Opinion

Racism and government stupidity are the real threat to America's national security

That's the key lesson in Glenn Greenwald's big scoop

The American security apparatus seems intent on needlessly kneecapping itself — a lesson all too clear in Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain's long-anticipated scoop in The Intercept. Greenwald and Hussain detail the U.S. government's reprehensible racial profiling of five prominent Muslim-Americans whose emails have been monitored by the NSA and the FBI. The document revealing this surveillance is from 2008, though some of the snooping is described as "sustained." Here's the list:

• Faisal Gill, a longtime Republican Party operative and onetime candidate for public office who held a top-secret security clearance and served in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush;

• Asim Ghafoor, a prominent attorney who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases;

• Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University;

• Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University who champions Muslim civil liberties and Palestinian rights;

• Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country.

These people are all politically active in defense of Muslim rights. None of them has been charged with any crime. If the government was trying to create the impression that it is deliberately subjecting Muslim-Americans to state harassment based solely on the fact that they're Muslim, they almost couldn't have done it any better. One document even uses "Mohammed Raghead" as a hypothetical surveillance target.

This comes right on the heels of revelations of a similarly toxic program, the utterly pointless and ineffective NYPD program to spy on mosques by infiltrating them with informers, only axed a couple months ago. The department considered "being a religious Muslim a terrorism indicator," according to one of the informants.

This is the logic of too many bafflingly racist people on the right, who regard all Muslims as potential terrorists who must be kept in line by force. It's cruel and wrong, but it's also a completely ludicrous conception of how terrorism actually works. The number of people who would commit terrorist acts is tiny, and mass surveillance of innocents not only typically fails to catch anyone, it confirms the arguments of extremists and deepens the alienation that gives them cover.

Matt Taibbi once outlined the problem like this:

The only way we were ever going to win the War on Terror was to win a long, slow, political battle, in which we proved bin Laden wrong, where we allowed people in the Middle East to assess us as a nation and decide we didn't deserve to be mass-murdered...We had to make lunatics like bin Laden pariahs among their own people, which in turn would make genuine terrorists easier to catch with the aid of genuinely sympathetic local populations. [Rolling Stone]

We didn't do that. Instead, we instituted a systematic kidnapping-and-torture regime and invaded a country on false pretenses. We continue to unilaterally conduct drone strikes around the world, a policy whose corrosive effects on the international system of nation-states look highly likely to backfire in the long run.

I don't think there's an easy solution to any of this. The political pressure to look "tough" and the self-justifying economic logic of the gigantic security apparatus will always trump long-term considerations. But it's still worth pushing against what seems like the brute-force, instant gratification answer over weak, soft-headed liberal concerns. It might just be the manly men who are the real threat to long-term security.

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