Friday, August 3, 2007

Your disturbing sentences of the day

From today's New York Times story on the Minneapolis bridge collapse:

[O]fficials said the bridges design had been considered outmoded for decades because a single failure of a structural part could bring down the whole bridge. About 11 percent of the nations steel bridges, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, lack the redundant protection to reduce these failures, federal officials said.

Over all, the bridge was rated 4 on a scale of zero to 9, with 9 being perfect and zero requiring a shutdown. An inspection report last year said the supporting structure was in poor condition, far from the lowest category. Hundreds of other working bridges are in similar shape, but the report did indicate that the bridge had possible issues that needed to be regularly inspected.

The bridge has been inspected annually since 1993, but independent engineers acknowledged yesterday that there are well-known limits to how useful an inspection can be. Bridges, they said, are prone to a variety of problems, and some are hard to spot. At the Minnesota Department of Transportation, shaken engineers made it clear that they knew something crucial had somehow been overlooked.

We thought we had done all we could, said Daniel L. Dorgan, bridge engineer at the departments bridges division. Obviously something went terribly wrong. (emphasis added)

What on God's green earth would be lower than a "poor" rating? A "Jeebus, we're lucky we got off the bridge in time to file this report" rating?

posted by Dan at 08:55 AM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Open family jewels thread

Comment away on anything interesting contained in the CIA's family jewels, released yesterday.

In the New York Times, Mark Mazzetti and Tim Weiner sum up the document dump:

Known inside the agency as the family jewels, the 702 pages of documents catalog domestic wiretapping operations, failed assassination plots, mind-control experiments and spying on journalists from the early years of the C.I.A.

The papers provide evidence of paranoia and occasional incompetence as the agency began a string of illegal spying operations in the 1960s and 1970s, often to hunt links between Communist governments and the domestic protests that roiled the nation in that period.

Yet the long-awaited documents leave out a great deal. Large sections are censored, showing that the C.I.A. still cannot bring itself to expose all the skeletons in its closet. And many activities about overseas operations disclosed years ago by journalists, Congressional investigators and a presidential commission which led to reforms of the nations intelligence agencies are not detailed in the papers.

The Times has also set up a blog by intellligence experts -- including's Official Go-To Person for All Things Intelligent, Ms. Amy Zegart.

Another contributor, Philip Taubman, concludes:

Reading through the litany of C.I.A. domestic spying abuses and other questionable activities during the cold war years, including plots to assassinate foreign leaders, its hard not to wonder what the men and women of the C.I.A. (mostly men, in those days) were thinking as they wandered far afield from the C.I.A.s own charter.

posted by Dan at 09:38 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, September 15, 2006

If only Dubai Ports World could somehow run our ports

I'll just file this announcement from Dubai Ports World under "irony" and move on:

DP World, a leading global marine terminal operator, has become the first global company in the transport and logistics industry to gain certification to an international standard for its security management systems and operations. Lloyds Register Quality Assurance (LRQA), an independent international certification body, has audited DP World for compliance with the international standard ISO/PAS 28000:2005 at both the corporate head office in Dubai, UAE, and its chosen site, Djibouti Container Terminal....

As a consequence of DP Worlds adoption and implementation of the standard, its network of ports will have the ability to effectively implement mechanisms and processes to address any security vulnerabilities at strategic and operational levels, as well as establish preventive action plans. All terminals will also be required to continually assess security measurements in place to both protect its business interests and ensure compliance with international regulatory requirements such as the ISPS Code and other international supply chain security initiatives. The standard will complement all international security legislative codes DP World already conforms to at its terminals.

Hat tip: Michael Levi.

posted by Dan at 07:28 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

How do we classify the embassy attack in Syria?

Over at Open University, I posted the following question last week:

While security officials are largely focused on organized terror groups like Al Qaeda, lone attackers like Mr. Jaoura present a new challenge. They are hard to track and even harder to stop, making them an especially difficult target for the police and security officials.

"No force on earth could have prevented an attack like this," said a senior Jordanian security official, who said Mr. Jaoura was surprisingly forthcoming under interrogation. "He was not an Islamist. He was isolated, and he did it on his own."

With tensions soaring high in much of the Middle East in the aftermath of Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the risk of copycat attacks has grown higher....

