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Top human rights lawyer on “US hubris” of 9/11

The date has been seared into collective memory as a day of tragedy and the precursor to the War on Terror – but Wolfgang Kaleck reminds us that “September 11, 2001 isn’t the most important date of the last 20 years for everyone.”

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Wolfgang Kaleck. Photo: Michal Andrysiak

Wolfgang Kaleck, founder of the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), has spent three decades suing war criminals, torturers and dirty multinationals across the globe. He is Edward Snowden’s attorney in Europe and published his book Law versus Power: Our Global Fight for Human Rights in 2018.

Beyond the terror and horror, 9/11 was a watershed moment that unleashed human rights infringements at home and war crimes abroad. What’s your perspective on it as a human rights lawyer?

One main reason why 9/11 plays such a great role is that it took place in New York. It was not the Afghanistan or Iraq wars that made it special, nor the torture and the building of detention centres, because all of this happened during the Cold War in many parts of the world. Even the fact that we call it 9/11 is absolutely US-centric because, for the rest of the continent, September 11, 1973 is the overthrow of Chilean President Allende in the Pinochet coup.

But for the US, and the Western world at large, it was a wake-up call – we’re not immune to the kind of war and suffering we’d spread for so long. We have enemies and we’re vulnerable to their attacks.

I agree. It also made clear that, one and a half decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the era of unilateralism had come to a certain end. Everyone became aware that the world was no longer ruled by two superpowers or even just one; it has many centres, like in China, South Africa, Brazil, and so on.

The fact that we call it 9/11 is absolutely US-centric because for the rest of the continent, September 11, 1973 is the overthrow of Chilean President Allende in the Pinochet coup.

On a domestic level, it was also the beginning of a new era of state abuse, right? Just days after 9/11, George W Bush’s White House and intelligence chiefs began to lay the foundations for mass surveillance, granting domestic law enforcement agencies sweeping new powers.

The age of surveillance had started before. What was new was the level of technological development we’d reached and the new possibilities that offered. The US never had any qualms about using surveillance tools against internal enemies, even its own nationals. Remember the programme against the Black Panthers: a mixture of surveillance and infiltration with brutal police violence and even assassination. We know from Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, that the surveillance system expanded over time – and I would say more or less independently of the attacks.

But those encroachments on democratic rights had a new level of public support. In the trade-off between security and rights, people tend to choose the former. Did you anticipate the way the state would use good will and turn against its own citizens?

This did happen, but that was the narrative for the Cold War, too. We’ve always had waves of new laws and tools for police and secret services. In the decade before 9/11, it was the war on drugs. Now it’s corona. It’s up and down, it’s ongoing. The so-called security apparatus always produces new narratives of fear conducive to expanding its powers, and 9/11 was one more crisis it tried to exploit. Obviously they had all these packages of new laws and tools prepared and it was a good moment to sell it to the public. It was an extraordinary occasion, but the method itself was not extraordinary.

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Photo: Imago Images / ZUMA WIRE

It took Wikileaks and Snowden to show the sheer scope of domestic spying. Did 9/11 herald the era of whistleblowers?

What Edward Snowden revealed had been said by other people before, by the Chaos Computer Club in Germany, even by Julian Assange. They were all warning that there was a serious threat of mass surveillance. They explained the method but many people didn’t really understand. It’s not really about collecting data on you; it’s more about communication patterns and who gets in touch with whom – the so-called metadata. With Snowden, that knowledge reached a new level, but civil societies and liberal-progressive parties around the world weren’t capable of making the best out of it. And what happened with his knowledge? We saw another wave of tools and justifications. We see that now with the Pegasus [NSO spyware ] scandal. I think even politicians that weren’t outspoken about mass surveillance in the past know how dangerous it is.

Were you shocked that Germany secretly subscribed to this spyware?

