Tag: terrorists

John Brennan on Countering Terrorism

Earlier today, I attended a lecture at CSIS by John Brennan, a leading counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama. His speech highlighted some of the key elements of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in advance of tomorrow’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

I hope that many people will take the opportunity to read (.pdf) or listen to/watch Brennan’s speech, as opposed to merely reading what other people said that he said. Echoing key themes that Brennan put forward last year, also at CSIS, today’s talk reflected a level of sophistication that is required when addressing the difficult but eminently manageable problem of terrorism.

Brennan was most eloquent in talking about the nature of the struggle. He declared, with emphasis, that the United States is indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, but not at war with the tactic of terrorism, nor with Islam, a misconception that is widely held both here in the United States and within the Muslim world. He stressed the positive role that Muslim clerics and other leaders within the Muslim community have played in criticizing the misuse of religion to advance a hateful ideology, and he lamented that such condemnations of bin Laden and others have not received enough exposure in the Western media. This inadequate coverage of the debate raging within the Muslim community contributes to the mistaken impression that this is chiefly a religious conflict. It isn’t; or, more accurately, it need not be, unless we make it so.

I also welcomed Brennan’s unabashed defense of a counterterrorism strategy that placed American values at the forefront. These values include a respect for the rule of law, transparency, individual liberty, tolerance, and diversity. And he candidly stated what any responsible policymaker must: no nation can possibly prevent every single attack. In those tragic instances where a determined person slips through the cracks, the goal must be to recover quickly, and to demonstrate a level of resilience that undermines the appeal of terrorism as a tactic in the future.

I had an opportunity to ask Brennan a question about the role of communication in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. He assured me that there was such a communications strategy, that elements of the strategy would come through in the NSS, and that such elements have informed how the administration has addressed the problem of terrorism from the outset.

This was comforting to hear, and it is consistent with what I’ve observed over the past 16 months. Members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, seem to understand that how you talk about terrorism is as important as how you disrupt terrorist plots, kill or capture terrorist leaders, and otherwise enhance the nation’s physical security. On numerous occasions, the president has stressed that the United States cannot be brought down by a band of murderous thugs. Brennan reiterated that point today. This should be obvious, and yet such comments stand in stark contrast to the apolocalytpic warnings from a few years ago of an evil Islamic caliphate sweeping across the globe.

Talking about terrorism might seem an esoteric point. It isn’t. Indeed, it is a key theme in our just released book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. Because the object of terrorism is to terrorize, to elicit from a targeted state or people a response, and to (in the terrorists’s wildest dreams) cause the state to waste blood and treasure, or come loose from its ideological moorings, a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should aim at building a psychologically resilient society. Such a society should possess an accurate understanding of the nature of the threat, a clear sense of what policies or measures are useful in mitigating that threat, and an awareness of how overreaction does the terrorists’s work for them. The true measure of a resilient society, one that isn’t in thrall to the specter of terrorism, is the degree to which it can conduct an adult conversation about the topic.

We aren’t there yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and by what I heard today.

Immigration II: On the Substance of the Matter

Responding to my immigration post this morning, my colleagues Dan Griswold and Jason Kuznicki have focused on the single short paragraph that touched on the substance of the matter. (The question before me, posed by Politico Arena, concerned mainly the political implications of the new Arizona law, given the latest Pew Research Center poll on the issue.) I quite agree with both that we’ve never had full control of our southern border (or any border, for that matter), but as Dan has noted elsewhere, when we had a guest-worker program in place, illegal immigration dropped by 95 percent – no small drop. And illegal, not legal, immigration is the issue before us. And Dan is right too that we’ve thrown a lot of enforcement at the problem in recent years, to limited avail, so it’s not true that Congress hasn’t done anything. What it has done, however, hasn’t addressed the real problem, the underlying substantive law, as Dan has often written.

I’m struck, though, by Jason’s unqualified comment that he can’t say he shares my views on immigration.” Really? I did say, I believe, that Congress needs to address the problem, including with a guest-worker program. And I also said that “It hardly needs saying that a welfare state, in the age of terrorism, cannot have open borders.” I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with that.