If you read the whole story, this seems like the kind of attack that, in the United States, would qualify as a drive-by shooting rather than "Islamofascism."
Now, the Syrian attack does not qualify as a drive-by shooting. At the same time, the odds of success of such an enterprise in Damascus seem very low -- as the Guardian points out:
Peter Ford, Britain's ambassador to Syria, told CNN that the incident did not seem similar to an al-Qaida attack, but appeared to be "an operation by a small group".

Security forces have clashed with Islamist militants several times since last year, usually in raids carried out to arrest them.

Hugh Macleod, a freelance reporter at the scene, said hundreds of troops and other security personnel were at the embassy following the attack.

"This looks to have been a suicide mission by Islamist militants," Macleod told Guardian Unlimited. "This is one of the most heavily guarded streets in Damascus.

"President Bashar al-Assad has his office on the same street, the EU building is here ... there are a number of embassies, including the Chinese embassy, which is next to the US building."

So, either a) Al Qaeda's having a really bad draft year, or; b) This was a local operation with zero ties to AQ.

I'll leave it to the commenters to sort this out.

posted by Dan at 09:52 AM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Are you safer than you were five years ago?

The White House just released its new National Strategy for Combatting Terrorism. Here's the punchline:

From the beginning, we understood that the War on Terror involved more than simply finding and bringing to justice those who had planned and executed the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Our strategy involved destroying the larger al-Qaida network and also confronting the radical ideology that inspired others to join or support the terrorist movement. Since 9/11, we have made substantial progress in degrading the alQaida network, killing or capturing key lieutenants, eliminating safehavens, and disrupting existing lines of support. Through the freedom agenda, we also have promoted the best long-term answer to alQaida's agenda: the freedom and dignity that comes when human liberty is protected by effective democratic institutions.

In response to our efforts, the terrorists have adjusted, and so we must continue to refine our strategy to meet the evolving threat. Today, we face a global terrorist movement and must confront the radical ideology that justifies the use of violence against innocents in the name of religion. As laid out in this strategy, to win the War on Terror, we will:

  • Advance effective democracies as the longterm antidote to the ideology of terrorism;
  • Prevent attacks by terrorist networks;
  • Deny terrorists the support and sanctuary of rogue states;
  • Deny terrorists control of any nation they would use as a base and launching pad for terror; and
  • Lay the foundations and build the institutions and structures we need to carry the fight forward against terror and help ensure our ultimate success.
  • Given the supposed metamorphosis in the terror threat, why does only one of those bullet points address the "radical ideology" that is supposedly so threatening?

    Also worth checking out -- the Center for Strategic and International Studies balance sheet on Five Years After 9/11. There's a lot of congruence between the reports -- but CSIS does have the advantage of candor. For the Democrat take, click here.

    UPDATE: On the other hand, this GovExec interview with assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism Frances Townsend seems pretty candid to me.

    posted by Dan at 10:11 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

    Thursday, August 10, 2006

    Gonna be a fun month to fly

    Congrats to all involved on foiling that terror plot.

    And now, a very selfish request:

    Please, please, please, pretty please, pretty please with sugar on top, allow things to calm down enough so that next month when I have to fly to and from the UK, these travel restrictions are no longer in place.

    Because if me no one is allowed to bring a book onboard a transatlantic flight, then the terrorists really have won.

    UPDATE: Although the media reaction has focused on this latest plot as an example of the vitality of terrorists, I tend to agree with much of this Stratfor analysis:
    There are four takeaway lessons from this incident:

    First, while there obviously remains a threat from those not only sympathetic to al Qaeda, but actually participating in planning with those in the al Qaeda apex leadership, their ability to launch successful attacks outside of the Middle East is severely degraded.

    Second, if the cell truly does have 50 people and 21 have already been detained, then al Qaeda might have lost its ability to operate below the radar of Western -- or at least U.K. -- intelligence agencies. Al Qaeda's defining characteristic has always been its ability to maintain operational security. If that has been compromised, then al Qaeda's importance as a force has diminished greatly.

    Third, though further attacks could occur, it appears al Qaeda has lost the ability to alter the political decision-making of its targets. The Sept. 11 attack changed the world. The Madrid train attacks changed a government. This failed airliner attack only succeeded in closing an airport temporarily.

