IN THE NEWS
Forget the police barricades, the bomb-sniffing dogs, the helicopters circling overhead, the anxious faces of people going to work in the morning. The big story this week is buried deeper in the stories about the heightened security in New York's financial centers, and now in Washington, DC. Here's the key section from this morning's Los Angeles Times article covering this news:
The intelligence official and other authorities said that at least some of the information was encoded or even encrypted, and that they did not know the identities of the suspected operatives or even such basic information as where they were now and when, if ever, they were in the United States.
"We're trying to identify who those people are and how they are using it, absolutely," the intelligence official said, referring to the surveillance files.
"We have a pretty good sense of who they are, in terms of being terrorists."
Meanwhile, nearly every article this morning continues to quote local police, state troopers, even federal law enforcement officials who are perplexed by the heightened security. From today's New York Times:
Even D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey complained about the actions, rare criticism leveled at his former chief deputy and close friend, Gainer. "I'm not pleased at all with it," Ramsey said. "We weren't part of any kind of planning. They just told us what they were going to do."
Normally, I have a fine appreciation for the operational messiness that counterterrorism, like any kind of warfare, can suffer. Friction appears in even the most efficient, hierarchical military organizations, and in this case, we're talking about dozens of different federal, state, local, and private organizations involved in this alert. But there's something else going on here than the usual SNAFU level. The real story, therefore, is in plain sight, and the Bush Administration has admitted as much: we lack effective intelligence about terrorists who may be operating inside the United States. I don't know about you, but that conclusion scares me far more than bomb-sniffing dogs, Syrian band members, or visiting delegations of Iraqi politicians.
Think, for a moment, how an incident like this one should play out. Taking at face value the claims about Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan "treasure trove" of information he kept on his computer, the Pakistani raid apparently set off alarm bells about planned attacks in the United States. If you're the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the CIA, do you...
(A) Round up the suspects whom you've been monitoring in the United States. Maybe you're sure they're part of the plot, or perhaps they're just the likely suspects. Either way, if the clock is ticking, you nab them ASAP.
(B) Set up very noisy security that tells the terrorists that you're on to them, and then hope that they're so committed to the attack, and the security so tight, that you capture them en route to their targets.
If you guessed that (A) is the preferred method, you'd be right. In fact, if you look at the history of other country's counterterrorism efforts, the midnight raid is usually the way this kind of story ends. The British military in Northern Ireland...Germany's GSG-9 and the Baader-Meinhoff gang...Mossad's revenge squads after the Olympic massacre...Spain's Grupo Especial Operaciones and ETA...The Italian Carbinieri and the Red Brigades...Counterterrorism is normally a knife fight between these groups. The terrorists kidnap someone, blow something up, assassinate a politician. The security services pounce on terrorist cells, or storm someplace to free hostages taken. The noisy events--hijackings, kidnappings, bombings--are usually what the terrorists construct, not the security forces. The terrorists want to be featured in the headlines; the police and military usually want to keep the terrorists off the front page and in prison instead.
Which, of course, begs the question, what's going on in New York City and Washington, DC today? The Bush Administration has already provided the answer: if terrorists are planning an attack, we don't know who they are, when they plan to attack, or where to find them. It may have been the case that federal officials had the names, locations, and timetables for the operatives, but they somehow slipped away, making these public countermeasures the only alternative. However, I have my doubts about that explanation.
Remember how infrequently, if ever, you've seen the result of a raid on a terrorist cell in the United States. (Pakistan, yes, but here at home...?) If, indeed, in the United States there were everything from terrorist planners and agents operating more or less in the open (as the 9/11 hijackers did) to elaborate networks of sleeper cells, we should be seeing more announcements of terrorist arrests than we do. Everyone is familiar with the inter-agency press conference, with representatives of different law enforcement agencies lined up behind the podium, and the main speaker talking about how the arrests could only have been made with the cooperation, dedication, and professionalism of all parties involved. It's the script used for campaigns against organized crime, and it would be exactly the same for counterterrorism. No terrorist cell would be eliminated if it weren't for the efforts of everyone from local police to the Coast Guard, the FBI to customs officials. Unfortunately, you almost never see these kinds of announcements--except, perhaps, in the poorly-publicized cases when domestic terrorists are arrested.
Using Occam's proverbial razor, the simplest explanation is that the US government has intelligence about terrorists operating in the United States that may be as scant as the US military's information about Iraqi insurgents. How could this be possible, you might ask? Since counterterrorism requires more information coming from human sources (agents) than electronic intercepts, there's another, equally simple answer to this second question: we have alienated the people whose help we need to identify, monitor, and capture terrorists.
The Justice Department and the INS, post-9/11, used the most blunderbuss-like approach possible to nabbing terrorists: detain nearly everyone you can; deport as many of those whom you've detain as you can; say as little about this effort as you can get away with. None of these detentions have amounted to preventing a single terrorist attack, or providing a single scrap of useful information--or else the headline-grabbing Attorney General would have said as much.
Since the big sweeps started, the Justice Department and INS have only sharpened their knives against foreign nationals in their custody. A favorite tactic is to threaten a prisoner with deportation to their home country--which, in the case of a country like Syria, amounts to a sentence of imprisonment, torture, execution, or all three. Being imprisoned is frightening enough, particularly when family members have been jailed and deported separately. (Click here for the story of the Kesbeh family, whose flag-manufacturing business apparently wasn't patriotic enough for US officials to change their minds about deporting them to Jordan.)
Mix these arrests and deportations with the invasion of Iraq, the indifference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the PATRIOT Act, the Abu Ghraib torture stories, the black hole of Guantanamo Bay, and an Administration generally ignorant of and indifferent to Islam and the Middle East, and you get a lot of Arabs, Iranians, and Muslims living in the United States who are furious with the US government. These same people, by the way, are by and large not sympathetic to Islamists--in fact, many of them fled their home country (say, Iran) to the United States to escape the Islamists. Rather than welcoming their help in our collective hour of need, the US government is coming at them with fists clenched.
In short, the people living down the block from you, or who run a local restaurant or video store, or who attend college with your children, are not the people whom you should be afraid of. These are likely to be the people who might know someone, or might know someone who knows someone, who can provide vital information about the tiny number of terrorists who might be operating inside the United States.
The other group whom we've managed to alienate is our allies. Yes, there is a international terrorist effort against the United States, stretching from the Philippines to Georgia to Germany to Colombia to Canada. Yes, this is a loose, clandestine organization numbering in the thousands--but that's actually not too big for a multi-national counterterrorism effort to track. But we can't collect on our own all the intelligence on who's calling whom across international borders, or who's paying for someone's plane ticket, or who's a new recruit being sent to the US. We need help in the real war against al Qaeda, not the expensive distraction that Iraq has become. If the Chirac government remained adamant about not helping the United States in Iraq, we'd still need the help of French security forces like the Groupe de Sécurité et d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) to stop al Qaeda. Probably more terrorists plotting harm to US citizens have passed through Paris' suburbs than through Fallujah.
Today's alarums and excursions in New York City, Newark, and Washington, DC are therefore a sign of failure, not success, in the war against al Qaeda. That's the story that the press should be covering today, not the loud and obvious events that this failure has inspired.
UPDATE: I've just noted this news analysis piece at The Washington Post that's worth reading. RAND counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman has some interesting things to say in this article.