Nada case, displayed a fundamental flaw in the multilateral blacklisting system: Nada, blacklisted by the UN, was found exonerated in Switzerland (!) as the 1267 UN blacklist was found in breach of the ECHR/ ICCPR.

The more cases of blacklisting, even blacklisting under UN Security Council resolutions, come before courts, the more it appears it is unconstitutional and unlawful under international law, despite being extended by the same international body that promulgated these laws in the first place. The case of A, K, M, Q and G v HM Treasury, before the UK Supreme Court in 2010, found that the necessity to blacklist an individual under the provision of the 1267 UN blacklist was in violation of the individual’s fundamental rights. A document provided by the ECCHR authored by Gavin Sullivan and Ben Hayes details the specific situation of Muhamad al-Ghabra (G):

He was first informed by the UK Treasury that his funds were to be frozen and a few days later told that the reason why was that he had been included on the 1267 list, which UK authorities were bound to implement. What he was not told at that time was that it was the UK authorities themselves that had nominated him for inclusion on the 1267 list. Thus, instead of freezing G’s assets directly under national law (by making a decision which would have been liable to judicial review), the UK government froze G’s assets indirectly, using the mechanism of the UN Sanctions Committee (through a procedure outside the scope of judicial review). G’s experience highlights the ways that the Security Council has been transparently and strategically used as “a venue through wish to wash national executive decisions which would otherwise be subject to judicial control of their vulnerability to court supervision of the interests of the individual.”

And if the UNSC can be used as a tool to further the counter-terrorism purposes of a given state, multilateral agreements outside the scope of judicial review through classification can be just as well, if not worse.

If terrorism is commonly understood as being political violence, it isn’t simply political violence. Terrorism, or the climate of terror it provokes or creates, is the social paralysis. It’s the political impossibility to act within a frame of normalcy. It’s hysteria. The political violence in itself becomes as destructive as the threat of violence. A nation or a region living under the threat of terrorism is holding its breath permanently. When terrorism is not defined, it allows the fear to permeate every organ of society. Unless the devil is placed back in the box, it will be impossible to return to normalcy: the state is in fight or flight mode. Counter-terrorism partnerships install this climate and work toward destroying it, on paper. Instead, because those intelligence sharing protocols inflate the powers of the state to the point of little to no judicial or legislative review, they become extremely beneficial to state organs that would otherwise be restricted in their scope of action. The state of hyper-vigilance caused by terrorism becomes, in itself, self-perpetuating, and turns the state into a body that has allowed itself to work the concept of necessity to the extent it can, if needed be according to self-imposed rules, impose terror in return.

Terrorism as state violence

Journalist Glenn Greenwald, on MSNBC’s The Last Word from October 29, 2014:

… the problem that Israel and the US have is that it is impossible to get a definition that excludes their own behavior, while including those they want to include. So, there never has been a definition. It really is a fearmongering term. If you want to call it ‘killing of civilians to change policy’, we have to apply it to ourselves as well.

It would be irresponsible to only attempt to define terrorism as a challenge to state authority and sovereignty while forgoing the fact that other nation-states apply it to their perceived and defined “enemies” as well. Terrorism as state violence has very much been an unmissable, and hopefully unforgettable feature of the War on Terror: all means necessary to achieve something as unruly and vague as the terms defined in the Authorization of the Use of Military Force: defeat the militant enemy. In fact, the War on Terror could very much be the epitome of terrorism as state violence. From extending attacks to undeclared battlefields to pre-emptive strikes, to the killing of citizens abroad and the thick coat of secrecy surrounding every operation, the War on Terror is the image of terror itself.

On October 29, 2013, relatives of drone strikes victims from Waziristan, the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the location of the most intensive displays of the drone warfare, testified before Congress. Their words, which brought their translator to tears, were only heard by five members of Congress. If the relevance of their testimony did not hit legislature then – or was too embarrassing to attend – it caught the eye of the international community, increasingly alarmed by the lack of regulation with which drone strikes are conducted. Operated by the CIA, the attacks in Waziristan operate completely outside the realm of review, and were qualified recently by the Pakistani Interior Minister as a violation of their sovereignty. This testimony reflects how drone warfare makes ordinary civilians feel, how it affects their daily life, and how it profoundly modifies their behavior, to the point of making them afraid of their environment, so much that what was once friendly and familiar becomes strange and lethal. This is how terrorism affects the society it is perpetrated in, and is applied in this instance to the US-led war on terror:

As I helped my grandmother in the field, I could see and hear the drone hovering overhead, but I didn’t worry” he said. “Why would I worry? Neither my grandmother nor I were militants. (…) When the drone fired the first time, the whole ground shook and black smoke rose up. The air smelled poisonous. We ran, but several minutes later the drone fired again. People from the village came to our aid and took us to hospital. We spent the night in great agony in at the hospital and the next morning I was operated on. That is how we spent Eid. (…) Now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear.

The efficiency of drone warfare has been recently put into question. If anything, the lack of legitimacy and the backdoor legality has helped radicalise a demographic that would otherwise not become so – the word here being use purposefully – militant. Projects on accountability are rare, but make incredible strides, especially given the secretive nature of the CIA side of the war on terror, and the difficulty of collecting data on the ground, so unreliable is the environment and the sources. Naming The Dead, a project hosted by The Investigative Bureau of Journalism, has identified that only 4% of the drone strikes victims in Pakistan can be factually identified as members of Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organisation blacklisted by two successive UN Security Council Resolutions – the motive behind the war on terror, the ubiquitous enemy combatant, the enemy which must be defeated to restore peace and freedom in the western world. The remaining 96% can be militants from other organisations; soldiers from unidentified factions; but in the absence of an actual identification of a given individual or group as hostile, per international humanitarian law: they are civilians.

Do you want… James Clapper to (unwittingly) define terrorism?

In Yemen, a country ruled by tribal elders and rife with corruption, the incursion of the US drones created not only a climate of fear, but established political instability as a permanence. The millions of dollars lavished upon Yemeni leaders as “counter terrorism aid” is funneled elsewhere. There are a lot of winners of the war on terror in Yemen, but most certainly not regular people, least of them children, living their lives in the mountainous regions. In Yemen, anyone who isn’t aggressively demonstrating its allegiance to the United States is a potential threat. Journalist Gregory Johnsen, specialist of the Arabian Peninsula, researched the circumstances of a December 12, 2013 drone strike that hit the members of a wedding party. The scene he paints is startling and horrifying.

Clustered around them in a sweaty, jostling circle, dozens of men bumped up against one another as they struggled for position and a peek at the remains. Above the crowd, swaying out over the row of bodies as he hung onto what appeared to be the back of a truck with one hand, a leathery old Yemeni screamed into the crowd. “This is a massacre,” he shouted, his arm slicing through the air. “They were a wedding party.” Dressed in a gray jacket and a dusty beige robe with prayer beads draped over his dagger, the man was shaking with fury as his voice faltered under the strain. “An American drone killed them,” he croaked with another wild gesture from his one free hand. “Look at them.”

It’s no contest that Yemen plays a double game. It supposedly agrees to the roaring sound of drones hovering in its skies, but has to calm and quiet the angry voices of the local leaders and families seeing their loved ones being turned into charred human remains.  On June 14, 2013, President Obama released a message to Congress consistent with the War Powers Resolution addressing the situation of operations in Yemen under “Military Operations Against al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and Associated Forces and in Support of Related U.S. Counterterrorism Objectives” in such concise terms it could hardly reflect the situation on the ground:

The U.S. military has also been working closely with the Yemeni government to dismantle operationally and ultimately eliminate the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most active and dangerous affiliate of al-Qa’ida today. Our joint efforts have resulted in direct action against a limited number of AQAP operatives and senior leaders in Yemen who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and our interests.

That is all. Johnsen, however, sees more in the conflict in Yemen. Specifically, he sees the manipulation of unrecorded civilian casualties and the financial corruption that, in fine, benefit AQAP more than anything else. In the end, in a war waged against an enemy without an army, without borders, and without identifiable messages, easily replaced leaders and transnational networks of financing, who isn’t a potential enemy anymore? Johnsen asks:

For much of the past century, the United States has gone to war with lawyers, men and women who follow the fighting, adjudicating claims of civilian casualties and dispensing cash for errors. They write reports and interview survivors. But what happens when there are no boots on the ground? When the lawyers are thousands of miles away and dependent on aerial footage that is as ambiguous as it is inconclusive? How do you determine innocence or guilt from a pre-strike video? When everyone has beards and guns, like they do in rural Yemen, can you tell the good guys from the bad? Is it even possible? And when the U.S. gets it wrong, when it kills the wrong man: What happens then? Who is accountable when a drone does the killing?

 

Terrorism: the manipulation of the manipulative

Working towards an international definition of terrorism, what appears most appalling to the researching eye is not the lack of willpower or strength of intent of legal workers and experts calling for a definition of it, but rather the strength of a refusal to create, in a legally binding treaty, a definition all would adhere to without the possibility of tweaking it according to current events and political necessity. All crimes evolve; all technology evolves; and if laws can become obsolete as time changes and borders move, so can a definition of terrorism beyond the pyramidal, insurgency-like structure the United Kingdom has known since the first Irish rebellion. It’s not the structure, ever so changing, that has to be defined. From lone wolf terrorism to internationally funded tree-like power organisations, it’s not only the action, but the intent behind the action that differentiates an action belonging to criminal justice and one fitting the terrorism definition. It’s the willingness not just to create pain and suffering among a specifically targeted group, it’s to bring all turning wheels to a screeching halt: the political system, in order to create chaos and instability; the social order, paralysed by fear of the randomness of the attack; and the judicial system, derogating power and oversight to the executive in an emergency.