    Fourth, the vanguard of militant Islamism appears to have passed from Sunni/Wahhabi al Qaeda to Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. It is Iran that is shaping Western policies on the Middle East, and Hezbollah who is directly engaged with Israel. Al Qaeda, in contrast, appears unable to do significantly more than issue snazzy videos.

    posted by Dan at 05:27 PM | Comments (23) | Trackbacks (0)

    Monday, August 7, 2006

    Apparently, the counterinsurgency manual needs a rewrite

    My Fletcher colleague Richard H. Shultz co-authors an op-ed in the New York Times the Army's efforts to develop a new manual about about counterinsurgency tactics from its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some sobering highlights:

    In todays internal wars several different types of armed groups not just traditional insurgents bent on changing a national regime engage in unconventional combat. Iraq is illustrative. Those fighting American forces include a complex mix of Sunni tribal militias, former regime members, foreign and domestic jihadists, Shiite militias and criminal gangs. Each has different motivations and ways of fighting. Tackling them requires customized strategies.

    Unfortunately, well into 2005, the American military subsumed all these groups under the rubric insurgents and planned its strategy accordingly. It didnt imagine or prepare for the possibility that former regime members had their own day-after plan to fight on even if they lost the conventional battle.

    It didnt imagine that Iraq would become a magnet for international jihadists, so it failed to seal the borders. It didnt imagine the Sunni tribal militias would react with such violence to the American presence, so it failed to take the pre-emptive economic and political steps to address their grievances. And it failed to understand that there were radical elements within the Shiite community that would use force to try to establish a theocratic system.

    These acute miscalculations gave those who seek to defeat us time to marshal their forces, and seriously undercut Washingtons overall efforts to stabilize Iraq.

    The Pentagons new counterinsurgency manual suffers from similar flaws. It focuses almost exclusively on combating cohesive groups of insurgents who share the same goals. Yes, there are traditional insurgent groups in Iraq, like cells of former Baathists. But the foreign terrorists, religious militias and criminal organizations operate from very different playbooks. We have to learn to read them the way other nations faced with insurgencies have.

    This part is particularly interesting:
    Meeting and defeating terrorist groups requires a far deeper understanding of their factions and the exploitation of the rifts between them. Consider how such profiling led to the demise of the Abu Nidal organization, which 20 years ago was the worlds most lethal terrorist group.

    As it reached its peak strength, the organization began to experience serious fissures among its leaders. Several key members felt that Abu Nidal himself was siphoning off funds. He in turn accused them of plotting to assassinate him. Eventually he had some 300 hard-core leaders and operatives gunned down or otherwise dispatched. By the early 1990s, the group had been effectively neutered.

    How did this come about? In part because American and other Western intelligence agencies with the help of local Arab intelligence services who were able to get operatives close to key members of the group and spread paranoia and suspicion successfully grasped and manipulated factional rivalries.

    A key for America should have been to get such information about schisms and unhappiness inside the insurgent groups we face, particularly in their formative stages when they were most vulnerable.

    An interesting question to ask is the extent to which western and Arab intelligence agencies have managed to penetrate Al Qaeda's network -- and whether such penetration is more difficult because of the Islamist nature of that organization. It might be tougher to penetrate networks where the identity rests on a theocratic foundation.

    Intriguingly, this problem has the potential to cut both ways. Dexter Flikins' review of Lorenzo Wright's new book contains the following nugget of information:

    Al Qaedas leaders had all but shelved the 9/11 plot when they realized they lacked foot soldiers who could pass convincingly as westernized Muslims in the United States. At just the right moment Atta appeared in Afghanistan, along with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ziad al-Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi, all Western-educated transplants, offering themselves up for slaughter.

    posted by Dan at 10:10 AM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

    Friday, July 21, 2006

    There's a classified blogosphere?

    Apparently so -- and according to the Washington Post's Dana Priest, someone was just kicked off that particular island:

    Christine Axsmith, a software contractor for the CIA, considered her blog a success within the select circle of people who could actually access it.

    Only people with top-secret security clearances could read her musings, which were posted on Intelink, the intelligence community's classified intranet. Writing as Covert Communications, CC for short, she opined in her online journal on such national security conundrums as stagflation, the war of ideas in the Middle East and -- in her most popular post -- bad food in the CIA cafeteria.

    But the hundreds of blog readers who responded to her irreverent entries with titles such as "Morale Equals Food" won't be joining her ever again.

