This is a public service announcement to save time for those who would rather get on with irrelevant vituperation and not bother digesting the point of my post: In a moment I’m going to say something positive about Gerry Adams.
First, consider this from The Washington Post:
The government’s terrorist screening database flagged Americans and foreigners as suspected terrorists almost 20,000 times last year. But only a small fraction of those questioned were arrested or denied entry into the United States, raising concerns among critics about privacy and the list’s effectiveness.
A range of state, local and federal agencies as well as U.S. embassies overseas rely on the database to pinpoint terrorism suspects, who can be identified at borders or even during routine traffic stops. The database consolidates a dozen government watch lists, as well as a growing amount of information from various sources, including airline passenger data. The government said it was planning to expand the data-sharing to private-sector groups with a “substantial bearing on homeland security,” though officials would not be more specific.
Jayson P. Ahern, deputy commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said focusing on arrests misses “a much larger universe” of suspicious U.S. citizens.
“There are many potentially dangerous individuals who fly beneath the radar of enforceable actions and who are every bit as sinister as those we intercept,” he said.
Gotta love those adjectives: “Potentially dangerous”, not “dangerous”. “Dangerous” would invite the question: How dangerous, exactly? And: What mayhem have these invisible pseudo-threats caused that the forces of security could not have created all by themselves? As for the visibly suspicious, the “sinister”, just how threatening they are is shown up by the US Customs and FBI’s own account – a “small” number of arrests, not necessarily related to terrorism, a number in the hundreds turned back at the airport. Which can happen even if you have been arrested without charge at some other time in your own country and didn’t realise that in consequence you need a visa.
Which brings us to Mr Adams. He has an amusing little piece in The Guardian, Panic at Passport Control about being selected for secondary security screening selection, or SSSS.
I hand the FBI young gun a copy of my travel schedule – a document that has been in the possession of the US state department for the past month or so.
“Huh,” he says. “Why are you going to the White House, sir?”
“To see the president.”
“He asked me,” I say evenly.
My deadpan delivery is wasted on him. Maybe he is used to dealing with wise guys.
Now we all know – maybe even the callow G-man knows – that Mr Adams is formerly a terrorist by most modern definitions. At the very least he was a leading member of a banned organisation, which is quite enough to get you locked up in many places – or extraordinarily rendered to unpleasant conditiond in secret parts of the world, if it is Banned Organisation of the Month. But Mr Adams is a former terrorist whose current business is known and accepted by the US government, so pulling him aside and interrogating him is not just a waste of his time. It is a monumentally stupid misapplication of the FBI’s time.
I am inclined to believe it is also a stupid waste applied to everyone else as well. If the guy isn’t carrying a bomb the first time you check his luggage, he won’t be the second time, half an hour later. If he’s been specially screened before, then doing it again has no benefit at all. Severe disbenefit in fact. All that is time and money that could be spent on real HUMINT, or at least recruiting officers and teaching them the languages and culture to do real intelligence work. However, once you are on a list of the sinister, you may never get off. Look at the trouble even Teddy Kennedy had. If you don’t have influential friends, like the senator and the Sinn Féin leader do, fat chance. And the inconvenience involved is likely to be greater.
Lists feed other lists. And feed back again. Confirmation bias, the prosecutor’s fallacy, and the spirit of ley-lines do their work. The shade of Profesor Parkinson hovers over all: “Look, this is important work. Because we are doing it, and because we are doing a lot of it.” “We suspect 20,000 persoons now, and we are working on suspecting 60,000.”
As Adams says: ” This is usually a random selection, we are told. The legend SSSS is stamped on the tickets of those randomly selected, and the lucky ticket holder gets extra attention. Richard and I are randomly included for this treatment all the time.” It is a common experience. A consitutional reformer of my acquaintance is also randomly selected more often than not. Unlike Mr Adams, she has never justified violence (I’m fairly sure she’s against smacking children), but like him she has publicly criticised government. A sometime commentator on this blog and friend of the Samizdata family is formally on the US Homeland Security Register. The reason: he was born in Kabul and lived there till the age of one year, and has a sinister surname. This despite the triple absurdity that (1) lots of people have the same name who are entirely unrelated in any sense, (2) names even if they do indicate family connection don’t signify character – imagine pulling in Peter Hitchens and questioning him based on Christopher Hitchens’s writings – and (3) middle-eastern names don’t follow the western European
Now if you only want to fly to Croatia for a bit of skinnydipping in the Adriatic, you may not think this affects you. (Me, I’ve stopped flying. Not that I ever could bear airport bureaucracy much.) But where one idiot government programme goes, another government is likely to follow with its own idiot programme. Particularly if the idiot government programme is brought to you by the Pax Americana As Perry pointed out recently, Britain’s shiny new Borders and Immigration Agency (BIA), is also a borders and emmigration agency. It not only contributes to those “various sources, including airline passenger data,” for the convenience of US securocrats, but is keen to start operating its own no-fly and supplementary screening programmes.
And the point is? Well it doesn’t do, and cannot do, anything for its purported purpose of “protecting the travelling public”. It is counterproductive as at the very least a waste of resources. And it pointlessly delays, inconveniences, iritates and humiliates, tens of thousands of people, from minor statesmen (whether or not they are retired… er… ‘freedom fighters’), to government critics, to those more “randomly” selected on the basis of being a bit sinister. It is for the latter it will be most frightening, since they are unlikely to be fortunate enough to know specialist lawyers, politicans and media people who might be able to protect or rescue them if things turn nasty. There is another group we must not forget who will be frightened and overawed unnecessarily: all those other travellers who see one of the previous categories escorted away by officials, not to return to sight. They who will think, “Omigod that could be me – I musn’t make any trouble.”
That’s the point, I suggest. The exercise is about exercise of power. Demonstration that the state is doing something, and you ought to be frightened – of the state or of the “threat”. Either will do. Keep your head down “beneath the radar of enforceable actions”.
It sends a message. Those people being marched away are a massively expensive exercise in dramatising insecurity in an objectively safe world. It is ‘security theatre’ in Bruce Schneier’s enduring phrase. And it is the biggest, longest lasting production in the history of security theatre, being brought direct to you at any of 1,000+ airports throughout the world on an indefinite run. At massive taxpayer expense (remember, you bought your own ticket for this performance, and every other one, for the rest of you life, at a special block-rate) it helps keep you frightened about bad people, reassured that the government cares about your fear and is doing something, and discouraged from questioning authority.
It is a huge vanity project, in essence. Securocrats in praise of themselves and the power of the state for good as the state defines good. Not so different from this. Or this. At least the Bolshoi Ballet could really dance.