In that, terrorism is manipulative. But one can only manipulate what it knows so well. That the concept of ‘homegrown terrorism’ seems so foreign and incomprehensible to political elites is truly baffling. Terrorism’s randomness itself is calculated. It will strike whenever is least expected and will touch on what is likely to provoke an overhyped emotional reaction. It is not just seeking blood and warfare, it is seeking fear. It looks toward what a population is cherishing the most, either because its future is dependent on it, or because its symbolism is too strong to ever thought vulnerable. Terrorism is the criminal achievement of a long internal study of the target of the crime. Because no society can survive, let alone thrive, by being impenetrable from the outside, terrorism needs to be understood as an eventuality. It must be taken into account when addressing criminality. A society, a government, a power structure must be prepared to face the threat. But this threat can never override any daily mechanism of the social and political structure. Yet this is what 9/11 derailed. From the fear of London over three decades of uncertainty in pubs, train stations, and any innocent trash can, came a world order of fear, a domination of a perceived necessity of addressing something that does not exist.

Thus was born the modern security state, not out of an avowed thirst for control, but of an insecurity so blatant and so overpowering it has permeated even the most supposedly critical and adversarial of its structure, the media. The fortress that has become the West in the wake of a terrorism threat it knew of but couldn’t exactly fight is transparent in how it lets its own fear control it, to the point that surrendering to the notion of a permanent failure to guarantee the safety of its population gives rise to a use of force beyond limits, beyond borders, beyond carefully crafted rule of international law that was based on political normalcy, not hysteria.

And so began the permanent war.

When I knew I had no place left to hide

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Hong-Kong. Screencap from Laura Poitras’ movie CITIZENFOUR. (c) Variety

( this was originally written the day after the one-year anniversary of the Snowden revelations. Only published now, as Laura Poitras’ documentary CITIZENFOUR has premiered.)

The anniversary of the first story published thanks to the documents provided by Edward Snowden to Glenn Greenwald came and passed. It has been an intense and nerve-wracking twelve months for journalists, lawyers, activists of all kinds, let alone concerned citizens suddenly bombarded with complex and terrifying information that sometimes felt too overwhelming to process. The young man’s face has become ubiquitous; terms such as “Snowden effect” became commonplace; his revelations have profoundly modified the nature of political relations, within the United States and abroad. It has, most importantly, deeply impacted our own relationship, as citizens, to our governments.

It is a bit unusual for me to dwell on personal effects, but it would be oblivious to the crux of the issue of privacy to omit details of how it also impacts one’s relationships and means of socializing. Being under surveillance modifies a thought process; provokes self-censorship; alters body language; second-guesses previously organic decisions. It has been well-documented in the past, under regimes which mass surveillance aspirations were hardly concealed, but the dire consequences on the collective psyche lasted for generations. To me, reading No Place To Hide is contemplating an outside perspective of my own story of loading the Verizon revelation on an iPhone at JFK, to sitting at this desk with a laptop burdened with encryption software and a masked webcam. It forces a self-reflection I am still not sure I am comfortable with.

“You should rethink your relationships to US citizens.”

Denial

I flew from Paris to New York City with a layover in Philadelphia, as my first port of entry within the United States. It was a hot June day, and I lined at customs at PHL with my passport in my hand, and a bag containing my laptop, a few books on what I was working on at the time – ironically, in hindsight, one of which being a civil liberties and public interest law book – and walked toward the blue line signalling I was next in line to be processed before entry on US territory. A sign alerts visitors: CBPs are “the face of the United States”, and they promise courtesy, respect – a respect which includes your privacy, to the extent that the Department of Homeland Security would allow. As the CBPs call “next” in a booming voice over the ten or so booths present to welcome visitors during the height of tourist season, I walk over the blue line, present myself to the agent, hand over my passport and my customs form, and wait. I wait for the inevitable questions – “what are you here for?”, “how long are you staying?”, “what is your profession?” – and the ritualistic fingerprint recording, the photo-taking. All in all, it can take five to ten minutes. Sometimes, it gets longer. And sometimes, the process is stress-inducing.

I had no idea that, at the very time I was waiting for a CBP in PHL, Glenn Greenwald and Janine Gibson were awaiting a legal green-light on the publication of the Verizon story, one close to me in New York, the other on the other side of the world. I had spent eight hours on a plane without access to the internet or recently published newspapers; phone use is prohibited during customs processing.

The line of questioning was fast, repetitive, inquisitive, and prying. I was somewhat accustomed to this behavior, considering my profession and travel patterns. My frequent presence on US territory was also of great interest to CBPs. This time, it got a little deeper. “Who are your friends?”, the agent asked. “How did you meet them? How do you keep in touch? What’s your relation to them?” I started being weirded out. I was also tired, jetlagged, and smelled of plane. “What do you do? Where did you go to school? What did you study?” At this point, I was starting to get angsty, and pictured my lonely suitcase touring the carousel in an endless loop, with no one to retrieve it. I thought I was going to miss my connecting flight to New York. “Why are you coming to the US so often?” And again: “Who are your friends?

Edward Snowden

My friends are journalists, lawyers, writers, activists, musicians, bartenders. Most of them have a lot in common, including their political leanings, their vocal attitude towards local and international affairs, but what they all have in common is me. One hop away from me.

He waited, and stared at me. He then blurted out: “You should rethink your relationships to US citizens.”

He hovered the stamp over my passport, then finally let me in. I staggered towards the baggage pick-up, realising it had automatically been transferred to my connecting flight. I have no memory of crossing terminals to find the small jetplane that would carry me for 40 minutes or so into JFK. I remember the violent nausea as I took place on a blue plastic seat. A young girl next to me wearing a Columbia hoodie asked me if I was afraid of flying. “No, I’m fine”, I said, trying not to dry-heave, as the plane took off, and safely took me back to Brooklyn.

Anger

It was Jeremy Scahill who broke the news of the PRISM story, on the anniversary of D-Day, at a NYC screening of Dirty Wars. He came on the stage at the end, announcing: “by the time you leave the theater and turn your phones back on, they will burst with a new story that just came out, from Glenn Greenwald, about the intelligence activities of the United States.” A low whisper could be heard from the crowd. I sat all the way to the back, having taken notes on my phone for the duration of the entire movie. I left the room, and didn’t turn my phone immediately back on. I went upstairs, where Scahill was signing copies of his book. As I approached the table, after two pleasantries, I mention I had just been questioned at immigration. He didn’t look up. “It’s probably your travel pattern”, he assumed. Probably. Reasonable. High odds of factual assertion. I slowly walk out, and I hear him ask: “Who do you work for again?” Is it who I am, or is it what I do? I left the theater, and turned my phone back on.

Two days later, at a bar in Bushwick, I am sipping on a bloody mary and John Knefel is drinking a beer, slowly. We both stare right ahead. I don’t remember our exact conversation. I know that we were both making pretty big decisions regarding our professional lives, and realised that they were impacted, or at the very least influenced, by Edward Snowden. “I can’t believe he’s taking it upon himself”, I tell John, or maybe myself. “He’s a kid, and he uncovered an international mass surveillance program authorized by a secret court under counter-terrorism pretenses.” I order a second drink. John turns to look at me. “He’s not a kid, Sarah.” He pauses. “He’s your age.”

The anger really took hold of me when David Miranda, Greenwald’s husband, was detained in Heathrow. Many friends remember that day that I “lost it”; I was recently told that my “feed sounded way more outraged and angry than usual”. The second I found out about his detention at the terminal, while he was in transit from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro, I screamed that it was a violation of Article 10 – the article in the European Convention of Human Rights protecting freedom of opinion, expression, and information. Detained under Schedule 7, an abusive counter-terrorism provision allowing detention without representation and seizure without reasonable suspicion for a prolonged amount of time, Miranda was suspected to travel with files, with information on Snowden, but most importantly, to travel back to Greenwald, who until then could not be deterred from continuous reporting. I was fuming. I posted, “this time, it’s personal”. I was called the next day and told to come down. The NSA leaks were unauthorized intelligence disclosures that could be harmful to national security. I demanded proof of this considerable damage Snowden had allegedly done; a few weeks into the first stories, it seemed it had potential to impact international relations, and had already created tension at the European Union. But I had yet to see a thorough, rational and factual assessment of the “Snowden effect” on politics, domestic and international, from nations members of Five Eyes. As of today, there is still none available; a FOIA lawsuit filed by investigative reporter Jason Leopold returned files that were entirely redacted in their assessment. If the argument of the government is that Snowden made the house of cards crumble, and if we are supposed to buy this argument to alienate and eventually prosecute the young man, we are supposed to turn a blind eye to the complete absence of any substantiated claim. As of today, there is no assessment available of the damage Snowden has made.

Beyond James Clapper’s and Keith Alexander’s careers, of course.

Bargaining

Se mueve, and we all moved through the motions of doing our work, mourning our fallen friends in car crashes, publishing stories, researching, petitioning, asking. But there is a palpable change in the attitude of everyone around me; arrangements are carried out at the last minute; emails are automatically encrypted; phones are shut off and stored away from the conversation; webcams are no longer used; no one logs onto Skype anymore. It is making our lives much more difficult. It is making sleep much more difficult. Traveling, a necessity, becomes a hassle. Then arrives the natural effect of realising one is under surveillance: is it paranoia, or is it awareness? Had we known all along, and had we been oblivious? Greenwald explains it himself: after reporting on NSA surveillance for a number of years, there is a possibility one had become jaded or accustomed to certain methods becoming red-flags for the abuse of counter-terrorism protocols post 9/11. But the Snowden leaks, unprecedented in history, launched a new idea among the population, even the educated and prescient one: a threshold had been crossed, a limit had been met then violated. It was much more than we could handle and anticipate. “Collect it all”, Keith Alexander’s motto, meant indiscriminate collecting; it meant constant collecting; and it meant the total and unquestioned collaboration of internet companies that we had come to trust, perhaps a little too easily, but were a program minent feature in our daily lives, precisely endangering ourselves and everyone we know: our iPhone, our Facebook profiles, our Twitter accounts, our Google chats, our emails regardless of the platforms. The extent to which the NSA was capable of interfering into our daily lives – and not just the lives of those who had understood they had made targets out of themselves in a state of hypervigilance, lawyers, activists – was criminalizing those who were, in everyone’s eyes, protected persons: journalists. Moreover, everyone was now a potential target. Four hops away from a national security journalist, a foreign correspondent, or simply a foreign relation, and you would fall into the NSA dragnet.

