Tag: terrorist group

Talking about Terrorism

Terrorists are named after an emotion for a reason. They use violence to produce widespread fear for a political purpose. The number of those they kill or injure will always be a small fraction of those they frighten. This creates problems for leaders, and even analysts, when they talk publicly about terrorism. On one hand, leaders need to convince the public that they are on the case in protecting them, or else they won’t be leaders for long. On the other hand, good leaders try to minimize unwarranted fear.

One reason is that we shouldn’t give terrorists what they want. Another is that fear is a real social harm, particularly when it is exaggerated. Stress from fear harms health. It causes bad decisions. For example, if people avoid flying and drive instead the number of added fatalities on the road will quickly surpass the dead from a typical terrorist attack. Most important, excessive fear causes policy responses that often damage the economy without much added safety. Measured in lives on dollars, reactions to terrorism often cost more than the attack themselves.

If leaders talk only about the danger of terrorism and everything they are doing to fight it, without putting danger in context, they may be on safe political ground, but they risk causing or prolonging groundless fear and encouraging all sorts of harmful overreactions. That is the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism record, in a nutshell. If leaders just say “calm down and worry about something more likely to harm you,” they will be butchered politically.

So a reasonable approach is to sound concerned but reassuring. You want to convince people that they are mostly safe without appearing complacent. I don’t like many of this administration’s counterterrorism policies, starting with Afghanistan, but thus far its communication about terrorism is far more sensible than the last administration’s. That includes the aftermath of this attempted Christmas Day attack.

The administration made it clear that it is unacceptable that a guy we just got warned about got onto a plane wearing explosives. But the President also said Americans should be generally confident in their safety from terrorism. He didn’t act as if this incident was the most important thing on his schedule this year or compare the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen to the Third Reich or what have you, exaggerating their capability and power. I wish he had gone further and said that detonating explosives smuggled on to a plane is tricky and that flying remains incredibly safe. (Jim Harper will soon have more to say here on the security failures and how to talk about them.)

In a different political universe, the President could describe the terrorist threat honestly. He would say that recent attempted terrorist attacks in the United States show more amateurism and failure than skill and success. He could add that we are fortunate that our greatest enemy, al Qaeda and its fellow-travelers, are scattered and weak compared the sorts of enemies we historically faced. He would sound more like Michael Bloomberg, who told New Yorkers that they had a better chance of being struck by lightening than killed by terrorists, after a particularly inept terrorist plot on JFK airport was uncovered. He could even quote Nate Silver, who calculates that in the last decade of US flights, there was one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown. It’s true, as Kip Viscusi demonstrates, that people don’t think like actuaries. They rightly value different sorts of deaths in different ways, and want more protection against terrorism than other dangers. But knowing the odds is still important in weighing the appropriate amount of concern and forming policy preferences. The president could also have treated voters like grown-ups and pointed out that whatever flaws in airline security that this attempted attack reveals, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and sooner or later even the finest security systems fail.

I also disagree with the argument that the trouble with our airline security or national security policy-making in general is insufficient presidential attention. Overall, we could do with a little more masterly inactivity in security policy, to use an old British phrase. Aviation security is another matter, but I struggle to see how presidential involvement would have fixed this problem. The 9-11 Commission did claim that September 11 occurred because leaders failed to pay sufficient attention to al Qaeda, but there, as in other matters, the Commission is wrong. At least in the executive branch, the attention paid to the threat in the 1990s was quite substantial, as you can see in this essay by Josh Rovner or in my contribution to this book. The historical record shows that the threat was well understood by security officials and the reading public. Time, for example, called Osama bin Laden the most wanted man in the world when they interviewed him in 1998. The trouble, in my opinion, was not misperception but our policies and the difficult and unprecedented nature of problem–a terrorist group ensconced in hostile country that refused to do anything about it.

Getting the line between confidence and vigilance right is not easy, but it starts with acknowledgment that there is such a thing as overreaction. That subject will be the on the agenda for our January 13 counterterrorism forum with James Fallows, State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin, Paul Pillar and others.

*My attempts to explain this stuff to Politico yesterday resulted in some confused and inaccurate uses of my quotes in this story by Carol E. Lee, which unconvincingly compares the Obama’s response to this terrorist attempt to his silly involvement in the Henry Louis Gates arrest fiasco. First, Lee absurdly uses me as example of “predictable” attacks from the right on Obama, when I said I was glad that the President said Americans should feel confident but that I’d have preferred if he’d done it more forcefully by saying flying remains safe and al Qaeda weak. That is more or less the opposite of the predictable take on the right. Then, she says that my views on the President’s response to the attacks referred to his post-press conference golf outing. I was talking about his overall response, or lack thereof, over the last several days. I can’t decipher the meaning of presidential golf.

