Thursday, August 17, 2006
it seems distinctly possible that this plot may end up not all its cracked up to be. Last week I pointed you to Patrick Smith's "Ask the Pilot" column in which he made it clear banning liquids on planes in no way makes us safer, and in fact this type of threat is by no means new. But now we're learning that not only was this general threat not new, the specific threat may not be all it's cracked up to be, either.
First, via Andrew Sullivan, we have this from Craig Murray, Tony Blair's former ambassador to Uzbekistan:
None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not even have passports, which given the efficiency of the UK Passport Agency would mean they couldn't be a plane bomber for quite some time.Now Kevin Drum adds more skepticism:
In the absence of bombs and airline tickets, and in many cases passports, it could be pretty difficult to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt that individuals intended to go through with suicide bombings, whatever rash stuff they may have bragged in internet chat rooms.
What is more, many of those arrested had been under surveillance for over a year - like thousands of other British Muslims. And not just Muslims. Like me. Nothing from that surveillance had indicated the need for early arrests.
Then an interrogation in Pakistan revealed the details of this amazing plot to blow up multiple planes - which, rather extraordinarily, had not turned up in a year of surveillance. Of course, the interrogators of the Pakistani dictator have their ways of making people sing like canaries. As I witnessed in Uzbekistan, you can get the most extraordinary information this way. Trouble is it always tends to give the interrogators all they might want, and more, in a desperate effort to stop or avert torture. What it doesn't give is the truth ...
We then have the extraordinary question of Bush and Blair discussing the possible arrests over the weekend. Why?
Who knows? I assume there must have been some plot at some stage of development. But a legitimate threat? I guess time will tell as more information comes out.
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING BOMB PLOT....The Associated Press provides the latest news on the airline bombing plot:
Home Secretary John Reid, Britain's chief law-and-order official, acknowledged that some of the suspects would likely not be charged with major criminal offenses, but said there was mounting evidence of a "substantial nature" to back the allegations.
"Mounting" evidence? Shouldn't we already have lots of evidence after over a year of intensive surveillance? WTF is going on here? And then there's this:
Two top Pakistani intelligence agents said Wednesday that the would-be bombers wanted to carry out an al-Qaida-style attack to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 strikes, but were too "inexperienced" to carry out the plot.
The two senior agents, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if the terror cell members arrested in Pakistan and Britain had appropriate weapons and explosives training, they could have emulated massive attacks like those five years ago in New York and Washington as well as the July 7, 2005, London bombings.
Sure, and if I had an IQ of 200 and a PhD in oncology maybe I could find a cure for cancer. But since I don't, no one should stay up nights waiting for me to produce one. Likewise, there are lots of dimwit copycats who'd like to be the next Osama bin Laden, but they're not worth more than a routine roundup unless they have the serious operational capacity to do something about it. These guys, on the contrary, "had not attended terror-training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan and had relied on information gleaned from text books on how to make bombs."
So: was this a serious conspiracy? Or was it like the plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge that turned out to be a mentally disturbed dude with a blowtorch? Or the financial district alert in New York City that turned out to be based on information more than three years old? Or the plot to blow up the Sears Tower that turned out to be "more aspirational than operational"? Or Jose Padilla? What news about this plot are we going to discover buried on page A13 a couple of weeks from now?
I won't pretend to know what to think about the way this has been handled. Was it about winning elections? Building public support for draconian security legislation? Plain old bureaucratic incompetence?
Or was it real?
Friday, August 11, 2006
Based on what we know thus far, government investigators ought to be commended for unraveling this deadly scheme in time. Predictably and tragically, however, airports have been thrown into chaos not seen since the days just after Sept. 11. European and American security agencies have slammed down a sudden gantlet of restrictions resulting in massive delays and grave inconvenience for millions of passengers. An already devastated airline industry, along with countless of its customers, are once again going to suffer mightily.
There is no reason it has to be this way -- though few of us who've been writing about airport security issues over the past few years are terribly surprised. Half a decade after Sept. 11, having spent billions to upgrade air security, we're still needlessly obsessed with hobby knives and silverware, trying to thwart an attack that already happened and is all but certain never to happen again.
Is it any wonder that the specter of liquid explosives, the possibilities of which have been known to authorities for many years, should inspire a whole new round of reactionary panic and waste? It's too early, maybe, to be so cynical, but some of us have been waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it were, ever since Richard Reid's would-be sneaker bomb commenced the silly and apparently never-to-end X-raying of footwear at airports across America. I presume the new security paradigm will call for the permanent banning of toothpaste, shampoo and drinking water.
What we need to get through our terror-addled heads is this: It has been, and it will always be, relatively easy to smuggle a potentially deadly weapon onto an aircraft.
The easily concealable components of the Bojinka microbombs demonstrate the futility of trying to root out every possible terror tool. Knives can be improvised from almost anything. The same for bombs, flammable materials, and other instruments of destruction, large or small.
More than once in this magazine I've discussed the forgotten lessons of Bojinka. In laying out other fiendish scenarios, I once raised the possibility of terrorists sewing explosives into the living bodies of pets, which could then be shipped in a plane's cargo hold. The point was never to be gruesome but, rather, to illustrate the limitless tools saboteurs will always have at their disposal.
Ultimately, protecting commercial aircraft from terrorism is not the job of airport security, it's a job for police departments, federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The apparent plot at Heathrow Airport was not unraveled by the keen eye of a concourse screener; it was unraveled through careful investigation behind the scenes. By the time any attacker makes it to the metal detector, chances are it's already too late. There are too many ways to outwit that final line of defense.
No matter, here we go initiating yet another absurd crackdown to the detriment of millions of innocent travelers. Just as confiscating corkscrews didn't make us safer after Sept. 11, so banning liquids isn't going to make us safer now. All the while, the true weapon of mass destruction is the imagination and resilience of those who wish to harm us -- a fact we continue to ignore at our own peril.
Thursday, August 10, 2006
ADDICTED TO FAILURE. Bush says today's plots serve as a "stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." If anything, it's a stark reminder of the reverse. A stark reminder that this isn't a "war" at all -- you don't foil a plot like this with armored personnel carriers and JDAMs. We're also not going to capture the capital city of "Islamic fascism" -- not Kabul, not Baghdad, not even Teheran and Damascus -- and force our adversaries to surrender.The fact that this isn't so obvious that it needn't even be said is sad.
It's not at all difficult to kill or capture terrorists. Instead, what makes them dangerous is that they're hard to identify. What makes them doubly dangerous is that because they're hard to identify, the temptation is to target them very broadly. And as we saw in the administration's desperately failed strategies in the "Sunni triangle" when you tar huge numbers of not-yet-opponents in your effort to find the bad guys, you wind up generating a much larger number of adversaries. The great challenge is to identify strategies for targeting terrorists narrowly enough so that the number of terrorists actually declines as a result of your counterterrorism operations.
Bush keeps on doing the reverse -- defining the enemy in very broad, very lazy ways; conflating issues that have little to do with each other; charging off half-cocked and pissing people off. Meanwhile, he hasn't managed to kill or capture Osama or Zawahiri and insists on reacting to everything that happens in the most-alarmist, most-partisan terms he can imagine. Worst of all, the continued failure of his policies to ameliorate the problem is then trotted out as a justification for continuing -- or even intensifying -- the same failed approach.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Relatedly, The Editors bring teh funny and answer all your Mel Gibson questions here.
So, hopefully we'll start blogging again. Maybe not until next week, as tomorrow is my birthday and Guthrie is getting married this weekend in Cincy. Who dey?