Sacrificing Liberty For Security?

Following 9/11, many Americans began wondering which rights they were willing to sacrifice to ensure that those terrorist events would never reoccur. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with human rights attorney Banafsheh Akhlaghi, who has spent the last decade working on 3200 cases dealing with post-9/11 issues. NPR National Security Correspondent Tom Gjelten also joins the conversation.

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JACKI LYDEN, host: We continue our September 11th coverage by taking a look at how civil liberties have changed in our country. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans suddenly began to wonder, how do we protect ourselves from a force like al-Qaida? And what rights are we willing to sacrifice to ensure that this would never happen again?

In a moment, we'll speak with NPR's National Security Correspondent, Tom Gjelten. But first, joining us to reflect on civil liberties in the post-9/11 era is Human Rights Attorney Banafsheh Akhlaghi.

Over the last decade, she's worked on more than 3,000 cases involving discrimination detention of individuals of North Africa, Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. Banafsheh Akhlaghi, welcome to the show.

BANAFSHEH AKHLAGHI: Thank you very much for having me, Jacki.

LYDEN: And you're speaking to us, I believe, from San Francisco.

AKHLAGHI: That's correct.

LYDEN: What happened to your work and your caseload after September 11th, 2001?

AKHLAGHI: My work actually began after September 11th, 2001 with the very first case of a young man of Middle Eastern descent and he was being questioned by the FBI for the third time. So I was - reach out to support him during that FBI interview and what I saw through that interview was shocking to me.

I heard FBI agents asking the young man, if he was innocent, why he had an attorney with him and that's literally, Jacki, when my work began 10 years ago.

LYDEN: Now, we just mentioned that you have this extraordinarily large caseload, 3,000 cases dealing with post-9/11 issues. A couple of them attributed to the so-called special registration programs that took place in the years just after 9/11.

How have the nature of your cases changed over the course of the last decade?

AKHLAGHI: Well, they've been, as I said, FBI interrogations and interviews ongoingly(ph). They haven't stopped. The cases revolve around employment discrimination. They revolve around loyalty to the companies in which they work for. For example, if they're working as a contractor for the Department of Defense and such, so there's literally been questions of their security clearances and whether or not those security clearances should still be afforded to them based on their contacts with their home countries. Again, those home countries being in North Africa, Middle East or South Asia.

Cases of students being pulled out of their classrooms, international students, to be questioned for the slightest infractions, such as, you know, dropping a course or not getting the right grade on a course can set that student into a swirl of being placed out of status and then looking at deportation proceedings.

And, you know, the creation...

LYDEN: Let me just ask you, Banafsheh, if you don't mind me interrupting...

AKHLAGHI: Yeah.

LYDEN: I would just like to say - what do you see going forward? I mean, have your cases begun to decrease at all or do you think that we're recalibrating the balance between security and the kind of detentions and surveillance that you've described in the climate of fear that some of your clients have obviously had?

AKHLAGHI: I wish we were. I don't think that we are, Jacki. Just as recently as just a couple of weeks ago, we had additional cases of individuals coming in through the ports of entry in this country and having their green cards under question of whether or not their legal permanent residency should continue in the United States.

No, no. I don't think we've calibrated. I don't think we've balanced ourselves out. It's actually the question I think we want to be asking at this 10th year. You know, where do we want to be 10 years from now? How do we want this debate to be viewed? What are we going to do with rendering a third of the globe suspect? How are we going to re-encourage a unified communication between these groups domestically and internationally?

I think those are the questions that we want to start exploring as a nation. I think those are the questions we want to start exploring as a global community.

You know, I'm of Iranian descent, born in Iran and raised in the United States, and I absolutely feel that this is my country and, you know, have my heart connected to my home country. And just that statement alone in this country in the last 10 years could render me under a fog of suspicion.

So I think what we want to start looking at is, you know, where are we going in the next 10 years and can we start to rebalance ourselves back to where we said the promise of this country was? You know, what the founders of this country had suggested, you know, and it's becoming a suggestion now - the Constitution.

LYDEN: Well, we'll have to follow what you're doing over the next decade. Thank you so much for joining us.

AKHLAGHI: Thank you so much for having me, Jacki.

LYDEN: Banafsheh Akhlaghi is a human rights attorney and she joined us from San Francisco, California.

And now in our studios is NPR national security correspondent, Tom Gjelten. Tom, thanks for coming in.

TOM GJELTEN: Hi, Jacki.

LYDEN: Take us back to that very dreadful time, September 12th, 2001, and remind us what changed in terms of America's commitment to civil rights?

GJELTEN: Well, I think that America's commitment to civil rights remained fundamentally intact, but it was combined after that with a new concern, obviously, about terrorism and about the need to prevent another attack like that. And I don't think there's any doubt that civil liberties suffered as a result of that new concern.

I think that national security officials, law enforcement, intelligent officials felt pressure to identify possible terrorists before they emerged and to take steps to keep them from acting on that.

LYDEN: But, Tom, how much has the country been willing to accept in terms of reflections on personal freedom? In exchange for security, there have been no more spectacular attacks. Certainly, others have been thwarted.

GJELTEN: That's right, Jacki. And, you know, it's hard to say what explains the fact that there haven't been additional terrorist attacks, whether those are attributed to new security measures or not. I think, generally, Americans have been supportive of that, have understood or seen that their civil liberties, you know, while they have to be protected, that security concerns are important, as well.

You know, there have been a few cases that might be worthwhile to point to. One is Mohammad al-Qahtani, who was supposed to be the 20th hijacker - supposed to the 20th hijacker - had been personally selected by Osama bin Laden. He was stopped at an airport in Orlando, despite the fact that he was coming to the United States legally, had a Visa, everything was in order. But immigration agents suspected that something was not right, turned him back. He was here to hijack an airplane.

So, you know, people look at cases like that and they're willing to give, I think, national security agencies a little bit of a break.

LYDEN: And you're pointing there, of course, to human intelligence, obviously. Do you think the Obama administration has treated this issue any differently than the Bush administration?

GJELTEN: Well, yeah. I don't think there's any question about that. Now, whether that's historical or whether that's ideological or political is hard to say. You know, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was much greater concern about this. The Obama administration is moving to end massive deportations, is now looking at deportations on a case-by-case basis.

But, you know, another important point, and this really, I think, needs to be underscored, is that Muslim-Americans themselves feel much more confident about the way they are treated. A new poll from the Pew Research Center just came out and it shows a plurality of Muslim-Americans feeling that American anti-terrorism efforts are sincere, 43 to 41 percent.

Just four years ago, in 2007, it was exactly the opposite. Only 26 percent of Muslim-Americans felt those efforts were sincere. Fifty-six thought they were not. So we are seeing a notable change among Muslim-Americans about the way that they feel they're being treated in this country.

LYDEN: Well, thanks for leaving us with a note of hope here, Tom.

GJELTEN: You're welcome, Jacki.

LYDEN: Tom Gjelten is a national security correspondent for NPR and he joined us live in the studios in Washington. Thank you so much.

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