Tag: terrorism

Osama’s Feckless Plot against Obama

In three recent colums for the Washington Post, David Ignatius reveals bits of two letters found in Osama bin Laden’s compound after the raid that killed him. One is a 48 page letter from bin Laden to Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior al Qaeda operative since killed in a drone strike. In the letter, bin Laden dispenses advice and dreams up potential terrorist acts, including a suggestion that al Qaeda teams shoot down planes carrying President Obama or General Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Ignatius is doing some excellent reporting here, providing insight in bin Laden’s last days. But he inflates bin Laden’s stature, calling him a “terrorist CEO” and his feckless hope to kill Obama a “plot” that we should find “chilling.”

As I wrote in a letter published in Wednesday’s Post, Ignatius’s article reveals something closer to a fantasy than a “plot.” Ignatius notes that al Qaeda probably lacks the weapons to down standard military aircraft, let alone Air Force One. Additionally, it’s not clear that Kashmiri had the men to pull off the plan. We should not assume that he took these suggestions seriously rather than simply listening to bin Laden with strained patience, as with a cranky uncle. Perhaps the most absurd element of the letter is bin Laden’s political analysis. He argues that elevating Joe Biden to the presidency would somehow lead the U.S. into crisis rather than creating a massive rally-around-the-flag-effect.

This is a happy reminder of al Qaeda’s incompetence, not a chilling one. As John Mueller recently noted, the materials revealed about al Qaeda since bin Laden’s death are more evidence that the cunning, disciplined al Qaeda of popular imagination is a myth. Al Qaeda consists of disjointed groups of guys dodging drones and desperately trying to live up to their inflated reputation to terrorize. There is no true central command. That is clearly true today, and was likely the case even the al Qaeda’s 1990s heyday. That disorganization helps explain why most terrorism, even al Qaeda terrorism, is homegrown—mostly organized by small groups of people in the country where it occurs with little help from abroad. That gets you awful tragedies, as we saw this week in France, but hardly the apocalyptic nightmares we’ve been told to expect.

On April 13, Cato is holding a morning conference to explore homegrown terrorism, with one panel focusing on the United States and one on other western states. The panelists (including Mueller, Risa Brooks, Brian Jenkins, Glenn Carle, Michael Kenney and Mitchell Silber) will discuss, among other things, how al Qaeda’s lack of hierarchy affects its capacity to kill and terrorize. You can sign up here.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Attorney General Holder and Executive Power

AG Eric Holder gave an address on Monday where he offered a legal rationale for the power of the president to kill American citizens who are outside of the United States and who are suspected of terrorist activity.  George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley responds:

On Monday, March 5, Northwestern University School of Law was the location of an extraordinary scene … U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder presented President Barack Obama’s claim that he has the authority to kill any U.S. citizen he considers a threat. It served as a retroactive justification for the slaying of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki last September by a drone strike in northeastern Yemen, as well as the targeted killings of at least two other Americans during Obama’s term.

What’s even more extraordinary is that this claim, which would be viewed by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution as the very definition of authoritarian power, was met not with outcry but muted applause. Where due process once resided, Holder offered only an assurance that the president would kill citizens with care. While that certainly relieved any concern that Obama, or his successor, would hunt citizens for sport, Holder offered no assurances on how this power would be used in the future beyond the now all-too-familiar “trust us” approach to civil liberties of this administration.

Read the whole thing.

Previous coverage here.   And Colbert’s segment, “Due or Die,” is here.

A Scary Thought: Do We Really Need “If You See Something, Say Something?”

At the National Sheriffs’ Association Conference in Washington last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano noted that riders on the DC Metro system can hear her voice repeatedly promoting her department’s “If You See Something, Say Something” terrorism hotline campaign. “That’s a scary thought,” she suggested.

Even scarier to me is the campaign itself.

It was begun in New York City where it generated 8,999 calls in 2006 and more than 13,473 in 2007. Although the usual approach of the media is to report about such measures uncritically, one New York Times reporter at the time did have the temerity to ask how many of these tips had actually led to a terrorism arrest. The answer, it turned out, was zero.

That continues to be the case, it appears: none of the much-publicized terrorism arrests in New York since that time has been impelled by a “If You See Something, Say Something” tip.

This experience could be taken to suggest that the tipster campaign has been something of a failure. Or perhaps it suggests there isn’t all that much out there to be found. Undeterred by such dark possibilities, however, the campaign continues, and the number of calls in New York skyrocketed to 27,127 in 2008 before settling down a bit to a mere 16,191 in 2009.

For its part, the FBI celebrated the receipt of its 2 millionth tip from the public, up to a third of them concerning terrorism, in August 2008. There seems to be no public information on whether the terrorism tips proved more useful than those supplied to the New York City police. However, an examination of all known terrorism cases since 9/11 that have targeted the United States suggests that the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign has never been relevant.

It turns out that New York has received a trademark on its snappy slogan, something Napolitano’s DHS dutifully acknowledges on its relevant website when it refers to its public awareness campaign as: “If You See Something, Say Something&™.” (Nowhere on the website, by the way, does the Department bother to tally either the number of calls it receives or the number of terrorism arrests the hotline has led to.)

