The war on terror has continued to wreak havoc on Americans’ civil liberties. Will this war at home ever be shut down?
The short answer is not anytime soon. But a conversation over its domestic costs has been sparked by new revelations about a surveillance state that has grown out of control, collecting massive amounts of data and tracking the online and phone activities of millions of Americans.
The leaks from former National Security Agency contract employee Edward Snowden have refocused attention on the domestic war on terror and infringements on civil liberties. Snowden and The Guardian have revealed that the U.S. government is collecting data from millions of Americans’ phone calls; that the communications of Americans are routinely swept up even if the NSA targets foreigners; that the Obama administration continued a program until 2011 that collected e-mail records of Americans in bulk; and that a secret court has signed off on these programs.
In all, the leaks reveal that the war on terror at home continues to grind on, capturing in its dragnet millions of Americans and foreigners, many of them innocent of any crime. The war on terror has become institutionalized, and the domestic costs of this war continue to mount: privacy is being eroded; communications are being monitored; and dissent is being cracked down on. The primary targets of the domestic war on terror continue to be Muslims and Arabs, though it is now clear that the sweep of the domestic war has ensnared millions of other Americans. And there is no end in sight to this domestic juggernaut.
“The NSA revelations underscore the war-time footing of the administration, and of the previous administration as well,” said Naureen Shah, an expert on U.S. counter-terrorism practices and the former acting director of Columbia University Law School’s Human Rights Clinic. “The US approach to terrorism treats war as perpetual and boundless geographically, and also in terms of who can be targeted for surveillance [and] for prosecution.”
How did we get here?
The story begins in the immediate aftermath of September 11. Individual acts of hate-crimes against Muslims, or those perceived to Muslim, dramatically accelerated. But it was the state that had the ability to do the most damage to Muslims and Arabs--and they did.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation led the way in tracking down, rounding up and detaining hundreds of Arab and South Asian Muslims in the U.S. They were thrown into jail, held on minor immigration violations and detained for questioning. Many were deported.
The U.S. government and its law enforcement agencies then instituted counter-terror policies that disproportionately impacted Muslims in America. One of these policies is the no-fly list, where people are arbitrarily thrown onto a list that prohibits them from freely traveling into and out of the U.S. Another was the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System, a government program that singled out non-citizen Muslim males for special registration in the U.S. immigration system. Many of those who registered, thinking it would put them on a path to citizenship, were instead deported. The program was dropped in April 2011.
And the other major iteration of the domestic “war on terror” is the use of surveillance and informants to keep tabs on the Muslim community wholescale. The FBI, for instance, has used a so-called “mosque outreach” program in California to keep tabs on Muslim leaders. From 2004-2008, FBI agents visited mosques to ostensibly collect reports on hate crimes, only to turn around and retain information on Muslims’ religious beliefs, practices, travel and the location of mosques. The FBI has also used undercover informants. One of the more notorious cases involved a man named Craig Monteilh, who told The Guardian in 2012 that since 2006, he infiltrated mosques in southern California, pretended to be a convert and recorded conversations with Muslims.
Monteilh told The Guardian’s Paul Harris that the FBI gave him the go-ahead to even have sex with a Muslim woman he was targeting. Eventually, Monteilh’s rhetoric at mosques grew so extreme that members of the Orange County Muslim community reported him to the FBI, not knowing he was in fact working for them.
The story of Monteilh rings true throughout Muslim communities in the U.S, where informants have become a routine part of life.
“Sometimes at our ‘know your rights’ workshops, we’ll be at a mosque and ask how many people in the room--either themselves or if they know someone--have been questioned by the FBI, and every single hand in the room will go up,” said Diala Shamas, an attorney with the City University of New York School of Law’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR), which provides legal services to Muslim and other communities dealing with the domestic war on terror. “The impact [of the war on terror] has been disproportionately felt in one community, and that’s the American Muslim community...The fact that this community is viewed as one that is not empowered, one that doesn’t have political clout, and one that may be afraid to speak out given the climate of fear, allows these policies to continue. This very silencing breaks the system of checks and balances that our democracy relies on."