Concerning both the welfare state and terrorism, Jason points to “remedies” at the far end of the problem. He writes, for example, that our welfare state is going broke anyway, and “compared to the damage being done by native-born U.S. citizens and their cursedly long lifespans, the immigrants’ overall effects are quite small.” (I won’t take that “cursedly long lifespan” point personally.) True, but in places where the welfare state issues are concentrated, like border-state emergency rooms and schools, that long-term national perspective isn’t the issue. Yes, getting the government out of health care and education might ameliorate those localized problems (that question’s for another day), but we can’t always wait for more remote problems to be solved before we address more immediate ones.

And that goes for Jason’s terrorism point, too. He writes: “Without the black market in drugs, we’d have a lot less to fear from terrorists, particularly on our southern border.” I’m all for legalizing recreational drugs. But I was alluding to Islamic terrorists, not narco-terrorists, when I spoke of getting control of our borders. Legalizing drugs (again, a more remote remedy) might have some effect on the coffers of Islamic terrorists, but it would hardly solve the terrorism problem. As long as that problem exists, we need border control. Let’s remember, for example, that it was an alert border agent who thwarted the would-be LAX bomber.

The Wall Street Journal’s Surveillance Fantasies

There are too few periodical venues for good short fiction these days, so I’d normally be enthusiastic about the Wall Street Journal’s decision to print works of fantasy. Unfortunately, they’ve opted to do so on their editorial page—starting with a long farrago of hypotheticals concerning the putative role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in hindering the detection and apprehension of failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. In fairness to the editors, they acknowledge near the end of the piece that much of it is unvarnished speculation, but their flights of creative fancy extend to many claims presented as fact.

Let’s begin with the acknowledged fiction. The Journal editors wonder whether Shahzad might have been under surveillance before his botched Times Square attack, and posit that the NSA might have intercepted communications from “Waziristan Taliban talking about ‘our American brother Faisal,’ which could have been cross-referenced against Karachi flight manifests,” or “maybe Shahzad traded seemingly innocuous emails with Pakistani terrorists, and minimization precluded analysts from detecting a pattern.”  Anything is possible. But it’s a leap to make this inference merely because investigators appear to have had fairly specific knowledge about his contacts with terrorists after he had already been identified.  They would not have needed to “retroactively to reconstruct his activities from other already-gathered foreign wiretaps:” Once they had zeroed in on Shahzad, his calling patterns could have been reconstructed from phone company calling records whether or not he or his confederates were being targeted at the time the communications occurred, and indeed, those records could have been obtained by means of a National Security Letter without any oversight from the FISA Court.

This is part of a more general strategy we often see deployed by advocates of expanded surveillance powers. After the fact, one can always tell a story about how a known terrorist might have been detected by means of more unfettered spying authority, just as one can always tell a story about how any particular calamity would have been averted if the right sort of regulation were in place. Sometimes the story is even plausible. But if we look at the history of recent intelligence failures, it’s almost invariably the case that the real problem was the inability to connect the right set of data points from the flood of data already obtained, not insufficient ability to collect. The problem is that it’s easy and satisfying to call for legislation lifting the restraints on surveillance—and lifting still more when intelligence agencies fail to exhibit perfect clairvoyance—but difficult if not impossible, certainly for those of us without high-level clearances, to say anything useful about the internal process reforms that might help make better use of existing data. The pundit in me empathizes, but these just-so stories are a poor rationale for further diluting civil liberties protections.

Let’s move on to the unacknowledged fictions, of which there are many.  Perhaps most stunning is the claim that “U.S. intelligence-gathering capability has been substantially curtailed in stages over the last decade.” They mean, one supposes, that Congress ultimately imposed a patina of judicial oversight on the lawless program of warrantless wiretapping and data program authorized by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But the claim that somehow intelligence gathering is more constrained now than it was in 2000 just doesn’t pass the straight face test. In addition to the radical expansion of the aforementioned National Security Letter authorities, Congress approved roving wiretaps for domestic intelligence, broad FISA orders for the production of “any tangible thing,” so-called “sneak and peek” searches, looser restraints on existing FISA wiretap powers, and finally, with the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, executive power to authorize broad “programs” of surveillance without specified targets. In a handful of cases, legislators have rolled back slightly their initial grants of power or imposed some restraints on powers the executive arrogated to itself, but it is ludicrous to deny that the net trend over the decade has been toward more, rather than less, intelligence-gathering capability.

