Wednesday, December 30, 2009

That Said, What Do We Do About It?

All right, granting that this and previous terrorist attacks (or attempts) are largely an expression of frustration that the Obama Administration hasn't changed much from Bush, this means that more will undoubtedly follow. What should we do about it?

Don't invade Yemen.

So far there haven't been any calls to invade outright, but how long can it be? It is always hard for a Democrat to overcome accusations of "softness," and the temptation will be there for Obama to invade just to show how tough he is. Hopefully, our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan will make that temptation resistable, although some people have already forgotten that Iraq was a tough slog. In any event, if not invading will cause political damage now, running into another Afghanistan or Iraq will be a lot worse.

Not more, but better.

This is the most difficult part. Our current sledgehammer approach to airline security has got to be changed. A terrorist tried to blow up a plane just as it was landing. TSA responds by proposing to forbid all passengers from leaving their seats in the last hour of flight. Everyone recognizes how spectacularly dumb this is. But only slightly less dumb are proposals some people are making to extensively search all Muslims and complaints that Abdulmutallab should have set off alarm bells by his religion alone are only marginally less dumb. Abdulmutallab is a Nigerian. Nigeria is not a hotbed of jihadi activity. No Nigerian had ever taken part in a terrorist attack against the US before. Granted, unlike shoe bomber Richard Reid, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab at least had a Muslim name. But how many people with Muslim names fly our planes all the time? I don't know either, but since 9-11, exactly one (Richard Reid did not have a name that would attract any attention) has attempted to blow up a US bound plane.

A more reasonable question is whether the Obama Administration should have "connected the dots," recognized Abdulmutallab as a danger, and denied him entry (or at least subjected him to closer examination). What they had was as follows:

(1) Intelligence from Yemen indicated that a Nigerian was being prepared for a terrorist attack.

(2) His own father reported his son's radical views and disappearance to the US embassy in Nigeria about a month before the attack. (It is not clear from newspapers whether his father reported that he had been to Yemen).

(3) At the time of the report, Abdulmutallab had a visa to enter the US.

(4) He had been denied a visa to study in Britain because he sought to register in a bogus course.
(5) Abdulmutallab was a man traveling alone, without baggage on a trans-Atlantic flight, who paid cash for a one-way ticket.

Of all these warning signs, the last is by far the most damning. The others have to be seen in the context of the "noise" that constantly pervades intelligence. Consider, for instance, that our terrorism database contains 550,000 individuals. Approximately 1600 new tips come in per day. By way of contrast, the Yemeni government believes there are "hundreds" of Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, perhaps as many as 300. The hunt for terrorists is a hunt for a needle in a haystack. The 550,000 member terrorism watchlist is a smallerhaystack than the entire world population, but it is still a haystack.

Currently, of all the people on the watch list, approximately 4,000 are on the no-fly list, and 14,000 receive additional scrutiny. The temptation will be to get out the sledgehammer and place all 550,000 on the no-fly list (with another 1,600 being added daily). This must be resisted. The current list of people forbidden from flying of subject to extra restrictions is 18,000, down from a peak of 30,000 in early 2007. Recall that problems associated with even a 30,000 list. Aside from countless instances of confusion from people who had the same name as someone else, many perfectly innocent and harmless people were on the list. Perhaps most notoriously, Catherine Stevens, wife the the Alaska Senator, was stopped and asked to prove that she was not the singer Cat Stevens. Cat Stevens, in turn, was on the list because of donations to suspect Palestinian charities. Investigating Catherine Stevens, or even Cat Stevens, does nothing whatever to make our flights safer. Even granting that of the names on the terrorism watch list, less than 5% are US citizens or legal residents, the list doubtless contains numerous foreigners as innocent as Catherine Stevens or Cat Stevens. So vast an expansion of the no-fly list (especially with all the problems associated with mistaken identity) would make air travel nearly as intolerable as keeping passengers in their seats for the last hour of a flight, with only slightly more improvement in security.

What is needed is a smarter approach to the list. Clearly 550,000 people and 1,600 tips a day are more than is humanly possible to investigate. What about a computer database? By this I don't mean foolish attempts to datamine every phone call and e-mail in the world, but simply a datamine of the much smaller haystack that is the tips we receive. Abdulmutallab's father tipped off the US embassy in Nigeria. It was one of approximately 1,600 tips received that day. Give it extra weight because it came from his father, and run for cross-matches. Intelligence in Yemen reported a Nigerian planning an attack. How many other tips were coming in specifically from Nigeria? How many other terrorist plots were being rumored from Yemen? Did the senior Abdulmutallab mention that his son's last known whereabouts were in Yemen? I have no idea, but the answers are critical to determine how many alarm bells this tip should have rung. And how alarming is it that he was denied a visa to Britain because he claimed to be signed up for a bogus course? No doubt many people try to sneak in to Britain on false pretenses for sinister reasons like terrorism or drug dealing, but others sign up for nothing more sinister than trying to make money. Should there have been extra alarm bells because he was rich already? And how many multiple cross-references are simply false alarms? And at what point does cross-referencing lead to utter paranoia? I have no idea of the answer to any of these questions. But they are critical in determining how to handle the watch list.

