War on Terror corrupts US justice

On January 1st this year, US President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that, amongst other many other provisions, allows for the US military to indefinitely detain without trial anyone suspected of terrorists acts inside the United States and, the same for anyone captured in battle wherever it is in the world. Even the UK’s provisions, which were widely criticised, were nothing like this, indeed the argument was not about indefinite detention at all, but simply over how many days someone suspected of terrorism should be allowed to be detained without trial: 14 or 28. That’s some way short of indefinite.

Of course, the infinitely compromising and slippery Obama is trying to have his cake and eat by promising that he will not actually allow this power to be used except in strict accordance with the constitution. That may provide some temporary relief for US citizens accused of terrorism, at least and until a more gung-ho President is elected or Obama gives in to demands that he must use it – something military sources are looking forward to, it seems. However the provisions on the treatment of foreign captives effectively provide a legal footing in domestic law for the extrajudicial actions of former President Bush’s establishment of Guantanemo Bay and the associated global network of extraordinary rendition and torture / interogation sites. They undoubtedly contravene the Geneva Conventions (see 75 UNTS 135, for example)and several other aspects of International Law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

But, this is far from the only current assault on the rights of those who remain innocent in law of any criminal act in the USA. In New York, for example, the New York Police Department in conjunction with the CIA was last year revealed as operating a secret surveillance program against Muslims, titled ‘Ancestries of Interest’. It is unlikely to be the only such program. Like Obama’s indefinite detention provision, this is a perversion of the constitutional rights of US citizens. US police forces from the FBI downwards are not generally permitted to use undercover agents without there being some kind of specific allegation or exisiting evidence of crime. Essentially, this makes a whole community subject to categorical suspicion and permanent infiltration and investigation. It seems that every level of policing and justice in the USA from investigation to trial to sentencing has been indelibly stained by the War on Terror.

But this has all happened several times before of course, and happily not everyone has forgotten their history. Now black Christian pastors who remember the FBI/NSA COINTELPRO operations of the 1960s against black radical and civil rights groups,  are reportedly joining with Islamic groups in opposing the NYPD’s racist and islamophobic surveillance program. Along with the challenges being mounted to Obama’s new law by ACLU and others, there are signs that Obama is no longer being given the benefit of the doubt by many of the groups who supported him first time around. How successful any of these moves will be is anyone’s guess but solidarity that moves beyond American Islamic groups having to defend themselves against the howling mob is something of a step forward.

US subversion in Norway

Norway has long been a close ally of the USA. Outside of the EU, but inside NATO, it provided bases and consistent support for the USA during the Cold War, unsurprisingly seeing neighbouring USSR as a serious threat to its interests. Yet… those days would seem to be long gone, at least as far as the US is concerned, if a story recently revealed is to be believed.

According to the Dagbladet newspaper, Norway’s TV2 News reported that 15-20 Norwegians, including ex-police, had been recruited by the US Embassy over 10 years to form a secret group, the Surveillance Detection Unit (SDU) that would apparently monitor terrorist threats in Norway. The group operated from a building near the embassy, and collected information on hundreds of Norwegian citizens, whose details were added to a database called SIMAS (Security Incident Management Analysis System).

This was all done apparently without the Norwegian government’s consent, although according to the report, the US Embassy has admitted carrying out the program. The question is – is this standard US practice, or simple a ‘rogue’ embassy group of bored spooks getting above themselves? The answer is that it is almost undoubtedly the former. SIMAS is the US diplomatic service’s global database. According to a Privacy Impact Assessment (!) submitted by the State Department on the system:

“Security Incident Management and Analysis System (SIMAS) is a worldwide Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) web-based application, which serves as a repository for all suspicious activity and crime reporting from U.S. Diplomatic Missions abroad (all U.S. embassies and consulates). Department of State personnel, including Diplomatic Security personnel, regional security officers, and cleared foreign nationals, enter Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) into SIMAS as a central repository for all physical security incidents overseas. SIMAS Reports typically contain a detailed narrative description of the suspicious activity prompting the report, available suspicious person(s) and vehicle descriptors, and other identification data as may be available (e.g. photographs). Reports also indicate date, time and location of suspicious activity, and may include amplifying comments from relevant Bureau offices.”

The data entered into the system on individuals include:

“Citizenship Status and Information (source-documents)

  • DSP-11 (Passport Application)
  • OF-156 (VISA application)

Biometric Information (source-observation and photography)

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eye Color
  • Skin Tone
  • Hair Color
  • Hair Style
  • Images
  • Age or Estimated Age
  • Body Type (Build)
  • Scars, Marks, & Tattoos

Other (source-personal interview by authorities)

  • Name
  • Address
  • DOB
  • Telephone Number
  • Father’s Name
  • Mother’s Name”

It is supposed to be limited to “suspicious or potentially threatening incidents gathered from observations in the vicinity of a post” in order to protect the embassy, however it seems that far more was going on in the case uncovered in Norway, and it would not be surprising if the SDU was operating as a cover for a range of other intelligence activities.

