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Civil liberties, Britain and the US election

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No matter the final outcome, the presidential race has already brought about grim prospects for the future of civil liberties in the US.

Ryan Gallagher
24 October 2012

Any hope I had for a reasonable and rational US election campaign went out the window almost a year ago, at about 3am one night last November, when I was watching one of the many unhinged debates between the Republican leadership candidates. A question was asked about counter-terror strategy, if I recall correctly, and Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann advocated reintroducing the waterboarding torture technique for interrogation purposes. People in the audience rose from their seats and approvingly pumped their fists in the air and cheered loudly like drunks at a football game. At that moment I realised a sane discussion about liberty, law and national security during the battle to become president was not going to be possible.

More than a decade since the terror attacks on 11 September 2001, so much has changed on both an international and domestic level. The use and development of sophisticated new surveillance technologies has increased, and new kinds of warfare, like covert remotely controlled drone bombings, have become commonplace in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. But national security and counter-terrorism still remains a polarising and toxic topic of debate in America – and so these issues, which are among the most important and defining of our time, often go unaddressed on the major political stage. Occasionally, like during the Republican leadership contest, we get some tub-thumping about al-Qaeda crackdowns. What we don’t get is any substantive discussion.

For that reason, it’s difficult to say with any real clarity how the outcome of this election will impact issues around liberty or in a broader sense America’s relationship with Britain. If Barack Obama is re-elected, I expect that his aggressive drone campaign will continue. More covert wars in far flung corners of the world will begin and end. Secret surveillance initiatives – authorised by a law allowing large-scale interception of foreign communications to and from the US – will keep on operating and may even escalate. American spies, as they have done for decades, will continue to eavesdrop on foreign communications from English bases near Harrogate in Yorkshire and Bude in Cornwall. (And most if not all of this will occur with the tacit support of the British government, entirely beyond public scrutiny.)

What’s more interesting is to consider what a Mitt Romney presidency would look like, because I think another Obama term we can already envisage. If Romney was to be elected into the White House, in many ways it would be a retrograde step. Like Obama, Romney keeps his cards very close to his chest when it comes to sensitive matters around national security and counter terrorism – but there are a few hints which offer enough of a glimpse that we can speculate fairly accurately. While Obama outlawed waterboarding as part of an executive order issued days after coming to office in 2009, a recently leaked memo hints Romney would attempt to reintroduce the torture method. In addition, one of Romney’s top foreign policy advisers is a brutal former George W. Bush counter-terrorism official named Cofer Black, who was once quoted saying he wanted to put “heads on sticks” in Afghanistan.

To me, that suggests a Romney administration would reinstate some of the more medieval elements of the Bush counter-terror effort that were vanquished by Obama (waterboarding being one, secret black site interrogation prisons another). Though the Obama administration’s drone campaign seems increasingly out of control, I can’t help but picture Romney taking decisions that would make Obama look like a constrained moderate. Romney, a venture capitalist born and bred, does not strike me as a man who has spent a great deal of time contemplating civil liberties, human rights, or the complexities of global politics. In fact, Romney doesn’t strike me as a man who has ever contemplated much about anything.

For the UK-USA relationship and for international politics generally, I think a Romney administration would ultimately have an unsettling effect. I could foresee the Romney administration tackling the Iran nuclear question head on like a bull in a china shop, for instance, wading into the region with rhetoric and foolish militaristic bravado, which could have disastrous consequences for America, Britain and the rest of the world. I also wonder how Romney would tackle issues around global internet freedom, which, given consistent pushes to mediate and restructure the web, will become progressively more significant in the next four years. In 2007, as part of a conservative moral crusade, Romney said if elected president he would introduce a law that would force all computers in America to have an inbuilt “porn filter.” That sort of crank policy, as technologically unworkable as it is reactionary, does not fill me with confidence that he would be a strong advocate for internet freedom.

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

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