So it was fascinating to attend a panel at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in Toronto last month that brought together a group of heavy hitters, past and present, in the U.S. national security field. There was good news: Ivan K. Fong, general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, said there are now many more tools and ways to protect against terrorism while at the same time protecting civil liberties. “It’s a false choice to think there has to be a necessary sacrifice,” said Fong. “In the end we will defeat terrorism.”
But behind that optimism there are the realities. “The biggest tragedy of 9-11 is the political polarization of our country,” said John Bellinger III, a former legal adviser to the National Security Council and later the State Department. “Ten years on, it’s a wedge issue between the far right and left to beat up on each other.” While politicians can barely agree on anything, he said all the lawyers who deal with national security and terrorism-related matters see a middle ground of how to deal with matters, but nothing can really move forward because of the poisonous political atmosphere in Washington.
At the same time, Jamie Gorelick, who was deputy attorney general of the U.S. for many years, said the government made decisions to intrude on civil liberties — but with protections she conceded may or may not have really worked. She said the political system has functioned relatively well so far but her “great fear” is if there is another attack, there will be a real problem maintaining any kind of protection for civil liberties.
And for Bellinger, like others, the biggest hurdle is changing or improving laws created both in the heat of the moment right after Sept. 11 and post-Second World War. And it’s not just American, but also international laws that need fixing. Take, for example, the “enemy combatants” versus prisoners of war debate. “I would create a new Geneva Convention,” he said. “But people can’t agree on a definition of ‘terrorism.’ There are places where killing people for religious or political aims is not considered terrorism but legitimate political action.” As such, he foresees more bilateral and multinational agreements rather than international conventions to deal with the “war on terror.”
There hasn’t been a terrorist attack on North American soil since Sept. 11, 2001, but the repercussions of the last one are still being felt and have to be dealt with properly.