Speaking of executive arrogation of power, here’s how the Journal describes Bush’s warrantless Stellar Wind program:

Via executive order after 9/11, the Bush Administration created the covert Terrorist Surveillance Program. TSP allowed the National Security Agency to monitor the traffic and content of terrorist electronic communications overseas, unencumbered by FISA warrants even if one of the parties was in the U.S.

This is misleading.  There was no such thing as the “Terrorist Surveillance Program.”  That was a marketing term concocted after the fact to allow administration officials to narrowly discuss the components of Stellar Wind initially disclosed by the New York Times.  It allowed Alberto Gonzales to claim that there had been no serious internal dissent about the legality of “the program” by arbitrarily redefining it to exclude the parts that had caused the most controversy, such as the vast data mining effort that went far beyond suspected terrorists. It was this aspect of Stellar Wind, and not the monitoring of overseas communication, that occasioned the now-infamous confrontation at Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital bed described in the editorial’s subsequent paragraph. We continue:

In addition to excessive delays, the anonymous FISA judges demanded warrants even for foreign-to-foreign calls that were routed through U.S. switching networks. FISA was written in an analog era and meant to apply to domestic wiretaps in the context of the Cold War, not to limit what wiretaps were ever allowed.

Forgive me if I’m a broken record on this, but the persistence of the claim in that first sentence above is truly maddening.  It is false that “FISA judges demanded warrants even for foreign-to-foreign calls that were routed through U.S. switching networks.”  Anyone remotely familiar with the FISA law would have known it was false when it was first bandied about, and a Justice Department official confirmed that it was false two years ago. FISA has never required a warrant for foreign-to-foreign wire communications, wherever intercepted, though there was a narrower problem with some e-mail traffic.  To repeat the canard at this late date betrays either dishonesty or disqualifying ignorance of elementary facts. Further, while it’s true that a great deal of surveillance has always, by design, remained beyond the scope of FISA, it is clearly false that it was “meant to apply to domestic wiretaps” if by this we mean only “wiretaps where all parties to the communication are within the United States.” The plain text and legislative history of the law make it clear beyond any possible doubt that Congress meant to impose restraints on the acquisition of all U.S.-to-foreign wire communications, as well as radio communications targeting U.S. persons. (The legislative history further suggests that they had hoped to tighten up the restraints on radio communications, though technical considerations made it difficult to craft functional rules.) We continue:

The 2008 FISA law mandates “minimization” procedures to avoid targeting the communications of U.S. citizens or those that take place entirely within the U.S. As the NSA dragnet searches emails, mobile phone calls and the like, often it will pick up domestic information. Intelligence officials can analyze, retain and act on true smoking guns. But domestic intercepts must be effectively destroyed within 72 hours unless they indicate “a threat of death or serious bodily harm to any person” or constitute “evidence of a crime which has been, is being, or is about to be committed and that is to be retained or disseminated for law enforcement purposes.”

This means that potentially useful information must be discarded if it is too vague to obtain a traditional judicial warrant. Minimization is the FISA equivalent of a fishing license that requires throwing back catches that don’t meet the legal limit. Yet the nature of intelligence analysis is connecting small, suggestive and often scattered clues.

The kernel of truth here is that the FISA Amendments Act did impose some new constraints on the surveillance of Americans abroad. But the implication that “minimization” is some novel invention is just false. Minimization rules have always been part of FISA, and they exist precisely because the initial scope of FISA acquisition is so incredibly broad. And those minimization rules give investigators enormous latitude.  As the FISA Court itself explained in a rare published ruling:

Minimization is required only if the information “could not be” foreign intelligence. Thus, it is obvious that the standard for retention of FISA-acquired information is weighted heavily in favor of the government.