A: [laughs] Sorry, not really. Now they’re saying they’d asked the company to give them a model that was in accordance with German rules and laws! But we all knew this in the days of Snowden, when it was all, “The NSA is watching you.” First of all, the Brits were at it as well, and secondly, we had no doubt that any other secret service – maybe the German, maybe the French – was as willing to use whatever they could get hold of. The reason we didn’t reach the sophisticated surveillance levels seen in the US was less about good will and the wonderful liberal-democratic world, and more to do with our less-developed technological skills.

Overall, 20 years down the road, do you think the situation with surveillance is better or worse?

That’s a tricky question. More accurately, you have to ask: for whom is it better? Again, that’s part of the US hubris, to talk of 9/11 as if there were no other September 11, like the one that took place in Latin America. We have had so many catastrophes in so many parts of the world, so we need to stand back and realise that September 11, 2001 isn’t the most important date of the last 20 years for everyone. So whom are you referring to?

What about the so-called ‘free world’? Are those of us in ostensibly democratic countries worse or better off?

I don’t know, and I think it’s a misleading question. We have to be aware that everything we took for granted – socially, economically, that certain level of democratic liberties – is very fragile. It doesn’t matter if I think we’re doing better or worse, the question is how many people we can convince it will be better if more people push for civil rights and liberty.

It was a good moment to sell it to the public. It was an extraordinary occasion, but the method itself was not extraordinary.

And what do you think the impact of the corona crisis was?

It’s difficult to say. We’re still in the middle of it. But there are things that have happened, like the Black Lives Matter movement, which are incredibly important and a cry for help. People also voted for a new constitution in Chile. I feel like it’s misleading if we have this one final verdict. In some respects, the world is in a better shape, but for others it’s worse.

Okay, so what about Germany? 

It’s not very promising that there is more segregation within German society. There is more economic inequality. Many people feel lost and don’t feel represented by the political parties. That’s something we will obviously need to observe with the upcoming election.

Do you think the corona crisis at least helped people take a different perspective? A more global one?

I think it would have been a good opportunity. You could have said, look, this is a global crisis, which is not affecting everyone in every country in the same way, but it’s clear we have to combat this danger together through a global mechanism. Many politicians tried to convince their people of the opposite by selling the myth that closed borders and nation-state solutions are better. Some people, together with the Fridays for Future protests that started in 2019, have learned that global problems have to be tackled – I wouldn’t say solved – on a global level. So that’s an ongoing process. Hopefully more people also understand that the extent to which you are affected by corona depends on the strength of the social system in your country, your city and your neighbourhood. In order to protect everyone, we have to have the same level of security and health systems everywhere. We’re in the middle of an important debate on that but there’s still a long way to go.

Apparently over 90 percent of people in the Western world remember what they were doing on 9/11. So what about you? 

I was working. I was in court and then we came back and watched television. What I remember well is, one or two days later, I had a big panel discussion in Munich with members of the parliament and the military and everyone in the room said, “Let’s not fall into this trap and demand more aggressive, unilateral military action.” That’s not the way it worked out. So yes, of course I remember that day, but I also remember the months after, when we were fighting against new anti-terrorism laws in Germany, the so-called Schily legislation, and at the European level. It was a busy time for us.

So was it clear to you that there was bound to be some political overreaction?

Sure. But you don’t need to be a genius to see that. As someone involved in an internationalist human rights scene, in touch with the perspectives of the Third World and the people who live there, I didn’t see 9/11 like most people, even progressive and liberal people.

You didn’t see it as such a unique and defining moment? 

Yes. When you call the attacks ‘9/11’, you’re showing that you aren’t aware of another 9/11. How can you be so ignorant of the rest of the world? In the continuity of civilising missions in colonial times, in the continuity of military interventions all over the world during the Cold War, how can you expect that people elsewhere will swallow your legitimation for another military intervention? You’re lying to the rest of the world all the time, you’re breaking rules all the time when it’s in your interest, and then you expect others to understand you when your country is attacked.