The Semantics of Gibraltar:

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Gibraltar should not exist. But this is mostly a semantic game.

Gibraltar is technically a ‘British Overseas Territory’.  Between 1981 and 2002 it was a ‘British Dependent Territory’ and previously it had been known as a Crown Colony. The 1981 transition certainly had pragmatic effects, but much of Gibraltar’s current political situation was enshrined by constitutional law in 1969. This designated the British monarch as Head of State with an appointed gubernatorial representative to the territory. But, as in the UK proper, this figure is mostly ceremonial. Governmental operations are carried out by a locally elected Parliament and indirectly elected minister. Nonetheless, Gibraltar is listed by the UN as a ‘Non-Self-Governing Territory.’ This is because foreign policy, defense and internal security fall into the jurisdiction of the UK government through the magisterially appointed Governor.

These official and direct concessions certainly make clear Gibraltar is not sovereign. But Gibraltar is not a pawn to be exploited at the whims of a metropole. Unlike a ‘colony’, the domestic policy of Gibraltar is not directed by foreign fiat. In many ways Gibraltar’s relationship to the UK can be viewed as an official declaration of the way many diminutive powers deal with global plays, particularly those that exist in geo-politically sensitive regions. Think of Panama’s or Kuwait’s relationship to the United States. They are not free to act in any manner they please, particularly when it comes to matters of foreign relations or internal stability. Nor can other countries interact with them without expecting to draw in the United States. Compromise of interests exists in any international relationship and the dictation of those compromises often mirror inequalities of power. The overt declaration of this in the case of Gibraltar may be uncomfortable, but so often does one cringe at the realities of realpolitik when its intricacies are laid bare.

But Gibraltar does not necessarily suffer from this arraignment, and importantly they want it. There are better, or at least more ‘modern’, ways of structuring this situation. But the same could be said of the Spanish and British monarchies.

This is important because these semantic technicalities are all that save Spain from total and undeniable hypocrisy. Spain possesses several non-contiguous territories in and around the coasts of North-Africa. Two in particular, Ceuta and Melilla, have been the source of ongoing tension between Spain and Morocco. Morocco demands these territories on many of the same principles that Spain currently demands Gibraltar. Spain’s only ground for declaring these situations incomparable is that Ceuta and Melilla are fully incorporated Spanish regions. Fair enough, but according to current polling and the 2002 referendum, Gibraltarians desire the status-quo. Whatever Gibraltar’s official title in international relations, the opinions of its population matter and this opinion is not a disruptive novelty.

Few ridicule those who vote to be subjects rather than citizens, so why should anyone denigrate those who vote to be a protectorate rather than a nation? Particularly those who themselves are ceremonially prostrated at the feet of a ceremonial God Head.

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Institutional Deterioration and Fear of the Possible:

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Concentrated power is only to be feared when in the hands of the deluded, selfish or insane. In the hands of the empathetic and competent it is the most effective means of organization. But herein is the problem. Even if our current leaders could be trusted, their undetermined successors cannot. The institutionalization of further indefinite power concentration provides precedent and recourse for future abuse.

This world has unfortunately arrived. There are no black helicopters descending upon houses at random, but incremental abuses provide evidence that these ambiguously restricted avenues of power are exploitable beyond their originally intended directives. As seen in Patriot Act architect Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr’s criticism of contemporary surveillance policy, the use of Section 215 to justify N.S.A. surveillance expansion qualifies, at least, as an overreach of the actions intended to be legalized by the original expansion of judicial authority.

But these infractions have occurred in less controversial ways. David Miranda’s detention in Heathrow airport under the auspices of Schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act is both a relatively minor yet worrying example of this. It is a minor infraction because it resulted in one individual being delayed nine hours. However, the British government was under no delusion that Miranda was a terrorist. The expressed justification for utilizing these anti-terror laws to facilitate this detention is that Miranda was ‘suspected of possessing highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism.’ The only means by which any information possessed by Miranda could end up in the hands of terrorists would be through the publications that would disseminate it to us all. If the public is informed, terrorists may also become informed.

The vindictive nature of this detention is further exposed by the fact that 97% of those detained under Schedule 7 have been released in under an hour. Yet an individual who is the partner of a man instrumental in disseminating highly embarrassing information about the UK and US governments, was put through the treatment only one of every two-thousand supposedly ‘actual’ terrorists are: he was held for the maximum time legally allowed. This detention appears to be, at least partially, motivated by vindictive spite, and completely out of line with the privileges intended to be legalized.

