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Five Years After 9/11: Finding The Right Balance Of Security, Civil Liberties

  • Jeremy Bransten --> Russia introduced biometric passports this year (ITAR-TASS) PRAGUE, September 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, governments around the world realized they needed to know a great deal more about global terror networks. This included how terrorist groups communicate, how they obtain funding, and how they recruit new members. The result has been a surge of government-sponsored initiatives to give security services more abilities to track phone and Internet usage, follow financial transfers, and confirm people’s identities.

Often these programs affect ordinary citizens and, increasingly in the West, there is concern they may threaten key civil liberties such as the right to privacy.

In Britain -- the homeland of writer George Orwell -- parliament this year approved legislation that is, for lack of a better word, Orwellian.

New Measures In Britain

Under the terms of the British Identity Cards Act of 2006, a central register will be established to collect the complete fingerprints, digitized facial scans, iris scans, and current and past addresses of all residents of the United Kingdom.

Never, except in works of fiction like Orwell’s “1984,” has a government put into place a system for such extensive and technologically sophisticated monitoring of its population.

Across the 25 member states of the European Union, similar plans are afoot to fingerprint all citizens over the age of 12. In many countries, the fingerprints will be included in passports, along with other biometric data contained on a tiny chip. All the information will be stored in a central government database.

New Regulations Across Europe

In Brussels, EU officials are discussing measures to require communications providers to retain data on all fax, phone, and electronic-mail traffic for at least 12 months, for potential access by law enforcement agencies.

Heightened security at New York's JFK airport on August 10, following the bomb scare in London (epa)

The extent of the new measures comes as a surprise to many people, including many Europeans. That is because until now most public attention has focused on Washington’s response to 9/11, both in the United States and in foreign affairs.

But looking at the domestic consequences of the war on terror today, it’s Europeans -- rather than Americans -- who now face the greatest risk of losing their privacy and civil liberties.

"Without a doubt, Europeans are under greater surveillance [than Americans]," says Gus Hosein, an expert on antiterrorism policies, technology, and privacy issues at the London School of Economics. "I find it amazing when I speak at a conference on terrorism and there's a European audience, they expect me to speak ill of the U.S. the entire time. But my litmus test for these audiences is that I ask them to raise their hands if they know the name of the law [to widen the government’s surveillance powers] that was passed by the U.S. Congress after 9/11. Everybody raises their hands, because they all know it's the USAPATRIOT Act. I then ask them what's the name of the legislation passed by their own countries after 9/11, and about 2 or 3 percent of the people raise their hands."

That, Hosein says, is because key decisions to allow European governments to monitor their citizens’ lives are being taken in Brussels, with no open parliamentary debate and little media scrutiny.

"When we suspect a group of people of being problematic, [the intelligence services] use traditional powers to infiltrate and put these people under surveillance. You didn't need to put the communications of all Londoners under surveillance or all Britons in order to capture these people."

Not long ago, Britain’s information commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned his country was in danger of “sleepwalking into a surveillance society.”

More Surveillance Than During Soviet Times

Ironically, Hosein says, Western Europeans could soon be monitored by their governments to a greater degree than people in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union under communism.

"We're establishing the infrastructure of a surveillance society, of a surveillance state, that Eastern [European] regimes or communist regimes could only dream of," Hosein says. "But all you need is a slight change in the winds of society to have these powers used and abused on a regular basis.”

The question of whether the new security measures represent a step toward a police state is at the heart of the debate over civil liberties in both Britain and the United States.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair strongly rejects such "police-state" comparisons.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair defends the increased security measures (epa file photo)

"We are not living in a police state, but we are living in a country that faces a real and serious threat of terrorism, terrorism that wants to destroy our way of life, terrorism that wants to inflict casualties on us without limit," Blair has said.

Blair's former home secretary, David Blunkett, also says there is nothing to fear from the new “smarter” identity cards with biometric data.

"No one should fear correct identification," Blunkett said in 2004. "There is nothing to fear from our own identity being properly acknowledged and recognized. There is everything to fear from wrongful identification or the acquisition of our identity for fraudulent purposes."

In Washington, officials also defend the new domestic security measures as helping to preserve -- not limit -- freedom.

Still, questions are increasingly being asked about whether the increased surveillance powers government agencies have at their disposal are being used effectively, or even fairly. Just this month, a study conducted by a private research group at Syracuse University, in the United States, found that prosecutors dismissed most cases because of weak or insufficient evidence.

Christopher Kelley, a visiting professor of political science at Miami University in the central U.S. state of Ohio, says Americans have become more skeptical of the Bush administration’s explanations.

"The case that [administration officials are] making is that there is plenary authority for the president to not just protect the Constitution and the office of the presidency, but, of course, to protect the American people," Kelley says. "And so he can push that argument, which he's done. The problem is that the notion of, 'Trust us, we're doing these things while protecting the liberties of Americans,' is not as acceptable among Americans, given what we have learned about the intelligence-gathering efforts domestically.”

Targeted Vs. Blanket Surveillance

When it comes to stopping terrorists or would-be terrorists, Gus Hosein says, targeted surveillance -- not blanket, high-tech spying on the citizenry -- remains much more effective. He gives the example of the 2005 London public transport bombings and the recently foiled plot to allegedly blow up trans-Atlantic flights:

"In the London bombings, for instance, ID cards weren't of any assistance, fingerprint databases weren't of any assistance, communications records weren't of any assistance," Hosein says. "The bombers actually had their IDs in their bags. It's no surprise that they were then identified. It's the same with the arrests that were conducted in London just a few weeks ago. That was the product of in-depth surveillance on a specific group of people, the type of surveillance that has taken place for centuries. When we suspect a group of people of being problematic, [the intelligence services] use traditional powers to infiltrate and put these people under surveillance. You didn't need to put the communications of all Londoners under surveillance or all Britons in order to capture these people."

Overall, perhaps the truest test of whether the United States and Europe are winning the war on terror is whether people feel any safer. According to polls on both sides of the Atlantic, they don’t. Especially in the wake of last year’s London bombings, Europeans have become increasingly fearful of homegrown terrorists, recruited among disaffected Muslim youth.

As a result, commentators and politicians now speak frequently of the need to integrate Europe’s Muslims into the mainstream and stop the rise of urban ghettoes. But so far, few new social or economic programs have been initiated.

The New York subway system (epa file photo)

In this sense, some observers argue that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who remains at large, has retained the upper hand. He vowed to sow fear in Western societies and, so far, he appears to have succeeded.

Three generations ago, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, seeking to reassure a nation burdened by the Great Depression and the rise of fascism outside its borders, famously rallied Americans with the phrase: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Commentator Christopher Dickey, writing in "Newsweek" magazine this month, noted that absolute security against terrorism can never be achieved. He urged Americans to accept that and to reclaim their liberties.

War On Terror


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