Similarly, the redaction of identifying information about U.S. persons is not required when that information is needed to properly interpret the intelligence, so the idea that analysts would have scrubbed mention of “our American brother Faisal” from an intercept of Taliban communications cannot be taken too seriously.  It’s not entirely clear what the editors are referring to when they say “domestic intercepts must be effectively destroyed within 72 hours:” Do they mean “inadvertent” intercepts of entirely domestic communications, or one-end domestic communications legitimately acquired under the FAA, or what? Either way, that’s not really consistent with what we know about FISA minimization in practice: At least as of 2005, it appears that “minimized” communications were at least sometimes retained in ultimately retrievable form, though not logged.  In any event, if I’m reading them correctly, the Journal is suggesting that NSA should be broadly sweeping up and retaining even the apparently innocent domestic communications of Americans, on the off chance that they might later prove useful? I can imagine being that consumed by terror, but I think I would be ashamed to admit it in public.  Moving on:

Meanwhile, the FISA court reported in April that the number of warrant applications fell to 1,376 in 2009, the lowest level since 2003. A change in quantity doesn’t necessarily mean a change in intelligence quality—though it might.

As it happens, I covered this in a post just the other day.  As a Justice Department official explained to the bloggers at Main Justice, the numerical decline is due to significant changes in the legal authorities that govern FISA surveillance — specifically, the enactment of the FISA Amendments Act in 2008 — and shifting operational demands, but the fluctuation in the number of applications does not in any way reflect a change in coverage.”  Finally:

These constraints are being imposed at the same time that domestic terror plots linked to, or inspired by, foreigners are increasing. Our spooks did manage to pre-empt Najibullah Zazi and his co-conspirators in a plot to bomb New York subways, but they missed Shahzad and Nidal Hasan, as well as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to bring down Flight 253 on Christmas Day.

Abdulmutallab was a non-U.S. person who didn’t set foot in the country until after setting his underpants aflame; there is no reason whatever to believe that FISA restrictions would have posed an obstacle to monitoring him. As for Nidal Hasan, investigators did intercept his e-mails with radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki. While it seems clear in retrospect that the decision not to investigate further was an error in judgment, they were obviously not destroyed after the fact, since they were later quoted in various press accounts. Maybe those exchanges really did seem legitimately related to Hasan’s research at the time, or maybe investigators missed some red flags. Either way, the part of the process the Journal is wringing its hands about worked: The intercepts were retained and disseminated to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which concluded that Hasan was “not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning” and, along with Army officials, declined to open an investigation. Rending already gossamer-thin minimization requirements is not going to avoid errors of that sort.

The Journal closes out their fantasy by melodramatically asking “whether FISA is in practice giving jihadists a license to kill.” But the only “license” I see here is of the “creative” variety; should they revisit the topic in the future, the editors might consider taking less of it.

Three Steps to Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Congress can and should pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2010. Any legislation worthy of the name would:

1) offer legalization to undocumented workers who have been here for several years, pass a security check, and pay a reasonable fine and back taxes;

2) create a temporary-visa program sufficient to meet future labor needs of a growing economy; and

3) enforce the law against those who still insist on working outside the system, but in a way that does not restrict the freedom of American citizens.

Reform would reduce illegal immigration by offering a legal alternative. It would tighten border security by allowing U.S. agents to focus on intercepting real criminals and terrorists, not dishwashers and gardeners. And it would expand output, investment, and job opportunities for middle-class Americans. Polls show a majority of Americans will accept the three-fold approach to reform. Recent elections confirm that support for reform is a modest plus with swing voters, and a huge plus with Hispanics.

This is an issue where both major parties can work together to fix our immigration system in a way that boosts the economy, enhances security, and expands liberty.

For more, see Cato’s research on immigration.

The Latest ‘Intelligence Gap’

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. The Washington Post reports that the National Security Agency has halted domestic collection of some type of communications metadata—the details are predictably fuzzy, though I’ve got a guess—in order to allay the concerns of the secret FISA Court that the NSA’s activity might not be technically permissible under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Naturally, there’s the requisite quote from the anonymous concerned intel official:

“This is a basic tool we used to have, and it’s now gone,” said one intelligence official familiar with the impasse. “Every day, every week that goes by, there’s just one more week of information that we’re not collecting. You sit there and say, ‘This is unbelievable that we have this gap.’”

