America’s Security State Is Apparently Trying to Hassle Its Critics Into Silence

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Photo: Joe Raedle/2011 Getty Images

This Tuesday, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson had planned to hold an ad hoc hearing on Capitol Hill to help evaluate the political and ethical consequences of the drone strikes our military has been conducting with great frequency in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Grayson is a pugnacious, showboating progressive, but this hearing (like the libertarian Senator Rand Paul's thirteen-hour March filibuster over drone deployment) shows exactly why a little bit of political grandstanding can sometimes be useful in Washington: Rather than simply questioning military and intelligence officials about the efficacy and wisdom of drone strikes, Grayson had invited some of the victims.

And so chief among the scheduled witnesses had been a Pakistani man named Rafiq ur Rehman, a schoolteacher who lives in a rural village called Trappi in north Waziristan. Mr. Rehman's 67-year-old mother was killed by a U.S. drone strike last October while tending her cows in a field with some of her nine grandchildren, who were helping her after school. (One of the grandchildren, Rafiq Rehman's son, had to be taken to a hospital in the capital, Islamabad, to have shrapnel removed from his leg.) Representative Grayson had found Mr. Rehman through a prominent Pakistani human rights lawyer named Shahzad Akbar, who represents more than 125 victims of drone strikes. The only problem is that Mr. Akbar, who was scheduled to accompany his clients to Washington, now finds that he can't get a visa.

Before November 2010, when the lawyer started working with drone strike victims, he never had any trouble getting visas to the United States — they came through in a matter of days and permitted him multiple entries. Mr. Akbar's human rights credentials are impeccable; he is the Pakistan representative for a large British human rights group, Reprieve, and at an earlier point in his career, he had worked as a consultant for the USAID. But Mr. Akbar has spent the last three years filing lawsuits against the Pakistani and American governments on behalf of drone victims. (One of these lawsuits turned up the astonishing detail that in the Pakistani tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, 1,400 people have been killed by drone strikes, according to local officials.) And in some of these lawsuits, he has named as defendants the CIA's Pakistani station chief and the agency's legal counsel. The first time Mr. Akbar applied for a U.S. visa after he began his drone work, the process took more than a year, rather than the usual few days. This time, Mr Akbar told me on Saturday from Islamabad, he was taken into a back room at the U.S. consulate, and told by the head of the visa section that the diplomatic corps had nothing against him, but that his application had been blocked by officials in Washington, "because of your history with the U.S."

This kind of thing has been happening with a disturbing frequency in the last few weeks — people taking part in the political debate over national security and surveillance have found themselves prevented from traveling to do so, or harassed when they tried. Most famously, David Miranda, who was working on the Edward Snowden revelations with his partner, journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained by British authorities for nine hours during a changeover at Heathrow Airport, ostensibly because of the suspicion he might be carrying digital copies of U.S. secrets stolen by Snowden, and interrogated about his political activities. Earlier last week, a man named Baraa Shibani, who is the Yemen representative for Reprieve — and also a member of the National Dialogue in Yemen, a kind of constitutional convention backed by the West to try to build the structures of a more democratic state there — was detained in a back room at Gatwick Airport. When Shibani asked why, he was told that it was because of Reprieve's work "investigating and criticizing the effectiveness of U.S. drone strikes in my country."

This pattern of picayune harassment — airport detentions, unexplained visa refusals — suggests a far deeper problem. The national security state and the mainstream political process are operating at cross-purposes. Akbar had been invited to Washington by members of Congress, because they thought his views were important. Shibani was visiting London to participate in a wonky panel at Chatham House, something like the Brookings Institute of England, on the future of Yemen. Miranda was a bit player in the Edward Snowden revelations — revelations that, though controversial, have spurred a bipartisan bill aimed at paring back the National Security Agency's surveillance of domestic communications. These are people who are helping to provide information that matters to our mainstream political debate. And yet the national security apparatus, here and in the United Kingdom, is treating them as if they are enemies of the state. This is, to put it very tenderly, a problem.

It is possible that these figures are being deliberately singled out for political reasons, or out of a petty vindictiveness. But it is also possible that the national security state has gotten so vast that in its simple diligence — mapping relationships on top of relationships, until its maps of enemies and suspects encompass even those people multiple degrees of separation from a suspicious individual — it has gone far overboard. "They are stopping people who know people who know people," the spokesman for a French anti-surveillance NGO, who has himself frequently been detained flying in and out of Charles de Gaulle, told me recently.

Part of the point that Mr Akbar had hoped Mr. Rehman's testimony on Capitol Hill would drive home for Americans is that our national security state is often not as clinical and precise as we imagine it to be. Mr. Rehman's mother was killed in a remote field, distant from other houses or the center of the village, and there were no other casualties on that day. "Clearly there was an error," Mr. Akbar said to me. "People in the U.S. need to see who these victims are — they are poor people from a very underdeveloped area."

This is also part of the lesson of Mr. Akbar's own experience — that the process of getting on our national enemies list is also subject to human judgment and error. After all, you don't need to think our drone policy is misguided to be convinced that if a congressman invites a lawyer to the United States, to help it better understand the consequences of American actions, that man should not be prevented from coming, no matter whom he has sued. The national security state should not be able to simply overrule members of Congress, or to unilaterally decide what voices the public can hear.