Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Twitter Terror — Laughable? Or Is There a Lesson?

I was amused to read that a draft Army intelligence report identified micro-blogging service Twitter as a potential tool for terrorists. On the other hand, it’s regrettable that this terrorism mania persists to foster this kind of report and media attention. There’s no distinct terror threat from Twitter.

If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with blogs. On Twitter you can publish ever-so-brief thoughts, giving your readers (or “followers”) ambient awareness of what’s on your mind or what you’re doing. Here’s an example: the Cato Institute’s Twitter feed, which I encourage you to follow. WashingtonWatch.com has one too. And CNN. And former Cato intern Felix Ling.

Now, to use of Twitter by terrorists: Sure, it’s possible, just like it’s possible with any communications medium. Twitter is right up there with telephones, pen and paper, email, SMS, and smoke signals as a potential tool for terrorism. Each of these media have different properties which make them more or less susceptible to use for wrongdoing — and more or less protective of legitimate privacy for the law-abiding.

Like most common digital communications, Twitter is a pretty weak medium for planning bad things. Copies of every post are distributed far and wide — and all “Tweets” are housed pretty much permanently by a single organization.

If you want to get caught doing something wrong, use Twitter to plan it.

Securing against terrorism is hard because terrorists don’t wear uniforms or occupy territory. Their tools are our tools: sneakers, sandwiches, credit cards, cars, steak knives, box cutters, cameras, cell phones, driver’s licenses, Web sites, Napster, Friendster, Facebook, spinach. The list goes on and on and on.

(Yes, spinach — it grows terrorists’ muscles.)

The problem is determining what things in our society have a proximate relationship to terrorism that is greater than their relationship to all the good things we do with them. Box cutters were integral to the 9/11 attacks, but they are used by millions of people every day for wonderful purposes, so we haven’t pursued restrictions on, or monitoring of, box cutters (beyond airplanes, of course). Highly enriched uranium can be used to do a lot of damage. There is exceedingly little chance of it being used by terrorists, but it’s prudent to pursue controls on this material and monitor for peoply trying to acquire it.

Twitter and other digital media are used billions of times a day for all the good things law-abiding people do. There is also a small chance that they’ll be used for wrongdoing, and we have rules about what to do when that chance arises. Alas, Supreme Court cases under the Fourth Amendment are a little too permissive these days.

The chance of Twitter being used by terrorists (real ones, serious ones) is very small and not newsworthy. We’re all relatively inexperienced with the security dilemmas created by terrorism, and it’s appropriate to give a brief thought to how all the implements and infrastructure in society might be used to do damage. In summary, the production of a report on Twitter terror is just shy of silly. The media attention paid to the question: fully silly.

Fears of Nuclear Terrorism

Nightmare scenarios of terrorists gaining possession of nuclear weapons might make for good movie plots, but Americans grossly exaggerate the likelihood that an act of nuclear terrorism will occur within the next five or ten years. So says the RAND Corporation’s Brian Michael Jenkins in a new book, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (See also some of John Mueller’s writings on this subject here and here.) 

James Kitfield’s interview with Jenkins, posted at The National Journal, is an interesting read. Jenkins focuses on the fear factor surrounding nuclear terrorism, fears that terrorists are happy to exploit, even as their capacity for using such weapons is very, very small. I particularly appreciated Jenkins’ ideas about breaking the “chain reaction of fear” and his advice to American political leaders is worth repeating verbatim:

Rather than telling Americans constantly to be very afraid, we should stress that even an event of nuclear terrorism will not bring this Republic to its knees. Some will argue that fear is useful in galvanizing people and concentrating their minds on this threat, but fear is not free. It creates its own orthodoxy and demands obedience to it. A frightened population is intolerant. It trumpets a kind of “lapel pin” patriotism rather than the real thing. A frightened population is also prone both to paralysis – we’re doomed! – and to dangerous overreaction.

I believe that fear gets in the way of addressing the issue of nuclear terrorism in a sustained and sensible way. Instead of spreading fear, our leaders should speak to the American traditions of courage, self-reliance, and resiliency. Heaven forbid that an act of nuclear terrorism ever actually occurs, but if it does, we’ll get through it.

It is understandable why politicians are reluctant to embrace such recommendations. On the other hand, if they understood that terrorists seek to engender panic, public officials would pay as much or more attention to calming the public’s fears as they do to stoking them.

