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Todd Miller: Locking Down the Borders

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

In the always-good-news category, a Monday front-page New York Times piece by David Sanger and Thom Shanker, filled with obvious administration leaks, lays out another step in the White House's march out of American legality. As it has codified its drone assassination strikes, so it has been codifying and "legalizing" another new right of the Executive Branch -- the right to launch preemptive cyberattacks "if the United States detects credible evidence of a major digital attack looming from abroad ... even if there is no declared war." Of course, the White House has already launched such a set of attacks -- against Iran's nuclear program -- without even the excuse of a threatened "major digital attack."  In other words, in total secrecy it initiated the planet's first state-run cyberwar without notice to or consultation with anyone.  And keep in mind that someday, given the potential devastation cyber attacks could wreak on our highly electronic way of life, cyberweapons will surely be reclassified as weapons of mass destruction.

In the meantime, with the Pentagon quickly expanding its new Cyber Command, the White House has taken another major form of potential aggression and given itself the right to use it without the say-so of anyone else.  It is essentially codifying and declaring legal a cyber version of George W. Bush's post-9/11 doctrine of preemptive war and, for all we know, heading for Dick Cheney's infamous one percent doctrine. (Even a one percent chance of an attack on the United States, went Cheney's thinking, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, must be dealt with as if it were a certainty.)

And yet here's the strange thing: even when such news hits the front page of the newspaper of record, it somehow doesn't make much of an impression on us.  As various forms of perpetual war are made "legal" by the White House, remarkably few find this worth the bother to discuss or debate, no less protest.  Nonetheless, this week TomDispatch remains focused on the issue of legality (or rather illegality) and our National Security Complex, as well as on the lockdown of this country, since the two are so intertwined.  On Sunday, Noam Chomsky explored why "the United States has the right to use violence at will," and why, when it does, it's "legal."  On Tuesday, I chimed in with a piece on how, for the National Security Complex and the White House, the rule of law has become a thing of the past, and how, in the service of their fantasies and fears, this country has been locked down.

Today, Todd Miller, who has previously written for this site on the militarization of the Mexican border, focuses on a part of that American lockdown which I've seldom seen discussed anywhere: the way our northern border, once possibly the most open on the planet, is being transformed into a "Constitution-free zone."  It's a story that, like many TomDispatch tries to pursue, is not normally a focus of our world, but should be. Tom

Living in a Constitution-Free Zone Drones, Surveillance Towers, Malls of the Spy State, and the National Security Police on the Northern Border
By Todd Miller

Before September 11, 2001, more than half the border crossings between the United States and Canada were left unguarded at night, with only rubber cones separating the two countries. Since then, that 4,000 mile "point of pride," as Toronto's Globe and Mail once dubbed it, has increasingly been replaced by a U.S. homeland security lockdown, although it's possible that, like Egyptian-American Abdallah Matthews, you haven't noticed.

The first time he experiences this newly hardened U.S.-Canada border, it takes him by surprise. It's a freezing late December day and Matthews, a lawyer (who asked me to change his name), is on the passenger side of a car as he and three friends cross the Blue Water Bridge from Sarnia, Ontario, to the old industrial town of Port Huron, Michigan. They are returning from the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference in Toronto, chatting and happy to be almost home when the car pulls up to the booth, where a blue-uniformed U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent stands. The 60,000-strong CBP is the border enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security and includes both customs and U.S. Border Patrol agents. What is about to happen is the furthest thing from Matthews's mind. He's from Port Huron and has crossed this border "a million times before."

After scanning their passports and looking at a computer screen in the booth, the agent says to the driver, as Matthews tells the story:

"Sir, turn off the vehicle, hand me the key, and step out of the car."

He hears the snap of handcuffs going around his friend's wrists. Disoriented, he turns around and sees uniformed men kneeling behind their car, firearms drawn.

"To my disbelief, situated behind us are agents, pointing their guns."

The CBP officer asks Matthews and the remaining passengers to get out of the car and escorts them to a waiting room. Thirty minutes later, he, too, is handcuffed and in a cell. Forty-five minutes after that another homeland security agent brings him into a room with no chairs. The agent tells him that he can sit down, but all he sees is a countertop. "Can I just stand?" he asks.

And he does so for what seems like an eternity with the door wide open, attempting to smile at the agents who pass by. "I'm trying to be nice," is how he put it.

Finally, in a third room, the interrogation begins. Although they question Matthews about his religious beliefs and various Islamic issues, the two agents are "nice." They ask him: Where'd you go? What kind of law do you practice? He tells them that a former law professor was presenting a paper at the annual conference, whose purpose is to revive "Islamic traditions of education, tolerance, and introspection." They ask if he's received military training abroad. This, he tells me, "stood out as one of their more bizarre questions." When the CBP lets him and his friends go, he still thinks it was a mistake.

However, Lena Masri of the Council of American Islamic Relations-Michigan (CAIR-MI) reports that Matthews's experience is becoming "chillingly" commonplace for Michigan's Arab and Muslim community at border crossings. In 2012, CAIR-MI was receiving five to seven complaints about similar stops per week. The detainees are all Arab, all male, all questioned at length. They are asked about religion, if they spend time at the mosque, and who their Imam is.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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