I want to take claims like these with due gravity, but I can’t anymore.  Because we’ve heard them again and again over the past decade, and they’ve proven to be bogus every time.  We were told that the civil liberties restrictions built into pre-9/11 surveillance law kept the FBI from searching “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui’s laptop—but a bipartisan Senate panel found it wasn’t true. We were told limits on National Security Letters were FBI delaying agents seeking vital records in their investigations—but the delay turned out to have been manufactured by the FBI itself. Most recently, we were warned that the FISA Court had somehow imposed a requirement that a warrant be obtained in order to intercept purely foreign telephone calls that were traveling through U.S. wires.  Anyone who understood the FISA law realized that this couldn’t possibly be right—and as Justice Department officials finally admitted under pressure, that wasn’t true either.  But this time there’s a really real for serious “intelligence gap” and we’ll all be blown up by scary terrorists any minute if it’s not fixed?  Pull the other one.

That said, Republicans are claiming the problem requires a mere “technical fix” to FISA, so we should at least be able to get a rough sense of what the issue is, if Congress actually decides to act.  Democrats, by contrast, appear to think NSA can “address the court’s concerns without resorting to legislation.” The word “resort” here seems depressingly apt: They’ll ask for a legislative tweak if there’s absolutely no way to shoehorn what they want to do into the statute through clever lawyering in an ex parte proceeding in front of a highly deferential court, but it’s a last resort.

As for what the problem might be, I can think of a couple of possibilities off the top of my head.  A few years back, the FISA pen register provision was amended to effectively build into the legal order for a standard pen register, which records data about calls or e-mails made and received, language mirroring a legal demand for subscriber records known as a 2703(d) order in the criminal context.  Law enforcement routinely uses that combination of a 2703(d) plus a pen register to get location tracking information for cell phones. But the evidentiary standard for getting a 2703(d) order is (very) slightly higher than the standard for a pen register alone, and federal law prohibits the use of a pen register alone to gather location data. So there might be a question about whether FISA pen registers alone can be used for cell phone location tracking purposes.

Alternatively, given that Internet communications aren’t just “metadata” and “content” but rather a whole series of layers containing different types of information, there could be a question about just how far down “metadata” goes. This might be especially tricky for protocols where quite a lot of information about the content of the communication—which is supposed to require a full probable cause warrant—can be gleaned from sophisticated analysis of the size and timing of packets in the stream.

These are, of course, blind guesses.  What’s disturbing is how much blind guessing the FISA court itself may be doing.  The new hiatus, the Post tells us via an anonymous source, came about when the FISA Court “got a little bit more of an understanding”of what the NSA was up to. Their enhanced understanding concerns data that NSA has been getting with the court’s approval for “several years,” according to the Post. And there you have the real “intelligence gap” in modern surveillance: We have a Court going through a pantomime of oversight over thousands of highly technologically sophisticated interception programs, but it may take a few years for them to really understand what they’ve been signing off on.

We’ll understand still less about the rationale for any “technical fix” to FISA that Congress might approve, if they deign to go that route. But we’ll be reassured that it’s very important, necessary to keep us safe from the terrorist hordes, and nothing worth bothering our pretty heads about.

Every Time I Say “Terrorism,” the Patriot Act Gets More Awesome

Can I send Time magazine the bill for the new crack in my desk and the splinters in my forehead? Because their latest excretion on the case of Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose and its relation to Patriot Act surveillance powers is absolutely maddening:

The Justice Department won’t say whether provisions of the Patriot Act were used to investigate and charge Colleen LaRose. But the FBI and U.S. prosecutors who charged the 46-year-old woman from Pennsburg, Pa., on Tuesday with conspiring with terrorists and pledging to commit murder in the name of jihad could well have used the Patriot Act’s fast access to her cell-phone records, hotel bills and rental-car contracts as they tracked her movements and contacts last year. But even if the law’s provisions weren’t directly used against her, the arrest of the woman who allegedly used the moniker “Jihad Jane” is a boost for the Patriot Act, Administration officials and Capitol Hill Democrats say. That’s because revelations of her alleged plot may give credibility to calls for even greater investigative powers for the FBI and law enforcement, including Republican proposals to expand certain surveillance techniques that are currently limited to targeting foreigners.