By far the most extreme example of the pernicious targeting of American Muslims has been the New York Police Department’s extensive program of surveillance, which began following the September 11 attacks and was exposed by the Associated Press. Instituted with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency, the police’s Intelligence Division has mapped Muslim-owned businesses, recorded innocuous conversations, infiltrated student groups and urged informants to bait Muslims into saying inflammatory things about violence.
Critics charge that the surveillance program is based on the unconstitutional notion that the more devoutly Muslim you are, the more likely a terrorist you are. In 2007, the NYPD released a controversial policy paper, with that notion at the heart of it. The paper charges that radicals are “incubated” at places like “mosques...cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, nongovernmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores.” The paper also states that you can pinpoint radicalization if a person begins to give up “cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes,” wear “traditional Islamic clothing” or grow a beard and become involved in “social activism and community issues.”
The NYPD has continued its program of surveillance, though a number of legal challenges have been lodged against it. One of the thrusts of a lawsuit that charges the police have violated federally-imposed guidelines on how to conduct religious or political surveillance is that “the program is interminable...[A] surveillance program of the sort that the NYPD conducts has no end. Its pervasive injurious effects must increase as people become more aware of the surveillance. This is the essence of a police state.”
But the way the NYPD sees it, there’s no reason for the surveillance to end--ever. In their eyes, as long as the war on terror continues, and as long as the threat of homegrown terrorism is ever present, the surveillance program is needed. In recent court filings, the NYPD pointed to the Boston bombings as well as a host of other local plots to justify why the judge should dismiss a lawsuit challenging the program. But the NYPD’s justifications cite a number of plots that were created with the help of NYPD informants who baited and, critics would argue, entrapped young, struggling Muslims--many of whom had no way to actually carry out the plot they were charged with.
The use of informants to fuel alleged terror plots is part of the circular logic that justifies the perpetual war on terror domestically. Both the NYPD and the FBI point to the plots their informants concocted to show why they need to continue to be vigilant against terrorism--a vigilance they say necessitates mass surveillance.
There are also institutional reasons why the the NYPD and the FBI want the war on terror to continue. Thousands and thousands of jobs are at stake. Billions of dollars in counter-terrorism budgets are at stake, too. As Trevor Aaronson, author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, recently told AlterNet’s Joshua Holland, “the reason we’re seeing these really aggressive sting operations is the result of something of a bureaucratic evil. That is every year Congress allocates the FBI’s budget, and they set the counter-terrorism budget at $3 billion...From the highest levels of the FBI, there’s pressure to build counter-terrorism cases because they just received $3 billion from Congress and that pressure then flows down to the field offices.”
But now it’s not just Muslims who are being affected. As the NSA revelations have shown, the war on terror has metastasized into an all-encompassing dragnet affecting nearly every American. To critics of of the war on terror like CLEAR’s Shamas, the NSA leaks prove that the executive branch’s powers needs to be curbed.
“That these policies are still happening under the Obama administration is proof of what many have long observed, which is that the executive is not likely to reign itself in,” she said. “It’s institutionally not inclined to yield any discretion or gains that it’s made, and it’s institutionally inclined to try and continue to garner more power. That is the trajectory we’re going to continue to see unless and until there is push back from communities and voters organizing - and from the courts if that doesn't work.”
But the combination of a powerful and largely unaccountable executive branch and a compliant judiciary and Congress seems to indicate that until there’s a massive movement against the war on terror at home, it will continue to grind on. Naureen Shah says the war at home won’t end until two specific laws are changed.
“The Patriot Act, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force--these are pieces of legislation passed after 9/11 in response to a horrific attack on U.S. soil that gave the U.S. government unprecedented power that we’ve never really rolled back, more than 10 years on,” said Shah. “We can expect the government to continue using these powers it has until we force it to relinquish those powers by changing the law.”