Gen. Keith Alexander, wearing an EFF tshirt at DefCon 2012

Keith Alexander had showed up at Defcon in 2012 wearing an EFF tshirt, claiming to a room full of hackers and privacy activists that everything was fine. Nothing was fine. Anyone visiting a website that the US government had a potential issue with – say, WikiLeaks – was a target. Anyone wishing to expose wrongdoing of any sort and of any scale could face a disproportionate sentence and be detained in conditions widely denounced as non human rights compliant. Mass surveillance doesn’t elicit safety, it provokes fear. It demands retreat into lonely, muted corners. Its goal is not to protect, but to silence. Blowing the whistle on a busy city street – say, leaking information to an established newspaper or an entity which purpose is to preserve threatened documentation – means the brittle sound will be heard and echoed. There is a chance that the response and its justification will quiet the uproar, but at best, it’s a 50/50 shot. Isolating, criminalizing, deriding, discrediting, manipulating an individual who had expressed concern about certain activities, and making sure that any eloquent display of their political conscience could be easily passed off as freakish, mentally unstable, or simply ignorant is much easier. It allows the information to fall into the memory hole of the collective attention span, and leaves the individual vulnerable to all sorts of harassment that would eventually lead them to jail, or worse. The pain we are capable of inflicting on ourselves when we start doubting our own decision and sanity barely needs interference from intelligence forces. Fighting depression and paranoia is part of the world us lawyers and journalists have accepted as a collateral to the activity. It had now been extended to the entire population. Worldwide.

The importance of Greenwald’s book, besides the story already revealed in a gripping volume by Luke Harding, is his own thought process upon arrival in Hong Kong, keeping in mind the deceptive experiences of previous whistleblowers having taken on intelligence leaks: John Kiriakou, who denounced torture at the hands of the CIA, was in prison. Chelsea Manning, who had denounced war crimes at the hands of the US Army, was in prison and about to face a court martial. Both had exposed mass, widespread human rights and international criminal law violations. Both had acted in the public interest; both claimed humanist and existentialist (even if not so directly acknowledged) aspirations. Most importantly, both, like Daniel Ellsberg before them, articulated their actions were motivated not by a misplaced desire for fame or a willingness to destroy the United States; to the contrary, it was their commitment to the rule of law and specifically constitutional principles that had directed their actions. They were no strangers to courage, and definitely not ignorant. On that last point, it is precisely what made Ed Snowden so insufferable to his detractors: he was extremely articulate, well-read, politically sound, and had turned to a fearless journalist, a former civil rights litigator, who had made a career out of alienating anyone who had failed to abide by principles of virtue and justice. There could not be a pairing more of a thorn in the side of a culture of political deference than a Greenwald/Snowden summit. I, for one, was delighted.

“Do you get paranoid, sometimes?”

Depression

One thing all whistle-blowers, especially the ones in recent history, have in common is their loathing of political apathy. It’s the ignorance of basic and fundamental rights, the acquiescence to the violation of the law, but simply, the lack of reaction, the indifference. Again, incorrectly misplaced as a need to become famous as a anti-government radical, this is simply a balance between taking incredible risks in the face of a forceful state apparatus to protect rights no one seems to believe they deserve anymore. At a hearing on an Iraq case in December, I heard the president of the Court tell the lawyer representing the United Kingdom, “human rights law is not rhetorical”. Civil liberties aren’t either. They’re not for US citizens, and they sure aren’t either for the citizens of countries, especially friendly / allied countries, who woke up one day to realising they had been made pawns by the US government, that had vowed to help their own forces destroy terrorism and keep their houses and cars safe. It wasn’t so. In the hands of the NSA, emails, phone calls, data, conversations, appointments, travels, but also reflections, letters, documents, thoughts, feelings, debates, were considered a hypothetical threat. And if it wasn’t a threat in itself, it could be considered one pre-emptively, a concept very crucial to the conduct of the war on terror. Crushing under the weight of an unchecked executive power that Congress didn’t even know had slipped from its grasp, it felt like there was no way to stop the NSA, but to expose it in bright light. Edward Snowden said it himself: he had seen the dark corners of the intelligence world, and what it fears most is the light. What it fears most is our own enlightenment.

I admire Greenwald for his relentless fight to do Snowden justice. But this is a character trait he has always upheld, his entire career. Fighting terrorism became fighting counter terrorism; fighting terrorism became fighting surveillance; fighting terrorism became fighting apathy at home. If the Hong Kong episode reads like a cloak and dagger novel, it is nonetheless real, and one can’t afford to underestimate how taxing it can be – emotionally, physically, psychologically. I have personally been doing this long enough to know that I cyclically “crash” – disappear, sort of, every four years on average, to resurface six to eight weeks later, a little more regenerated. But we have no place to hide. We have no place to store what belongs to the intimate realm; we have no way to conceal the conversations we wish to keep private; and we can no longer trust a casual drink at a bar with a friend, who might be compromised without knowing – and place you at risk by simply being one hop away from you. It is impossible to maintain a constant operational security, like Snowden taught us to have. Mass surveillance is unavoidable, and is robbing us of what makes us individuals, what makes us capable of functioning as self-sufficient individuals. A friend once asked me, “do you get paranoid, sometimes?” I didn’t know what to say. I replied: “I don’t know, should I be?” There is no room left for us to think for ourselves. Any internet connection can be middlemanned. Any non-air gapped computer might be tampered with. Google searches might turn up on someone else’s desk. Deprived of all space to breathe and listen to the sound of your own heartbeat, you turn inwards. And you’re alone.

Screencap from The Life Of Others, a 2006 movie about life under Stasi surveillance in East Germany

That winter, I met The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman for dinner in Chelsea. It was as casual as two people living and breathing their work could make it. I didn’t even pay attention to the cab ride taking me to our meeting place – driver not speaking english, taking incredible detours all the way up to 34th, refusing to be paid – I just wanted some relative peace and quiet and intelligent conversation. Later, as we waited for a train on a subway platform, I noticed the hair on his temples had gone grey. I teased him about it, gently, but firmly telling him he was way too young. I asked if wisdom had finally caught up with this unrepentant punk. He just looked at me. As the national security editor of the Guardian, coming to the paper from Wired right on the cusp of the first NSA story to be published, Ackerman had had the files in his hand. I sometimes forget what it feels like to be exposed to drastic and harrowing proof of grave misconduct. I had been working on MI-6/CIA torture and covert counter-terrorism operations for so long – over ten years -, never discussing the details with anyone, that I had internalized the material I was reading. Ackerman didn’t. His work, and his writing style, however, illustrated not only a disciplined, detail-oriented man, but also a severe frustration with the lack of reform following the NSA leaks. On the anniversary of the Verizon story, Ackerman recapped all the legislative occurrences, testimonies, debates on the Freedom Act bill, in a manner that displayed little had been done. If our individual and collective behavior had changed, if scales had indeed tipped perhaps, this had not reached the steps of Congress, let alone the White House, reluctant to relinquish the extreme powers granted to the executive by the powers of the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ. All over the world, has intelligence-sharing protocols were submitted to judicial review, whether in drone strikes or rendition, courts deferred to the executive, saying that “vital foreign interests” were at stake when it came to the NSA. France remained painfully quiet, and continued to consult with Chuck Hagel on counter-terrorism deployment in Africa; the UK government became more defiant and aggressive by the minute; Germany wrestled with its own history, caught between a Stasi revival and the willingness to become a potent foreign partner in international relations besides the EU. Globally, although it reached the UN and culminated in a resolution condemning mass surveillance, governments failed to sever their ties with the NSA and be left with only their own intelligence to gather and store, this time under more legislative scrutiny.

Acceptance

We have been living in a state of hyper-vigilance and of permanent derogation since 9/11. This is not new; the fearsome climate fostered by the IRA in the UK gave birth to abusive counter-terrorism laws that have nothing to envy the Patriot Act. Internment (indefinite detention), use of torture, discriminating targeting, surveillance, covert armed force – all of this is only now in the process of being reviewed, after much allegations took decades to turn into facts, myths into case files, and bodies to wash up on shores. The damage actually created by abusive counter-terrorism laws lasts generations, and permeates the public discourse in a way that a government can no longer be trusted. It would take a long process of reconciliation and truth-telling to regain political normalcy. Sadly, truth-telling means a free press, independent journalists, and no harassment of their lawyers. The only tools we have come to understand were ours to take was counter-surveillance: encryption. Instead of awaiting a hypothetical (as opposed to eventual) table-turning of an administration that is incapable of admitting wrongdoing, action has to be taken with maximum safety. This means the aforementioned covered webcam, regularly changed PGP keys, offline laptops, and the development of open-source software for anonymity. Luckily, Edward Snowden gathered around himself – or the image we have of him, projected from Moscow – a community of software developers and IT technicians willing to collaborate with somewhat technically challenged journalists, lawyers, writers, researchers, activists and academics. It is a burgeoning community that expands everyday. The safe path, the road most travelled, was to trust the government, to trust the FISA court, and to continue the normalcy of establishment reporting: asking for articles to be vetted, abandoning research told to be too close to the sun, listening in to fearmongering discourse about jihadists in Syria and all the plots that the NSA had defused thanks to its methods of intercepting cables in Pakistan.

But a man who trades his liberty for a safe and dreamless sleep, doesn’t deserve the both of them and neither shall he keep.

[Note: last June, I went with friend and lawyer Moira Meltzer-Cohen to an event at Carnegie Hall where Greenwald was speaking about the book. Said friend had been way more attuned to surveillance than I had been and emphasized how irresponsible it is of people in our field not to practice encryption. She is absolutely right. I would be flagged and interrogated two months later at Newark Liberty. Immense gratitude to Kevin M. Gallagher for his patience while encrypting my tech-challenged self.]