Update: the Norwegian government is now complaining to the US government about this, saying that it breaks Norwegian privacy laws. But, but… they did a PIA! Surely everything is okay now? Oh, and the US claim that “Norwegian authorities had been informed in advance about the surveillance activities.” Hey, this means someone is lying to us! Surely not… 😉

Iraqi resistance hacks US drones

According to the Wall Street Journal, US surveillance drones (you know, the future of military surveillance…) have allegedly been hacked by Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces in Iraq, using $26 off-the-shelf Russian software called Skygrabber – and they may have been compromised in Afghanistan too.

It is, as my informant, Aaron Martin, points out, amazing that the military surveillance systems of the world’s most resourced and technologically-developed military could be hacked so easily and for so long without notice. It also makes me wonder how many other networked surveillance systems would be vulnerable or are being hacked using the same or similar systems. If for example, organised criminal gangs could access the video surveillance systems of major cities, this would further call into question the effectiveness of these systems. Or alternatively, of course, it could point the way to a more accountable, open-access kind of surveillance – as Aaron and I are exploring in a paper we are currently writing.

Everyday prejudices mean Canadians end up on watchlists

Another great audit report from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner here in Canada, investigating the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (Fintrac) has just been released. Fintrac, created in 2001 in the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act and now with even more extended powers, operates a databases which is supposed to contain details of those suspected of supporting terrorism or money laundering (often on behalf of major criminal and terrorist groups).

However, there is a good story in The Globe and Mail today which leads on the most worrying aspect identified by the audit, which is that in many cases, the Fintrac database is massively overreliant on unsubstantiated suspicions from low-level functionaries in banks, insurance firms and credit agencies. Some of these ‘suspicions’ were clearly simple prejudice as they appeared to be based entirely on ethnicity. Part of the problem is that there are no clear guidelines as to what constitutes a reasonable suspicion in the legislation.

But being put on the database can have serious consequences, firstly because of the potential penalties involved (up to $2m CAN fines and 5-years imprisonment) and secondly, because the information in the Fintrac database can be accessed by Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police  (the RCMP – Canada’s FBI) or shared with overseas police and intelligence services. In the latter case, as we already know, mounting errors can result in innocent people being subject to ever more harsh treatment including being excluded from countries, placed on no-fly lists or even the UN1267 ‘known terrorists and affiliates’ list, as well as, in the worst cases, opening them up to extraordinary rendition, imprisonment and torture.

Jennifer Stoddart, the current Privacy Commissioner, has a well-deserved reputation getting positive changes made, so let’s hope she can persuade Fintrac to get this sorted out pretty soon.

Philippines: military targets writers and artists

There have been a couple of interesting stories that have caught my eye from the Philippines concerning the surveillance of writers and artists by the military. First, soldiers were discovered to have been watching the house of Bienvenido Lumbera, a major artist. More recently, prize-winning writer, Pedro “Jun” Cruz Reyes Jr. has complained of surveillance of his house by unidentified men in a white van – and this isn’t the first time.

The first incident was dismissed as a ‘training exercise’ by the Philippines Armed Forces (AFP) – which, even if it were true, hardly excuses the actions, although it does attempt to remove the suspicion of a concerted program or illicit policy. Now, with this second complaint, that first excuse starts to sound a little more hollow. But, there are some other facts here that make me more suspicious, in particular the status of both these artists as critical figures in Filipino cultural life, and secondly, a recent controversy over the attempt by the military- and US-backed President Arroyo to award special prizes to some of her favourite popular filmmakers and comics artists, an act which was prevented by the courts after complaints by, amongst others, Lumbera.

Of course, this kind of surveillance as personal harassment (because it is so obvious that it must be designed to be seen by the person being watched) is typically thought to produce a ‘chilling effect’ on democratic debate and criticism. The culture of fear and repression is often the result of the military being over-prominent in everyday life. In the Philippines, with its history of US military-colonial dominance, dictatorship, political killings, and the longstanding conflict between the AFP and Islamic separatist groups (which is also a conflict between landowners and peasants) in Mindanao, such an atmosphere is pervasive.

The treatment of these two artists pales in comparison with the treatment of others. Back in 2007 the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, condemned the use of violence, arbitrary imprisonment and intimidation by both army and police under the cover of ‘anti-terrorism. The worldwide writers support group, PEN, estimates that since 2001, 60 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines, and in total 903 killings and hundreds more ‘disappearances’ of people from all walks of life have been reported. In August, the writer Alex Pinpin, and four friends who made up the s0-called ‘Tagaytay 5’ were finally released after a popular campaign. They had been held for 859 days without access to a lawyer and had been threatened, beaten and tortured in the name of the ‘War on Terror’. They were alleged without foundation, to have been members of a paramilitary group, the New People’s Army.

Read more from PEN here – it’s certainly eye-opening.