The Department of Homeland Security is scrapping the color-coded terror alert system. The color-code system meant to serve as a way of keeping the public informed, but because it signaled some ambiguous sense of "threat" without providing a scintilla of information the public could use, it merely kept Americans ignorant and addled.
Scrapping the color-coded threat system is only the beginning. The next step is to begin informing the public fully about threats and risks known to the U.S. government. We're adults. We can handle it. In fact, we can help.
In recent weeks, conservatives have worked themselves into a self-righteous lather over how the Obama administration handled the would-be Christmas bomber. It's a complaint you could hear again and again at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference: Mirandizing the 23-year-old Nigerian Muslim was a big mistake, the story goes, because it denied us valuable intelligence, and it’s just so typical of Barack Obama’s callow, weak, law-enforcement-oriented approach to the terrorist threat.
As a constitutional matter, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the Miranda decision, which smacks of judicial lawmaking, and I don’t think liberty stands or falls on whether one failed terrorist got read his rights. In fact, I think Mirandizing Abdulmutallab was a pretty silly thing to do. The administration could and should have continued to question him and gather intelligence (and it’s not as if you'd need his statements to convict when there were scads of witnesses aboard the plane).
Nonetheless, I still find it hard to see all the hubbub as much more than manufactured partisan outrage.
After all, Richard Reid, the failed shoebomber of December 2001, was Mirandized repeatedly by George W. Bush’s FBI, who, rather than questioning him for 50 minutes, read Reid his rights as soon as the Massachusetts staties handed him over. That was barely two months after the largest terror attack in American history, at a time when we had good reason to fear that the terrorist threat was far greater than it now appears to be. Somehow, though, I don't recall hearing quite as much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Right back then. Moreover, outside of the special pleading of former Bush officials, there's little evidence that Bush would have handled the situation much differently even if it happened much later in his tenure as president.
We're told that the Christmas Bomber's treatment reveals Obama’s pusillanimous new paradigm for the War on Terror. But virtually anyone who’s taken a serious look at Obama’s terrorism policies has concluded they differ from Bush’s mainly in terms of rhetoric, not substance. You can love the Bush approach or hate it, but if you’re drawing a sharp distinction between his policies and Obama’s, you’re misinformed at best.
Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel, notes that the
premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.
For instance, Goldsmith notes, the Obama team "has embraced the Bush view that, as a legal matter, the United States is in a state of war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, and that the president's commander-in-chief powers are triggered." Moreover, Obama’s Justice Department “filed a legal brief arguing that the president can detain indefinitely, without charge or trial, members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, 'associated forces,'" et al.
The abortive plan to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed near Ground Zero has to count as Obama's dumbest political move since he tried to strongarm the Olympic Committee. But it hardly constitutes a repudiation of the Bush approach to terrorism. When the Bush Team was confident of winning, they tried terrorists in civilian courts -- including Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be 20th hijacker (tried and convicted in Alexandria, so horrifyingly close to the Pentagon!). And since the Obama Team continues to use military tribunals, and reserves the right to imprison KSM indefinitely in the unlikely event he's acquitted, it's pretty hard to see their plan for selected civilian trials as a departure from Bush-Cheney -- much less an attempt to curry favor with the ACLU.
James Carafano, the Heritage Foundation’s homeland security guru, isn’t the sort of guy who carries water for Barack Obama, but he recently told the New York Times
“I don’t think it’s even fair to call [Obama’s policies] Bush Lite. It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric.”
Atmospherics seem to matter a great deal to GOP partisans these days, though. Asked what specific policies Obama could adopt to reassure supposedly terrified Americans, Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee (formerly R-Derry), could do no better than: "I think one main thing would be to — just himself to use the word terrorism more often."
The essence of King's complaint seems to be that, policies aside, Obama isn't stoking fear enough, isn't talking tough enough, and seems reluctant to act the part of "the strong father who protects the home from invaders." Forgive me if I'm unmoved. Thus far the discussion serves to remind one of the fact that, though Republicans talk a good game about reducing the size of government, when the rubber meets the road, they repair to reliable political gambits that allow them to duck the hard choices: flag-burning amendments, the Pledge of Allegiance, Terry Schiavo, and the like.
If you're sincerely concerned about the best way to handle terrorist suspects in the United States, then trying to score cheap political points isn't the best way to start the conversation.
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.
Hours after thanking the world for the Nobel Peace Prize this morning, President Obama will gather with his war advisers to ponder sending 60,000 more troops into a country where our national security objectives are unclear at best.
Instead of embracing General McChrystal's proposal for a substantial increase in the U.S. military presence — or even adopting a "McChrystal-Light" strategy — the Obama administration should begin a phased withdrawal of troops over the next 18 months, retaining only a small military footprint relying on special forces personnel. Otherwise, America will be entangled for years — or decades — in pursuit of unattainable goals.
We need to "define success down" in Afghanistan. That means abandoning any notion of transforming ethnically fractured, pre-industrial Afghanistan into a modern, cohesive nation state. It also means reversing the drift in Washington's strategy over the past eight years that has gradually made the Taliban (a parochial Pashtun insurgent movement), rather than al Qaeda, America's primary enemy in Afghanistan. A more modest and realistic strategy means even abandoning the goal of a definitive victory over al Qaeda itself.
