The advent of digital age technologies and diminishing trust in government may make it increasingly difficult for U.S. officials to hide programs that infringe on civil liberties under the guise of national security. But experts at a convening to examine government transparency through a human rights lens deplored the recent history of such policies masking abuses.

“It's much harder for the U.S. government to hide things like black sites or torture than it was 20 years ago,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, at the September 9 virtual panel discussion, Roads Not Taken: Reflections on the 9/11 Anniversary, co-organized by Just Security and the Knight First Amendment Institute. “Between social media and everybody having a smartphone, and the stronger network of global rights groups, we know a lot about what's going on. … It would be hard for a new Bush administration to pull off something comparable this time around.”

But Roth acknowledged what he called the human rights community’s “failure of imagination” in the aftermath of 9/11, when the U.S. government targeted Muslim populations, paving the way for illegal detentions and torture. “I just didn't think it would be such overt flouting of basic principles,” he commented. “I wish we just assumed the worst from the outset. But we didn't.”

Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight Institute, recalled that in the wake of the attacks he too read with disbelief the initial news stories about the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody. “Our initial reaction was this can't be right, or if it's right, it's got to be a totally aberrational case,” he told the online gathering. “It took us a while just to believe that it was actually happening.”

Jaffer also reminded participants that in the weeks after 9/11, the U.S. government rounded up hundreds of immigrants, most of them Arab or South Asian, almost all of them Muslim, falsely intimating to the public that they were connected in some way to the attacks. In the months and years that followed, the courts granted the government new authorities, creating national security exceptions to important human rights protections. “All of us should have been quicker to recognize that those were not national security exceptions—that they were effectively Muslim exceptions,” he said. 

Part of the challenge at the time ... was that following the attacks the government deliberately hid its true agenda.  

Part of the challenge at the time, suggested Elisa Massimino, former president and CEO of Human Rights First, was that following the attacks the government deliberately hid its true agenda. She recalled a visit to the Justice Department shortly after 9/11 to discuss with officials those individuals being rounded up: “We were looking for some sign that there was a strategy related to national security behind any of it. We said, ‘Surely you're not just randomly rounding up people who are Muslim or [who] seem Muslim to somebody and hoping that you're going to catch some terrorists.’ And that is precisely what they were doing.”

But, as Massimino added: “I think my naïveté was really that there was some level of competence inside the government on these issues. And that early meeting just completely stripped that away. … There was no strategy behind that. It was just fear-driven prejudice.”

ACLU’s Executive Director Anthony Romero expressed similar bitterness over the government’s framing of national security policies as part of the fight against terrorism in order to bypass conventions for international human rights and domestic law enforcement. “The war on terror paradigm was one we fought. But I wish we had just never fallen prey to the use of it,” he said. “Once [we had] the full evidence of the commission of torture and the fact that [the government] had acted so unlawfully … we should have impeached the bunch of them.”

Added Roth: “The one point where I think we made a mistake is that we allowed the discussion to be exclusively about torture, rather than ... cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. [We should have] gotten people to think about humane treatment, you know, do you want the cop in your local precinct interrogating you with these techniques?”

The panelists’ link between national security and policing did suggest that, amid burgeoning social justice movements and intersectional awareness, a more effective response may be possible. 

“The context [after 9/11] was really around the surveillance of Muslim communities,” argued panelist Linda Sarsour, co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March and former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. “[There were] a lot of moments where the movement could have initially engaged in solidarity and looking at the connections between national security and the policing apparatus in the United States, and how it impacts people of color. We could have had one big whole conversation that really could have built a lot of power.”

Sarsour concluded: “What I hope that we have now is this idea that we can't have these silo fights anymore. … We're not going to talk about criminal justice reform without also talking about national security reform.”

Watch the full video of the Sept. 9 panel below: