Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Judge Says NSA Wiretapping Program Unconstitutional

The ACLU brought a constitutional challenge to the NSA’s controversial wiretapping program several months ago and the judge has now ruled the NSA program to be unconstitutional (click on the 06-10204 pdf). This is just the initial round of what will likely be a long legal fight.  The government will appeal and the battle will move to an appeals court, and then possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For additional background, go here and here.

The Decider, Hard at Work

It’s no secret that President Bush doesn’t take well to criticism (or even actual non-filtered news), and doesn’t do much to break out of the groupthink bubble down on Pennsylvania Ave. But now for some reason the administration has decided to start pretending that they seek outside counsel. Back in June, the president held a much-ballyhooed “war council” at Camp David that was portrayed as a broad-minded president seeking to mix it up with a variety of opposing intellectuals. The scholars on that panel were

Frederick Kagan, AEI, full-throated neocon

Eliot Cohen, SAIS, full-throated neocon

Robert Kaplan, The Atlantic, advocate of American empire

Michael Vickers, former CIA, vocal war proponent turned tactical critic

So much for intellectual diversity at that summit. But now the White House is touting another panel of critics, held earlier this week, that is supposed to help Bush figure out what the heck’s going on in Iraq. Here’s how spinmeister Tony Snow spun the meeting:

What the president does in sessions like this is invite people to express very openly their candid views on things. They play a role in the sense that they add to the president’s knowledge and understanding of the region, they introduce new ideas, and they allow him to question closely people who spend the vast majority of their time studying issues that are of keen concern to him, and, at this point, to the country.

We do not invite in “amen choruses.’’ What you do is you invite smart people in who have different points of view… And that’s a very useful service. You don’t want people who are simply saying exactly the same thing.

Right, you wouldn’t want them to say exactly the same thing. But trouble is, it seems that The Decider didn’t even want the experts’ views. Here’s Vali Nasr, one of the participants in the recent panel, on what he did and didn’t contribute:

I didn’t give an opinion about policy. They didn’t ask if it was a good policy or not.

I wonder why.

Will Power

In another terrific column today, George Will continues his judicious study of the foreign-policy reality created by a profoundly unconservative administration. His last paragraph is a gem:

Foreign policy “realists” considered Middle East stability the goal. The realists’ critics, who regard realism as reprehensibly unambitious, considered stability the problem. That problem has been solved.

Along the way, Will begins to quibble with the war metaphor that has governed our response to terrorism since 9/11. Though, contra the lefty bumper sticker, war may sometimes be the answer, military action is ill-suited to combating a transnational stateless conspiracy operating, among other places, from within the already-democratic West. Will writes that

better law enforcement, which probably could have prevented Sept. 11, is central to combating terrorism. F-16s are not useful tools against terrorism that issues from places such as Hamburg (where Mohamed Atta lived before dying in the North Tower of the World Trade Center) and High Wycombe, England.

In the course of making that point, the nation’s premier conservative columnist cites John Kerry–favorably. This could not have been what George W. Bush envisioned when he said he’d govern as “a uniter, not a divider.”

Fomenting Hysteria

Scotland Yard should rein in Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson.

Last week, discussing the foiled attack on passenger air transportation, Stephenson stood before cameras, flash-bulbs popping, and read the following from a prepared statement:

We cannot stress too highly the severity that this plot represented. Put simply, this was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.

Stephenson quite badly over-stressed the severity of the plot. It is easy to comprehend in terms of both execution and anticipated result. The planned attack would have killed many people in a very dramatic way - everyone should be glad that it was defeated - but it wasn’t anything near “unimaginable.”

Is this a quibble about semantics? No. Stephenson’s overwrought statement is a form of incompetence.

As I wrote last week (citing national security expert John Mueller), it is the reaction to terrorist attacks that inflict the most damage. Controlling the reaction through even-handed public communications is the best thing officialdom can do when an attack has succeeded - to say nothing of the opportunity for confidence-building when an attack has been thwarted.

The fact that this embarrassing public display was part of a statement written in advance is reason for Scotland Yard to fully review its communications strategy. Stephenson’s overreaction splashed across America’s television screens numerous times over the weekend.

Fortunately,the public doesn’t appear to be falling for it. A poll appearing in this morning’s Washington Post Express found that 72% of people feel safe flying. USA Today reports that air travelers are adapting quickly to measures that foreclose the threat of a liquid bomb attack. Let’s hope that the measures are quickly minimized to reach what attacks are actually possible, rather than those that are only speculative.

My colleague Gene Healy’s post here last week (preceding news of the foiled terror plot) and his citation to James Fallows’ article ” Declaring Victory ” are even more solid and relevant now than they were before. We do not face an existential threat from terrorism. The “War on Terror” is effectively won. All that’s left is for someone to declare it so.

Antiwar? Anti Which War?

Joseph Lieberman, the sitting Democratic senator from Connecticut who now aspires to be the sitting Independent senator from Connecticut, declared yesterday that the antiwar views of Democratic primary winner Ned Lamont would be “taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England.”

Really?

And what do we — and by “we” I mean Senator Lieberman and the rest of us — know about the people who wanted to blow up the planes?