    On July 13, after she posted her views on torture and the Geneva Conventions, her blog was taken down and her security badge was revoked. On Monday, Axsmith was terminated by her employer, BAE Systems, which was helping the CIA test software.

    As a traveler in the classified blogosphere, Axsmith was not alone. Hundreds of blog posts appear on Intelink. The CIA says blogs and other electronic tools are used by people working on the same issue to exchange information and ideas.

    Read the whole thing.

    UPDATE: Douglas Hart and Steven Simon have an article in the Spring 2006 issue of Survival that addresses the larger question of the role that blogs can play in bolstering intelligence analysis. In light of the Post story, this section is worth quoting:

    Current reporting procedures within the intelligence community enforce a hierarchical organisational structure in which information flows up and decisions flow down. Blogs, on the other hand, produce communities of interest in which power is manifested through the number of individual connections within a network, rather than through an individuals position with respect to reporting chains. These networks are key to emergent or new types of critical thinking amongst the analytical population. In other words, blogs might well be a means for individual analysts to express dissenting opinions that are not subject to official censorship.

    Blogs can encourage critical thinking by placing bloggers in an informal and wide-reaching context of peer review that is not easily censored by management. Furthermore, a blog might be linked to structured arguments as evidence of the thought process that went into the argument. Alternatively, blogs, especially those espousing contrarian positions, could be linked to structured arguments as a means of safeguarding against analytical bias and its collective equivalent, groupthink. Blogs might also operate as digital dissent channels out of the glare of a stifling official context.

    I have to think that this episode will blunt these kind of benefits.

    posted by Dan at 06:41 PM | Comments (27) | Trackbacks (0)

    Wednesday, July 5, 2006

    What's the bigger threat to national security?

    When the New York Times published stories about the Bush administration's efforts to track terrorist financing via the SWIFT consortium, a lot of the conservative blogosphere got on the NYT's case about publishing national secrets on the front page of the paper of record. And, for the record, I suspect that the publication probably disrupted the program because of the backlash it created in Europe, where SWIFT is headquartered.

    And yet, I'd take the Bush administration's umbrage about the publication of classified information more seriously if the government demonstrated anything close to competence when to comes to protecting the computerized data currently in its possession.

    The Energy Department and the Department of Veteran Affairs have already had problems with lost data.

    Now Eric Weiss reports in the Washington Post that the FBI has had a little bit of a problem in this area:

    A government consultant, using computer programs easily found on the Internet, managed to crack the FBI's classified computer system and gain the passwords of 38,000 employees, including that of FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

    The break-ins, which occurred four times in 2004, gave the consultant access to records in the Witness Protection Program and details on counterespionage activity, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Washington. As a direct result, the bureau said it was forced to temporarily shut down its network and commit thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars to ensure no sensitive information was lost or misused.

    The government does not allege that the consultant, Joseph Thomas Colon, intended to harm national security. But prosecutors said Colon's "curiosity hacks" nonetheless exposed sensitive information.

    Colon, 28, an employee of BAE Systems who was assigned to the FBI field office in Springfield, Ill., said in court filings that he used the passwords and other information to bypass bureaucratic obstacles and better help the FBI install its new computer system. And he said agents in the Springfield office approved his actions.

    The incident is only the latest in a long string of foul-ups, delays and embarrassments that have plagued the FBI as it tries to update its computer systems to better share tips and information. Its computer technology is frequently identified as one of the key obstacles to the bureau's attempt to sharpen its focus on intelligence and terrorism....

    What Colon did was hardly cutting edge, said Joe Stewart, a senior researcher with Chicago-based security company LURHQ Corp. "It was pretty run-of-the-mill stuff five years ago," Stewart said.

    Asked if he was surprised that a secure FBI system could be entered so easily, Stewart said, "I'd like to say 'Sure,' but I'm not really. They are dealing with the same types of problems that corporations are dealing with."

    To be fair to the Bush administration, a lot of this stuff might have happened regardless of who was running the White House.

    That said, the administration seems to be obsessed with protecting data from journalists. I'd much prefer it if they were obsessed with protecting their data from hackers.

    UPDATE: On the other hand, the FBI has done an excellent job protecting Coca Cola's secret formula!!

    posted by Dan at 10:22 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

    Tuesday, June 13, 2006

    The Bush administration's whack-a-mole on data privacy

    In less than a month, the Bush administration has had two gaffes on the security of electronic data.