New York has been willing to grant permission for the slogan to be used by organizations like DHS, but sometimes it has refused permission because, according to a spokesman, “The intent of the slogan is to focus on terrorism activity, not crime, and we felt that use in other spheres would water down its effectiveness.” Since it appears that the slogan has been completely ineffective at dealing with its supposed focus—terrorism—any watering down would appear, not to put too fine a point on it, to be impossible.

Meanwhile, in New York alone $2 million to $3 million each year (much of it coming from grants from the federal government) continues to be paid out to promote and publicize the hotline.

But that’s hardly the full price of the program. As Mark Stewart and I have noted in our Terror, Security, and Money, processing the tips can be costly because, as the FBI’s special counsel puts it, “Any terrorism lead has to be followed up. That means, on a practical level, that things that 10 years ago might just have been ignored now have to be followed up.” Says the assistant section chief for the FBI’s National Threat Center portentously, “It’s the one that you don’t take seriously that becomes the 9/11.”

It might seem obvious that any value of the “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign needs to be weighted against the rather significant attendant costs of sorting through the haystack of tips it generates. Of course, the campaign might fail a cost-benefit analysis because it is expensive and seems to have generated no benefit (except perhaps for bolstering support for homeland security spending by continually reminding an edgy public that terrorism might still be out there).

This grim possibility may be why, as far as I can see, no one has ever carried out such a study and that the prospect of doing one has probably never crossed the minds of sloganeer Napolitano or of the rapt sheriffs in her audience.

Now that’s a scary thought.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Mueller Right; Terror Experts Wrong

John Mueller was right and everyone else was wrong. (Well, not everyone else…)

That’s Cato senior fellow John Mueller. He noted on the National Interest blog last week that 79 per cent of top terrorism experts queried in 2006 thought it was likely or certain that there would be another major terrorist attack in the United States by the end of 2011. They got it wrong.

When the survey came out, it touted these experts as the “very people who have run America’s national-security apparatus over the past half century.” Mueller lampoons them thus:

The Very People’s 79 percent error rate is especially impressive because, although there had been quite a bit of terrorist activity in Iraq and elsewhere during the four-and-a-half years between 9/11 and when the survey was conducted, none of these attacks even remotely approached the destruction of the one on September 11. Nor, for that matter, had any terrorist attack during the four-and-a-half millennia previous to that date. In addition, although terrorist plots have been rolled up within the United States, none of the plotters threatened to wreak destruction on anything like the scale of 9/11, except perhaps in a few moments of movieland-fantasy musings.

Mueller was one of few suggesting in 2006—and well before—that 9/11 might be more of an aberration than a harbinger.

Mueller’s studied correctness so far is not proof of what the future holds, of course. If you want to, it is certainly possible to cling to the threat of terrorism and the metastasis of policies that purport to address your fears. Part of terrorism’s design is its operation on fear to produce cognitive errors like probability neglect, for example.

But thanks to Mueller, terrorism is holding fewer and fewer people in thrall. It is a serious, but manageable security threat. Those still transfixed by terrorism may add another fear to their long list: They may be mocked by the man who knows the subject matter better.

The Defense Authorization Bill: Still Troubled

Both Houses have now passed the 2012 Defense Authorization Bill. The president, having dropped his veto threat, will sign it today. That’s too bad.

Authorization bills, keep in mind, are essentially a collection of restrictions and permissions slips for appropriations. In practice, however, budgeteers and appropriators have more say over how we spend. So while authorizers share responsibility for our bloated military spending, I’ll save my customary complaints on that topic for the appropriations bill and focus here on the new policies this bill sets.

On the positive side, the bill creates several reporting requirements that slightly aid future efforts to trim our military ambitions and spending. It requires the Pentagon to look at accelerating the minor drawdown in nuclear weapons required by the New Start Treaty. Another report is to examine options for shrinking our ballistic missile submarine fleet, which could save several hundred billion dollars annually. The bill also requires the administration to produce “independent” studies of overseas basing costs and opportunities for savings. These reports are not likely to themselves promote much change, but they might serve as ammunition for those that do.

A little-noted problem with the bill is that it authorizes the shift of base Pentagon spending to the Overseas Contingency Operations account—the war account. Because the Budget Control Act caps military spending but not war funding, costs shifted from the former to the latter reduce the cuts needed to get under the caps, creating an illusion of savings. Appropriators are trying to protect around $10 billion in base defense costs for 2012 using this ploy. Analysts are still figuring how big a shift in funds the authorization bill endorses. But as Taxpayers for Common Sense has noted, the answer is at least several billion.

The most odious aspect of this bill is its detention provisions. These sections of the bill are confusing because they seem to say various things that they then unsay. Section 1021 requires the president to place al Qaeda members and their associates, with the exception of American citizens, in military custody and deny them civilian trial. It then destroys this “requirement” by letting the president waive it and claim that it serves “national security interests.” Section 1022 affirms that the president has the authority under the 2001 Authorization of Military Force to detain without trial anyone who belongs to al Qaeda or the Taliban, or associates of those groups who are engaged in hostilities with the United States. Language further down in the section insists that this affirmation does not “limit or expand” the president’s authority or endorse his claimed power to seize suspected terrorists in the United States and deprive them of trials.