  • We know that they are mainly Britons, many with Muslim names that are common in Pakistan. At least two are believed to be recent converts to Islam.
  • We also know that two British nationals and five Pakistanis were arrested in Pakistan a few days earlier, and have been described by Pakistani officials as ”facilitators” of the wider plot.
  • We know that the tip that initiated the investigation came from a member of the British Muslim community who, soon after the July 7, 2005 London Underground bombings, reported the group’s suspicious behavior to British authorities.
  • And we know that the outlines of the plot look very similar to the failed Bojinka Plot of 1995, which would have involved the downing of airliners over the Pacific using liquid explosives.

These salient facts have led many to speculate that the just-foiled attacks are at least inspired, if not directed, by Al Qaeda, perhaps even Al Qaeda senior leadership such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Remember them? Hint: one is Saudi, the other is Egyptian.

So, to return to Ned Lamont, how is his opposition to a continuation of the ruinous Iraq War, and his support for a refocus on Al Qaeda, good news for the guys now sitting in Pakistani and British jails?

Does Senator Lieberman believe that the expenditure of vast resources on the war in Iraq (to recap: over 2,500 American dead, and over $300 billion spent) directly contributed to the breaking up of the British terror plot?

Does Senator Lieberman believe that the war in Iraq has made it harder for Al Qaeda to recruit followers to its murderous cause? If he does, he apparently disagrees with U.S. intelligence officials, who, according to the Washington Post, ”now identify the war in Iraq as the single most effective recruiting tool for Islamic militants.”

Does Senator Lieberman believe that the war in Iraq has enhanced our ability to prosecute the war in Afghanistan, home of the newly resurgent Taliban and possible home of bin Laden, Zawahiri, and other Al Qaeda leaders?

Does Senator Lieberman believe that the would-be attackers share the same goals as the people who are waging violence in Iraq today? If so, just to be clear, which people in Iraq? The Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr? The successors to the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? The secular ex-Baathists? And, remind me again, just WHO are we fighting in Iraq?

It is time for the opponents of the Iraq War to clarify for Senator Lieberman — and anyone else who wishes to conflate the war in Iraq with the war against Al Qaeda — that the anti-Iraq War movement is not opposing the essential war against the people who killed over 3,000 Americans on 9/11, and not against fighting those people who were planning to kill thousands more over the Atlantic in the next few days.

The war in Iraq was, is, and will be a distraction from the war against Al Qaeda. People who argue otherwise either misunderstand the enemy that we are fighting or are engaged in a cynical ploy to exploit the anxiety of millions of Americans.

Reaction vs. Response

See if you can pick out which statement below represents reaction to yeterday’s news of the foiled terror plot, and which statements represent response to the strategy of terrorism.

  • “This country is safer than it was prior to 9/11.” — President George W. Bush, 8/11/06, quoted in the Washington Post Express.
  • “We cannot afford no security, but we cannot afford total security, because … absolute security could come only at the expense of grounding all the planes and really undermining our way of life. And that would, of course, be a defeat for America.” — Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, 8/11/06, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
  • “Everything that can be done to protect [travelers] is being done.” — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, 8/11/06, quoted in the Washington Post Express

As Ohio State University national security expert John Mueller points out in his brilliant Regulation article, A False Sense of Insecurity, ”The costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions.”

By communicating messages of confidence, control, and resolve, two of three top administration officials have done a good job of responding to news of the foiled terror plots. The third has unwittingly played into the terrorism strategy.

Lieberman Mangles History — Again

The Democratic Party’s most notorious hawk has struck again.

During the NATO military intervention in Kosovo in 1999, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) embraced the notorious Kosovo Liberation Army, asserting that “fighting for the KLA is fighting for human rights and American values” (Linda Wheeler, “Marchers Strut Support for Independent Kosovo,” Washington Post, April 28, 1999). The KLA-dominated government in Kosovo has since proven his point by ethnically cleansing more than 240,000 Serb and other non-Albanian inhabitants of the province.

Lieberman has now brought his acute powers of analysis to bear again. Responding to the disruption of the latest terror plot in the UK, he opined that Islamic terrorists pose an even greater threat to America’s security than did the Soviet communists during the Cold War.

That comment exhibits historical illiteracy. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the world’s number two military power. Its conventional forces could have overrun Europe and condemned hundreds of millions of additional people to communist slavery. Its arsenal of thousands of nuclear weapons was capable of killing tens of millions of Americans and effectively ending American civilization. The USSR was a strategic threat of the first magnitude.

Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists are certainly scary, but their ability to cause destruction and loss of life is decidedly more limited. We need to remember that terrorism is the strategy of weak forces, not strong ones. The terrorists killed some 3,000 people on September 11. Subsequent incidents, such as those in Bali, Madrid, Istanbul, London, and Mumbai, have each killed dozens or hundreds more. That is certainly tragic, but it doesn’t begin to compare to the number of deaths caused by the Soviet Union and its communist allies during the Cold War in various wars, much less to the deaths that would have occurred if the Cold War had erupted into World War III.

Lieberman’s scare mongering — and the similar tactics of others who hype the threat by saying that we’re already in World War III (or IV–or V!) — is profoundly unhelpful. We need to keep the terrorist threat in perspective (pdf).