Maureen Webb’s Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World

George Bush is fond of saying, “9/11 changed everything.” Hidden beneath this expression are the specific ways in which the U.S. government has transformed since the twin towers fell. In her book Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World, civil-liberties lawyer Maureen Webb takes a look at some of these changes. In clear, direct language, Webb reveals what Bush is not so fond of talking about: how the U.S. government is now practicing torture and spying on most of its citizens.

Webb is detailed in her treatment of her subject. She names the locations of many U.S. prisons around the world and discusses the specific ways in which detainees are tortured. Her descriptions can be harsh in their simplicity. At one point, the book provides a sidebar in which methods of abuse such as “torture with a chair” are defined. The U.S. government, in effect, is using these techniques by sending people to countries that permit torture, a practice known as “extraordinary rendition.”

Webb examines one of the most well-known cases of extraordinary rendition, that of Canadian citizen Maher Arar. U.S. officials apprehended Arar while he was waiting for a connecting flight at Kennedy Airport. Denied access to a lawyer, Arar could not find out the charges being brought against him. He was sent to Syria where he was forced into making false confessions. Webb says: “Among other things, he was told to write that he had attended a training camp in Afghanistan. When he objected, he was kicked and threatened with torture with the ‘tire.'” For ten months, Arar suffered abuse, never learning why he was being held. The truth was that no reason for his detainment existed. Webb writes: “Neither Canada, the United States, nor Syria ever had any evidence that Maher Arar was involved in terrorism or any other crime.”

Webb explores the connection between such abuses and U.S. policy under the Bush administration. She talks about how after 9/11 the administration became concerned with “‘preempting’ or ‘disrupting’ terrorist plots before they happened.” She believes that this focus on the “preemption of risk” has caused a “profound policy shift in law enforcement and security intelligence.” The concern has become less with “specific risks” that entail “specific leads on specific suspects.” Instead, the government is taking sweeping measures that violate the rights of the individual. She cites Bush’s domestic eavesdropping program as an example of such a measure. She reminds the reader that, under the program, the government is “essentially wiretapping the majority of people in the country.”

But the wiretapping program brings up questions about the casual relationship between 9/11 and a more invasive government. Bloomberg reported in June of 2006 that the National Security Agency (NSA) wanted to start wiretapping domestically before September 11. The agency contacted AT&T about setting up the program seven months prior to the attacks. This information goes against Bush’s claim, which Webb cites, that he conceived of the program as a way of preventing another strike against the U.S. Webb doesn’t mention the Bloomberg article.

She also neglects to say that the U.S. used extraordinary rendition before 9/11. She only refers to this fact implicitly near the end of the book when she quotes a CIA agent named Bob Baer. Baer covertly worked in the Middle East up until the mid-1990s when Clinton was still in office. Webb quotes him as saying: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear — never to see them again — you send them to Egypt.”

Certainly, September 11 ushered in more illegal surveillance and torture, but the U.S. government was having problems obeying the law, especially in its dealings with Al-Qaeda, prior to the attacks. Webb doesn’t talk about these problems, but she does say that 9/11 has brought about changes that “law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been wanting for years.” She says that the attacks brought about “preventative policing and secret service work on steroids.”

She also warns us that the government is only planning on increasing surveillance in the coming years. Her chapters on new forms of personal ID show a future with even less privacy. She talks about Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips, which quite possibly could make their way into future passports and other kinds of ID. These chips can be read from far enough away that the government “may soon be able to track us wherever we go and scan us wherever we meet together.” And the U.S. government is showing an interest in tracking people. “Among the ideas being tested by the Department of Homeland Security is a technology that would allow the scanning of up to fifty-five passengers on a bus passing through a border point at about fifty mph.”

Here and throughout Illusions of Security, Webb unflinchingly returns the stare of the U.S. government and reports on what she finds. Usually, it’s invasiveness. In the case of what happened on September 10, 2001, it also seems to be either incompetence or an inability to deal with the amount of information that was being gathered at the time. Webb writes: “The Al Qaeda messages that were reported intercepted by the NSA on September 10, 2001 (‘Tomorrow is zero hour,’ ‘The match is about to begin’), were not translated until days later. Three years after the attacks, more than 120,000 hours of recorded telephone calls had yet to be translated by the FBI.” Webb leaves the reader with the impression that what the U.S. government needs is not more surveillance but a better understanding of its enemies.

Originally posted on 6.14.2007