The Long (Dirty) War

FullSizeRender

 

When counter-terrorism is fought as a proxy war, the scope of application of international law falls second to political legitimacy. The accountability of ground forces is debated in memorandums of understanding supposed to grant belligerent parties immunity. Counter-terrorism powers are extended domestically, diminishing the power of judicial authority and shrinking any attempt at a legislative check on the executive. Secrecy becomes a blanket under which no one can emerge nor breathe. If today’s speech at the General Assembly, coupled with John Kerry’s comment and the authorisation of strikes against ISIS are to be believed, we are continuing a war we can barely remember when it started.

The war against the unseen

The issue of defining one’s enemy in conflict – war, terrorism, insurgency – as “uncivilised” and “only understanding force” the way Obama did with ISIS at the General Assembly implies that jus ad bello not only will not be observed, but should not be observed. As the rule of law was intended to preserve order between nations – most of them empires – that understood each other’s objectives and used diplomacy as a tool of realpolitik, the current, modern wars are more repression than expansion; preemption rather than reaction; and displays of lethal use of force as a supposed deterrent. All of these concepts can be easily debunked by military strategists and political analysts. The problem being the application of international law as a two-tier system: the upper level demands UN sanctioned actions, briefings, arbitration and support; it concerns high stake multinational talks – the Iran deal, the Ukraine conflict – and fails to gain popular support, a people weary of the constant tension of the Cold War and the belief that it is now possible to avoid violence. Diplomacy in lieu of war is seen as a grown up, mature, respectful decision. In many respects, it is. But it only highlights the lack of concern for the lower level, which is othering insurgency, rejecting the cause of terrorism, and abolishing fundamental rights of occupied peoples. Those being addressed in the terms used by Obama will never benefit from the protection of a UN resolution, or perhaps an ex post facto one after it is universally acknowledged disaster is imminent (UNSC res. 1483); they will never face a “courteous enemy” using conventional weapons and registered troops; the territorial and chronological frontiers of this war won’t ever be set in legal stone. Those are wars of annihilation and of utmost control. Those are wars existing outside of the boundaries we set for ourselves over a hundred years ago, because the enemy is not us. The Geneva Convention can’t possibly have been written to fight barbaric terrorists, animals, sociopathic “death cults” roaming villages with M-16s stolen from western powers once arming the local forces. What the law creates is an order to preserve authority and save the political face; counter insurgency and counter terrorism are by political nature dirty. Those dirty wars, as they came to be known in South America in the 1970s, served as the basis to make current and potential insurgents understand their place: below the firepower and arrogant self-righteousness of western states contentedly engaging in state terror, but hiding it under the ubiquitous and semantic concept of existential threat. Semantic – because it’s substantially empty.

Armed Reaper drone belonging to the Royal Air Force being prepped at a RAF airbase in Afghanistan. (c) 2013 dronewars.net

The idea that the lawful conduct of war belongs to the civilized nation-state dates back to the Oxford Manual, a 1880 text following the very first Geneva Convention of 1864. The Preamble of the Oxford Manual presents war as an inevitability, a necessity, something that is impossible to avoid, therefore should be codified and regulated to minimize an idea of what’s needless blood spillage, and waste of human life and potential. Many critics have since derided the concept of a Just War. The Oxford Manual is not about peace; it is about setting limits and binding states to clear boundaries that would be otherwise penalised. If there is such a thing as civilised war, it is a legal concept; it is definitely not a political one, a difference with which Obama has become well acquainted. Per the Preamble,

War holds a great place in history, and it is not to be supposed that men will soon give it up — in spite of the protests which it arouses and the horror which it inspires — because it appears to be the only possible issue of disputes which threaten the existence of States, their liberty, their vital interests. But the gradual improvement in customs should be reflected in the method of conducting war. It is worthy of civilized nations to seek, as has been well said (Baron Jomini), “to restrain the destructive force of war, while recognizing its inexorable necessities”.(…) In fact so long as the demands of opinion remain indeterminate, belligerents are exposed to painful uncertainty and to endless accusations. A positive set of rules, on the contrary, if they are judicious, serves the interests of belligerents and is far from hindering them, since by preventing the unchaining of passion and savage instincts — which battle always awakens, as much as it awakens courage and manly virtues, — it strengthens the discipline which is the strength of armies; it also ennobles their patriotic mission in the eyes of the soldiers by keeping them within the limits of respect due to the rights of humanity.

A two-tier system doesn’t mean the conflict is necessarily disproportionate in terms of the violence inflicted by belligerent parties. But quotes such as this one – “America will be a respectful and constructive partner. We will neither tolerate terrorist safe-havens, nor act as an occupying power” indicates the creation of a blurred, dangerous zone of mingled politics in which the US will claim not to interfere with self-determination, while deciding – with various degrees of forced input – how said determination should be achieved. It isn’t defined per se by ancient standards of warfare. It isn’t marked by clear boundaries written in treaties. It has become acceptable that, not only counter terrorism belonged to the law of armed conflict – a concept convenient for the imperialist nature of foreign intervention – but that said armed conflict was to be governed outside of said laws, possibly justified legally ex post facto and often retroactively. In fact, counter terrorism belongs to the realm of domestic law and answers to the same jus gentium that has always existed. Unless, of course, the authorization for the use of military force has given way to a frustrated, exasperated and exhausted Special Rapporteur who, in March of this year, rhetorically asked the U.S. if international law had to be amended or perhaps rewritten to remove possible obstacle to whatever the U.S. believed should and could be done outside of their realm to answer a potential, hypothetical and hardly eventual “threat” to the nation.

So far, nothing. It is convenient and comfortable to act in a realm that is presented as new, and keep journalists, lawyers and commentators of all corners guessing. The more questions are raised and the less answers given, transatlantic executive powers are gaining in strength and unilateral authority. The leeway granted by their own approved lawyers is outstanding, but not unprecedented. It is shocking, mostly due to factors that should never be implemented simultaneously: the lack of transparency and the shortness of collective memory.

Inter armas silent leges

The first has proved to be the most impressive tool of war. Secrecy is as useful to an administration at war with an undefined and unlimited enemy as are Humvees and sol-air missiles. It has permeated every governmental agency; it has even kept the legislative at bay by relegating its members to a bottom-tiered personnel that shouldn’t be burdened with the nauseous details of military tribulations. It has created a domestic conflict between the executive and its fourth estate, to the extent of turning the latter into an enemy itself, subjected to the same punishment as those foreign threats. The state of hyper vigilance has become the state itself. It is inflated, overgrown, unkempt yet fearfully respected. To maintain appearances, the character of a “reluctant warrior” has been created to fit the era: authority and power no longer lie in the ability of going to war as it once did, but in the possibility that one might do so if they unilaterally decided it could. Ultimately, the result is the same: what is considered strong and worthy of respect can only translate into use of force. The old mechanisms of blood and iron that characterized the imperialist nature of Europe throughout the post-enlightenment centuries has once again covered the west in a blanket of fearful speeches and conservation of pseudo-democracy. Secrecy is only there to stop inquisitive eyes from realising little has changed since the Cold War. Secrecy is there so the horrors inflicted in the name of safety are never weighed against it, in case the people would decide their safety isn’t worth that much pain. Secrecy keeps everything at bay: human rights, democratic principle, popular consultation, and political normalcy, which is, the daily running of government in peacetime. Secrecy favors a permanent state of war. Because we hardly get to see those in theater deployment, we can only trust those in power and hope for the best. We can only speculate and go to bed hoping the elite is right.

In an article commenting Obama’s speech on September 10th authorizing air strikes against ISIS, Spencer Ackerman wrote:

In the space of a single primetime address on Wednesday night, Barack Obama dealt a crippling blow to a creaking, 40-year old effort to restore legislative primacy to American warmaking – a far easier adversary to vanquish than the Islamic State. Obama’s legal arguments for unilaterally expanding a war expected to last years have shocked even his supporters.

Ahead of Wednesday’s speech the White House signaled that Obama already “has the authority he needs to take action” against Isis without congressional approval. Obama said he would welcome congressional support but framed it as optional, save for the authorisations and the $500m he wants to use the US military to train Syrian rebels. Bipartisan congressional leaders who met with Obama at the White House on Tuesday expressed no outrage. (…)

Taken together with the congressional leadership’s shrug, Obama has stripped the veneer off a contemporary fact of American national security: presidents make war on their own, and congresses acquiesce. (…)

John Yoo, architect of the AUMF 2001, pagan servant to the god of Perpetual War

What’s considered questionable now, and still yet by what amounts to a fringe of commentators, has however been taken place for quite a while. It was fashionable, in the early stages of the Obama counter-terrorism strategy, to conflate legitimacy with legality, and consider lawful what was necessary – politically. It had become a fixture of American legal commentary to justify overinflated use of executive power for the simple reason that in times of war, the President ought to have the authority to do what it takes to protect the realm – a concept that is easily politically understood, but just as easily judicially curbed for all history tried to teach mankind since the dawn of empires. Because counter-terrorism powers are by nature an exaggerated version of normalcy, they are meant to be limited both in scope (subjected to judicial and legislative review) and in time (there is no such thing as a permanent derogation). Arguing counter-terrorism under law of armed conflict belongs to another more detailed and more focused article; but in short, in extends war time powers – limited only in time by military strategy – to what should and ought to be confined for the preservation of the rule of law and democratic principle. Because a terror threat is elusive and can take place at any time, this is arguing in favor of human rights law derogation as a permanence. The only possible review we could hope for are the limitations of international humanitarian law, often finding themselves violated before it even reaches our eyes and ears.

Same Preamble to the Oxford Manual quoted above continues in the same vein; arguing that the universality of what would become customary international humanitarian law must be agreed upon so all are bound by the same rules. By creating coalitions outside of international organisations created specifically for that purpose, or seeking the help of local governments far from acquiescing to any sort of human rights order but motivated by gaining the spoils of war, the idea of proxy intervention for a threat neither imminent nor existential removes the guarantees of jus ad bello, in which the peoples suffering from the strikes and those suffering from having to support those strikes would be somewhat protected. There is no telling when and where the strikes would begin nor end; we will be told what the executive will tell, and rely on those with security clearance to provide information, provided they do want to do so.