    Last month there was the DVA fiasco. This month it's the Energy Department's turn. The AP's H. Josef Hebert reports:

    Energy Department officials have informed nearly 1,500 individuals that their Social Security numbers and other information may have been compromised when a hacker gained entry to a department computer system eight months ago, a spokesman said Monday.

    The workers, mostly contract employees, worked for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous agency within the department that deals with the government's nuclear weapons programs.

    The computer theft occurred last September, but Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and his deputy, Clay Sell, were not informed of it until last week. It was first publicly disclosed at a congressional hearing on Friday....

    The security breach occurred in a computer system at a service center in Albuquerque, N.M. The file that was compromised contained the names, Social Security numbers, security clearance levels and place of employment of 1,502 people working throughout the government nuclear weapons complex.

    The system contained sensitive, but not classified material, department officials said. The NNSA also has a more secure computer system that includes nuclear weapons data and other classified material.

    NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks told a House hearing on Friday that he learned of the security breach late last September, but did not inform either the two men to whom he reports - Bodman or Sell.

    posted by Dan at 11:27 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

    Tuesday, May 23, 2006

    My question about the stolen veterans' data

    I'm still trying to wrap my head around one aspect of this story regarding the apparent theft of 26.5 million military veterans' personal data (names, social security numbers, and birthdates). According to the New York Times, "[The data] was stolen from the residence of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee who had taken the data home without authorization, the agency said Monday."

    Let's assume there was authorization -- what possible reason would a DVA employee have to take home that kind of data?

    This sort of episode does raise some intriguing questions about supporters of national ID cards or other central registries -- to what extent does the possibility of data piracy negate whatever security gains would be generated by such ideas?

    UPDATE: The VA didn't alert the FBI about the stolen data for two friggin' weeks??!!! What did they think -- it would just show up after looking under the couch cushions?

    posted by Dan at 11:46 AM | Comments (30) | Trackbacks (0)

    Thursday, May 18, 2006

    Open Thinthread thread

    Sorry for the post title -- couldn't resist.

    Siobhan Gorman has a story in the Baltimore Sun that suggests that, in the late 1990s, the NSA ditched one kind of data collection program (Thinthread) in favor of another. A lot of NSA types apparently preferred Thinthread:

    The National Security Agency developed a pilot program in the late 1990s that would have enabled it to gather and analyze massive amounts of communications data without running afoul of privacy laws. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, it shelved the project -- not because it failed to work -- but because of bureaucratic infighting and a sudden White House expansion of the agency's surveillance powers, according to several intelligence officials.

    The agency opted instead to adopt only one component of the program, which produced a far less capable and rigorous program. It remains the backbone of the NSA's warrantless surveillance efforts, tracking domestic and overseas communications from a vast databank of information, and monitoring selected calls.

    Four intelligence officials knowledgeable about the program agreed to discuss it with The Sun only if granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

    The program the NSA rejected, called ThinThread, was developed to handle greater volumes of information, partly in expectation of threats surrounding the millennium celebrations. Sources say it bundled together four cutting-edge surveillance tools. ThinThread would have:

    * Used more sophisticated methods of sorting through massive phone and e-mail data to identify suspect communications.

    * Identified U.S. phone numbers and other communications data and encrypted them to ensure caller privacy.

    * Employed an automated auditing system to monitor how analysts handled the information, in order to prevent misuse and improve efficiency.

    * Analyzed the data to identify relationships between callers and chronicle their contacts. Only when evidence of a potential threat had been developed would analysts be able to request decryption of the records.

    An agency spokesman declined to discuss NSA operations....

    In what intelligence experts describe as rigorous testing of ThinThread in 1998, the project succeeded at each task with high marks. For example, its ability to sort through massive amounts of data to find threat-related communications far surpassed the existing system, sources said. It also was able to rapidly separate and encrypt U.S.-related communications to ensure privacy.

    But the NSA, then headed by Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, opted against both of those tools, as well as the feature that monitored potential abuse of the records. Only the data analysis facet of the program survived and became the basis for the warrantless surveillance program.

    The decision, which one official attributed to "turf protection and empire building," has undermined the agency's ability to zero in on potential threats, sources say. In the wake of revelations about the agency's wide gathering of U.S. phone records, they add, ThinThread could have provided a simple solution to privacy concerns.

