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November 6, 2011

Taking liberties: When elite representatives define 'national security'

Matthew Behrens

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Just after Thanksgiving, Montreal's Westin Hotel played host to a gathering of high-powered Federal Court judges, NGO heads, lawyers, academics, and members of Canada's torture-complicit spy service, CSIS. Coming together under the predictably dry title "Terrorism, Law and Democracy: 10 years after 9/11," the conference sought to determine "whether Canadian law has successfully preserved fundamental rights and values of substantive and procedural justice while at the same time contributing to anti-terrorism."

This collegial-sounding gathering -- entry to which was restricted to those who could shell out the $895 entrance fee -- appears to have been one of those periodic gabfests where elite representatives determine the responsible manner in which the rest of us will perceive terms like "terrorism" and "national security". Importantly, attendees were safely insulated from the most compelling voices of the past 10 years: those who have been victimized by numerous conference participants. The latter included judges who have presided over secret hearings, spies whose organization falsely labels individuals security threats, and academics who produce papers defending arbitrary detention.

Indeed, Canadians Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin, who three years ago this month were found by a secretive federal inquiry to have been tortured with the complicity of Canadian government agencies, including CSIS, were not on any of the panels. Nor were Abousfian Abdelrazik and Omar Khadr, both tortured with CSIS complicity. Benamar Benatta, an Algerian refugee rendered to torture by Canadian hands on Sept. 12, 2001, wasn't there to talk about how his Charter rights had been violated either, nor were Adil Charkaoui and Hassan Almrei, whose bogus secret trial security certificates were finally quashed after a decade-long struggle. Mohammad Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah, and Mohamed Harkat, who are still facing deportation to torture without being able to see the secret "case" against them, were similarly absent.

Each of those individuals was more than capable of delivering an eloquent assessment of the conference theme -- indeed, the names and stories of those who have suffered a fundamental denial of rights at the hands of Canadian authorities in the past decade could fill volumes. But conference organizers instead brought in CSIS Assistant Director of Intelligence Raymond Boisvert, and former CSIS Director Jim Judd (who in one Wikileaks-released document laments Canadians' "paroxysms of moral outrage" over the human rights abuses committed by his organization).

It must have been an odd sight to witness those CSIS veterans sharing a polite panel discussion with critics of human rights abuses such as of Amnesty International Canada's Alex Neve, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's Nathalie des Rosiers. One wonders if either of them directly challenged the CSIS men, perhaps asking why there has been no apology, no compensation, and no systemic changes in CSIS to prevent the kind of torture suffered not only by the above-mentioned men, but by numerous others. Equally important, did conference organizers and participants consider the manner in which the scandal-plagued CSIS is accorded a significant degree of legitimization and acceptance by having its heavyweights appearing at such a gathering? Or that those who have been targeted, such as Maher Arar or Adil Charkoui, suffer an equal degree of de-legitimization by not inviting them onto the agenda?

As with any important political issue, who sits at the table of such conferences generally determines the scope of the discussion. In this instance, the absence of key voices raises significant issues about how the never-defined term "national security" is framed, filtered, and ultimately understood in this country. Such a closed, circular world logically produces a Canadian military that names First Nations advocates threats to national security and explains why the Canadian financial intelligence unit FINTRAC was found recently to have tarred environmentalists and animal rights activists as terrorists in their online tutorials.

In a similar vein, it will come as no surprise to rabble readers that most mainstream media outlets buy into such narrow narratives. Most reporters assigned to the national security beat are not physically embedded within the RCMP and CSIS in the way those covering the occupation of Afghanistan seem to become stenographers for the Canadian military. But they tend to write as if they were, buying the assumptions created and sustained by those who benefit most from them while generally ignoring the fact that these agencies have a historical profile that reads "pathological liar."

Witness the Canadian media's wall-to-wall coverage of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which occurred in another country. The event allowed many journalists to step outside of their proudly professed neutrality and share their feelings about having "been there." But the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led terrorist attacks against Afghanistan the following month failed to elicit significant coverage, much less sympathy, especially for the thousands killed in aerial bombing strikes in the first months of the invasion or those who continue to die under the drone strikes or rot in that country's torture chambers.

While the Canadian media embeds got caught up in an exercise of group-feel and the endless "can it happen here" scenarios, few bothered to note that the 2011 Terrorism Risk Index ranks Canada as 86 out of 197 countries for risk of terrorism, and the lowest of "western" economies. That low ranking is likely not because Canada has dedicated close to $100 billion in subsidizing its national security industry over the past decade. Based on its appalling record of falsely labelling countless individuals security risks, it's doubtful that Canada's spies would actually recognize a real terrorist if they saw one. They certainly have not made moves to arrest Dick Cheney or George W. Bush during their Canadian visits, despite proud admissions that they authorized torture.

Ultimately, the national security lens moves depending on political expediency. No clearer example can be found than in the on-again, off-again demonization/friendship cycle with former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who one minute was the "mad dog of the Middle East" and the next a generous host for the extraordinary rendition to torture program for agents of the U.S., U.K. and Canada. Indeed, while CSIS spokespeople grabbed their muffins and shared small talk with their Montreal conferees a few weeks back, Human Rights Watch revealed that Canadian citizen Mustafa Krer had been detained, interrogated, and tortured in Libya for eight years, and that CSIS agents had flown over to take part in the interrogation on at least three occasions.

Gaddafi is now out of the picture, so new arrangements will have to be made. With the apparent decline of Al-Qaeda -- some analysts claim the organization will be kaput within 18 months -- those whose job requires an enemy are desperately searching for an understudy to play The Next Great Evil. While different groups are being tried on for size and traction -- the Haqqani Network in Pakistan has been the subject of numerous auditions, floated before the press like a taste test -- there are always old standbys like Iran. Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently condemned the recent alleged plot by Iranian agents to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington (and also claimed that Tehran now represents the most "significant threat" to the world), yet failed to mention that the Obama administration is running an illegal, global assassination campaign using aerial drones and Hellfire missiles that have claimed countless hundreds of civilian lives while violating the most basic rule of law precepts.

At a time when some NGO representatives lament what they term "torture fatigue" and "national security fatigue" -- a feeling that people have heard enough about these horror stories and simply want to move forward, as Barack Obama pledged to do when he refused to consider exposure and prosecution of Bush administration criminality -- it's important to remind ourselves that such violations are not a consequence of or reaction to events of ten years ago, but are grounded in historical patterns and power dynamics that continue to evolve. We neglect them at our peril.

This is the first in a new column series on "national security" and civil liberties in Canada and abroad that seeks to focus on specific cases as well as the overall framework in which serious human rights abuses have been justified in the name of security.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who coordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

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