But in order to attain this end it is not sufficient for sovereigns to promulgate new laws. It is essential, too, that they make these laws known among all people, so that when a war is declared, the men called upon to take up arms to defend the causes of the belligerent States, may be thoroughly impregnated with the special rights and duties attached to the execution of such a command.

When it comes to making the rules “known among all people”, the issue of secrecy becomes paramount to ensure relative support for the use of force. Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower enduring a 35-year prison sentence after years in solitary confinement for having revealed information relative to the Iraq and Afghanistan war that the government deemed not appropriate for the general public, raised her hand in the days before the strikes to doubt the presidential strategy.

I believe that Isis is fueled precisely by the operational and tactical successes of European and American military force that would be – and have been – used to defeat them. I believe that Isis strategically feeds off the mistakes and vulnerabilities of the very democratic western states they decry. The Islamic State’s center of gravity is, in many ways, the United States, the United Kingdom and those aligned with them in the region. When it comes to regional insurgency with global implications, Isis leaders are canny strategists. It’s clear to me that they have a solid and complete understanding of the strengths and, more importantly, the weaknesses of the west. They know how we tick in America and Europe – and they know what pushes us toward intervention and overreach. This understanding is particularly clear considering the Islamic State’s astonishing success in recruiting numbers of Americans, Britons, Belgians, Danes and other Europeans in their call to arms.

Terrorism is meant to scare. It is meant to paralyse, to halt, to stall the course of daily political, social and legal activities. It is intentionally disruptive. By rooting itself into a refusal of the so-called “values” – a very much subjective concept that is more moral than ethical and doomed to fail in times of political instability – of a given state or alliance of states, terrorist groups succeed in recruiting those marginalised by those states. Ethnic minorities, targeted political groups, disenfranchised social categories are all susceptible to join the ranks of the disruption by violence. Most importantly, terrorism never happens in a vacuum. It is a reaction to a state of affairs. By provoking the West in an appalling, repellant, barbaric and bloodthirsty way – the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff are stomach-churning – ISIS is calling onto the West to face a monster it is worried it has created. And it might as well have: intelligence agencies from both sides of the Atlantic are trying to assess how many of their own nationals are currently fighting along side the pseudo caliphate in Iraq and in Syria. Hysteria has now corrupted the West to the point that presumptions of guilt are being discussed, confiscation of passports are frequent, and fruitless police raids are conducted under the pretense it is keeping us safe.

President Barack Obama, accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

Yet we become a failed state. We become a state that is so at war within itself and within those dissenting with the policy, the value, the belief, the ingrained doctrine, the political spectrum that we fight fire with fire, and we wage war in a way that is unlikely to end, because the violence is fed through this action. Calling on the illegality of the strikes on Syria is a step forward to restore accountability, but it might be too late. The framework for evading Congressional support or constitutionality of action has been set in motion a while ago, and we have internalised the terror, from both ISIS and the state; the fear, from both ISIS and the state; the violence, the surveillance, the torture, the raids, the political fire drills, the defense budgets and the ever so frequent NATO meetings. Gregory Johnsen tracked down the precedence for this politics of use of force as a default setting, an emotional knee-jerk reaction against something we can barely name and have no information on.

This is about prevention and preemption, exactly the sort of thing that candidate Obama said presidents were not authorized to do without congressional approval. But Congress seems to have little desire to vote on military action ahead of midterm elections in November, and, after last year’s confused approach to military strikes in Syria, Obama seems to have just as little interest in asking permission. Instead, whether out of expediency or outlook, he appears to have altered his views on constitutional power, and in doing so found himself relying on the same theories he once criticized. (…) In an apparent attempt to elide some of these inconsistencies in constitutional interpretation, the White House is also considering what amounts to a backdoor authorization that, according to the New York Times, would have Congress appropriate money for Obama’s military plans. A sort of gentleman’s agreement that gets around direct congressional authorization, the plan would allow for deniability on both sides. Obama could claim he has congressional authorization without ever asking for a vote, while Congress could signal its support without individual members being forced to take a stand. President Bill Clinton retroactively used a similar maneuver in 1999 for airstrikes in Kosovo.

Militarism was never the sole component of imperialism. It involved egotism on the part of the power-hungry elites; it demanded silence and acquiescence from the press and authors; it requested the life of sons and the submission of daughters. Terrorism is not a new threat. It was never born with 9/11 and will not end once ISIS is over and done with. The counter-terrorism laws devised by the United Kingdom to keep the Irish insurgency under its boot has expanded to the point it can hardly be stopped. The framework is that military action shouldn’t be authorized without legislative approval and without knowledge of an imminent threat. In the last decade, intelligence has been manufactured, and constitutions have been bypassed. At the time this is being written, the UK Parliament is about to be recalled to discuss their own involvement in Syria. Looking at a globe right now is staring at a million red flashes of emerging and ongoing conflicts. This is the real security threat that is menacing global safety: the blatant insecurity of a power that doesn’t know how to restrict itself. If politics are a discipline of control, counter-terrorism is an exercise in restraint and strategy. Granting extensive counter-terrorism powers and planting it on the throne of war is unleashing a force that will take years to be restrained again.

Career opportunities: intelligence services oversight

After much back-and-forth between the Parliament Home Affairs Committee and the Intelligence Services Commissioner, Sir Mark Waller, a little less than an hour was granted to explain whether the activities of British intelligence – MI-5, MI-6, SIS, but in this case, more specifically GCHQ – were appropriately kept in check. Little attention was given to the hearing; even less was awarded to the extremely tedious and tense context in which Sir Mark arrived at Westminster. This is not obscure and somewhat opaque British parliamentary procedure; it is relevant reflection of the difficulty to keep intelligence services, especially outsources to private companies such as GCHQ, under legislative review. On both sides of the pond, the extreme difficulty of bringing mass surveillance activities to review can only show the premises of a constitutional crisis. If Dianne Feinstein made an impassioned speech on the floor of the Senate calling for the CIA to stop spying on her, unleashing a circus of denial, double-speak, entitlement, and complete irresponsibility, the UK has managed to hit the brakes on the unfolding drama. But it wasn’t easy.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, MP for Leicester East (Labour)

Intelligence services oversight before Parliament: “inappropriate”

Before diving into the hearing itself, the incredible quotes it brought us, and the tenacity of the members of the Home Affairs Committee, let’s remember that initially, Sir Mark did not want to testify. He repeatedly turned down the polite invitation to come to Westminster and discuss his position – the Intelligence Services Commissioner (ISC) has an oversight mission, which is limited to ensuring GCHQ and MI-5 do not overreach the powers granted to them by Parliament, are not in breach of UK law, and act in proportion to a perceived or identified threat. The purpose of the hearing was to determine whether the ISC had detected any wrongdoing on the part of GCHQ, especially in the wake of the Snowden leaks. Sir Mark, at the end of February, sent a letter to Keith Vaz, the Chairman of the Committee, to explain he believed it was “inappropriate” for him to speak before Members of Parliament. Keith Vaz, who is starting to schedule a certain number of hearings on the issues arising from UK counter-terrorism laws, was unamused:

The Intelligence Services Commissioner plays a vital role in keeping under review the way in which the Home Secretary and the intelligence services use the powers which they have been granted by Parliament. This function was conferred on the  Commissioner by Act of Parliament, and Sir Mark must be accountable to Parliament for the way in which he carries it out.

Indeed, he must. In a healthy democracy, where the separation of powers is well enshrined and never contested, powers granted by Parliament to an executive power should be under the scrutiny of said Parliament. There is no escaping the decision made by Keith Vaz today, who several times made it clear that the political climate and legal implications of GCHQ ran amok called for extraordinary measures. A couple of weeks before the clash between the ISC and Parliament, Ed Milliband, leader of the Labour party, had called for the complete overhaul of intelligence services in the UK, referring to GCHQ as an “unaccountable” power:

I already believe, and this is what my Labour colleagues have been saying, that there are clearly changes that are going to need to be made in relation to the intelligence and security committee and the oversight it provides (…) The issue of oversight of the intelligence services and the way they work is definitely part of this agenda. My commitment is that we do need to look at these issues, they are important.

But a mere week later, Sir Mark sent the following to Vaz:

I am afraid I remain of the view that it would not be appropriate for me to do so. As my office informed you previously my function is limited to oversight of the intelligence services which is within the remit of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) who as was explained have broadened their inquiry into privacy and security to consider the “appropriate balance between our individual right to privacy and our collective right to security”. In any oral evidence before your committee I could not go further than anything which is in my open report. The position is quite different before the ISC who are able to receive a wide range of sensitive material. The fair and appropriate place for questions to be put to me is before that committee.

The reasons Sir Mark outlines as a motive not to testify before the Home Affairs Committee are the exact same ones his presence was actually kindly, and in accordance with protocol, offered.

As a result, Vaz summoned Sir Mark. This is an unprecedented event in the history of this parliament. Vaz said the Committee was “disappointed” with Sir Mark, but believed his presence was more than necessary. Turns out, summoning the Intelligence Services Commissioner was also directly proportionate to the perceived threat that GCHQ poses to British civil liberties.

Sir Mark Waller, ISC, yesterday at the hearing. a former Lord Justice of Appeals, he retired from the bench in 2010.

The hearing

Set on Tuesday afternoon, March 18, the hearing was set in three parts: the testimony by Sir Mark, that of Nick Pickles and Rt Hon David Davis MP, from Big Brother Watch; and Brokenshire, the Minister for Immigration. When Sir Mark sat down, he appeared defensive, obviously there against his own free will. Vaz, respectful but extremely acute in his commentary, let every member express themselves on the issues that were dear to them. A broad political spectrum was represented; yet the concern was universal. Aware of the extent of what Snowden revealed, and the constant stream of newspaper coverage on his infamous files, how can the UK pretend there is such a thing as effective and efficient oversight? And if so, how could it be demonstrated?