    My take is similar to Kevin Drum's -- I'm not sure if this is an example of dumb policymaking or an example of the losers of a policy decision leaking to the press at an opportune time.

    I am sure that readers wil have their own opinions.

    posted by Dan at 11:04 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

    Monday, May 15, 2006

    Open Bush/immigration thread

    I'm busy packing for yet another conference, but readers should feel free to comment away on Bush's immigration speech tonight.

    FYI, Karl Rove said this afternoon that the Bush administration is "doing a heck of a lot better job" in controlling the U.S.-Mexican border than most Americans realize. On the other hand, that, "We do not yet have full control of the border and I am determined to change that." To be fair, these two points are not necessarily contradictory, but I wouldn't exactly call it consistent spin, either.

    posted by Dan at 06:16 PM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0)

    Thursday, May 11, 2006

    Open CIA thread

    I've been remiss in posting about the debates over who should head the CIA and what it should do, so here's an open thread.

    Readers are encouraged, before posting, to read John Crewdson's dissection in the Chicago Tribune of the bureaucratic conflicts at work behind Porter Goss' resignation and the Hayden nomination:

    [A] senior U.S. intelligence official with firsthand knowledge of events says Goss was dismissed as CIA director after the White House became convinced that strong disagreements with his immediate boss, John Negroponte, were beyond resolution. Those disputes involved changes that Goss feared would limit the agency's scope and influence, undercutting its role in analyzing intelligence.

    The disagreements, the official said, had been "ongoing for a couple of months" before Goss' departure. In an ironic twist, it was Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, whom President Bush has nominated to fill Goss' position, who began the critical assault on Goss by complaining of his performance to a CIA civilian oversight body.

    It should be noted that Crewdson's chief source was a Goss loyalist.

    I tend to agree with Matt Yglesias and Fred Kaplan that Hayden's military status is a nonissue -- though, on the other hand, Amy Zegart does seem exercised about it, and that it reason enough for concern here at

    Fire away!!

    UPDATE: This could definitely be a problem for Hayden's confirmation. See Orin Kerr on this point as well.

    posted by Dan at 10:41 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

    Thursday, March 9, 2006

    Well, I feel much safer

    I, for one, feel much safer that Dubai Ports World won't be operating port terminals at six American ports. Yes, even though shipping experts and homeland security experts agreed that there was little risk in having DPW take over P&O, I'm glad an American company will be running things.... even if U.S. capital might be more efficient at doing something else.

    I feel particularly safe because even though DPW has pledged to divest its ownership of American operations, Knight-Ridder reports that Congress isn't taking any chances:

    Senate Democrats pressed ahead with attempts to block DP World's takeover, and House leaders weighed whether to proceed as well.

    Critics of the original deal weren't backing away from congressional action.

    "I'm skeptical," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. "I'd prefer (legislation) go through because it gives us a safeguard."
    Likewise, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he didn't intend to remove the ports provision from an emergency spending bill for hurricane relief and the war in Iraq.

    Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., added: "Congressional plans are to move forward with the appropriations language next week which kills the transaction. Just to make sure."

    And might I finally add that I feel ultrasafe upon hearing word that the US Trade representative is planning to postpone talks for a USA-UAE free trade agreement. We sure sent the proper signal to foreign investors -- and it's not like the UAE could retaliate or anything.

    With just a little more effort, I'm convinced that U.S. lawmakers can convince everyone in the Middle East that it doesn't matter how much you try to buy into the U.S.-promoted liberal economic order, no one will really trust you.

    [Snarked out yet?--ed.] Yes, that felt good.

    Whatever you think of the ports deal, this has been a major foreign policy f$%#-up. The UAE is the closest thing we have to a reliable, stable, Westernized ally on the Arabian peninsula, and both official Washington and the American public just pissed on their leg.

    There is a lot of blame to go around here on this one, but I must reluctantly conclude that the Bush administration should shoulder most of it. Bizarrely, this is a case where I think they got the policy right but royally screwed up the politics. Both the failure to keep Congress in the loop after the CFIUS approval and the veto threat without consultation guaranteed a Congressional revolt.