But sometimes the most useful danger signs are the ones closest to the ground. Our intelligence agencies found nothing useful toward thwarting the Millenium Bombing plot. Instead it was customs inspectors who sensed that something was just wrong that led to the bomber's capture. Similarly, even if all dangers signs about Abdulmutallab were legitimately lost in the "noise," the fact that he was traveling alone, with no luggage on a trans-Atlantic flight, on a one-way ticket purchased with cash should have set off alarm bells that he was, if not a terrorist, at least a drug smuggler (a much more common occurrence) and subjected him to closer scrutiny.

While I oppose any measure (such as full body scans) that would make air travel any more hellish for innocent passengers, I would favor thorough scrutiny (including full body scans and drug or explosive chemical detectors) applied to people who meet a profile that sets off alarm bells. That profile could include suspicious behavior such as one-way tickets purchased with cash, or getting enough hits on the terrorism watch list, so long as it is done rationally. And, just for the record, I don't see a problem with ethnicity or religion being a factor in determining the profile, so long as it is not the sole or dominant factor.

In short, not more, but better, means narrower but more thorough scrutiny. It means, specifically, narrowing scrutiny because the time and effort involved are limited resources and must be expended wisely. Alas, shrinking the no-fly list and making airports easier for the general public will probably look like inexcusable softness, so the pressure will for more security, more exclusion, more harassment, for the sole purpose of showing we are doing something.

Don't make enemies unnecessarily.

Although we get far more tips than it is possible to investigate, it is undoubtedly true that good tips are the very bulwork of successful intelligence. Consider:

Pakistani intelligence tipped us off to the Najibullah Zazi peroxide bombing plot.
CAIR tipped the FBI off to American Muslims going to Pakistan to join the terrorist movement there.
And, of course, Adbulmutallab's own father tipped off the US embassy to his son's radicalism.

It would seem to follow that what we need is not just a good screening procedure to determine which tips are worth following up on, but also good and constant supply of incoming tips. And the people who are best placed to know about Islamic extremist plots the soonest are fellow Muslims, whether intelligence services, local communities, or even family members. This, in turn, points up the importance of maintaining good relations with Muslim countries and communities.

War on Terror hawks will point out, quite correctly, that it is not reasonable for us to make policy based on how angry, alienated, and often mentally disturbed people will react. Quite true. But we can quite reasonably refrain from angering and alienating broad communities. We can use brute force to compel another country to do our will. Sometimes it may even be necessary. But how difficult would it be, really, for a coerced "ally" to find a hot tip about a terrorist plot and just not pass it on? Our great advantage over Europe in general and Britain in particular is that our Muslim community is not angry and alienated. That makes it all the more important not to alienate Muslims, foreign or domestic, with offensive measures like intrusive surveillance, religious and ethnic profiling, beligerent anti-Muslim rhetoric, and, of course, endless war. Granted, very few Muslims will respond to such measure by becoming actual terrorists. But how many will respond by becoming more sympathetic to terrorists, and by not tipping us off to the terrorists in their midst. It can't be easy for a father to inform against his own son. Let's not make it any harder.

A change in style.

Finally, Republicans do have a point when they complain about Obama's three-day silence following the attack. Yes, they are exploiting it for partisan ends, and no, this failed bombing is hardly a crisis on the scale of 9-11. But Obama is showing signs of a troubling crisis management style that he first displayed during the 2008 campaign.

His normal reaction to a crisis is to outwardly appear to shut down. In fact, he is not really shutting down. He is huddling with advisors, getting fully briefed, and planning a response. After a few days, he emerges, now properly prepared, and gives a public speech. This response is partially defensible. As John McCain learned to his cost in the campaign, there are few crises so urgent that reacting fast is more important than reacting wisely. It is better for the President to get fully briefed and consider his options before making a decision. The President can better respond to questions when he is fully prepared.

But the outward appearance of shutting down is not acceptable to the American public. We need to know in a crisis that the President has not fallen asleep at the switch. Perhaps Obama thinks it better to stay busy at the switch than to take time out to make a public speech that, before sufficient information is in and before he had made a decision, will be not much more than a few vapid platitudes. But the public needs its platitudes, along with the assurance that the President is at the switch and will give a more detailed speech when he and his advisors have pinned things down. In the next crisis, give a public speech, however insubstantial, just to reassure us.


I highly recommend the analysis in this post.


The Washington Independent has some excellent analyses here, and here.



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