A similarly trivial example of power abuse comes from LOVEINT: the colloquial title given to the incredibly creepy misconduct of N.S.A. employees who use their access to the agencies enormous surveillance capabilities to spy on love interests. This is not an incredibly common violation, or itself reason enough to disband the N.S.A. programs. But is rather a perfect example of the human propensity to misuse power for selfish and unintended purposes.

No matter your view on Obama, Bush, Clinton or any other President, we must set up institutions that can weather any individual because none of us know who will be elected next. It could be a selfless moralist or a narcissistic psychopath. Our current system is a safer filtering mechanism than the random result of a multi-generational experiment in opulence and inbreeding. But it seems a poor gamble to assume the results of a process that often selects the individual who can best pander simultaneously to a radical base, rich cooperate donors and confused moderates, will always also produce leaders who are honest, principled and un-inclined to abuse power.

More and more we are striping our institutions of the restrictions that once bound them, putting ourselves at the mercy of individuals. Much of the infrastructure and precedent for the US government to act in a tyrannical and dictatorial fashion exists, the government just is not using it in a completely abusive manner. Since 2001 the Bush and Obama administrations have added to Executive Authority in the following ways, all of which are available to any successor.

  • Provided a precedent to kill citizens in secret without judicial or legislative review
  • Provided the power of indefinite detention without charge or trial
  • Created an ongoing warrantless surveillance program of millions accused of nothing
  • Normalized a situation in which the law itself is secret
  • Legalized a torture program that could be reinstated with an Executive Order [1]

These precedents all solely apply to people suspected of terrorism. Yet, as seen in the UK examples, anyone with access to the internet is a potential terrorist.

Even if you argue these powers have not yet been abused, the potential for future abuse is indisputable. What happened to Rome after they elected an Emperor? The third man to take the job was Caligula.

This is not an exercise in fear mongering about an imaginary Hitler. American Fascism, would it arise, would not be Nazism. But authoritarianism and abuse of power are things to be concerned about. We should not expect our leaders to always have the purest of intentions or motivations, and therefore should construct our systems accordingly. The importance of oversight, transparency and a balance of powers are disregarded at our peril. Just because the misuse of power has not reached the calamitous crescendo that was the twentieth-century, does not mean we should forgo concern.

We must learn from history, particularly because we are now faced with an enemy like no other. We are currently at war with terrorism, a conceptual-common-noun. Unlike generations past, we are not fighting a proper-noun, or even an actual thing. We might as well be fighting ‘fear’ or ‘happiness’. The ambiguous temporal and geographical confines created by the parameters of this conflict makes the wartime suspension of liberty all the more dangerous. We cannot win this war, but we can lose it. And the way we lose is by forgetting that fear of an external threat can create an internal monster. The allure of more effective and efficient organizational capability provided by concentrated power may seem irresistible in times of distress. But it is difficult if not impossible to channel that power solely at the foreign enemy, and its embrace simply eases the path to our own exploitation at the hands of the system we created to protect ourselves.

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/06/all-the-infrastructure-a-tyrant-would-need-courtesy-of-bush-and-obama/276635/

Institutional Deterioration and Fear of the Improbable:

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National dialogue regarding the N.S.A. scandals has raised two important issues concerning the human condition. Why do people fear terrorists? Why are people not afraid of the government?

The justification put forward by political proponents of P.R.I.S.M. and the N.S.A. surveillance projects rests on the idea that these programs are an indispensable tool in the fight to save your life from heinous acts of terrorism. In addition to the cliché ‘to fear the terrorist is to let the terrorist win’, it is worth pointing out that to fear the terrorist is to let irrationality win. Jim Manzi, writing for the National Review states: ‘We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11 through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year.” This minuscule number is, itself, highly exaggerated: we have not had a 9/11 scale attack since. The actual statistics make that pathetically small number look large. Individuals residing in the United States are more than twice as likely to be killed by domestic appliances than to be killed by acts of terrorism: 0.00000066% and 0.00000029% chance respectively per annum on average since 2001.

These statistics raise an interesting thought experiment for any proponent of mass surveillance on the grounds of insuring safety at the expense of privacy. If it was leaked that the government had bugged every room in every house in the country and then, post-revelation, justified this action through stating it was done to benevolently monitor citizens in order to possess the capability of dispatching rapid response emergence care in the event of domestic appliance assault, would that seem reasonable?

