Tag: terrorism

… But Obama Generally Comprehends Terrorism

My difference with the President on releasing photos of Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, he exhibits an understanding of terrorism and how to counter it – an understanding that was not on display at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue this week or at the American Enterprise Institute today.

Here’s a portion of President Obama’s speech today showing that he knows how overreaction to terrorism (such as resorting to torture) plays into the terrorism strategy:

As commander-in-chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What’s more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts – they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all.

Politicians in Thrall to Terrorism

Doug Bandow aptly finds the debate about Guantanamo detainees surreal. For my part, I see it as an exhibition of politicians put “on tilt” – and unwittingly executing the terrorism strategy.

The leadership of both parties appears not to understand that terrorism is designed to elicit self-injurious overreaction. Fear-mongering is a cog in the overreaction machine.

If they did understand this, they would see it as both a civic duty and politically rewarding leadership to exhibit bravery. Messages of indomitability and calm are the appropriate strategic response to terrorism.

Instead, what we have is a bidding war about who can be the most fearful of Guantanamo detainees – a group that is well under control itself and whose transportation and housing in U.S. prisons is entirely manageable.

Both parties are playing to a “base” of caterwauling Islamophobes while the bulk of the American public looks on bewildered and disappointed. Meanwhile, people around the world see that terrorism is a great way to express opposition to U.S. power and U.S. policies. Oops.

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.