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War on Terror threat to democracy in Canada: American Civil Liberties Union

A top lawyer at the world's largest civil liberties organization warns that Canada's increasing participation in the so-called "War on Terror" has jeopardized democracy.

The unchecked political influence of "deep state" spy agencies -- whether the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or our own Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) -- is threatening citizens' ability to hold the state accountable, says Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The ACLU has more than 500,000 members.

"The larger idea that we are engaged in a global war against terrorism (is) a very dangerous idea," Jaffer told the Tyee, where he addressed a BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) event on Monday. "It's a dangerous proposition that we are involved in this war that has no temporal boundary, no geographic boundary, and is against an enemy that is really difficult to identify.

"(It's) drastic and radical: it's to propose that we're in a forever war and in an everywhere war... In Canada, the Charter is a very useful tool for litigators and public interest advocates to use in articulating arguments against these kinds of counter-terrorism policies that are inconsistent with democratic values."

Jaffer, who also directs the ACLU's Center for Democracy, leading the organization's work on national security, human rights and privacy, decried President Barack Obama's failure to shut down Guantanamo Bay detention centre and his recent authorization of the assassination of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, saying that although the current regime has made some positive steps on immigrant and gay rights, it has endorsed and expanded the controversial policies of President George W. Bush.

"It's obviously not morally more serious to kill U.S. citizens than to kill anyone else, but you really are crossing a kind of legal Rubicon if you are killing your own citizens," he told roughly 40 attendees at the Railway Club in Vancouver. "On national security issues, I would not hold my breath for a dramatic change under the next administration one way of the other.

"National security policies are set by the deep state -- they're set by the CIA, the National Security Agency and the FBI. Presidents are there for at most eight years; bureaucrats in these intelligence organizations are there for at least 30 or 40 years."

For the BCCLA's senior legal counsel, Jaffer's arguments about the U.S. government infringement of human rights abroad and at home is salient in Canada, too.

"One of the things I think Canadians don't focus on as much as they should is how we sacrifice freedoms in the name of national security," Carmen Cheung told the Tyee. "That's very troubling for any democracy -- to know that our government is authorizing that kind of conduct.

"The prohibition on torture is absolute, but people say, 'Well, if there's a national security concern, then that's something we'll have to live with.' But that's a slippery slope. It's a big threat to our liberty, thinking we can make exceptions to fundamental human rights concerns."

Cheung pointed to the revelation of CSIS documents authorizing information gleaned from torture, as well as Canada's transfer of detainees overseas to agencies known to use illegal interrogation methods such as water-boarding. The federal government recently began hearings into intelligence obtained through controversial methods.

Last week, former CSIS watchdog Eva Plunkett attacked the Tories' abolition of her former Inspector General position under Budget Implementation Bill C-38, warning that the oversight role was essential to monitoring the spy agency's powers. Canadians, she told the Canadian Press, "should feel a huge loss and should be concerned."

One of the less publicized aspects of national security is a covert network of what Jaffer called "CIA black sites" -- secret prisons around the world that the U.S. government deemed outside the purview of the Geneva Conventions on war crimes. At least two detainees have been killed in the sites, and others subjected to simulated drownings and confined with insects in small boxes. Jaffer was behind litigation that forced his government to release more than 100,000 pages of documents relating to the torture of detainees in U.S. custody. He studied law in Ontario.

David P. Ball is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver.

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