A Chance to Fix the PATRIOT Act?

As Tim Lynch noted earlier this week, Barack Obama’s justice department has come out in favor of renewing three controversial PATRIOT Act provisions—on face another in a train of disappointments for anyone who’d hoped some of those broad executive branch surveillance powers might depart with the Bush administration.

But there is a potential silver lining: In the letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) making the case for renewal, the Justice Department also declares its openness to “modifications” of those provisions designed to provide checks and balances, provided they don’t undermine investigations. While the popular press has always framed the fight as being “supporters” and “opponents” of the PATRIOT Act, the problem with many of the law’s provisions is not that the powers they grant are inherently awful, but that they lack necessary constraints and oversight mechanisms.

Consider the much-contested “roving wiretap” provision allowing warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to cover all the communications devices a target might use without specifying the facilities to be monitored in advance—at least in cases where there are specific facts supporting the belief that a target is likely to take measures to thwart traditional surveillance. The objection to this provision is not that intelligence officers should never be allowed to obtain roving warrants, which also exist in the law governing ordinary law enforcement wiretaps. The issue is that FISA is fairly loosey-goosey about the specification of “targets”—they can be described rather than identified. That flexibility may make some sense in the foreign intel context, but when you combine it with similar flexibility in the specification of the facility to be monitored, you get something that looks a heck of a lot like a general warrant. It’s one thing to say “we have evidence this particular phone line and e-mail account are being used by terrorists, though we don’t know who they are” or “we have evidence this person is a terrorist, but he keeps changing phones.” It’s another—and should not be possible—to mock traditional particularity requirements by obtaining a warrant to tap someone on some line, to be determined. FISA warrants should “rove” over persons or facilities, but never both.

The DOJ letter describes the so-called “Lone Wolf” amendment to FISA as simply allowing surveillance of targets who are agents of foreign powers without having identified which foreign power (i.e. which particular terrorist group) they’re working for. They say they’ve never invoked this ability, but want to keep it in reserve. If that description were accurate, I’d say let them. But as currently written, the “lone wolf” language potentially covers people who are really conventional domestic threats with only the most tenuous international ties—the DOJ letter alludes to people who “self-radicalize” by reading online propaganda, but are not actually agents of a foreign group at all.

Finally, there’s the “business records” provision, which actually covers the seizure of any “tangible thing.”  The problems with this one probably deserve their own post, and ideally you’d just go through the ordinary warrant procedure for this. But at the very, very least there should be some more specific nexus to a particular foreign target than “relevance” to a ongoing investigation before an order issues. The gag orders that automatically accompany these document requests also require more robust judicial scrutiny.

Some of these fixes—and quite a few other salutary reforms besides—appear to be part of the JUSTICE Act which I see that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) introduced earlier this afternoon.  I’ll take a closer look at the provisions of that bill in a post tomorrow.

Cheney vs. Obama: Tale of the Tape

In case you missed it, President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney spoke separately today on terrorism and national security. Like two boxers at a pre-fight press conference, they each touted their strength over their opponent. They espoused deep differences in their views on national counterterrorism strategy.

The Thrilla in Manilla it ain’t. As Gene Healy has pointed out, they agree on a lot more than they admit to. Harvard Law professor and former Bush Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith makes the same point at the New Republic. Glenn Greenwald made a similar observation.

However, the areas where they differ are important: torture, closing Guantanamo, criminal prosecution, and messaging. In these key areas, Obama edges out Cheney.

Torture

Cheney:

I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.

Obama:

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.

Torture is incompatible with our values and our national security interests. When we break our own rules (read: laws) against torture, we erode everyone’s faith that America is the good guy in this global fight.

Torture has been embraced by politicians, but the people who are fighting terrorists on the ground want none of it. As former FBI agent Ali Soufan made clear in Senate hearings last week, it is not an effective interrogation technique. Senior military leaders such as General Petraeus, former CENTCOM commanders Joseph Hoar and Anthony Zinni, and former Commandant of the Marine Corps Charles Krulak all denounce the use of torture.

If we captured Al Qaeda operatives who had tortured one of our soldiers in pursuit of information, we would be prosecuting them. Torture is no different and no more justifiable because we are doing it.

Closing Guantanamo

Cheney:

I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.

Obama:

[I]nstead of serving as a tool to counter-terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

This is an area where Cheney is disagreeing not just with Obama but with John McCain. We would be having this debate regardless of who won the last Presidential election. Get over it.

The current political climate gives you the impression that we are going to let detainees loose in the Midwest with bus fare and a gift certificate for a free gun at the local sporting goods store. Let’s be realistic about this.