The difficulty resided in not making this hearing an indictment of Sir Mark, whose testimony revealed but one thing – that the system is not adapted to the powers granted to intelligence; that he does not benefit from the necessary resources; and that he might, in effect, be complacent as to the activities of GCHQ. Sir Mark brought figures – in 2013, he was handed about 1,600 warrants to review. His job description, he stressed, was not to green light or obstruct: he is reviewing the necessity and proportionality of the action taken. Out of those 1,600 warrants on his desk, only 200 went effectively through his hands and were subjected to actual oversight. Basic math: that’s approximatively 6%. Vaz, firing questions rapidly, calling Sir Mark on any possible inconsistency, was not to be toyed with: several times, the ISC said the criticism thrown at him was “unfair”. In his view, the intrusion of privacy – as far as he could review – had been justified. Things took a rapid turn to the surreal.

Sir Mark: I went down to GCHQ, I went there…

Vaz: How many times did you go?

Sir Mark: Six times in three years.

Vaz: And that’s enough, twice a year?

Sir Mark: Twice a year, yes.

Vaz: And who did you see, at GCHQ?

Sir Mark: I saw, erm, I saw, he – I saw the number two of GCHQ.

Vaz: And what did you say?

Sir Mark: We had a conversation, and…

Vaz: And you were satisified?

Sir Mark: I was satisfied, yes.

Vaz: Is that how you satisfy yourself, by having a discussion with GCHQ? That was enough? You sat around a table, had a chat, and there was no circumventing UK law?

The issue of holding GCHQ accountable was brought forward on two points: one, whether there was an actual mechanism that made GCHQ’s “cases” – their justification for privacy breaches – themselves submitted to scrutiny, or whether the arguments brought forward by the agency could be relied upon to be truthful and trustworthy. Second, the relationship Sir Mark himself entertained with the heads and officials at the intelligence services, a question brought forward by Blackwood, who expressed at concern at the cordial, maybe even friendly tone he seemed to have with his colleagues at Whitehall. Maybe some distance would be necessary to properly appreciate the work of intelligence services and whether their work is, in its entirety, brought to review, in a manner that is compelling and independent.

Blackwood: How would you describe the relationship you have with the services you oversee?

Sir Mark: I know them quite well, I do.

Blackwood: Would you say you have sufficient authority?

Sir Mark: Well, yes, I do.

Blackwood: With the number you gave us, the little number of cases you actually oversee, compared to the wide range of services?

Sir Mark: You know, they have to take into consideration the fact that, for every case they submit, there is the possibility of a judge looking at it.

Which, for the number of cases that Sir Mark is effectively looking at, hardly constitutes a deterrent.

GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham, England, where you can apparently go and have a chat (if you’re Sir Mark).

The question of oversight is not a simple judicial one. It boils down to the very concept of trust, that must exist in-between state actors, but also, as members of parliament, must reside between the Committee and the executive, so members of the public feel reassured that there is a working system of checks and balances that ensures them protection of the law is always present. Winnick, as for himself, could not hide his disdain and contempt for GCHQ; he was rocked by the Snowden leaks, as many members of Parliament were, and believes the culture of secrecy well extends to members of government – and that, for every case that is officially submitted to Sir Mark, many may not even be sent for review at all. Ellis himself was more direct:

Ellis: Do you look at specifically selected warrants, or do you receive a random number?

Sir Mark: You can look at them specifically if you want.

Ellis: How do you know you are looking at all the cases open by GCHQ?

Sir Mark: Ah, this is a question I get all the time.

Ellis: So what’s the answer?

Sir Mark: Listen… It is a big… Everyone knows what everyone else is doing at GCHQ… And if… if it could happen, it would be a huge conspiracy.

A conspiracy, by definition, is something that is hidden, that remains in the shadow, that has to be purely speculative due to partial or complete lack of information. Thanks to the Snowden  leaks, explained Winnick, we know those are no longer a conspiracy, but actual facts. Winnick, a senior member of the Committee, said he took the information released by the Guardian “very seriously”: “There was no investigation. There was no probe. You took their word. I took the Snowden report very seriously – there should be an investigation.” Ellis insisted at length on the respect he had for Sir Mark and his position; for the utmost necessity of an oversight commissioner for intelligence services; for the complexity of his task when he seems to be charged with the impossible. But the problem is, Snowden opened a door into the massive double tanker that is the intelligence services in the UK, and now the information will not stop coming out, one way or another. He raised more concerns: “We keep hearing reports of mass shredding at the Metropolitan Police, of documents disappearing, and we want to make sure you are not by-passed.” At this point in the hearing, it was hard for Sir Mark not to feel like the responsibility for GCHQ abuses rested on his shoulders, for overlooking the immensity of the futuristic plot of the NSA/GCHQ domestic and foreign intelligence capabilities. It seemed that, as he enunciated that the ominous Section 94 of the Telecommunications Act was not under his purview, that he simultaneously admitted his powers of oversight were in essence and in effect of extremely and dangerously limited scope.

Flynn then spoke up.

Flynn: We have been misinformed. We have been lied to – in Iraq, in  Afghanistan, and on the CIA rendition program. There is a record of this misinformation. You seem to be satisfied – but I, as a Member of Parliament, I have been lied to; mistakes, or complete lies. I think you have been complacent.

Sir Mark: It’s unfair.

Flynn: But who is supposed to inform us then? Who can we believe?

For all his faults in domestic policies, Ed Milliband however hit the nail on intelligence oversight – a system of accountability is the only way to restore a democratic balance in government, between powers granted by the executive in application of its power, and by the legislative in representation of the population’s need for security, safety and law enforcement. Any abuses must be held under strict scrutiny by the other two branches – legislative and judicial – so not only would the abuses be prosecuted, but the laws themselves could be modified or restricted in light of dysfunction. That the very clause making data surveillance possible is taken  away from the oversight of the ISC is, in itself, an abuse of power, a legal – but not lawful – means to ensure that the executive power is not entirely kept in check, and that some agencies will be left to keep running and functioning even if the government changes, modifies, or is somewhat suspended.  Flynn’s last question may seem a little naive, perhaps a little childish. But the concept of trust between those entrusted with representing the interests of the population and those with the power of protecting them is the only safeguard in a system that survives on friction and tension. Without oversight, and without the possibility for a Committee such as this one to access, hear, and question a man in the position of Sir Mark, the legislative and judicial branch are merely decorative in the fight against terrorism.

David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation in the UK, has followed the Sir Mark / Keith Vaz relation closely, and his commentary can only be taken in so the testimony brought forward by Sir Mark revealed the gripping, indeed, necessity to overhaul the ISC, its prerogatives, its powers, and most importantly, its staff. The ISC is created  by RIPA 2000, which Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper denounced as being insufficient and not up to date on the recent and evolving challenges brought by digital privacy. RIPA was, in fact, written in 2000, at the same time of the very first introduction of the anti-terrorism act (ATCSA, also revised in 2001) and current oversight come from the Intelligence Services Act (ISA), dating back to… 1994.

Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower, “in Putin’s Russia” according to Ellis.

Big Brother Watch, present in the second part of the hearing, reiterated the necessity to update, upgrade and adapt current oversight legislation to the actual capacities of GCHQ – capable of bulk data collection, metadata storage, extensive methods of developing and installing malware – that otherwise escape this obsolete system. It took several minutes and an extremely tense back-and-forth between Nick Prickles and Ellis to establish that the Snowden leaks were in the public interest; that they refused to see it any other way, and that they were, in fact, looking at provisions of the Human Rights Act to defend their position to fight against privacy intrusion (this provoked a little sneer from Ellis, which is unsurprising). If Rt Hon Davis MP seemed content of a recent meeting with Sen Feinstein, whose oversight powers he found “very robust”, both men were quick, concise, yet powerful by stating that none of the activities of GCHQ were in fact linked to deterring acts of terrorism or halting any ongoing plot. The justification for mass surveillance does not stand the test of oversight, they believe, and the UK would do well to transfer the debate on intelligence services into the more public sphere. And this conversation – to refer to Sir Mark and GCHQ, if there is to be a conversation around a table – between Big Brother Watch and the Committee revealed more than both sides probably expected.

Rt Hon Davis MP: Feinstein made the greatest speech in the Senate last week, denouncing CIA bullies. She provides robust oversight.

Winnick: She only went after the CIA once she found out she was a victim of the CIA. This is not “robust”.

Is there value into comparing the US platform on debating NSA and CIA activities into the UK? The US, much like the UK, was forced into this debate. It was thrown upon both countries upon revelations from a third party that, as Ellis said, “stole documents from his employers and fled to Putin’s Russia” (the reference to Russia being Putin’s and being Russia carried on for a certain amount of time, deflected by Prickles who evidently showed tiredness at having to assert this was way beyond the point).  There is no disputing the damaging status of the Snowden disclosures. But damaging to whom, exactly? To an image of brilliance and rule of law that was shining across the globe? To a self-created idea of unchecked but unaccountable power in a system purporting to be democratic? Prickles re-affirmed: the leaks were in the public interest. The knowledge they gave was invaluable.  Rt Hon Davis MP ended his part of the hearing:

Rt Hon David Davis MP: British people tend to be more trusting of their establishment. But this is changing. And that’s because of what we were told.

This is a statement released by Sir Mark in the month following the Snowden leaks, expressing his communications with GCHQ and his satisfaction they were acting appropriately.

In remission: Miranda v Home Secretary

David Miranda, the threat to the United Kingdom. In “good faith”

Last August, when David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s husband, was arrested at Heathrow, the usual tense climate between investigative reporters and the concept of national security had climaxed. It was chilling. It launched an attack on journalism from the ceiling down – a crushing battle aimed at crippling, alienating, and eventually defeating those who acted in the name of public interest. Despite the little attention it seems to have received, nothing in 2013, in the world of civil rights at least, has sent such a message of fear and willingness to crush any democratic spirit than that moment Guardian journalists were made to destroy their own hard drives under the watchful eyes of GCHQ agents. One can’t help but wonder if this event was perceived as either mundane because we have internalised a surveillance state, or insignificant because the Guardian has been so demonized in the eyes of true blue patriots they deserved their fate. Both assumptions are wrong. Both assumptions should be proven wrong.

