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Fear and secrecy along the 49th

g and compass

Toronto Star

Dec. 6, 2001. 02:00 AM

Fear and secrecy along 49th parallel

Rachel Giese

In light of recent events, here are five pressing questions:

1. What's the United States got to fear from Canada?

After explicitly promising not to militarize the border, U.S. Attorney-General John Ashcroft announced his plans on Sunday to do just that. At least, deploying 400 National Guard troops to border crossings and assigning 200 army personnel to fly helicopter patrols over the border sounds awfully militarized. Or is it the Ashcroft-speak that's so confusing?

Even by Republican standards, Ashcroft is a loose cannon. When he was a senator he favoured criminalizing abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, and he was a vocal opponent of "special rights for homosexuals."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, he criticized Canada for its "porous" borders, though there is absolutely no evidence that any of the 19 terrorists, all of whom had legal U.S. visas, came from Canada. Still, he keeps flogging that dead horse. Even as he praised Canada for its help in nabbing terrorist Ahmed Ressam in 1999, he was preparing U.S. troops to defend what was the longest undefended border in the world.

2. What's Canada so afraid of?

Everyone repeat after me: We weren't the target of the Sept. 11 attacks, we don't harbour terrorists, there's no anthrax in our mail. Why on Earth, then, did the government pass Bill C-36? The controversial anti-terrorism legislation is so ill thought out that it could force lawyers to testify against their own clients or send them to jail for representing clients suspected of terrorist activities. It could also allow any government official to withhold sensitive information, in contravention of the Access to Information Act. Being a good neighbour is one thing, allowing the U.S. to influence our domestic policy at the expense of our civil liberties when we pose no threat whatsoever is the first step toward relinquishing our sovereignty altogether.

3. What's the United States hiding?

In early November, U.S. President George W. Bush signed an executive order making it much more difficult to get access to papers of past presidents and vice-presidents. Some critics say he did it to protect his father and they're probably right, but the Bush administration has always favoured governing in secrecy, with the war on terrorism now providing the handy excuse of national security.

The most egregious act, perhaps, has been the rounding up of more than 1,200 people as part of the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks at the direction of Bush and Ashcroft. Only a tiny fraction of those detained have any connection to any kind of terrorist activity some are petty criminals and most are innocent of any wrongdoing. In hundreds of these cases, the names of the people detained and the charges, if any, against them have been withheld from the public. Ostensibly it's been to protect the identity of the detainees, but it's really been the government that's been protected from scrutiny.

4. What's the United States hiding? Part Two.

Before Sept. 11, when everyone had to start liking him or, at least, standing behind him, Bush was facing strong condemnation from the rest of the world for his bad habit of busting international treaties.

One of those treaties, ironically, was a protocol to enforce a 1972 international ban on biological weapons through regular inspections of private and government-run labs. Bowing to pressure from pharmaceutical companies, the U.S. pulled out of the agreement altogether. As Thomas Walkom noted recently in The Star, that fact was largely ignored when, a few months later, Americans suffered a series of anthrax attacks that killed five people and set off widespread white-powder panic.

As it turns out, as The New York Times revealed in September, the U.S. government had for years been covertly developing biological weapons including a potent strain of anthrax despite being a signatory to the 1972 treaty against germ warfare.

5. What happened to privacy rights?

Canada's Bill C-36 grants police broader wiretap, arrest and investigative powers.

Under new anti-terrorism measures in the U.S., the erosion of privacy rights and due process is even greater. At the same time Bush is locking up presidential papers, Ashcroft is broadening the government's surveillance powers.

His radical program of wiretaps, mass detentions, military tribunals and compulsory interrogations has long drawn fire from the usual progressives. Now, his methods are being criticized even by conservatives, including a group of former high-ranking FBI officials who spoke out against Ashcroft last week in The Washington Post.

And it's downright scary to think of how far gone you have to be when the FBI says you've gone too far.

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