Are We Safe Yet? 

The twisted logic -- and unique Utah twist -- to the Nation’s moving target of homeland security.

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As president of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, you might expect Masood Ul-Hasan to wax poetic when asked to expound upon Qur’an verses hanging from three walls of Salt Lake City’s mosque, which rests along the almost continual traffic of 700 East.

“In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful,” each verse begins, followed by the rolling sounds of Masood’s recitation as he reads each one aloud, then gives an explanation in English.

“To you be your way and to me be mine,” Masood says, translating a passage. “From this we learn that there is no force in Islam. And, after all, each person must come to God of their own will.”

There is a lot Masood wants to say about the state of the world—maybe too much that can’t quite be put into words when you believe in the ineffable ways of God, as he does. He condemns unequivocally the atrocities of Sept. 11. Anyone using Islam’s holy book to justify terrorist acts will face very serious punishments, not just come Judgement Day, but on any day.

Squaring out the three walls of the mosque adorned with verses is the west wall, perhaps appropriately, adorned with verses of the secular law. Specifically, law handed down from on high through the “Special Registrations” of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Services.

“What is the purpose of your visit?” it asks. “What are the dates of birth for your Father and your Mother?” “What is your hair color?”

This form is but part of the rounds of the INS’ new “National Security Entry-Exit Registration System,” data from which will eventually be placed into the government’s new, Internet-based tracking system, the Student Exchange Visa Information Service (SEVIS). If you’re a man, a non-citizen and claim national origin in one of 17 predominantly Muslim nations—plus North Korea—you must comply or face possible arrest and deportation.

“Everyone has to live by the law—no doubt about it,” Masood said. Yet there’s a feeling of deep sadness in his voice as he reflects on all that has happened since 9/11.

“Where will we be tomorrow? All this makes you ask, ‘What’s next?’”

There are many answers to that question. Some are still being hammered out as our nation marches on into the vast unfolding of what Sept. 11 means. There’s a central paradox at the heart of all this: Security and secrecy walk in virtual lock-step, usually in the direction opposite of freedom, knocking out the underpinnings of American community along the way.

Everyone knows how trips to the airport have been forever altered. The real story surrounding the Homeland Security Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by our president last November, is what we know now and will know later.

Utah has its own starring role in Homeland Security’s running plot. For that we can thank the 2002 Winter Olympics and our tech-savvy Gov. Mike Leavitt. Then there’s the $310 million security blanket that draped our city and nearby sporting venues with whole cadres of the FBI, National Guard, U.S. Department of Defense and a pack of helicopters overhead.

With nary a hitch or glitch in Olympic security, and basking in the afterglow of success, the governor’s office shot forth a March 13, 2002 press release announcing that Leavitt would soon join “leaders from industry, government and the community on an independent, multi-sector task force to determine how information and technology can enhance national security.”

Thus was born the “Task Force on National Security in the Information Age.” Olympics aside, Leavitt is poised for forums on Homeland Security by virtue of two other connections. He is good friends with former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, recently confirmed as secretary of Homeland Security; and he bonded with President George W. Bush on a trip to Israel. So it is that Leavitt not only co-chairs the National Governors Association’s Homeland Security task force, he also serves on the President’s Homeland Security Council as an important advisor.

The Olympics was part anomaly, part testing ground. Because the Winter Games was a world sporting event, it will be a long time before we see armed, helmeted soldiers walk Salt Lake City streets again. It will also be quite a while before our state sees federal assistance and tax dollars on such a massive scale. And just five months after Sept. 11, who could blame us for erring on the side of caution? What’s more likely is that the anti-terrorist blueprint that came out of the Olympics might be more suited to cities like Washington, D.C., or places that carry more symbolic or strategic weight. Still, there were important security lessons that came out of Salt Lake City’s stint as Olympic host. They revolve around a model of information sharing that let virtually all levels of law enforcement and emergency response teams talk to one another.

By the time the governor’s main partner in the task force, the Markle Foundation of New York, got around to issuing its Oct. 7, 2002 report, this “information sharing” blueprint had become burdened with bureaucratic gobbledy-gook, but it also included detailed points on just what government should do to pre-empt the bad guys.

It was Leavitt’s task force, with the help of the people at Markle, that concluded that the FBI, which has a spotty record of sharing information with other law enforcement agencies anyway, keep its mitts off the task of “shaping domestic information” and concentrate instead on investigating, charging and preparing cases for the U.S. Justice Department. The role of the federal government’s brand-spanking new Homeland Security Dept., meanwhile, would be collecting information to advise policy makers. Centralized databases, the report said, would be strictly verboten. Instead, what the nation needed was a system for cross-checking suspect names and other information across agencies to create a “virtual consolidated watch-out list.”