Sadly, this is practically a genre resorted to by lazy writers whenever a domestic terror investigation is making headlines. It consists of indulging in a lot of fuzzy speculation about how the Patriot Act might have been crucial—for all we know!—to a successful  investigation, even when every shred of available public evidence suggests otherwise.  My favorite exemplar of this genre comes from a Fox News piece penned by journalist-impersonator Cristina Corbin after the capture of some Brooklyn bomb plotters last spring, with the bold headline: “Patriot Act Likely Helped Thwart NYC Terror Plot, Security Experts Say.” The actual article contains nothing to justify the headline: It quotes some lawyers saying vague positive things about the Patriot Act, then tries to explain how the law expanded surveillance powers, but mostly botches the basic facts.  From what we know thanks to the work of real reporters,  the initial tip and the key evidence in that case came from a human infiltrator who steered the plotters to locations that had been physically bugged, not new Patriot tools.

Of course, it may well be that National Security Letters or other Patriot powers were invoked at some point in this investigation—the question is whether there’s any good reason to suspect they made an important difference. And that seems highly dubious. LaRose’s indictment cites the content of private communications, which probably would have been obtained using a boring old probable cause warrant—and the standard for that is far higher than for a traditional pen/trap order, which would have enabled them to be getting much faster access to more comprehensive cell records. Maybe earlier on, then, when they were compiling the evidence for those tools?  But as several reports on the investigation have noted, “Jihad Jane” was being tracked online by a groups of anti-jihadi amateurs some three years ago. As a member of one group writes sarcastically on the site Jawa Report, the “super sekrit” surveillance tool they used to keep abreast of LaRose’s increasingly disturbing activities was… Google. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the FBI could’ve handled this one with pre-Patriot authority, and a fortiori with Patriot authority restrained by some common-sense civil liberties safeguards.

What’s a little more unusual is to see this segue into the kind of argument we usually see in the wake of an intelligence failure, where the case is then seen as self-evidently justifying still more intrusive surveillance powers, in this case the expansion of the “lone wolf” authority currently applicable only to foreigners, allowing extraordinarily broad and secretive FISA surveillance to be conducted against people with no actual ties to a terror group or other “foreign power.” Yet as Time itself notes:

In fact, Justice Department terrorism experts are privately unimpressed by LaRose. Hers was not a particularly threatening plot, they say, and she was not using any of the more challenging counter-surveillance measures that more experienced jihadis, let alone foreign intelligence agents, use.

Which, of course, is a big part of the reason we have a separate system for dealing with agents of foreign powers: They are typically trained in counterintelligence tradecraft with access to resources and networks far beyond those of ordinary nuts. What possible support can LaRose’s case provide for the proposition that these industrial-strength tools should now be turned on American citizens?  They caught her—and without much trouble, by the looks of it. Sure, this domestic nut may have invoked to Islamist ideology rather than the commands of Sam the Dog or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories… but so what? She’s still one more moderately dangerous unhinged American in a country that has its fair share, and has been dealing with them pretty well under the auspices of Title III for a good while now.

Wars, Crimes, and Underpants Bombers

I’ve been meaning to follow up on Gene Healy’s post from last week on the interrogation and prosecution of terror suspects.  I share Gene’s bemusement at the howls emanating from Republicans who have abruptly decided that George Bush’s longstanding policy of dealing with terrorism cases through the criminal justice system is unacceptable with a Democrat in the White House.  But I also think it’s worth stressing that the arguments being offered – both in the specific case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and more generally – aren’t very persuasive even if we suppose that they’re not politically motivated.

Two caveats.  First, folks on both sides would do well to take initial reports about the degree of cooperation terror suspects are providing with a grain of salt. For reasons too obvious to bother rehearsing, investigators won’t always want to broadcast accurately or in detail the precise degree of cooperation a suspect is providing.   Second, as Gene noted, given that it seems unlikely we’ll need to use Abdulmutallab’s statements against him at trial, the question of whether the civilian or military system is to be preferred can be separated from the argument about the wisdom of Mirandizing him. That said, the facts we have just don’t seem to provide a great deal of support for the conclusion that, warning or no, criminal investigators are somehow incapable of effectively questioning terrorists.

