We must grieve and mourn and support each other, but in our grief and outrage we must resist any temptations to let this attack – or any attack – trigger anti-Muslim foreign policy, attacks on our civil liberties or as an excuse to descend into xenophobia and Islamophobia. – Chelsea Manning
Following this weekend’s attack in Orlando, the ugly rhetoric – particularly from Donald Trump – is reprehensible, cynically exploiting this attack on one vulnerable community to vilify and oppress another.
But, “queer and trans people of color are rejecting the calls for violence being made in our name,” wrote gender/queer activist Jack Aponte, “and are standing in solidarity with our Muslim siblings – many of whom are also queer and trans.”
And Trump is not alone in fear-mongering and hate-spewing. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are plotting and scheming for ways to turn the tragedy to their advantage, and playing loose with the facts to do it. At BORDC/DDF, we are committed to being vocal and proactive, not only condemning the hatred that Trump and others are hawking, but fighting attempts to scale up surveillance, expand programs that target Muslim and immigrant communities with increased scrutiny and suspicion, calls for encryption back doors, internet censorship, closing the borders to Muslims and people from certain countries, and any other thing they throw at us.
Expanding FBI warrantless surveillance
The FBI investigated the shooter twice, and spent 10 months questioning him and co-workers, wiretapping him, accessing his financial and electronic communication transactional records (ECTRs), and tasking an informant who recorded conversations with him. FBI Director James Comey told reporters “We had the resources to do a 10-month investigation that based on my review was quite complete”.
Aside from crawling inside the man’s head, there was not a whole lot more surveillance the FBI could do on him. But Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) is using the shooting to gain support for a provision to allow the FBI to access ECTRs without a warrant. ECTRs include internet browsing history, which not only indicates what websites a person visits, but where they are when they visit it. “This was the No. 1 legislative priority of the FBI according to James Comey, and those sorts of additional surveillance tools could have provided the FBI more information, which would have allowed them to identify this guy as the threat that he obviously was,” Senator Cornyn said.
Except that Senator Cornyn is wrong. The FBI did have ECTR information, and much more. The Senator’s provision would not have made a difference.
The ECTR provision could come to a vote in the Senate this week.
Internet: Surveillance and Censorship
President Obama and FBI Director James Comey immediately asserted that the internet played a role in the massacre. Comey told reporters, “we are highly confident that this killer was radicalized and at least in some part through the Internet.” And Obama said the gunman had been “inspired by various extremist information that was disseminated over the internet”.
But, as Aponte points out, “Mateen didn’t need to look to ISIS for inspiration for his attack on Pulse, a LGBT nightclub that he targeted on its ‘Latin Night,’ when it was populated primarily by queer and trans Latinx and Black people. The homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism and violence that Mateen reportedly exhibited on many occasions exist in abundance right here in the United States, where Mateen was born and raised.” And, of course, ISIS had no role in the over 200 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in statehouses across the country this year.
Despite the fact that we do fine growing our own hate here at home, Hillary Clinton, in a speech on Monday, called for an “intelligence surge” and promised that she will “work with our great tech companies from Silicon Valley to Boston to step up our game. We have to [do] a better job intercepting ISIS’ communications, tracking and analyzing social media posts and mapping jihadist networks, as well as promoting credible voices who can provide alternatives to radicalization.”
The combination of surveillance and propaganda is a toxic mix for a free internet and free society, but it is already underway as part of the Obama Administration’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, which focuses on political and religious ideology and expression deemed “extremist.”
Clinton’s speech may generate support for legislation introduced by Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) to create CVE labs at colleges and universities where students will develop solutions that analyze “social networks to identify individuals on social media who are susceptible to recruitment to violent extremism and indicators of susceptibility” and target those individuals with “CVE solutions.”
Targeting the Muslim Community: Turning in our neighbors
In a speech responding to the shooting, Donald Trump accused American Muslims of failing to “turn in the people who they know are bad.” Leaving aside the fact that no one “turned in” Jared Loughner, Adam Lanzer, or any other recent mass killer from other communities, and the fact that the Muslim community actually does have a good record on alerting authorities about suspicious individuals, the Obama Administration seems to share Trump’s concerns.
In a recent speech, the President told Americans to “reject proposals that Muslim Americans should be treated differently.” But then he went on to hold the diverse American Muslim community responsible for the thoughts of other people who happen to also be Muslim, saying it “is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization.”
This doesn’t seem to come close to the Trump level of bigotry, but Mr. Obama is the President, and has at his command the vast surveillance-repression-industrial complex, which is being aimed at people who share some characteristics with some people who commit acts of terrorism.
One of the problematic programs to come out of the Obama White House is Countering Violent Extremism. Officially, CVE brings together law enforcement with “a wide range of social service providers including education administrators, mental health professionals, and religious leaders to provide more robust support and help facilitate community-led interventions,” according to Department of Justice spokesperson Marc Raimondi. Who could object? CVE looks like a softer, more gentle counterterrorism program, but in reality it targets whole communities based on the actions (or potential actions) of a very few, and it deputizes teachers, social workers, neighbors, and other community members to act as thought police for the FBI and DHS.
History shows that the outreach programs that form the core of many CVE efforts have frequently been subverted into intelligence gathering operations. Most recently, the FBI announced a plan for establishing “Shared Responsibility Committees,” comprised of community leaders and FBI representatives. Through the SRCs, community leaders would be tasked with meeting with youth identified by the FBI as potentially radical, speaking with their mental healthcare providers or other “mentors,” and reporting back to the FBI. Arab and Muslim groups who represent communities most impacted by these programs have raised serious concerns about this initiative, including that it would “institutionalize an informant system.” A similar Montgomery County, Maryland CVE program that has been touted by the White House as a national model was described by local police officers as an intelligence tool.
No guns for people on the watch list
Many politicians have latched onto the revelation that the FBI had briefly placed the shooter on the terror watch list to justify legislation prohibiting gun sales to people on the watch list. Senator Feinstein introduced a bill last year to do just that, but it was voted down. Now, Senator Schumer (D-NY) is claiming that if the Senate had passed that bill, the Orlando shooter would not have been able to purchase the guns he used to commit this crime (that’s patently untrue – he had been taken off the watch list before he bought the guns).
Democrats are calling for another vote on the Feinstein bill. No matter what you think about gun control, relying on a secret list to prohibit gun purchases is problematic. The no-fly list is not a list of terrorists, it’s a government-created blacklist of people with at best a tangential relationship to some unknown suspicious person, place or activity. There is no effective way to challenge being placed on the list, no matter how innocent a person may be.
The FBI has the shooter’s cell phone. No word yet on whether encryption is preventing the FBI from accessing data on the phone. But, it’s a possibility that the encryption battle will come up again.
That’s a problem:
“In today’s digital world, the “key” to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.
The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.” (Apple)