Bubbling up to the federal corridors of power, then, were all the humble, helpful tips that were first hatched in the Beehive State. But to make homeland security happen at the state level, you’ve got to put someone on the official roster of duty.

One month before Sept. 11’s black anniversary, Leavitt appointed Verdi White Utah’s deputy secretary for homeland security. If you spot anything abnormal in your neighborhood or place of work, chances are good he might eventually get word about it. But in homeland security’s new chain of command, he’d prefer you contact your local law enforcement officials first.

That, in a somewhat oversized and still-growing nutshell, is Utah’s current play-by-play in a game that’s sure to go on for a long time. But like the older brother about to leave home for a big-name university, the federal picture gets more family attention. All anyone can talk about, it seems, is Big Brother.

By the end of 2001, federal authorities had announced the arrest, without charges, of 1,147 young Muslim men. Only three of those arrests resulted in indictments for terrorist activity. Four hundred were deported. The New York Times News Service estimates that some 200 are still held in solitary confinement without any formal charges. (The government won’t discuss its numbers.)

Six weeks after the attacks—barely a blink of an eye in legislative time—Congress passed the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which steamrollered over Sept. 10 freedoms. Separate from the Homeland Security Act, which created the Department of Homeland Security, this act gave law enforcement added powers to hunt down terrorists—would-be, suspected or otherwise. The list is becoming chillingly familiar, and includes roving wiretaps, searches without prior notification; and access to personal information including medical, academic and financial records, right down to a person’s last book purchase or library check-out list. The FBI can now monitor Internet activity and attend public gatherings incognito. The president has power over military tribunals. Suspects can be held without judicial review, and deportation hearings were closed to the public. Only that last provision has been challenged in court, when federal judges in New Jersey and Detroit ruled that deportation hearings must remain open.

The result of these two critical pieces of legislation has been a dizzying array of task forces and bureaucrats begetting a whole mess of reports filled with working models and new acronyms.

The Pentagon has big plans for its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Too big, critics say. DARPA is the agency slated to create the sprawling antiterrorism computer apparatus dubbed the Total Information Awareness System (TIAS). That’s the Orwellian project run by retired Admiral John Poindexter, the national security advisor under Reagan who balked at giving Congress information it requested during the Iran-Contra hearings. For a $240 million price tag, TIAS can search, without warrant, your website and e-mail logs, credit-card purchases, magazine subscriptions, medical prescriptions, plus employment, financial and travel records.

But for a while, at least, let’s not mind the feds. There are plenty of people keeping watch, or trying to keep watch, over what they’re about.

The first thing you need to know about Utah’s plans for homeland security is its reach and its secrecy. Of course, there’s a reason a lot of it’s secret. It’s the same adage behind “loose lips sink ships.” We’d be stupid to air our plans for heightened security to possible terrorists in Utah.

Verdi White describes his job duties with a calm demeanor. Most of us would be hard-pressed to name another state official other than the governor. Arguably, as deputy secretary of Utah’s homeland security, White has the sexiest job title in all state government, and a huge set of responsibilities. Yet who could name him or pick his face out of a crowd? Meeting with White in a government meeting room flooded with fluorescent light is a lot like meeting your next-door neighbor for the first time. It’s a nice, neat experience, but you get the sense that he has more important matters to attend to.

He cannot talk about specific plans for state homeland security. “That wouldn’t be prudent,” he said. But he can disclose that working relationships with those in the private sector are of paramount importance, like agriculture, and especially public utilities. Diligence protecting computer systems, and knowing who’s been snooping around chemical plants, is also key. And let’s face it: when it comes to snooping, journalists have the most access, and are therefore the most suspicious. This year, anyone calling him or herself a journalist must undergo a security check to get a Capitol press credential.

White cannot talk about even the general nature of tips about suspect activity his office has received. But he can give directions on how to offer them.

“The way it works best is to have people who, if they recognize something not normal, contact their local law enforcement,” White offered. “That brings everyone in on the loop, and on up to the federal level.”

From the smallest of police departments to the most sophisticated federal crime lab to the most mundane of government agencies, homeland security looks set to become an all-encompassing leviathan.

No emergency plan is too small, and the worst plan at any level of government is no plan at all. The Salt Lake County Council of Governments assembled its own committee of fire chiefs and police to talk plans.

White throws around words like “interoperability,” but the basic communication message—information sharing at all levels—has become his mantra as well. But in reality, mere communication is only one engine driving the debate.