Instead, we need to treat the terrorist threat that al Qaeda poses as a chronic, but manageable, security problem. Foreign policy, like domestic politics, is the art of the possible. Containing and weakening al Qaeda may be possible, but sustaining a large-scale, long-term occupation of Afghanistan and creating a modern, democratic country is not.
In the New York Times this weekend, columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, "[W]e may be tired of this 'war on terrorism,' but the bad guys are not. They are getting even more 'creative.'”
On September 26th, the New York Times reported in a story by Scott Shane:
Many students of terrorism believe that in important ways, Al Qaeda and its ideology of global jihad are in a pronounced decline — with its central leadership thrown off balance as operatives are increasingly picked off by missiles and manhunts and, more important, with its tactics discredited in public opinion across the Muslim world.
Who's right? Should we be more concerned or less?
Well, the statements are not inconsistent. But unlike the analysts cited in the news story, columnist Friedman uses loaded terms and broad generalizations like "war on terror", "bad guys", and "creative" to misconstrue the nature of the terrorist threat.
Friedman says "war" a dizzying seventeen times in his short column, misdescribing the many different efforts that go into suppressing terrorism, dissuading terrorist recruits, and capturing or killing terrorists.
He lumps all terrorists together as "bad guys" despite expert counsel against assuming they have similar aims and motives, or that they collaborate.
And "creative"?---well, putting a bomb in your keister is creative, but it is not an effective way to harm anyone other than yourself.
But don't jump to the wrong conclusion. The point is not to dismiss terrorism as a threat. It's to know that terrorists are fallible, al Qaeda is on the wane, and law enforcement is on the case. In terrorism, we are not confronted by anything close to an existential threat.
Friedman's column is a reach, and it does a distinctly bad job of working with any of these subtleties. (The only reason I feel compelled to call them "subtleties," I suppose, is because they seem to remain beyond the grasp of an otherwise intelligent and thoughtful New York Times columnist.)
Rory Stewart has a terrific piece in the London Review of Books arguing that Beltway foreign-policy thinkers are "minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals" when it comes to Afghanistan:
Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’
These connections are global: in Obama’s words, ‘our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others.’ Or, as a British foreign minister recently rephrased it, ‘our security depends on their development.’ Indeed, at times it seems that all these activities – building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al-Qaida and eliminating poverty – are the same activity. The new US army and marine corps counter-insurgency doctrine sounds like a World Bank policy document, replete with commitments to the rule of law, economic development, governance, state-building and human rights. In Obama’s words, ‘security and humanitarian concerns are all part of one project.’
This policy rests on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state...
Stewart's prognosis is at once dispiriting and fortifying. On the one hand, "it is unlikely that we will be able to defeat the Taliban." More sharply, "30 years of investment might allow its army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan. But Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan." On the other, "the Taliban are very unlikely to take over Afghanistan as a whole." Why not?
It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul.
Even if – as seems most unlikely – the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security. Would they repeat their error of providing a safe haven to al-Qaida? And how safe would this safe haven be? They could give al-Qaida land for a camp but how would they defend it against predators or US special forces? And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?
So what on earth are we doing? "No politician wants to be perceived to have underestimated, or failed to address, a terrorist threat; or to write off the ‘blood and treasure’ that we have sunk into Afghanistan; or to admit defeat. Americans are particularly unwilling to believe that problems are insoluble; Obama’s motto is not ‘no we can’t;’ soldiers are not trained to admit defeat or to say a mission is impossible."
On the ACLU blog ("because freedom can't blog itself"), Mike German has a great write-up that captures the depth of error in recent DHS "intelligence" reports on ideological groups.
German shows that any ideology can be targeted if the national security bureaucracy comes to use activism as a proxy or precursor for crime and terrorism:
A Texas fusion center warned about a terrorist threat from "the international far Left," the Department of Homeland Security and a Missouri fusion center warned of threats posed by right-wing ideologues, and a Virginia fusion center saw threats from across the political spectrum and called certain colleges and religious groups "nodes of radicalization." These are all examples of domestic security gone wrong.
"Gone wrong" means weak in theory, threatening to liberty, and not helpful to law enforcement:
If these "intelligence" reports described recent crimes and the people who perpetrated them, there would be little problem from a civil rights perspective, and it could actually be helpful to the average police officer. Instead, they have followed a "radicalization" theory popularized by the NYPD (PDF). That theory postulates that there is a "path" to terrorism that includes the adoption of certain beliefs, and political, religious, or social activism is viewed as another step toward violence. Actual empirical studies of terrorism conducted in the Netherlands and Britain refute this theory, but the idea that hard-to-find terrorists can be caught by spying on easy-to-find activists appears too hard to resist to U.S. law enforcement.
The takeaway: "Threat reports that focus on ideology instead of criminal activity are threatening to civil liberties and a wholly ineffective use of federal security resources."
Mike German was a participant in our January conference on counterterrorism strategy.