PATRIOT Act author Chertoff to head Freedom House board


George Orwell would roll over in his grave if he posthumously found out that the inaptly titled “Freedom House” was naming the author of the grossly misnamed “Patriot Act” as chairman of its board of trustees.

A U.S. government-funded “non-governmental organization” (NGO), Freedom House bills itself as “an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.” This description is a bit strange given the group’s government backing. Yet the contradictions surrounding Freedom House extend much further.

At a 2001 United Nations committee hearing, a Cuban government representative called Freedom House a “so-called NGO” that had “links with terrorist groups in Cuba,” adding that “he was fully aware of the close and proven links between Freedom House and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), under which the NGO carried out destabilization missions against legitimately-established governments.”

A U.S. representative denied CIA ties to Freedom House at the time. But in 2006 the Financial Times reported that the organization was receiving funding from the State Department “for clandestine activities inside Iran.” (The State Department, which runs America’s embassies throughout the world, is one of the agencies most commonly found providing cover for the CIA.)

“The danger is that this is a move towards covert political warfare that will completely stymie the whole idea of democracy-building. This kind of activity endangers nearly 20 years of demo­cracy-promotion,” Michael Pinto-Duschinsky of the UK-based Westminster Foundation for Democracy reportedly said at the time. “Getting crowds on the streets to overthrow regimes can backfire badly,” he added.

That is all in the past. Yet with over a decade to implement reforms, Freedom House appears to have done nothing of the sort — that at least is the strong impression left by the latest news about the group.

“Freedom House today announced that Michael Chertoff, a former Secretary of Homeland Security and former U.S. Court of Appeals judge, and Executive Chairman of the Chertoff Group, will become chairman of their Board of Trustees in October 2018,” the NGO proclaimed in an Aug. 9 press release.

Chertoff is, among other things, the co-author of the notorious USA PATRIOT Act of 2001. As Jeet Heer of the New Republic puts it, “Chertoff’s new appointment only confirms existing criticism of Freedom House.”

Following his appointment as head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by President George W. Bush, “Chertoff’s intrusive efforts ranged from warrantless ICE raids to a push for a national ID card,” notes Jesse Walker of Reason. “Since leaving office, he has been a vocal advocate of installing full-body scanners in airports—and a lobbyist for the companies that manufacture the scanners.”

True to form, Chertoff showed up on CBS last month to pitch his self-promotional notion that it is too late for people to have any expectation of privacy, and to plug his new book. “We have always been worried that Big Brother might force his way into our home, but Big Brother need not beat down the door,” Chertoff writes in the book. “We are currently rolling out the red carpet to welcome him.”

Two weeks later, the Chertoff Group announced it would add three new hires “to its growing strategic advisory services practice,” including a security expert who has held “a myriad of leadership positions at the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Air Force,” and a former CIA officer.

Just over a week later, Chertoff resurfaced again, this time promoting, somewhat predictably perhaps, the virtues of public-private partnerships. “The only way the government can actually protect the private sector is with the cooperation of the private sector,” he told the audience at the Billington Global Automotive Cybersecurity Summit in Detroit in early August, where he also discussed the topic then at hand: car cybersecurity.

“As we have autonomous vehicles and smarter and smarter vehicles, the challenges of security will multiply,” Chertoff said.

“We need to consider how we use the data responsibly but also show people that it’s not going to be marketed to others or transmitted to people who use it in ways we don’t expect,” he added. “One of the weapons of choice now for terrorists is the automobile or the truck.”

While cars may serve as potential weapons for terrorists, one consideration Chertoff does not seem to have discussed is their potential for use as weapons by the so-called “counter-terrorists.”

“There is reason to believe” that U.S. intelligence agencies, among others, have the capability to remotely take control of a car, according to Richard Clarke, a former high-ranking counter-terrorism official.

“What has been revealed as a result of some research at universities is that it’s relatively easy to hack your way into the control system of a car, and to do such things as cause acceleration when the driver doesn’t want acceleration, to throw on the brakes when the driver doesn’t want the brakes on, to launch an air bag,” Clarke told the Huffington Post in the wake of the 2013 death of journalist Michael Hastings, who was killed in a car crash that Clarke described as “consistent with a car cyber attack.”

Considering their prominence in the counter-terrorism world, it is unsurprising that Clarke and Chertoff know each other. In fact they both spoke as panelists at an IT security conference in 2010. At that conference, Clarke pointed out that following the creation of the DHS in 2002, Congress mandated that a special board be set up with the task of protecting privacy and civil liberties — but “it’s been a joke,” he said, and the situation had not improved under the Obama administration.

“I think frankly it’s a great opportunity for the private sector,” Chertoff said at that same conference, “because as people value privacy and security –and here I confess I do, my firm does counsel people in the cybersecurity space, so you know don’t be shocked at my saying this– there is an opportunity in the private sector to promoting that value in a way that is efficient for people, and we haven’t done enough of that.”



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