Certainly if you ask veteran FBI interrogators, they don’t seem to share this concern that they won’t be able to extract intelligence their military counterparts would obtain. You might put that assessment down to institutional pride, but it’s consistent with the evidence, as the FBI has had impressive successes on this front already. And if you don’t want to take their word for it, you can always ask Judge Michael Mukasey who, before becoming attorney general under George W. Bush, ruled that military detainees were entitled to “lawyer up” – as critics of the Bush/Obama approach are wont to put it – explicitly concluding that “the interference with interrogation would be minimal or nonexistent.”

Nor, contra the popular narrative, does it appear to have interfered in the Abdulmutallab case.  Republicans leapt to construe sketchy early reports as implying that the failed bomber had been talking to investigators, then clammed up upon being read his Miranda rights and provided with counsel. But that turns out to have gotten the order of events wrong. In reality, Abdulmutallab was initially talkative – perhaps the shock of having set off an incendiary device in his pants overrode his training – but then ceased cooperating before being Mirandizied. Rather, it was the urging of his family members that appears to have been crucial in securing his full cooperation – family members whose assistance would doubtless have been far more difficult to secure without assurances that he would be treated humanely and fairly within the criminal justice system. It’s possible, one supposes, that the emo terrorist might have broken still more rapidly in military custody, but it seems odd to criticize the judgment of the intelligence professionals directly involved with the case, given that their approach has manifestly worked, on the basis of mere speculation about the superior effectiveness of an alternative approach.

Stepping back from this specific case, there seem to be strong reasons to favor recourse to the criminal systems in the absence of some extraordinarily compelling justification for departing from that rule in particular cases. Perhaps most obviously, few terror suspects are quite so self-evidently guilty as Abdulmutallab, and so framing the question of their treatment as one of the due process rights afforded “terrorists” begs the question. The mantra of those who prefer defaulting to military trial is that “we are at war” – but this is an analytically unhelpful observation.  We’re engaged in a series of loosely connected conflicts, some of which look pretty much like conventional wars, some of which don’t. This blanket observation tells us nothing about which set of tools is likely to be most effective in a particular case or class of cases – any more than it answers the question of which battlefield tactics will best achieve a strategic goal.

For the most part, the insistent invocation of the fact that “we’re at war” seems to be a kind of shibboleth deployed by people who want to signal that they are Very, Very Serious about national security without engaging in serious thought about national security. If it came without costs, I would be loath to begrudge them this little self-esteem boosting ritual. But conflict with terrorists is, by definition, a symbolic conflict, because terrorism is first and foremost a symbolic act. As Fawaz Gerges documents in his important book The Far Enemy, jihadis had traditionally been primarily concerned with the fight to impose their rigid vision in the Muslim world, and to depose rulers perceived as corrupt or too secular.  The controversial – and even among radical Islamists,quite unpopular – decision to strike “the Far Enemy” in the United States was not motivated by some blind bloodlust, or a desire to kill Americans as an end in itself. Rather, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri hoped that a titanic conflict between Islam and the West could revive flagging jihadi movement, galvanize the ummah, and (crucially) enhance the prestige of Al Qaeda, perceived within jihadi circles as a fairly marginal organization.

This has largely backfired. But it’s important to always bear in mind that attacks on the United States, especially by sensational methods like airplane bombings, are for terror groups essentially PR stunts whose value is ultimately instrumental. They don’t do it for the sheer love of blowing up planes; they do it as a means of establishing their own domestic credibility vis a vis more locally-focused Islamist groups (violent and peaceful) with whom they are competing for recruits. While our response to these attempts will often necessarily have some military component, there is no reason to bolster their outreach efforts by making a big public show of treating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as tantamount to a belligerent foreign state.  Better, when it’s compatible with our intelligence gathering and security goals, to treat Abdulmutallab and his cohorts as just one more band of thugs.

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