We held hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war in America during World War II. The detainees we have now are not ten feet tall and bulletproof, and federal supermax prisons hold the same perfect record of keeping prisoners inside their walls as the detainment facility in Guantanamo Bay.

Criminal Prosecution

Obama basically said that we will try those we can, release those who we believe pose no future threat, and detain those that fit in neither of the first two categories. That’s not a change in policy and that pesky third category isn’t going away.

Obama and Cheney do have some sharp differences as to the reach of war powers versus criminal prosecution.

Cheney:

And when you hear that there are no more, quote, “enemy combatants,” as there were back in the days of that scary war on terror, at first that sounds like progress. The only problem is that the phrase is gone, but the same assortment of killers and would-be mass murderers are still there.

Obama:

Recently, we prosecuted and received a guilty plea from a detainee - al-Marri - in federal court after years of legal confusion. We are preparing to transfer another detainee to the Southern District of New York, where he will face trial on charges related to the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania - bombings that killed over 200 people.

I have written extensively on al-Marri, the last person to be detained domestically as an enemy combatant. The FBI did everything right when it investigated and indicted this Al Qaeda sleeper agent masquerading as an exchange student, only to have the Bush administration remove those charges in order to preserve the possibility of detaining domestic criminals under wartime powers. This claim of governmental power is a perversion of executive authority that Obama was right to repudiate.

The man being indicted in New York is Ahmed Gailani. If he is convicted for his role in the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he will join his co-conspirators Wadih El-Hage, Mohammed Odeh, Mohammed al-Owhali, and Khalfan Mohammed in a supermax.

This is also where we hold 1993 World Trade Center bombers Ramzi Yousef, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (the “Blind Sheikh”), Mohammed Salameh, Sayyid Nosair, Mahmud Abouhalima, and Ahmed Ajaj.

Not to mention would-be trans-pacific airline bombers Wali Khan Amin Shah and Abdul Hakim Murad.

Al Qaeda operatives Mohammed Jabarah, Jose Padilla, and Abu Ali will share his mailing address.

Let’s not forget American Taliban Johnny Walker Lindh, Shoe Bomber Richard Reid, Al Qaeda and Hamas financier Mohammed Ali Hassan Al-Moayad, Oregon terrorist training camp organizer Ernest James Ujaama, and would-be Millenium Bomber Ahmed Ressam.

That’s a lot of bad guys. It’s almost like we’re checking names off a list or something.

Messaging

Cheney:

Behind the overwrought reaction to enhanced interrogations is a broader misconception about the threats that still face our country. You can sense the problem in the emergence of euphemisms that strive to put an imaginary distance between the American people and the terrorist enemy. Apparently using the term “war” where terrorists are concerned is starting to feel a bit dated.

Obama: no quote is necessary here. The differences in narrative between Obama and Cheney are clear and woven into what Obama says.

Terrorism is about messaging. America finds herself in the unenviable position of fighting an international terrorist group, Al Qaeda, that is trying to convince local insurgents to join its cause. Calling this a “War on Terror” can create a war on everybody if we use large-scale military solutions for intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic problems.

We have to tie every use of force or governmental power to a message: drop leaflets whenever we drop a bomb, hold a press conference whenever we conduct a raid, and publish a court decision whenever we detain someone. Giving the enemy the initiative in messaging gives them the initiative in the big picture.

Conclusion

Once we get past the rhetoric, the differences are few but worth noting. I take Obama in the third round by TKO.

Egypt Crosses Critical Line in the Arab Sands, Labels Hezbollah ‘Terrorist’

The designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group by Egypt highlights a fault line developing in the Middle East over relations with Israel and the United States.

On the one hand, there are those who favor negotiations to resolve the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. These countries include, most prominently, Egypt and Jordan, which both have signed treaties with Israel. Saudi Arabia also has promoted a negotiated solution.

Iran and Hezbollah, on the other hand, have emphasized what they call “resistance,” which means the use of arms to wrest territory from Israel ‘s control. The admission by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, that one of the people Egypt arrested was supplying arms to Hamas on Hezbollah’s behalf indicates that Hezbollah’s “resistance” is not limited to Lebanese sovereign territory.

Although Egypt’s action is directed against Hezbollah (and, by extension, Iran), it also carries a warning for the United States and Israel. The “resistance” argument is gaining ground in the Middle East. If it is to be successfully countered, negotiations need to deliver something tangible for the Palestinians—and soon. Otherwise, the regional governments who favor negotiation will find their arguments undercut, which could not only jeopardize hopes for Middle East peace, but might also threaten their own stability.