Tag: terrorism

Don’t Fear Attacks on the Food Supply

Bruce Schneier, a participant in our January counterterrorism conference, reviews a recent report and discusses the possibility of attacks on the food supply in a post on his blog:

The quantities involved for mass poisonings are too great, the nature of the food supply too vast and the details of any plot too complicated and unpredictable to be a real threat. That becomes crystal clear as you read the details of the different incidents: it’s hard to kill one person, and very hard to kill dozens. Hundreds, thousands: it’s just not going to happen any time soon. The fear of bioterror is much greater, and the panic from any bioterror scare will injure more people, than bioterrorism itself.

Obama’s Military Commissions

President Obama is expected to announce how his administration is going to prosecute prisoners for war crimes and perhaps other terrorist offenses.  Instead of civilian court, courts-martial, or new “national security courts,” Obama has apparently decided to embrace George W. Bush’s system of special military tribunals, but with some “modifications.”

Glenn Greenwald slams Obama for seeking to create a “gentler” tribunal system and urges liberals to hold Obama to the same standards that were applied to Bush:

What makes military commissions so pernicious is that they signal that anytime the government wants to imprison people but can’t obtain convictions under our normal system of justice, we’ll just create a brand new system that diminishes due process just enough to ensure that the government wins.  It tells the world that we don’t trust our own justice system, that we’re willing to use sham trials to imprison people for life or even execute them, and that what Bush did in perverting American justice was not fundamentally or radically wrong, but just was in need of a little tweaking.  Along with warrantless eavesdropping, indefinite detention, extreme secrecy doctrines, concealment of torture evidence, rendition, and blocking judicial review of executive lawbreaking, one can now add Bush’s military commission system, albeit in modified form, to the growing list of despised Bush Terrorism policies that are now policies of Barack Obama.

Greenwald is right.  The primary issue is not due process.  The tribunals might ultimately be “fair” and “unbiased” in some broad sense, but where in the Constitution does it say that the president (or Congress) can create a newfangled court system to prosecute, incarcerate, and execute prisoners?

For more about how Bush’s prisoner policies ought to be ravamped, see my chapter “Civil Liberties and Terrorism” (pdf) in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers.

Former FBI Agent: Torture Sucks. Don’t Do It.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings produced an ugly picture of the role torture played in interrogating Al Qaeda leaders. The testimony of former FBI agent Ali Soufan shows how traditional intelligence techniques worked on Abu Zubaydah and “enhanced” techniques did nothing to advance national security interests:

Immediately after Abu Zubaydah was captured, a fellow FBI agent and I were flown to meet him at an undisclosed location. We were both very familiar with Abu Zubaydah and have successfully interrogated al-Qaeda terrorists. We started interrogating him, supported by CIA officials who were stationed at the location, and within the first hour of the interrogation, using the Informed Interrogation Approach, we gained important actionable intelligence.

We were once again very successful and elicited information regarding the role of KSM as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and lots of other information that remains classified. (It is important to remember that before this we had no idea of KSM’s role in 9/11 or his importance in the al Qaeda leadership structure.)

Soufan then recounts a tug-of-war between the interrogators and the contractors brought in to apply the third degree. The intelligence and law enforcement professionals struggled to reestablish rapport with Zubaydah after each iteration of harsh interrogation tactics.

The new techniques did not produce results as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking. At that time nudity and low-level sleep deprivation (between 24 and 48 hours) was being used. After a few days of getting no information, and after repeated inquiries from DC asking why all of sudden no information was being transmitted (when before there had been a steady stream), we again were given control of the interrogation.

We then returned to using the Informed Interrogation Approach. Within a few hours, Abu Zubaydah again started talking and gave us important actionable intelligence.

The enhanced interrogation techniques were not only inferior to traditional interrogation techniques, they proved counterproductive. The use of illegal techniques resurrected the “wall” between the CIA and the FBI with regard to these detainees. This prevented FBI experts who knew more about Al Qaeda than anyone else in the government from questioning them. Plus, as Soufan recounts, coercive techniques make detainees tell you what you want to hear, whether it is true or not. As Jesse Ventura says, “you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney, and one hour, and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.”

Torture did not advance the work of picking apart Al Qaeda, it disrupted it.

Quelling Overreaction Is Part of the Job

On Sunday’s Meet the Press, David Gregory pressed a trio of federal officials about how comments on swine flu like Vice President Biden’s have caused overreactions across the country, such as the diversion of a plane because a passenger had flu-like symptoms, the cancellation of a rap concert, and a variety of other dislocations in American life.

Acting director of the Centers for Disease Control Dr. Richard Besser said:

Well, y’know, everybody is going to deal with their concerns in different ways, and that’s the nature of people. What we can do is try and tell them what the risks are - what do we know - share information as we have it, and continue to hit the messages of those things that can be really effective.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius lamely used the fact that people are flooding emergency rooms as an opportunity to promote health care reform … So that panicked insured people would flood doctors’ offices?

