Securing the borders to secure the presidency.

Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security issued a clarification of its rules regarding the seizure of laptop computers at the US border. Anyone entering or leaving the United States may have his or her laptop searched, without evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing. The contents of the laptop’s hard drive may be copied for later analysis. The laptop itself may be seized and removed to another location for further analysis.

Absurdly, the agency claims that this did not violate the privacy of Americans!

The rationale provided for this draconian procedure is that it is intended to fight terrorism. Of course, everything nowadays is intended to fight terrorism, no matter how invasive and outlandish. Take, for instance, the Transportation Safety Administration’s idea of forcing all airline passengers to wear a bracelet that would deliver a Taser-like electrical shock in the event of an attempted hijacking. In the end, that idea was rejected as going too far.

Even if we were to grant the premise that such seizure is intended to “fight terrorism”, then it is remarkably shortsighted. Ignoring the probability that terrorists would encrypt any incriminating data on their hard drives, there is still the option of the internet. There are many companies which offer secure online data storage for a nominal fee; the data can be accessed anywhere in the world, and cannot be seized at any border; and proxy servers and anonymizing software would prevent its interdiction. Many of the servers that host this storage are located in countries outside the reach of US law and cannot be investigated or shut down.

In short, the seizure of laptops would do nothing to prevent an attack by even semi-competent terrorists. It will only inconvenience, harass, and invade the privacy of ordinary, innocent persons.

And that is the point.

There has not been another attempted terrorist attack on the United States by foreign – a.k.a., Muslim – extremists since 2001. My basis for that assertion is simple: if there had been such an attempt, the Bush administration would have wasted no time in using it for political gain.

The absence of such an effort means that the administration has had nothing to work with except the vague threat of terrorism in order to rationalize its continuing assault on civil liberties. Without a legitimate threat of terrorism, it has had to resort to security theater. In the beginning, such theater was relatively minor and harmless: color-coded threat levels, for instance, or bans on liquids in carry-on bags. Like an addiction, however, the theatrics have become more and more invasive.

The TSA only toyed with the idea of electrical shock bracelets, but it did install full-body scanners that produce images of travelers’ naked bodies. The “no-fly list” has grown to include over a million names, at least some of them being the names of persons who have merely expressed criticism of the program. The government has maintained its program of warrantless wiretapping, using terrorism as its justification, and has resisted any efforts to impede what are obvious show trials of alleged terrorists.

These actions on the part of the Bush administration and its agencies have nothing to do with keeping America safe, but that was never their purpose. Over the past eight years, the Bush administration has increased the power of the executive branch to despotic levels. Bush has elevated himself and his associates above the rule of US law, while creating petty tyrannies in the form of the DHS, TSA, and other agencies. To enable this power grab, terrorism was used as a one-size-fits-all rationale.

It is no coincidence that the terror alert level has recently been raised to fuchsia – or whatever – and that the DHS has rolled out its new laptop seizure procedures. The threat of terrorism was used to win support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and to ensure a Bush re-election in 2004. Its main purpose now is to secure the presidency for John McCain in November.

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