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Tyranny means never having to say you’re sorry (Cont’d)

In which Richard Falkenrath — proud perambulator of the Beltway revolving door and purveyor of advice for state-security police throughout the U.S.[1] — explains why he, and law enforcement investigators and intelligence officers in the U.S. — admire, and even envy the political environment in the United Arab Emirates, whose oligarchy of petty tyrants and absolute monarchs recently banned BlackBerry mobile phones, because Research in Motion won’t alter their specs to suit the Emirs’ desire to break into BlackBerry customers’ phones and secretly snoop on what they are saying.

Monitoring electronic communications in real time and retrieving stored electronic data are the most important counterterrorism techniques available to governments today. Electronic surveillance is particularly vital in combating global terrorism, where the stakes are highest, but it is a part of virtually all investigations of serious transnational threats….

The United Arab Emirates is in no way unique in wanting a back door into the telecommunications services used inside its borders to allow officials to eavesdrop on users. In the United States, telecommunications providers are generally required to provide a mechanism for such access by the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and related regulations issued by the Federal Communications Commission. … The F.C.C. is not, however, a national security agency: it is an independent, bipartisan commission whose members serve fixed terms. The commission interprets a variety of statutes and balances many different interests, including the business success of telecommunications providers and the convenience of consumers, and its rulings are subject to legal challenge in the courts.

As a result, there remain a number of telecommunication methods that federal agencies cannot readily penetrate. Given the way the F.C.C. operates, the prospect of it taking a swift, decisive action to make these services accessible to the government is almost inconceivable. Hence the envy some American intelligence officials felt about the Emirates’ decision.

Research in Motion is learning a lesson that other companies have learned before . . . no provider of information services is exempt from the power of the state.

No doubt.

Anyway, as Jacob Sullum comments on this paean to political will and unconstrained executive power:

Yes, dictators sure are good at avoiding legal barriers to surveillance. They are also never stymied because governmental intrusion into ostensibly private communications offends liberal sensibilities, as Falkenrath dismissively describes civil libertarian concerns about snooping in the name of national security. Here are some other obstacles the UAE avoids, according to the State Department’s most recent report on the country’s human rights record: elections, representative government, an independent judiciary, governmental transparency, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of religion. The State Department adds that there were unverified reports of torture during the year, that security forces sometimes employed flogging as judicially sanctioned punishment, that arbitrary and incommunicado detention remained a problem, and that legal and societal discrimination against women and noncitizens [who represent 80 percent of the population] was pervasive.

Neverthless, says Falkenrath, the Emirates acted understandably and appropriately in banning BlackBerries. The lesson of this episode, according to Falkenrath: Governments should not be timid about using their full powers to ensure that their law enforcement and intelligence agencies are able to keep their citizens safe. Some governments, of course, have fuller powers than others, which makes their citizens (and noncitizen residents) extra safe.

It takes a certain kind of mindset to crow about the will and ability to bulldoze right over many different interests, among them the business success of telecommunications providers, the convenience of consumers, and the possibility of legal challenge in the courts, if any of them threaten to get in the way of secret government, executive power, and the overriding interests of State security — to portray unaccountable tyrannies as if they are acting carefully and responsibly in the interests of their citizens, precisely to the extent they exercise their political tyranny unaccountably to obliterate barriers to surveilling and arresting those very citizens. The mindset is no less tawdry and mean for being so common among the most powerful, influential, and well-connected people on earth. And given that this attitude is as common as it is among law enforcement investigators and intelligence officers, the very last thing that us citizens ought to be feeling is safe.

See also GT 2008-02-15: Tyranny means never having to say you’re sorry on another bit of power=envy directed at the arbitrary and unaccountable ruling class of the U.A.E.

  1. [1]Falkenrath is a former flunky for Bush’s Department of Homeland Security; now he’s working as a flunky for Michael Chertoff’s state-security consulting firm, and writing New York Times Op-Ed pieces on behalf of the professional interests of his state-security police colleagues.

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