In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the universal monitoring of all American citizens by the NSA, not to mention the likes of Angela Merkel, Obama has attempted to put us at ease by explaining "We are only gathering Meta-Data." How far does one trust this? Would we trust J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, for example, with the full power of the modern surveillance state? What can we do about it?
Now that the information is available, state security agencies will always be drawn to abuse these powers. The cat is out of the bag.
For a sobering example, consider Israel and it's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel has been occupying the West Bank and Gaza since 1967--coming up on a half century. The Palestinians don't like this. One of the reasons they don't like it is it subjects them to military law, not a civilian legal system. Under military law, all Palestinians are subject to administrative detention, which means detention without charge or trial...at the whim of 19-year old soldiers. Some 37 percent of these terms of administrative detention are for durations longer than six months. For a chilling view of this from the point of view of the judicial officers who administer the system, see the documentary by Israeli filmmaker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz "The Law in These Parts." PBS is making the full film available on line through September 17, 2014.
Check out the film at PBS.
The Unit 8200 DisclosuresNow consider that on September 12, 2014, 43 Israeli Reservists serving in Israel's secretive 8200 Unit signed a letter of protest to PM Netanyahu, saying that they will refuse to "take part in activities against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as instruments to deepen the military rule over the occupied territories."
Dahlia Scheindlein explains:
8200 is practically a legendary unit within the intelligence corps of the army. It is responsible for both internal and foreign signals intelligence-gathering, alongside the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. A large unit with various subdivisions, some members are known for their Arabic language skills, used to monitor life and media in the Arab and Palestinian world. Perhaps its strongest reputation is as Israel’s high-tech incubator, developing the cutting edge technology related to communications, focused on hacking, and encrypting, decoding and transmitting information.
As civilians, its highly educated and largely Ashkenazi graduates, particularly the men, have often leveraged their skills in Israel’s high-tech industry and are commonly thought of as the sparky, plucky drivers of the “start-up nation.”Larry Derfner notes that the government does not appear to be denying the fact that the 8200 unit is gathering private information on all Palestinians which is then used to blackmail anyone susceptible to act as an informant. Information thus gathered is used in turn to administratively detain people without charge or trial, for months and years on end.
Interviewing six of the letter’s signatories, Yedioth’s Elior Levy wrote (in Hebrew),“According to them, the Israeli public believes that intelligence is gathered only against those involved in terror. They want to publicize the fact that a substantial portion of the targets they follow are innocent people who are not connected in any way to military activity against Israel, and who interest the intelligence branches for other reasons.”
According to “N.” one of the six dissidents interviewed, “At the base they told us that if we turn up some ‘juicy’ detail, this is something important to document. For instance, economic hardship, sexual orientation, a severe illness that they or someone in their family has, or medical treatments they need.”
“N.” continued: -- "If you’re a homosexual who knows someone who knows a wanted man – Israel will turn your life into a misery. If you need urgent medical treatment in Israel, the West Bank or overseas – we’re on your tail. The State of Israel will let you die before it lets you go for medical treatment without your first giving information about your cousin, the wanted man. Every time we hook an innocent person who can be blackmailed for information, or to conscript him as a collaborator, that’s like gold for us and for the entire Israeli intelligence community. In a training course we actually learned and memorized the different Arabic words for homosexual."This intelligence gathering is a lot more than "meta-data" which is how Obama has characterized the NSA surveillance; it's the full power of the modern surveillance state exploited in support of an occupation of 4.4 million people. And how secure should you feel if you are a Palestinian citizen of Israel? Or a peace activist of any stripe within Israel?
Lessons?If the use of this technology cannot be prevented (overtly or covertly), then this puts a HUGE premium on the importance of establishing clearly articulated civil rights, and the protection of a robust and independent legal system to protect and enforce those rights.
No state should be allowed to blackmail citizens. If you have a secret to hide, or a special need, and the government discovers this through surveillance and attempts to use this information to coerce you in a way that violates your civil rights, you should be able to go straight to court and obtain swift and effective relief. But defining what those civil rights are, and keeping such courts truly independent and effective are big challenges.
Hand wringing about how the government is abusing these powers will only get us so far. We need to organize and militate for clearly defined civil rights and we need to organize and stand up for a strong and independent judiciary. If we don't have that we're screwed.
The Palestinians are a case in point. Activism against the Israeli government engaging in surveillance is likely futile. The game has to be to establish Palestininan civil rights: the right not to be blackmailed, the right not to be administratively detained without charge or trial, and the right to access independent, transparent, and effective civilian courts if those rights are abused.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this point mis-cited the B'Tselem statistic as "37 percent of Palestinians" have served time in administrative detention. The cited reference states 37 percent of detentions are for a term of six months or more. I will try to find a reference for overall percentage of the occupied Palestinian population who have served time in administrative detention.
UPDATE: According to John McKay, who heads a law and justice program for the U.S. Department of State in Ramallah (lecture at Seattle University, September 16, 2014) 40% of Palestinian males have spent time in Israeli jails.