Democracy may be flawed, but I believe it is the best system known. Thus, if large segments of the population believe either of the previously mentioned threats are of such significant concern that they require a suspension of previously-held privileges, their grievances must be considered. But there are processes in place through which this consideration is to be undertaken. Even if you feel the N.S.A. programs should exist, the means by which they were implemented should still illicit outrage and concern.

The administration, many liberal and conservative commentators and much of Congress, including the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia), have called the surveillance programs legal. This view is wrong.

The Tenth Amendment deems America to be a country of enumerated powers and restrictions, rather than solely restrictions. Meaning, those powers that are not restricted are not held de facto: it is only through enumeration in legal codes that the government obtains authority, and only those specific authorities. There is no explicit statute authorizing mass government surveillance.

The legal justification cited for the N.S.A. surveillance program is Section 215 of the Patriot Act. This provision allows the F.B.I. to order any person or entity to turn over “any tangible things,” so long as the F.B.I. “specif[ies]” that the order is “for an authorized investigation . . . to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” This provision is itself a disturbing violation of the Fourth Amendment’s demand for probable cause, but still does not justify the extent or scope to which the N.S.A. is gathering information.

Quoting from Jennifer Granick’s and Christopher Sprigman’s New York Times piece: ‘Even in the fearful time when the Patriot Act was enacted, in October 2001, lawmakers never contemplated that Section 215 would be used for phone metadata, or for mass surveillance of any sort. Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican and one of the architects of the Patriot Act, and a man not known as a civil libertarian, has said that “Congress intended to allow the intelligence communities to access targeted information for specific investigations.” The N.S.A.’s demand for information about every American’s phone calls isn’t “targeted” at all — it’s a dragnet. “How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation?”

This objection has been technically averted through claiming that Section 215 justifies the universal collection of data under the guise that it might be relevant to an investigation at a later date. But this is both a shockingly poor argument with seemingly no justification in the language of the Patriot Act, as well as a tacit admission that the data is not being collected for a targeted, tangible or relevant reason.

The P.R.I.S.M. program similarly outstrips the already broad surveillance authority provided to the government by the legal codes used to justify its existence. This justification sources from the F.I.S.A. Amendments Act of 2008, specifically section 1881a. But this statute solely allows the government remit to collect data on the communications of those residing outside the United States. This is a provision the Administration nominally respects, stating the programs are required to determine a 51% probability of ‘foreignness’, simply ignoring that, by their own statistical assessment, 49% of the data collected is illegally possessed. This technicality is sidestepped through the torturous semantic limbo of labeling surveillance information ‘acquired’ only when it is retrieved from the gargantuan database, not when it is initially intercepted and stored for potential future use.

At best the government is thoroughly disregarding the spirit of the law, but their grounding in the letter of the law seems tenuous. Regardless, it is disheartening for anyone attached to civil liberties. The government has not even been apologetic for the secrecy of their actions, but instead has the hubris to both declare these revelations irrelevant, obvious and meaningless while simultaneously calling for the arrest and detention of Edward Snowden because of the drastic blow his ‘illegal’ actions have caused to nation security.

The oddity and seemingly schizophrenic nature of the government reaction to the surveillance revelations is further borne out in comparing the apparent apathy to the more recent leaks concerning the interception of Al-Qaeda communications: information that lead to the temporary closure of twenty-two U.S. embassies. Snowden faces criminal charges mainly under the rationale that his leaks caused undue damage to national security, with specific reference given to informing Al-Qaeda of U.S. surveillance practices. Despite this more recent communiqué falling more directly into this category, it has elicited no administration outrage. The fact that it, despite having more direct national security ramifications, has a polar opposite implication regarding government embarrassment, calls into question government priorities and the motivations for the Snowden manhunt.

Regardless of government hypocrisy, it is institutional deterioration that should garner the most concern. If our laws and institutions can be subverted beyond their initial intentions without national dialogue, but rather through linguistic contortions, what is their point? They cease to fulfil their functions, and rather transform into hoops that must be jumped to implement the whims of those in power. The government has broken the social contract. We are supposed to live in a society of laws and institutions, not individuals. This is the cornerstone of our society: we know (as laid out in laws) the powers and options of recourse available to the government. These limitations are what justify handing to the government the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, including an arsenal, it should be remembered, that can destroy the entire planet several times over. This is more power than any of our enemies could dream of possessing. If these powers are held not by legal codes and institutions, but rather by the arbitrary whims of individuals, history and commonsense show this should be cause for great concern.