Common sense says that the government can easily divide homeland security into at least three categories: emergency-response plans after terrorist attacks, preventive measures thwarting attacks and intelligence-gathering technologies to, as our president said, “smoke terrorists out of their holes” before they strike. But other than the Markle Foundation’s report calling for a wall between the functions of gathering intelligence and making arrests, it’s hardly clear how many areas of homeland security are kept distinct from others, or whether government is spawning a big mess of redundant agencies.

All you need to know is that information from your neighbor or local police officer could make it all the way to the corridors of power at the Department of Homeland Security or FBI.

And is our humble home of Utah really in the crosshairs or blue prints al-Qaeda or some other nasty cabal of evil-doers? One would think that their optimal moment of opportunity—the Olympics—had passed. Conventional wisdom says that any place on United States soil is a potential target. Conventional wisdom also says that the most elite, deadly team of terrorists go after big targets: densely packed metropolitan cities on the West or East Coast, major seats of government, symbolic landmarks, key points of infrastructure. Other than demonstrating to the world and the United States that absolutely no place is safe, what would terrorists gain in attacking Salt Lake City, Provo or, for that matter, even Denver, Phoenix or the Dakotas?

“Most people around the world have an easy knowledge of America and American cities. I don’t know what they [terrorists] would really imagine when they think of Salt Lake City or Utah,” said Richard Pells, a professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin, who specializes in foreign views on the United States.

“Terrorists generally want a big target,” Pells continued, working his way inside the hypothetical terrorist mindset. “Therefore, you’d think they might set their sights on places that are known throughout the world. Attacking Los Angeles International Airport or the Space Needle in Seattle—those kinds of targets are more spectacular. What would anyone want to attack in Salt Lake City? The Mormon Tabernacle? If you’re a terrorist spending a whole lot of time and money on an attack, you’d want a big return.”

Two other issues seem to be left out of the current debate as well. The first is that of domestic terrorism in the form of white supremacists and anti-government extremists. By focussing solely on INS matters with regard to foreign students from Muslim countries, we could be losing sight of other dangers. Six years separates the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 from the 3,000 murdered on Sept. 11, and it is clear that white supremacists are still active. Matt Hale, head of the racist World Church of the Creator, was this month arrested on charges that he was hatching plans for the murder of a federal judge.

Then there’s America’s long, strong love affair with weapons. While the Fourth and Sixth Amendments—rights to unreasonable search and seizure, and a fair trial, respectively—have been declared free game in the quest for total homeland security, there’s been nary a dent in the Second Amendment. Don’t expect one any time soon. When presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer fielded questions about whether a weapon’s registry or federal system of tracing bullets could have helped nab the D.C. snipers before their next killing, he balked at the idea. That would be like “fingerprinting every citizen in order to catch robbers and thieves,” he responded.

The most intimate information imaginable on any U.S. citizen is not beyond Gen. Poindexter’s reach through the Pentagon’s DAPRA, yet handguns and other weapons are sacrosanct. A woman’s suitcase at airport checkout is deemed more dangerous, and more susceptible to search, than a semi-automatic weapon is outside the airport.

The fragile realm of personal privacy has been left to the care of government decision-makers, and the attorneys who will inevitably do battle with them.

Leavitt’s teammates in homeland security, the Markle Foundation, seem content to leave these matters to the powers that be. “The Task Force calls on the President to create guidelines that could be used by agencies—from federal to local—as a guide on how to balance privacy and security,” the Markle Foundation report reads. Foundation Chief Communication Officer, Peter Kerr says the creation of such guidelines was a top priority called for by this report, but it offers no secific recommendations on what those guidelines should be.

Whether that’s a warning sign, or benign indication that the tools of homeland security are merely a work in progress, some think the task force’s report at least has a discernable direction. A well-endowed New York City foundation, the Markle staff sees itself as a force for “the advancement and diffusion of knowledge for the general good of mankind,” according to the foundation’s website. Its current president, Zoe Baird, worked as legal counsel for Aetna insurance company, and was at one time slated to be Bill Clinton’s attorney general until Nannygate tripped up her nomination. A research associate and visiting scholar at Yale Law School, even before Sept. 11 she was at work on a book about technology strategies for combating global crime.

“I think the report [Markle] did was a little bit slanted toward the security side of the equation, but it was a fair attempt to examine the issues,” said David Sobel, attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Early this month, Sobel helped secure a federal judge’s ruling that President Bush’s Office of Homeland Security, soon to become a cabinet-level department, must disclose its records to the public unless it can demonstrate that its role involves nothing more than providing policy. The new department will be subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, but that only means that they can’t tear up a request, Sobel explains.