The Miranda case has been branded as a landmark situation that gave way and motive for a review of the infamous Schedule 7, outlining the powers of detention granted by the Terrorism Act 2000 (ATCSA). It’s a little more complex. Although the judges believed their application for appeal should be made on grounds that the case was fact-dependent, there are several matters of basic, fundamental principles questioned by the provisions of the ATCSA – and the fact the ATCSA is brought up against journalists, or those aiding journalists – that are not fact-dependent. Because the protection that should be awarded to members of the press has been suspended in the name of counter-terrorism, it begets the question of whether terrorism warrants such suspension, and whether the definitions in play in the ACTSA are applicable ones. Although a review of Schedule 7 is underway at Parliament, the recommendations all made for Schedule 7 review are dependant on the definition of terrorism – Article 40 (1) (b).  An officer is granted discretion to assess a terror threat based on that definition, which is vague and circumstancial. It is the belief of many human rights lawyers having observed the increased use of ATCSA powers to persons usually protected from accusations of criminal activity associated to political dissent that it is 40 (1) (b) that can prove to be problematic.

The powers of detention extended to a terrorist suspect are dangerous. What is just as pervasive and dangerous is that said individual can be considered a terrorist suspect in the first place. Terrorism powers always should be granted better and bigger limitation based on the extensive reach they provide. Before the ruling was due, I had mentioned the following –

UK High Court of Justice

Powers granted under Schedule 7, surveillance and improper purpose

Theresa May prided herself in the fall for accessing the demand of a review of Schedule 7, and this a whole year before the Miranda case. Back then, powers granted under Schedule 7 were already difficult to swallow. Although it took her a couple of paragraphs to re-affirm her commitment to the powers of the ATCSA, she threw a small bone at the human rights community and the basic democratic principles by announcing she would launch a public consultation with internal review. This review is prefaced by a solid 67% of respondents saying that, in 2012, Schedule 7 was already “unfair, too wide-ranging and should be curtailed”. The Home Office identified 12 specific questions ranging from detention to strip searches, delays of interrogation and respect of human rights. Of those 12 questions, the internal review concluded 7 needed amendments or modifications. All amendments in question were aimed at reducing the powers of detention, including the maximum time of detention without charge to go from 9 hours down to 6 hours.

David Miranda was detained for 9 hours.

In November 2013, David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of UK anti-terrorism legislation, released his own report into Schedule 7. He did not conclude the detention powers, as they were, were excessive; he advised that the suspicion from officers that a given individual may be engaged in acts of terrorism fell within the ATCSA definition of terrorism to grant detention. This is a vicious circle. Per his conclusions,

(a) Detention be permitted only when a senior officer is satisfied that there are grounds for suspecting that the person appears to be a person falling within section 40 (1) (b) and that detention is necessary in order to assist in determining whether he is such a person.

Should this all be still confusing, let’s just give a senior officer discretional powers to extend said detention without charge:

(b) On periodic review, a detention may be extended only when a senior officer remains satisfied that there continue to be grounds for suspecting that the person appears to be a person falling within section 40 (1) (b) and that detention continues to be necessary in order to assist in determining whether he is such a person.

Now, although the internal review did recommend that specific, terrorism-related officers working in police stations or in ports be trained in quickly determine or assess the potential threat of an individual seeking entry or transit on UK territory, it appears that in the case of Miranda, the work was cut out for them by the Secret Service. Paragraph 9 of the Court ruling prove that Miranda was, in fact, under surveillance by both US and UK authorities and the Custom Border Protection Officers (CBPs) had been informed of his transit through Heathrow, and seriously advised to keep him and search him.

The Security Service (…) had undertaken an operation relating to Mr Snowden. They became aware of the claimant’s movements. At 0830 on Thursday 15 August 2013 they briefed Detective Superintendent Stokley of SO15, the Counter Terrorism Command in the Metropolitan Police, the second defendant. On Friday 16 August a Port Circulation Sheet (PCS), a form of document used to provide information to counter-terrorism officers, was issued by the Security Service to the Metropolitan Police and received at the National Ports Office at 2159. On page 2, against a box asking for confirmation “that the purpose of an examination will be to assist in making a determination about whether the person appears to be someone who is or has been concerned in the Commission, Preparation or Instigation of acts of terrorism (CPI)”, the Security Service had entered the words “Not Applicable”. On the same page this was stated:

“Intelligence indicates that MIRANDA is likely to be involved in espionage activity which has the potential to act against the interests of UK national security. We therefore wish to establish the nature of MIRANDA’s activity, assess the risk that MIRANDA poses to UK national security and mitigate as appropriate. We are requesting that you exercise your powers to carry out a ports stop against MIRANDA.”

The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, who recently were awarded the George Polk Award for journalism

Through paragraphs 10 and 11 of the decision comes a conversation between the Secret Service and the Met Police, that maybe further intelligence and information was necessary to use Schedule 7 at Heathrow to arrest Miranda. Later, the Secret Service would send a note – redacted, even in the ruling – claiming that Miranda was carrying material between Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras; that this material had been provided by Edward Snowden; that it contained information pertaining to GCHQ activities; and that it was damaging to UK national security. But the most important part, and what has caused the arrest, detention, interrogation, what would be at the core of Judge Laws’ ruling, is the Secret Service’s final PCS on August 17th, which reads with a sense of emergency, of fear, of confusion, of absolute necessity to stop the ongoing free-flow of material that was provided to Greenwald. It is frankly frantic, a little obsessive, and shows the absolute scare that public interest journalism creates in governments willingly engaging in wrongdoing:

“We assess that MIRANDA is knowingly carrying material, the release of which would endanger people’s lives. Additionally the disclosure, or threat of disclosure, is designed to influence the government, and is made for the purpose of promoting a political and ideological cause. This therefore falls within the definition of terrorism and as such we request that the subject is examined under Schedule 7.”

Everything you ever needed to know about the UK national security principles and what actively constitutes national security is contained in that one PCS. If the ruling provided any sort of information – besides the acknowledgement that we will touch on later – is that the Secret Service is concerned with protecting national interests, government secrets, and that the furthering of the fundamental rights to press freedom constitutes an act of terrorism that falls within the purview of 40 (1) (b). Thanks to this PCS, we are now all clear on where the Kingdom stands.

Before the ruling emerged today, I wrote about public interest journalism and the fear-mongering propagated by both DNI James Clapper in the US and his lethal allies (*) – Theresa May, Andrew Parker, Chris Grayling, et al: all those endangered lives that Louise Mensch ranted on about do not exist. The only thing that’s endangered is the democratic career of the government officials who engaged into unconstitutional and unlawful actions against their citizens and foreign nationals in the name of the threat later revealed to be inexistent or a simple excuse. It is not because the Secret Service claims that Miranda falls within 40 (1) (b) that it effectively does, but the Met Police can’t contradict a PCS. In fact, officers may not even be thoroughly informed of the true motives behind the PCS (intelligence firewall).

Once again, one of the many pitfalls of Schedule 7 is that it exists in itself to ascertain whether the person falls under 40 (1) (b). There is no necessity for the officers to assess whether the person does before launching a Schedule 7 provision. In this case, due to the PCS, even with little knowledge of the content, there was a suspicion that Miranda would fall within Schedule 7 suspicion…  but the PCS had led them on already.

Glenn Greenwald and David Miranda, after his detention at Heathrow

Disproportionality of a Schedule 7 inspection

The question of proportionality can not exist in a vacuum; and it was Ryder’s submission as counsel for the claimant to refer to previous jurisprudence on what exactly should Schedule 7 be measured against in order to assess whether it was disproportionate or justified. In Bank Mellat v Her Majesty’s Treasury (2013), Lord Sumption, usually not one to rule in favor of human rights law or apprehend a counter-terrorism provision or in an international law context, decided (quoted in para. 39):

“The question depends on an exacting analysis of the factual case advanced in defence of the measure, in order to determine (i) whether its objective is sufficiently important to justify the limitation of a fundamental right; (ii) whether it is rationally connected to that objective; (iii) whether a less intrusive measure could have been used; and (iv) whether, having regards to these matters and the severity of the consequences, a fair balance has been struck between the rights of the individual and the interests of the community.”

In the Miranda case, all of this can be easily assessed if we remove the idea of a national security protection from its political context and weigh a Schedule 7 provision against the husband of a journalist transiting through an airport. Is the objective of the Secret Service sufficiently important to limit the fundamental right of freedom of the press? Not if this press is acting in the public interest (strike one). Is the situation rationally connected to the objective? The increasing issue of national security not in protection of citizenry or territorial integrity but rather in protection of state interest does not constitute a rational motive, but rather a disproportionate use of force to protect the state (strike two). Could a less intrusive method have been used? In the case of WikiLeaks material and/or Snowden files, both revolutionary in the approach of whistleblowing in the digital age, I once argued that the Computer Misuse Act could have been useful without calling on to espionage or terrorism charges (strike three). Has a fair balance been struck? If the balance is achieved between the severity of the treatment granted to David Miranda and the protection of the United Kingdom, there is no such thing. It is a complex, heavily funded, internationally supported and executively connected state apparatus against a foreign national not even seeking entry or haven into the territory. Miranda was stuck in-between his departure city (Berlin) and his home (Rio de Janeiro). He was trapped. Is there a balance? Would Miranda alone – and the files he was carrying – bring down the Empire? (strike four).

In case one argues against my vision of Lord Sumption’s criteria number 1 and 2, on the national security imperative not protecting from an internal or international threat of violence against the integrity of the nation – that is, the state and the population, not the government – D/Supt Stokley’s testimony of his reaction upon receiving the PCS should clarify the situation of what the national security imperative actually meant in the Miranda case; it meant that it was handed out to an officer that simply did not make the distinction, and was not properly informed of the meaning of intelligence operations. The decision to call on a Schedule 7 detention was made by an agent of the Crown who was unaware of the activities of other agents of the Crown. I find this testimony disturbing in the light of the realities of GCHQ / PRISM activities (para. 37):

It appeared to me on the basis of what I knew about the stolen material, that it could be used to endanger life and cause harm to the members of the public… It was very clear in my mind that this action was not being executed as a means to prevent political embarrassment in the UK… I believed that the information in the claimant’s possession could potentially compromise the UK’s ability to monitor terrorist networks, posing a threat to the safety of the public… In particular, I considered that the release of information about PRISM technology into the public domain was of use to terrorists. My understanding of the technology from material in the public domain is that it enables security and intelligence services to monitor email traffic. Accordingly, I considered that if nothing was done to try to prevent further damaging disclosures which could directly benefit terrorists, the MPs and I personally would be failing in our obligation to prevent the loss of life, safeguard the public to (sic) prevent and detect crime.

