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November 11, 2009

Illusions of Security, a book review

Dr. Qais Ghanem

Dr. Qais GhanemIllusions of Security, Maureen Webb, City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, pp 306.

The author, Maureen Webb is a human rights lawyer and activist. She was a litigator in a case challenging the powers of CSIS, Canada's spy agency, and testified before the US House and Senate committees reviewing the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act.

I heard her speak in Ottawa about human rights, with such clarity and conviction that I vowed to read her latest book.

And having read it, I felt compelled to review it and spread the message that it carries, namely "The new doctrine of pre-emptive war advocated by the neoconservative forces in the United State, threatens to unleash an era of unimaginable violence and disorder."

The book has the usual index, a list of relevant websites, and 47 pages of extensive supportive notes, and comes in fifteen chapters.

Not surprisingly, she dedicates the first one to the story of Maher Arar, where her own involvement began. Webb quickly exposes the involvement of Canada in that affair, despite all the disingenuous denials, including that Canadian "elements" did not want Arar returned to Canada; that Colin Powell told Canada's Foreign Minister Bill Graham "it was information from your people" that led to Arar's detention; and described how the National Post had reported that the RCMP had quietly asked the US authorities to arrest and deport Arar.

A theme that is stated in chapter one, but gets repeated later is summarised thus: "...a good number of Americans remain ignorant, or wilfully blind about the effect of their foreign policy on other countries, so that, as Gwynne Dyer observes, they can honestly confuse an attack on their foreign policy as an attack on their ideals." Or as George Bush put it "They hate us because they hate our freedom".

Former MP Marlene Catterall, well known to many Arabs in Ottawa gets a mention in the book. She apparently asked "Why would a simple statement of fact be removed? It is that kind of fudging of Mr Arar's status, based on no evidence, no charges, no opportunity to defend himself that I find so offensive. This should not happen in a democracy."

The book demonstrates clearly that when it comes to torture, leave it to some of the Arab regimes, such as Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

This included a threat by the Syrians to rape the bride of Ahmad El Maati, if he did not answer their questions. He agreed to say what they wanted him to say.

The author quotes an Egyptian prison guard as saying "Our countries (i.e. Syria and Egypt) are like boots to do anything the west wants."

Another relevant quotation is by Bob Baer, former CIA agent, who said: "If you want a serious interrogation, you send the 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."

The book is very well researched and takes us back to the Reagan and Senior Bush and Clinton regimes, to the 1992 Defence Planning Guidance document by Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby while Dick Cheney was secretary of defence; and subsequently to another document in 1996 called "A Clean Break" prepared for Netanyahu, urging him to attack Iraq, to allow Israel to reject the constraints of the Oslo Accords.

Webb concludes that although the fixation was apparently on removing Saddam Hussein, the overarching agenda was to make the region more advantageous to American and Israeli interests, and to deter potential competitors, such as Japan and Germany, from even aspiring to a greater global role.

The ground was thus prepared for George W. Bush to announce in June 2002 the doctrine of pre-emptive action, and nine months later, as if it was a pregnancy come to term, the US attacked Iraq on March 20, 2003!

Maureen Webb spends a lot of time on the issue of preservation of individual human rights, and its opposite concept of risk pre-emption. She says "...criminal law and due process protections that have been developed over centuries in democratic societies - such as the presumption of innocence; habeas corpus and rights against arbitrary, indefinite detention; attorney-client privilege; public trials; the right to know the evidence against one and to respond; the right against unreasonable search and seizure; and the right to remain silent are viewed as intolerable risks.

She reminds us of historical antecedents such as the McCarthy era, the secret files of the Stasi in East Germany and the registration of Jews in Nazi Germany, adding that the death rate of Jews was directly related to the census information collected.

For example, one of the first US government responses to 9/11 was to ethnically profile and round up hundreds of Arabs and East Asian American citizens.

There are many examples of mistreatment quoted in chapter 5. The US, we are told, is creating huge global registration system data bases of personal and private information not only on its own citizens but on every one of us, no matter where, including Canada, often with the full or reluctant cooperation of other governments.

Thus Canada, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Japan have already jumped on the biometric bandwagon, by stealth, and despite minor resistance, such as by the House of Lords and the European Court of Justice.

A special place is reserved for Canada in all this.

The author states "In Canada there are also provisions in the Anti-Terrorism Act that allow the minister of defence to authorize the same kind of program in Canada as President Bush's secret unlegislated National Security Agency program. In other words, the Canadian Government has legislated what the Bush Administration DARED NOT legislate." (added upper case) At the same time, for the individual who finds his name on such lists, as happened to the late Senator Ted Kennedy! (who found his name on a no-fly list) there are no rights of access, correction, or deletion. The possibilities are quite frightening. For example, using a system called MATRIX, agents could identify all black-haired, blue-eyed, divorced male residents of Miami, driving silver Mazda, and owning a boat. The added problem is the data fed into these systems may have been obtained under torture. Thus an agent could type the name "Maureen Webb" into the database and find every single person who ever knew her or wrote an e-mail to her, or telephoned her, or just Googled her. Britain's most senior judge, Lord Chief Justice Woolf asked the government lawyers: "If I were a grocer and I delivered groceries to somebody who was a member of Al-Qaida, do I fall within that definition of a terrorist?"

The author devotes a big section of the book to the plight of the so-called unlawful combatants and to Guantanamo, but there is no time or space to cover that, except to say that under the Geneva Convention, there is no such category!

So much of the book is about torture, and the role of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in creating convenient definitions for that term. But for those who have not read it, the story of the Afghan taxi driver, Diliwar, who was beaten to a pulp - literally to a pulp - should suffice.

Lord Hoffman is quoted writing: "Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community.  The real threat to life of the nation...comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these."

Webb adds: "The neoconservatives claim that they are spreading democracy, but democracy is more than periodic free elections and majority rule. Democracy is a whole set of institutions; institutions premised on the rule of law and the idea that the power of the state is only legitimate when based on the sovereign will of the people."

We are constantly reminded that those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear. Sacrificing some of our privacy and convenience is worth the price. Better them than us. It is only the Muslims, etc.

But in chapter 15, Maureen Webb prominently displays Benjamin Franklin's famous statement "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Dr. Qais Ghanem is the Creator and co-Host of CHIN Radio Show "Dialogue with Diversity" in Ottawa.

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