Today at Cato

Article: “Don’t Expand NATO,” by Benjamin H. Friedman and Justin Logan in World Politics Review

Article: “Nuclear Energy: Risky Business,” by Jerry Taylor in Reason Magazine

Podcast: “Jacob Zuma and the Future of South Africa,” featuring Tony Leon

Op-Ed: “Questions and Answers About Obama’s Health Plan,” by Michael D. Tanner in the McClatchy News Service

Radio Highlight: Adam B. Schaeffer On Education

New York Times: Less Difference between Candidates on Foreign Policy than Meets the Eye

Today’s Times features an article by David Sanger discussing the two campaigns’ claim that the candidates have “sharply different views about the proper use of American power.”  Sanger tallies the ledger and finds “contradictions that do not fit the neat hawk-and-dove images promoted by each campaign.”

Much of what Sanger covers, and his general conclusion, appeared in my Policy Analysis published earlier this month, “Two Kinds of Change: Comparing the Candidates on Foreign Policy.”  But Sanger points to an interesting contradiction within the McCain camp on Iran.  Sanger writes:

Questions to both campaigns in the past few weeks have yielded another example of role reversal. While Mr. McCain seems willing to consider that Iran might someday be trusted to produce its own nuclear fuel, Mr. Obama does not. The director of foreign policy for the McCain campaign, Randy Scheunemann, said that if Iran was in compliance with United Nations resolutions, “it would be appropriate to consider” letting it produce uranium under inspection, which Iran has said is its right.

This is interesting.  As I wrote in my paper,

In response to a two-question questionnaire sent to the candidates by the Institute for Science and International Security, McCain indicated that “there can be no such thing as an adequately controlled nuclear fuel cycle in Iran.”He went on to propose that Iran rely on foreign sources of fuel, and claimed that “There is no circumstance under which the international community could be confident that uranium enrichment or plutonium production activities undertaken by the current government of Iran are purely for peaceful purposes.”

Here (.pdf) is the ISIS report in question.  I’m not fond of the “flip flop” gotcha game, but this appears to be an interesting shift on the part of the McCain camp.  Something an enterprising journalist might want to follow up on.

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer on REAL ID

I just came across the transcript of an interview with Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer (D) about the REAL ID Act. His characteristic forthrightness makes it refreshing to read.

Here’s a key point about the REAL ID Act’s attempt to coerce states into complying:

So I spoke with Chertoff and it became apparent to me that Homeland Security needed all the states worse than we needed them to do this thing.

In the early going, many state politicians were cowed by the threat that the federal government would interfere with their constituents’ travel plans if they did not go along with national standardization of their states’ ID documents.

As this interview makes clear, Secretary Chertoff and the DHS recognized that the federal government would be blamed if the Transportation Security Administration interfered with the air travel plans of millions of Americans.

DHS blinked. And it’s not the first time that happened.

U.S. Missteps = Perceived Gains for Terrorists

I wrote here a few weeks ago about a plausible argument that the 9/11 attacks were succeeding in that they drew our nation into destabilizing overreaction. Though I assume only the best of intentions on the part of our political leaders, their massive expenditures on war and homeland security have left the country in a weaker fiscal position and less able to deal with the recent upheaval in investment banking, credit, and the stock market.

Apparently, terrorists and would-be terrorists see this too. According to the Washington Post:

[Web commentary] posted by Taliban or al-Qaeda-allied groups in recent days [has] trumpeted the global financial crisis and predicted further decline for the United States and other Western powers. In language that was by turns mocking and ominous, the newest posting credited al-Qaeda with having lured Washington into a trap that had “exhausted its resources and bankrupted its economy.”

I’m still quite sure that the United States is not destabilized and in economic collapse, but we’re quite a bit worse off economically than we could have been had we responded strategically to terrorism rather than just reacting.

20-20 hindsight? Yes! My purpose is to turn these lessons into foresight.

Me, McCain, and a Skip Down Memory Lane

John McCain writing for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times: “Isn’t it more likely that antipathy toward the United States in the Islamic world might diminish amid the demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the end of a regime that has few equals in its ruthlessness?”

Iraq is now the “cause celebre” for jihadists worldwide. But inside the Beltway that’s neither here nor there, since our “war on terror” discourse has morphed into praising the gains of the surge, regardless of how “fragile and reversible” those gains may have been. But discussions on Iraq should not be about “who was right about the surge,” because that argument is premised on the false belief that we attacked the correct country. The root of the problem is that politicians like Senator McCain use the surge to deflect attention from their own complicity in diverting America’s resources away from those who attacked us on 9/11 by invading a country that did not.