Once again, it has been made abundantly clear at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, DC regarding NSA activities and requesting testimony from DNI James Clapper that, in fact, NSA activities barely amounted to truly specific counter-terrorism measures. An article in The Guardian on January 14, 2014 written by Spencer Ackerman quotes Michael Morrell, a former CIA deputy director:

Morrell added that the bulk collection of domestic phone data “has not played a significant role in preventing any terrorist attacks to this point,” further undercutting a major rationale offered by the NSA since the Guardian first revealed the bulk phone-data collection in June, thanks to leaks by Edward Snowden.

Just like Lord Justice Laws, I find no reason not to believe Stokley was genuine in giving this testimony. He just appears to not have been informed, or been purposely misinformed.

a terrorist Washington Metro bus

Article 10 compliance

Again, back in July, I had denounced a violation of Article 10, and would still to this day recommend a review by Strasbourg. But the current climate between the United Kingdom and the ECtHR is tense, to say the least, and asking for a judicial review in a British domestic court based on ECHR compliance is somewhat defiant. This shouldn’t be an issue, however. As of the date of this ruling, the United Kingdom is still party to the ECHR, and is still required to abide by its standards. Just like any state wishing to assert its national principles as being, if not superior, at least equal to supranational or international law, it all lies within a matter of interpretation. In this case, while Mr Ryder relied heavily on the fundamental principles of the freedom of the press in the handling of David Miranda and his relation to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden, the Judges saw fit not to weigh the use of the ACTSA against the ECHR, but to assume, pre-emptively, that the law of the land was already ECHR compliant (which it mostly isn’t) and that said domestic law was not to establish fundamental freedoms, see; those fundamental freedoms exist by sole virtue of being on British soil, and the law only seeks to establish the exception. Referring to Attorney General v Guardian Newspapers (1990), quoting Lord Goff in para. 41:

“I can see no inconsistency between English law on this subject and Article 10 (…) The only difference is that, whereas Article 10 of the Convention, in accordance with its avowed purpose, proceeds to state a fundamental right and then to qualify it, we in this country (where everybody is free to do anything, subject only to the provisions of the law) proceed rather upon an assumption of freedom of speech, and turn to our law to discover the established exceptions to it.”

I have no words.

To understand where the concept of damaging disclosure comes from, we must go back to first the definition of terrorism under the ACTSA, and the already existing but not terrorism related Official Secrets Act of 1989. Per the ACTSA, as mentioned early in the ruling, terrorism constitutes the use or threat of action where –

(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and

(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-

(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or

(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

Under this very, very vague definition of terrorism, anything that is done from group acts of political dissent to actual violence against the population can constitute terrorism; it is too broad a spectrum to consider a journalist on the same scale as a suicide bomber entering a busy Guildford pub on a Friday night. The proper law to be applied here is the OSA 1989, on the information resulting from unauthorized disclosures – concerning even journalists and editors. It is an offence to disclose material:

(b) where the material was acquired as a result of an unauthorized disclosure at some stage by a Crown servant or government contractor (5 (1) (a) (i))

(c) where the material was entrusted to the recipient in confidence, or with a reasonable expectation of confidence, by a Crown servant or government contractor (5 (1) (a) (ii))

(d) where the material was acquired as a result of an unauthorized disclosure at some stage by a person to whom it had been entrusted as in (c) above.

Edward Snowden working for the NSA – a branch of the US government, as a US citizen, pertaining to US information – can only qualify under (d) as GCHQ material and information was relayed to the NSA. But the NSA files constituted classified information. They were handed to Edward Snowden in his capacity of cleared government contractor. The concept of damaging closure under the law can apply, and could potentially restrict the application of Article 10 (2), which only limits freedom of the press in line with the Johannesburg Principles … except for that small line,

preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence

Greenwald with two terrorist dogs

This is where the notion of “pressing need” of the public interest comes into view, in Sunday Times v United Kingdom (1979). There is now a need, in the current political context, to update the current public interest jurisprudence, that has made a certain headway in the protection of press freedom against disclosure that was found non-damaging to the government, or could easily be made in the name of public interest on health risks, armed conflict, all concepts easily provable and publishable – but in this era of constant classification of all possible information relative to an extremely wide range of governmental activity at home and abroad, there is no assessing the public interest in a direct political context. This is a context in which PIIs are requested in Court of Appeals. This is a context in which surveillance is authorized by secret courts. This is a context in which Senate reports can not be disclosed even after repeated requests for obtention. It is maddening. There is nothing that has fallen into the public domain that could help a claimant assert their position that they acted in the public interest; unless there is an effort, on the part of the public, and on the part of their representatives, to see the confidentiality as the issue in itself, a red flag for the possible commitment of abuses. Transparency is an extremely perfected tool of accountability. It is, in fact, the only one.

If the High Court believes that in dismissing the appeal of David Miranda, it is ECHR compliant, it is a complete fallacy. Only the ECtHR is apt in 2014 to decide whether the confidential disclosure provision of Article 10 (2) should be upgraded and updated through landmark jurisprudence in order to weigh the damage caused by the disclosure against the notion that it served the public – and the international – interest. Assessing the compliance to fundamental human rights in a court that had already granted an anti-terrorism provision against a journalist does not provide the proper safeguards for the true judicial review of human rights.

The Human Rights Centre at Durham Law, chaired by the wonderful Fiona De Londras, with whom I have discussed a counter-terrorism judicial review, has already tackled the issue of Schedule 7 . Although their review concentrated on the impact of counter-terrorism policies on the Muslim community, their requests for change on Schedule 7 find an echo: they call for increased transparency and accountability, which has been severely lacking in this decision; and a radical demand for the length of examination to be reduced to two hours, in order to curtail the “detrimental effect” a prolonged detention can have on the individual. The intimidating effect such law enforcement powers can have on a person – especially one that is isolated from a group as they travel or transit – can not be stressed enough; and it is at the very core of counter-terrorism powers to act as a powerful deterrent. It is however proportionately damaging when the individual in custody meets no criteria of reasonable suspicion.

seriously, get ready.

When it comes to journalistic rights, where are the legal safeguards that can be used to protect them against discretionary powers and media control? The High Court debated another ECtHR case, Gillan and Quinton v United Kingdom (2010), in which the supranational court absolutely refused to let fundamental rights be curtailed through simple, personal, or guided – as was the role of the PCS in this case – decision making.

For domestic law to meet these requirements it must afford a measure of legal protection against arbitrary interferences by public authorities with the rights safeguarded by the Convention. In matters affecting fundamental rights it would be contrary to the rule of law, one of the basic principles of a democratic society enshrined in the Convention, for a legal discretion granted to the executive to be expressed in terms of an unfettered power. Consequently, the law must indicate with sufficient clarity the scope of any such discretion conferred on the competent authorities and the manner of its exercise

Still Article 10 compliant, Lord Justice Laws?

In another case, Sanoma Utigevers BV v Netherlands (2010), the Court even assessed the long-term damage it could do to a journalist, a newspaper, and their relation to sources, credibility, and transparency if there were to be interference with executive authority:

The Court notes that orders to disclose sources potentially have a detrimental impact, not only on the source, whose identity may be revealed, but also on the newspaper or other publication against which the order is directed, whose reputation may be negatively affected in the eyes of future potential sources by the disclosure, and on members of the public, who have an interest in receiving information imparted through anonymous sources. (…) First and foremost among these safeguards is the guarantee of review by a judge or other independent and impartial decision-making body. The principle that in cases concerning protection of journalistic sources “the full picture should be before the court” was highlighted in one of the earliest cases of this nature (…). The requisite review should be carried out by a body separate from the executive and other interested parties, invested with the power to determine whether a requirement in the public interest overriding the principle of protection of journalistic sources exists prior to the handing over of such material and to prevent unnecessary access to information capable of disclosing the sources’ identity if it does not.

Despite this, Mr Kovats, representing the Government, submitted that the ECHR had “not developed an absolute rule of prior judicial scrutiny” on the protection of private interest journalism. (For the sake of the readers, there are two more decisions I did not see necessary to include). On para. 88 of the ruling, the Lord Justice found that indeed, they could not base themselves on existing ECtHR jurisprudence to establish a fundamental rule and model for them to follow.

Rented world

Justice Ouseley did not encumber himself with grand statements. He did not try to contest anything; Justice Openshaw was barely existent. Ouseley just maintained the principles of 40 (1) (b) and supported that an officer, in order to launch Schedule 7 provisions, just needed to “act in good faith”. In what good faith exactly was D/Supt Stokley? Was position was he in, between uncertainty on his government’s motives and the increased pressure of several PCS sent his way? How could be possibly make the decision, without any sort of independent judicial scrutiny, that his actions were lawfully warranted? The truth is, good faith is not a test of good conscience. It is not a test of good morals, or a litmus test for someone’s willingness to stand up to abuses of power. Good faith is what it is. It is fleeting, unreliable, flaky, and perfectly serves the interests of those who benefit, use and abuse the laws they made – and had passed in good faith.

A legislative review of the ATCSA is now necessary given the judicial deference of the High Court to the executive. This is hardly a new concept in debating anti-terrorism law in the UK. In 2004, Lord Hoffmann, then on record in A v Secretary of State for the Home Department, had already challenged the concept of detention without charge or trial against fundamental liberties he believed were enshrined in British law:

The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such victory.

(*) for those getting the reference: I stand by it.

[ ref.: I get nervous everytime I try to talk in front of a big crowd, a pretty girl, or the police ]