    I can't blame Congressmen too much for acting like short-sighted glory hogs driven by electoral considerations -- that's their job. So I'll join the crowd and blame Bush.

    posted by Dan at 08:45 PM | Comments (31) | Trackbacks (0)

    Wednesday, March 8, 2006

    The House of Representatives engages in reasoned debate

    Looks like the House of Representatives doesn't want to wait for the results of a 45-day review of the port deal, according to the Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman:

    Efforts by the White House to hold off legislation challenging a Dubai-owned company's acquisition of operations at six major U.S. ports collapsed yesterday when House Republican leaders agreed to allow a vote next week that could kill the deal.

    Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) will attach legislation to block the deal today to a must-pass emergency spending bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A House vote on the measure next week will set up a direct confrontation with President Bush, who sternly vowed to veto any bill delaying or stopping Dubai Ports World's purchase of London-based Peninsular & Oriental Steamship Co.

    "Listen, this is a very big political problem," said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), explaining that he had to give his rank-and-file members a chance to vote. "There are two things that go on in this town. We do public policy, and we do politics. And you know, most bills at the end of the day, the politics and the policy kind of come together, but not always. And we are into one of these situations where this has become a very hot political potato."

    Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said GOP leadership is "endorsing the viewpoint of our members and Chairman Lewis that we do not believe the U.S. should allow a government-owned company to operate American ports."

    White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said last night that the administration is "committed to keeping open and sincere lines of communication with Congress." She added, though, that "the president's position is unchanged."....

    The House is still boiling. Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), with bipartisan support, introduced legislation yesterday that would scuttle the deal; mandate that the owners of "critical infrastructure" in the United States, including ports, highways and power plants, be American; and demand that cargo entering U.S. ports be screened within six months of passage.

    Hey, you ask me, Hunter is being too conservative. Why not require all employees as "critical infrastructure" facilities to be red-blooded Americans? Why aren't airports and airlines included? Why, do you realize that, even as I type this, there are foreign-born pilots flying state-owned airliners within a few miles of our major cities???!!!

    And, you know, there are lots of products that make up America's "critical infrastructure" beyond transportation and tilities? What about oil and energy firms? Steel? Automobiles? Will wool and mohair be next? UPDATE: Bill Harshaw makes an excellent point in the comments -- we shouldn't let foreign governments intervene in our financial markets either! Surely such a law wouldn't affect America's economic position. Oh, wait.... ]

    If the House had proposed this after the 45-day review, I could believe that some serious thought was going into this bill, even if I disagreed with it. What's going on now, however, is just protectionist bulls$%t.

    posted by Dan at 08:37 AM | Comments (24) | Trackbacks (0)

    Sunday, February 26, 2006

    Still looking for a reason to get riled up....

    I'm still trying to find a reason to get exercised about the Dubai port deal. The latest is Mickey Kaus' argument:

    I recommend Daniel Engber's Explainer on what a port operator actually does:
    It gets cargo containers off of ships and puts them onto trucks or trains. A port operator also provides other services to the shipping industry: It does the paperwork to get incoming shipments through customs and uses its computer system to help connect the goods with potential recipients. ...

    Most operators invest in a computerized yard management system to help each trucker connect with his payload. ... The port operator also handles personnel issues.

    If we're afraid of bad guys sneaking something dangerous into the U.S., it sure seems like there are lots of opportunities for mischief if you can infiltrate the firm that does the paperwork and runs the computer system and handles the "personnel issues"! Is it comforting matter that "security" at American ports will still be "controlled by U.S. federal agencies led by the Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Control Agency ... ." Not if what you're worried about is a small cell of people looking for a way to get around the Coast Guard's security. Just having a port operator that is more easily approached by people who speak Arabic vastly increases the risk, at least the risk from Arab jihadists, no? (emphasis added)
    I would recommend that Mickey read this Washington Post story by Jim VandeHei and Paul Blustein. It's ostensibly about the White House's lugubrious reaction to the ports controversy, but it also sheds some light on how the CFIUS process addressed U.S. security concerns:
    The process began on Oct. 17, when representatives of the Dubai company informally approached the Treasury Department to disclose that they were planning to purchase the British firm, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., according to testimony by administration officials at a Senate hearing last week. Treasury officials directed them to consult with Homeland Security because of the port security question.

    The executives of Dubai Ports World -- several of whom are American -- well understood that they might face extensive scrutiny.

    "You don't have to do this, but I brought a small team here [from Dubai] to meet with the CFIUS agencies in early December," said Edward H. "Ted" Bilkey, the company's chief operating officer and former U.S. Navy officer. The idea was to give the panel plenty of time even before the company formally filed to start a standard 30-day review.