What that compromise language section leaves us with—beyond a further muddying of the legal waters—is a punt. The offense to civil liberties is less what the bill does than what it doesn’t: deny that the president can arbitrarily detain without trial anyone he decides is al Qaeda or its helper. So when congressional leaders dismiss civil liberty concerns about the legislation by saying it “merely codifies current law,” one response is that that’s exactly the problem.

But as I noted the other day, it isn’t clear that Congress’s efforts here to keep its hand off current law will entirely succeed. Federal courts hearing cases questioning the constitutionality of war powers, including the president’s right to detain people, tend to consider whether Congress has endorsed or rejected the power in question. Judges may take all this throat-clearing as a tacit endorsement of the president’s claims, making them more likely to survive constitutional scrutiny. The question is not whether there is damage to civil liberties here, but how bad it is.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Administration Bait and Switch in Afghanistan?

U.S. combat troops are leaving Afghanistan in 2014. That was the consistent message which I received on my NATO-organized visit two months ago to a country now defined by war. The American and European governments have promised to provide long-term financial assistance and combat training, but they plan on shifting the actual fighting to Kabul’s hands.

Maybe not, it now seems.  The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, said America might just stick around and continue the war. Reported the New York Times:

The ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, speaking at a roundtable event with a small group of journalists, said that if the Afghan government wanted American troops to stay longer, the withdrawal could be slowed. “They would have to ask for it,” he said. “I could certainly see us saying, ‘Yeah, makes sense.’ ”

The ambassador’s standard is whether the Afghan government asked the United States to stay. It would make more sense to ask the American people what they think.

The argument that it’s time for Washington to go, but to go in a manner which attempts to preserve something positive has appeal, though there are plenty of reasons to doubt that it is feasible. President Hamid Karzai & Friends appeared to be neither more competent nor better loved than when I visited last year. I don’t expect much improvement next year. Nevertheless, the case for a phased withdrawal deserves to be treated seriously.

But leave the United States must. Had President George W. Bush announced in 2001 that he was embarking on a long-term mission to transform Afghanistan by turning it into a Western-style liberal democracy with a strong central government in Kabul, he would have been laughed out of Washington. The American people would have unceremoniously tossed him out of office in 2004.

Yet remake Afghanistan is what the U.S. government now is attempting to do. When I asked what justified this expensive attempt at nation-building, Afghans and Americans alike warned that al Qaeda could reemerge. I assume no one really believed that. At least, I hope no one really believed that.

After all, al Qaeda is in sharp decline. Intelligence officials say that al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is minimal. The likelihood of revival seems small.

Moreover, terrorists have demonstrated an ability to operate all over the world. Of course, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. There are plenty of other potential sanctuaries available in failed and semi-failed states. Indeed, the biggest Islamic terrorist threat these days appears to come from local groups which identify with, but are not controlled by, al-Qaeda. Afghanistan is irrelevant to the latter’s operation and impact, and of no interest to other terrorists.

There’s also strong humanitarian appeal in staying, but that can’t justify endless war in Central Asia. Washington would never have intervened to make Afghanistan a more humane place. American troops have been fighting there for ten years—as long as World Wars I and II combined.

If the president plans on keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the promised 2014, he should ‘fess up. Then the American people can make their views known. And, more important, they can take appropriate action in next year’s presidential election.

Newt Gingrich and the EMP Threat

The front page of yesterday’s New York Times features a story on Newt Gingrich’s “doomsday vision:” an attack over the United States’ airspace known as an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. Gingrich and a cadre of concerned national security analysts worry that terrorists or rogue states—Iran and North Korea—could detonate a nuclear device over the United States that theoretically could disrupt electrical circuits, from cars to power grids.

The Times does a commendable job of questioning Gingrich’s arguments and whether this is a legitimate national security concern. Despite the fact that a “National EMP Recognition Day” exists, the threat is in fact very, very low. But it may be unfortunate that such extravagant doomsday scenarios get placed on the front page of the Times.

I addressed the EMP threat in my 2010 book Atomic Obsession and I included a discussion of the views of Stephen Younger, the former head of nuclear weapons research at Los Alamos National Lab, as forcefully put forward in his 2007 book, Endangered Species:

Younger is appalled at the way “one fast‑talking scientist” managed in 2004 to convince some members of Congress that North Korea might be able to launch a nuclear device capable of emitting a high‑altitude electromagnetic pulse that could burn out computers and other equipment over a wide area. When he queried a man he considers to be “perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the world about such designs” (and who “was never asked to testify”), the response was: “I don’t think the United States could do that sort of thing today. To say that the North Koreans could do it, and without doing any testing, is simply ridiculous.” Nevertheless, concludes Younger acidly, “rumors are passed from one person to another, growing at every repetition, backed by flimsy or nonexistent intelligence and the reputations of those who are better at talking than doing.” [Emphasis in original.]

The 2012 presidential election should certainly contain a legitimate discussion of national security issues. But I don’t think it really needs to include a lot of breast-beating about the EMP “threat.”

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.