“I suspect they will be resistant to making information available,” Sobel continues. “I anticipate many court cases handling FOIA requests, and I think the Department of Homeland Security is going to be as secretive as the CIA and FBI have traditionally been.”

The degree to which the new agency will be able to collect personal information about citizens is its most astounding feature, and Poindexter’s TIAS will get the lion’s share of attention—even against competition from government initiatives for national security that raise similar privacy concerns.

“They all raise certain issues, but with Poindexter running Total Information Awareness that’s become the central one,” Sobel said.

In the not so distant past, privacy was protected more by the limitations of technology than by the law. Now technology, under the security pressures brought about by 9/11, is overwhelming the legal system’s ability to protect American freedoms at the same time as our physical security is at risk.

“When you think of all we do that registers an electronic signature throughout the day, to think that a worker in the Pentagon could press a button and gather all that is frightening,” said Tim Edgar, legislative counsel handling national security and immigration issues for the ACLU’s Washington, D.C., office. “And what could be an annoyance in the way private businesses use information could turn into something much more sinister when the government uses it.”

Like nuclear weapons, devices that instead of bringing peace brought the world nightmares of mutual assured destruction, could this be technology that enslaves us in the name of security? If the government can rifle through our library records or credit-card purchases of books, could some of us be held suspect for reading Noam Chomsky, Edward W. Said, Gore Vidal, Said K. Aburish or any other writer deemed subversive?

Connecting the dots between Thomas Jefferson, just war theory and Islamic scholars is Edwin B. Firmage, a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Utah College of Law, former chief of staff for civil rights under Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, and the author of several books on religion and law.

He worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and has enjoyed personal meetings with the Dalai Lama. He sees a fearful nation headed for dark times.

“To think that noble people will use all this information collected to fight terrorism for noble purposes means that you’re an idiot if you think that. This is information that will be used by average people for all sorts of reasons,” Firmage said. “This is a process that totally debases us.”

If the secret government meetings, and TAIS of the Homeland Security Act represent the means by which we’re to achieve an end, Firmage sees a jarring disconnect.

“It’s the ‘Reason of State’ argument that argues we have to give up our laws to see ourselves through these tumultuous times. I say, ‘bullshit.’ Once you do that you’re about to abandon the very freedoms you were once dedicated to preserving,” Firmage said. “Look at it this way. By that one act, Osama bin Laden doesn’t have to do anything ever again, because we’re in the process of doing it to ourselves. He doesn’t have to attack us ever again. He can attack overseas targets from now on, because he’s done all he needed to here. What a huge success from his point of view! But if his actions make us rethink our Jeffersonian origins—where we come from and who we are—then we can benefit from the God-awful tragedies of New York and Washington. In that very perverse sense, Osama would win a Jeffersonian award.”

Americans during the 1950s no doubt thought they were fulfilling the utmost in patriotic duties by reporting suspected communist activities or those with socialist leanings. After all, how many people did Stalin kill in his gulags? Sen. Joseph McCarthy kept his lists. The House Committee on Un-American Activities held its hearings, and the FBI kept running files on Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lennon.

“When you weaken standards and allow that kind of activity it undermines our security and our liberty, which go hand in hand. They should not be pitted against each other,” Edgar said. “FBI files on King and Lennon were a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.”

To an unknown degree, people are already spying on each other. Last December City Weekly received an anonymous letter designed to rat out an immigrant who was “actively and vocally pro-Palestinian,” as if that were a crime, by disclosing the man’s residential and business addresses.

Bulent Yilmaz, a graduate student of bioengineering at the U and past president of the university’s Muslim Student Association, isn’t from one of the 18 countries on the INS’ special list. He’s from Turkey. But he knows that many students from nations on that list don’t feel comfortable sending e-mails or even talking over the phone.

“As soon as you are seen as a terrorist you feel that you can’t, or don’t want to, contribute to this nation,” Yilmaz said. “We are not the people you see on television shouting ‘Allah-hu Akbar!’ and shooting guns. We will show people what a Muslim should be.”

He also senses that the U.S. government, unbeknownst to itself, is perilously close to one of history’s worst trapdoors.

“During the last stages of the Ottoman Empire, the government had people doubling as spies. I’m sure the leaders at the time did that for the survival of the nation, but it doesn’t create a good atmosphere in any country.”

Firmage calls to mind one of the last lines of dialogue from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a Tom Stoppard play about two people who failed to reflect on the ethics of what they were doing. The king told them to spy on Hamlet. Both followed orders. Both ended up dead.

“There’s a moment when Rosencrantz turns to Guildenstern and says: ‘There must have been a time, somewhere near the beginning, when we could have said no,’” Firmage said. “Now is that time.”

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