If government officials are going to manage a situation like this - and doubts have been raised that they should - their obligation is not just to report, but to actually manage. Allowing a cacophony of government voices to drive erratic behavior by people across the land is harmful to the country for all the resources it wastes.

The Obama Administration should have a disciplined plan for handling situations like this. The administration’s disorganized response here is a signal of the truly awful reaction we could expect should something serious happen, like a terrorist attack. Terrorism, of course, works by inducing self-injurious overreaction on the part of the victim state, so overreaction must be avoided.

This incident reveals that the country is exceedingly vulnerable to terrorism because communications plans are evidently not in place.

(The administration’s plan for any terrorist attack should prioritize moving Vice President Biden to an undisclosed location. Not for his security or for continuity of government - so he won’t appear in the media!)

Al-Marri Pleads Guilty

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri pleaded guilty to conspiring with al Qaeda leaders to commit acts of terrorism yesterday.  He could be sentenced up to 15 years in prison, though he has spent nearly half that awaiting trial and may get credit for the time already served.

Al-Marri was an exchange student who arrived in the United States on September 10th, 2001 as an al Qaeda sleeper agent.  Read the government’s declaration of facts used to detain him.  This is the stuff of movies; the FBI took a dangerous man off the streets when it arrested him.

Unfortunately, the government took him out of the criminal justice system and asked that the charges against him be dismissed with prejudice (meaning that they cannot be re-filed in the future).  He became a domestically detained enemy combatant and the test case for future domestic military detentions.  Just as attorneys seek sympathetic plaintiffs to overturn unjust laws, the government can find unsympathetic defendants to justify overbroad claims of power.  Al-Marri is about as unsympathetic as you can get.

The real tragedy is that al-Marri will serve a relatively short sentence.  Had the government prosecuted him on the seven charges alleged the first time around, he would have been put away for decades.  Related posts here, here, here, and here.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan

Oh, the war in Afghanistan. The more I learn, the more I’m convinced that we need to get out.

As I described the situation to my Cato colleague Chris Preble, for lack of a better analogy, the Afghanistan–Pakistan border is like a balloon: pushing down on one side forces elements to move to another — it doesn’t eliminate the threat.

The fate of Pakistan — a nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country plagued by a powerful jihadist insurgency — will matter more to regional and global stability than economic and political developments in Afghanistan. But if our attempts to stabilize Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, where does that leave us? Like A.I.G., is Afghanistan too big to fail? No.

President Obama earlier this month issued a wide-ranging strategic review of the war and the region, and declared “the core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” But al Qaeda, as we very well know, is a loosely connected and decentralized network with cells in over 60 countries. Amassing tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops in one country — or any country — is unnecessary.

Until Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, changes priorities, this is a stalemate and we are throwing soldiers into a conflict because policymakers fear that, if we leave, it will get worse. Sound familiar?

The only military role necessary in Afghanistan is trainers and assistance for the Afghan military, police, and special forces tasked with discrete operations against specific targets. The bulk of the combat forces can and should be withdrawn.

As for Pakistan’s impulsive act of gallantry in Buner this week, that’s certainly welcome news. But Mukhtar Khan, a Pakistani freelance journalist whom I’ve talked to on numerous occasions, records here that last year in Buner, a lashkar (tribal militia) successfully beat back the Taliban’s incursions.

Thanks to the Swat Valley peace deal between pro-Taliban TNSM founder Sufi Mohammad and the Pakistani government, militants have spilled back into Buner, killing policemen and terrorizing locals. What’s especially troubling this time around is that the spread from Swat into Buner brings militants closer to Mardan and Swabi, which leads directly to the four-lane motorway running from Peshawar to Islamabad. (I took the picture above when I was on the motorway to Peshawar last August.)

Overall, I’m not optimistic that the Pakistani government’s effort in Buner changes the grand scheme of things. Unless the intervention is coupled with a comprehensive shift in Pakistan’s strategic priorities, which means a move away from allowing its territory to act as a de facto sanctuary for militants undermining U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, then these sporadic raids tell us nothing about their leaders’ overall commitment to tackling terrorism.

For instance, Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently ordered the release of hard-line cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz on bail. Aziz was a leading figure from the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) massacre of July 2007 and faces several charges, including aiding militants. For an idea of how pervasive militant sympathies go, when the Islamist political party Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islami was in power in North-West Frontier Province, a Pakistani territory adjacent to the ungoverned tribal areas, its leaders proselytized in mosques about the need for jihad in Afghanistan. In addition, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, was killed in Iraq, their parliament observed a two-minute moment of silence.

If leaders within Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments are serious about combating extremism, it will take more than periodic military moves into restive areas. We will not know for the next several months whether they have abandoned their lackadaisical attitude toward extremism.