closing the net

Midnight, December 31 2011. Fireworks lit up world capitals timezone by timezone. The cheerful familiarity of the Sydney Harbour Bridge passing the pyrotechnic baton to Taipei; the Burj Dubai; the London Eye; a packed Times Square. No matter where you were that night, maybe you missed the news that at while nobody was watching, US President Barack Obama was signing the 2012 National Defence Acquisition Act (NDAA) into law.
Why a foreign President’s signature on a routine military appropriations bill should concern Australians, and just how intimately it should concern us, is a story worth telling.

The legislation at its core is the Pentagon’s paycheck for FY 2012, authorising a gargantuan US$662 billion to run the world’s largest and most forbidding military complex. But along the way other measures, riders and kinks get introduced to these bills on behalf of various acronyms within America’s byzantine security establishment.

One such kink in the 2012 bill provides for indefinite, arbitrary military detention – imprisonment without charge, of anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time, at the direction of the US President. The American Civil Liberties union has described it as ‘dangerous’ and a violation of international law.

This seems to have provoked only the most tangential of debates in the mainstream press in the US. The spirited online campaign to kill the measure (#NDAA) motivated a doomed rearguard action by a handful of US Senators, before Congress – by a huge majority – shunted the bill to the President for signature. In a meaningless tip of the hat to the bill’s detractors, the President attached a signing statement committing that his administration would not target US citizens for military imprisonment without trial, which leaves just… the rest of the world’s population.

This extraordinary expansion of coercive power was justified as simply formalising what happens anyway, at places like Guantanamo Bay. It was, of course, advanced as a measure to keep Americans safe from terrorists, or people assisting terrorists. Or people assisting people assisting terrorists.

At this point, many Australians will change the channel, figuring this is about Yemen, or the Swat Valley, or whatever, and has very little to do with us.

But recall US Vice President Biden’s designation of WikiLeaks founder, Australian-born Julian Assange, as a ‘high tech terrorist,’ a phrase also used by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich calls Assange an ‘enemy combatant’ and Sarah Palin wonders why he hasn’t yet been hunted down like an Al Qaeda operative.

Maybe this was just pre-election year polemic in a degraded political environment. But no, late in 2011 US military prosecutors making the case against Private Bradley Manning spelled out where this is really going. Pfc Manning has spent 19 months in a military prison, accused of being the inside source of the major WikiLeaks scoops: the mass of Cablegate documents from the State Department, the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and the Apache gun camera footage of the casual obliteration of a Reuters journalist and his associates in Baghdad, the infamous ‘collateral murder’ footage.

In their closing arguments at Manning’s pre-trial hearing, the prosecutors ran a video clip of an Al Quaeda agent calling on the faithful to analyse the leaked documents. This, in the US Government’s view, is clear evidence that Bradley Manning, and by association WikiLeaks, and by association the New York Times, the Guardian and Australia’s Fairfax press, were ‘aiding the enemy’.

This is the exquisite dilemma into which the Australian Government appears to be walking blindfolded. At some stage, either in Sweden, or in the instance of a rendition request to the Swedish Government from the United States, or if Mr Assange is able to get back to Australia and the US moves to extradite him from here, the Australian Government is going to need to pick a side.

As we swing back into another arduous election cycle, what will the Australian Government do if the US NDAA is used to indefinitely incarcerate someone who just received the Walkley Foundation’s award for outstanding services to journalism? Does it acknowledge, as the London High Court did, that WikiLeaks is a publishing organisation and Mr Assange a journalist?

There is very little doubt as to which way popular opinion in Australia will swing. Despite more than a year of premeditated character assassination from powerful enemies and former allies, there is a strong and deep undercurrent of support for Mr Assange, WikiLeaks, its work, and the wider worldview it represents.

Here in Australia we’re on our own slippery slope of expansion of the surveillance state originally justified in the name of the War on Terror, this war without end. Most of the Howard/Ruddock era laws of terror are still in place, wormholed with endless revisions and expansions of the Telecommunications Interception Act, the so-called ‘WikiLeaks amendments to ASIO’s spying powers, and more recent confirmation that ASIO and the Federal Police have outsourced intelligence gathering on climate change activists.

If the legal definition of ‘terrorist’ has been devalued to such a degree that anyone who publishes information that may later be read by Al Qaeda is implicated in terrorism, and if the definition continues to bleed across to people raising legitimate concerns about runaway climate change, then we’re heading to a dark place indeed. What a peculiar irony that in a year in which so many people across North Africa and the Middle East put themselves in harm’s way in the pursuit of democracy, the concept was under such sustained erosion in places where it’s taken for granted.

Here in Australia, we need to hit the reset button on this slide toward a surveillance state, and that’s going to take determination and creativity. By no means do we have to take the creeping erosion of the rule of law as inevitable – but if we’re going to have something more cheerful to celebrate next New Years Eve, we’d better get moving.