by Joshua H. Liberatore
Since the disaffected scion of a wealthy Nigerian banker ignited his briefs aboard Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, POTUS has expended much energy in front of cameras acting the tough Democrat. Although we were tepidly reminded by both our Commander in Chief and his Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that, in general, “the system worked,” POTUS was wise to credit the actual first responders onboard the plane, those decidedly outside “the system,” with thwarting disaster:
Thanks to the quick and heroic actions of passengers and crew, the suspect was immediately subdued, the fire was put out, and the plane landed safely. The suspect is now in custody and has been charged with attempting to destroy an aircraft. And a full investigation has been launched into this attempted act of terrorism, and we will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable. (December 28, 2009)
POTUS concluded that first reaction with a colorful paean to American self-reliance:
Finally, the American people should remain vigilant, but also be confident. Those plotting against us seek not only to undermine our security but also the open society and the values that we cherish as Americans. This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist. As a nation, we will do everything in our power to protect our country. As Americans, we will never give in to fear or division; we will be guided by our hopes, our unity, and our deeply held values. That’s who we are as Americans. (December 28, 2009)
In the meantime, the crafters and deciders of the System were busy plugging some major leaks. Their efforts have perplexed many. Various terrorist watchlists are reportedly being refined and expanded (but crotchbomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was already on the biggest list). Screening techniques are being reevaluated, with hundreds of new security technologies and scanners already on order (but again, the net is being widened not narrowed). Improvements in intelligence-sharing and interagency communication have come under consideration (new boards and panels created, hence more layers). Then, in his next update, POTUS began to lift the curtain:
I wanted to speak to the American people again today because some of this preliminary information that has surfaced in the last 24 hours raises some serious concerns. It’s been widely reported that the father of the suspect in the Christmas incident warned U.S. officials in Africa about his son’s extremist views. It now appears that weeks ago, this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community, but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect’s name on a no-fly list. (December 29, 2009)
Not exactly confidence inspiring, this. With numerous suspect lists in the government databases and covert human intelligence “assets” in every country of the globe, the system failed to take seriously a father’s worried plea that his estranged son might be up to something in the dusty hills of Yemen. But what’s more disconcerting is the most recent refinement of the System: blatantly racist (and according to most experts, counterproductive) “enhanced” profiling of air travelers from an unlucky thirteen countries, a list that includes the usual suspects of nations we love to hate – often with few tangible reasons – such as Iran and Syria, some other benighted Middle Eastern countries like Sudan and Algeria, innocent Nigeria, and tiny Cuba, which can’t even send its cigars or sugarcane into our country, much less its citizens. In a euphemism to top all euphemisms, POTUS called these “countries of interest”:
As of yesterday, the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, is requiring enhanced screening for passengers flying into the United States from, or flying through, nations on our list of state sponsors of terrorism or other countries of interest. And in the days ahead, I will announce further steps to disrupt attacks, including better integration of information and enhanced passenger screening for air travel. (January 4, 2010)
I’m no security expert (although I have spent some time in those fancy puffer machines, which once illuminated my hanky as a suspicious item, undisclosed in the conveyor basket), but one thing the record shows is that the System is consistently one or two full steps behind those training themselves to circumvent it. Before Richard Reid blew up his loafers in 2001, no one would have thought to pad through an airport security line in sweaty business socks. Now, it’s become a dismal routine.
Now, I will accept that intelligence, by its nature, is imperfect, but it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it. Time and again, we’ve learned that quickly piecing together information and taking swift action is critical to staying one step ahead of a nimble adversary. (January 4, 2010)
“Enhanced screening” based on national origin ignores some basic realities. Muhammad Atta and his 9/11 comrades were not sipping tea in Damascus awaiting their marching orders; they were taking architecture classes in Hamburg and flight lessons in south Florida. Do the managers of the System imagine that suicidal extremists clever enough to hotwire a pair of drawers and elude European security protocols – in my experience much more rigorous than those of Newark and Baltimore – will not find a way to fabricate a Belgian or Turkish passport? Do they imagine that Al Qaida won’t find a way to recruit young men from other landscapes not covered by the baker’s dozen countries of interest, say Oman, Malaysia, or Azerbaijan? Will our undereducated and likely underpaid TSA frontliners be able to tell the difference between a 22-year-old Argentine and his Libyan counterpart?
As these violent extremists pursue new havens, we intend to target Al Qaida wherever they take root, forging new partnerships to deny them sanctuary, as we are doing currently with the Government in Yemen. As our adversaries seek new recruits, we’ll constantly review and rapidly update our intelligence and our institutions. As they refine our tactics, we’ll enhance our defenses, including smarter screening and security at airports and investing in the technologies that might have detected the kind of explosives used on Christmas. (January 4, 2010)
In the opinion of Robert Baer, the veteran CIA field operative whom George Clooney made famous in Syriana, our biggest post-9/11 policy blunder has been the stubborn misapprehension that Al Qaida is “an organization not an idea.” No matter how many Predator drones we deploy to desert caverns around the world, ideas are fluid, cross borders easily, and spread in coded language on the Internet, going dormant one place and resurfacing in another.
As we saw on Christmas, Al Qaida and its extremist allies will stop at nothing in their efforts to kill Americans. And we are determined not only to thwart those plans but to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat their networks once and for all. Indeed, over the past year, we’ve taken the fight to Al Qaida and its allies wherever they plot and train, be it in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Yemen and Somalia, or in other countries around the world. (January 4, 2020)
To mad dog senators like Joe Lieberman and Jim DeMint already fantasizing about making war on yet another Muslim country, we offer the humble reminder that thus far, the military option – and it has always been an option, despite tough talk about “wars of necessity” – has not produced brilliant results for us. Dropping bombs on more brown-skinned people will not make us feel safer in Topeka and Providence. Furthermore, politicians of the bellicose variety should consult the British on the prospects of subduing a country like Yemen (they tried it and got licked in the late 1960s). No cake walk, no slam dunk, in short, no fun.
Our reviews, and the steps that we’ve taken and will continue to take, go to the heart of the kind of intelligence and homeland security we need in the 21st century. Just as Al Qaida and its allies are constantly evolving and adapting their efforts to strike us, we have to constantly adapt and evolve to defeat them, because as we saw on Christmas, the margin for error is slim and the consequences of failure can be catastrophic. (January 4, 2010)
POTUS’s own self-hypnotic mantra that we must “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” (sometimes he swaps in “destroy” in the third position) betrays precisely the kind of misunderstanding Baer warns against. If Baer is right – and I suspect he is – the “war on terror” (not in name but in practice unchanged since October 2001) will be lost for the same simple reasons that our other fastidious struggles with demons on which we have previously declared wars – drugs, crime, poverty – have failed. Terrorism – terror! – just as any other abstraction we abhor, cannot easily be squashed by brute force; rather, it must be drained over time of its persuasive power. We won’t accomplish that by patting down the pantaloons of 170 million Nigerians, much less by allowing our politicians to fan the flames of xenophobia while praising the virtues of American vigilance.