Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Big Brother isn't running an alliance

Last week, American liberals got a whiff of what it would be like to have the Clintons and the Bushes back in the White House—and they hit the roof. Washington is alight with passion. Foreign policy choices and cornerstone liberties are up for debate.

Canadians, with essentially the same constitutional values and global interests at stake as Americans, are following what’s going on in Washington and asking questions, doggedly exercising their freedom to imagine that they make their own decisions about their security and personal privacy.

Thanks to the leaks of Edward Snowden, Americans are learning that their government can now find out—almost instantaneously—what they do, whom they spend any time with, and what they say anywhere. At the same time, Canadians are learning that their government and the American government as well can access their privacy.

In response, Harper’s government cannot assure Canadians that they can secure separate, let alone better, treatment by surveillance bureaucracies.

It was a humiliating week for Barack Obama. Imagine, for a minute, what last week was like for Stephen Harper.

Canadian nationalists and opposition critics ask reasonable-sounding questions that only further entrench Harper’s reputation for secrecy.

A Toronto Star editorial cleverly set him up:

“To what degree do Canada’s data-aggregation methods mirror those in the U.S.? Is Parliament adequately briefed, as key members of Congress are? Once data is collected, can it be transmitted to foreign services? Under what safeguards? And do our laws clearly spell out all this?

“We badly need a spirited debate along these lines, and some healthy public consciousness-raising. It’s not reassuring to see opposition MPs rise in Parliament to confirm that they’re stumbling around in the dark.”

Senator Hugh Segal suggests that a committee of thoughtful Senators and Members of the House of Commons be put in the “loop” in managing these new state powers to aggregate and manage intelligence.

Behind these modest suggestions are several extremely ambitious assumptions: that after a “spirited” debate, Canada’s government could unilaterally run a different anti-terrorist security regime than the US government’s; that we could be in the loop in Washington; that we could maintain a relatively open Canada-US border; and that we could run things differently in Canada. 

(One of the reasons passions are high in the United States is precisely because Americans have discovered that the participation of legislators in secretly managing surveillance practices is ineffective.)

For most of the 12 years since 9/11, a Quebec separatist party occupied some 50 seats in the House of Commons—and, conceivably, could do so again. Could the Canadian government level with its MPs on what it’s doing in cooperation with the US security machinery? Would Washington understand? Alternatively, could the Prime Minister of the day set up a formal security committee of only bona fide federalists? Would the Prime Minister be best to just keep chatting with "respected" Parliamentarians informally? And, if so, how would that assuage people’s concerns?

The Star imagines that Canada’s government has choices in sharing security intelligence and “meta” data with US security officials—that Big Brother is an alliance of equal, sovereign states. Really?

Let’s play that out:

The Americans discover "accidentally" that 3 men in Mississauga are brainstorming with a pal in Detroit on how to blow up the transmission lines around Ontario’s nuclear reactors. Does the Canadian government: (1) complain about how they got the tip (2) complain about their “political obsession with terror,” as The Star puts it, or (3) accept the information, initiate surveillance measures, and promptly tell the Americans what they find out and plan to do.

If you’re a Canadian and think (3) is a no-brainer, wouldn’t it be best to worry more about the real debate in Washington rather than the pseudo-debate in Ottawa? 

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