Tag: terrorism

Who’s Scared of the Guantanamo Inmates?

Many debates in Washington seem surreal.  One often wonders why anyone considers the issue even to be a matter of controversy.

So it is with the question of closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay.  Whatever one thinks about the facility, why are panicked politicians screaming “not in my state/district!”?  After all, the president didn’t suggest randomly releasing al-Qaeda operatives in towns across America.  He wants to put Guantanamo’s inmates into American prisons.

Notes an incredulous Glenn Greenwald:

we never tire of the specter of the Big, Bad, Villainous, Omnipotent Muslim Terrorist.  They’re back, and now they’re going to wreak havoc on the Homeland – devastate our communities – even as they’re imprisoned in super-max prison facilities.  How utterly irrational is that fear?  For one thing, it’s empirically disproven.  Anyone with the most minimal amount of rationality would look at the fact that we have already convicted numerous alleged high-level Al Qaeda Terrorists in our civilian court system (something we’re now being told can’t be done) – including the cast of villains known as the Blind Shiekh a.k.a. Mastermind of the First World Trade Center Attack, the Shoe Bomber, the Dirty Bomber, the American Taliban, the 20th Hijacker, and many more – and are imprisoning them right now in American prisons located in various communities.  

Guantanamo may be a handy dumping ground for detainees, but it has become a symbol of everything wrong with U.S. anti-terrorism policy.  Closing the facility would help the administration start afresh in dealing with suspected terrorists.

The fact that Republicans are using the issue to win partisan points is to be expected.  But the instant, unconditional Democratic surrender surprises even a confirmed cynic like me.

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.