The Cost of Counterterrorism: Power, Politics, and Liberty

Sunday, June 27, 2010 at 5:22 pm by

In her book, The Cost of Counterterrorism: Power, Politics, and Liberty, Laura K. Donohue (right) of Georgetown University Law Center does an excellent job of reviewing and analyzing national security policies in the United States and United Kingdom following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  The book offers insightful background for anyone interested in civil liberties.

With regards to surveillance in the US, Ms. Donohue starts at the beginning, providing a brief-but-comprehensive history of the Executive Branch’s domestic surveillance activities. Her review allows the reader to clearly see recurring patterns: gross overstepping by the Executive, challenges by the Judiciary, arguments and exceptions made for national security, and repeat. This serves to do much more than just help the reader understand historical references in contemporary academic discussions on counterterrorism. It also establishes a lengthy and damning record of the judiciary upholding the rights of privacy and restricting the Executive to its constitutionally mandated powers.  Further, it is a very effective and subtle way of showing the Executive’s tendencies to overstep its bounds and violate individual rights.

Once Donohue does work her way up to the USA PATRIOT Act, she neither succumbs to a vitriolic assault upon the Act, nor lose focus of how it perilously expands upon previous legislation concerning domestic surveillance. In outlining the many ways that the Act extended the government’s powers to enable surveillance of law-abiding Americans and the seizure of physical items (including business and personal records) in searches, Ms. Donohue focuses her criticisms and offers powerful arguments that will appeal to any reader, regardless of ideology.

Donohue also works to break down the veil of infallibility that the intelligence community so eagerly uses in defense of its own interests. In particular, she reveals how many within the intelligence community and Justice Department, throughout history, have worked to destroy any record of their domestic surveillance programs to avoid accountability.

At the end of the section on America’s surveillance culture, Ms. Donohue makes several points that need to be addressed to stem abuses. One issue, however,  seems particularly poignant and in need of rapid consideration: the politicization of surveillance.  Through national security letters and other mechanisms, domestic surveillance programs usually lack limits on who the government may investigate or monitor; even American citizens unsuspected of criminal activity, much less terrorism, can be placed under surveillance and personal information can be collected and stored. More often than not, such surveillance was prompted by activity that simply deviated from an established set of social of norms.

The targets, then, of counterterrorism shifted from those who posed a threat to the nation and its people, to people who were simply different. Information has been gathered and maintained on anti-war groups, political dissidents and LGBTQ individuals and organizations, all despite exhibiting no signs of violent behavior or desire to engage in destructive behavior.

Ms. Donohue illustrated the dilemma best when she discussed former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s work on The Citizen Preparedness Guide, saying, “while at one extreme, some of these recommendations help spread suspicion throughout the fabric of social life, at the other, many of them appear to have little real impact on terrorism” (254). By targeting, and insisting on the American people to target, individuals who are different, the intelligence community and Justice Department are attempting to scare the American people into thinking with one mind and conforming to a single set of social norms. The potential result is not only an Orwellian nightmare, but also reduced opposition to such programs of surveillance and fear-mongering.

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