    Homeland Security officials, especially in Customs and Border Protection, had high regard for the company, which is owned by the government of Dubai and operates terminals in 19 ports in Asia, Europe and South America. It was the first in the Middle East to participate in a post-Sept. 11 program in which Customs agents are posted overseas to screen containers before they are loaded onto U.S.-bound ships. U.S. intelligence agencies -- who were asked on Nov. 2 for any information they had on the company -- produced nothing "derogatory" about it, Baker said.

    Even so, the department had enough qualms to insist on a number of legally binding conditions for approving the deal -- a frequent CFIUS practice. The company pledged to maintain its participation in the Customs program, "and they agreed to open their books, and give us access to records, without any formal legal process," Baker said.

    The department also wanted to ensure that the personnel at the U.S. terminals to be taken over by the company would remain almost entirely American. So it extracted a pledge that the company intended to keep the current management of U.S. operations in place. (emphasis added)

    Given the concessions obtained through the CFIUS process -- DPW's participation in the Customs initiative, the transparency of DPW's books, the continuance of the current management team for the U.S. ports -- is there any rational reason to get exercised about this deal? Is Mickey's assertion that jihadists would have a better opportunity to infiltrate DPW's ports a valid one, given the layers of American management involved?

    The Post story also aleviates the other small concern I had about this deal -- that the Bush administration bollixed up the process. The New York Times story I cited in my first post on this topic asserted:

    The administration's review of the deal was conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a body that was created in 1975 to review foreign investments in the country that could affect national security. Under that review, officials from the Defense, State, Commerce and Transportation Departments, along with the National Security Council and other agencies, were charged with raising questions and passing judgment. They found no problems to warrant the next stage of review, a 45-day investigation with results reported to the president for a final decision.

    However, a 1993 amendment to the law stipulates that such an investigation is mandatory when the acquiring company is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government. Administration officials said they conducted additional inquires because of the ties to the United Arab Emirates, but they could not say why a 45-day investigation did not occur.

    VandeHei and Blustein have a different desription of the process in the Post story:
    [O]nce Dubai Ports World had agreed to the conditions required by Homeland Security, none of the agencies on CFIUS objected to the transaction when the 30-day review was completed on Jan. 17. If even one agency had objected, the matter would have gone to a 45-day investigation -- which would have required a presidential decision at the end. Moreover, a single dissent would have meant bringing the matter before higher-ranking officials in each department.

    But instead, the matter stayed with assistant secretary-level officials, who told the company the transaction could go forward.

    I should know which version of the process is correct, but I don't. Readers are encouraged to enlighten me on this [UPDATE: Thank you, Chris! This comment clears up much of the confusion.].

    UPDATE: Mickey e-mails me to suggest I read Charles Krauthammer's thoughts on the matter:

    [T]he problem is not just the obvious one that an Arab-run company, heavily staffed with Arab employees, is more likely to be infiltrated by terrorists who might want to smuggle an awful weapon into our ports. But that would probably require some cooperation from the operating company. And neither the company nor the government of the UAE, which has been pro-American and a reasonably good ally in the war on terrorism, has any such record.

    The greater and more immediate danger is that as soon as the Dubai company takes over operations, it will necessarily become privy to information about security provisions at crucial U.S. ports. That would mean a transfer of information about our security operations -- and perhaps even worse, about the holes in our security operations -- to a company in an Arab state in which there might be employees who, for reasons of corruption or ideology, would pass this invaluable knowledge on to al-Qaeda types.

    That is the danger, and it is a risk, probably an unnecessary one.

    Color me unimpressed. DPW already gets a lot of this information because Dubai is a participant in the Container Security Initiative. Furthermore, the on-the-ground environments in the ports themselves look like they won't be changed one iota because of this deal. It will still be U.S. longshoremen handling the cargo, U.S. managers running
    port operations for DPW, U.S. managers at the upper echelon of DPW, and U.S. law enforcement managing port security. Where's the beef?

    A final point -- my support for the Dubai deal should not be misinterpreted as a lack of concern about port security. I'm as sanguine now as I was before the deal -- that is to say, not all that sanguine. It's just that this deal is irrelevant to the real problems at hand for port security -- inadequate inspections.

    An excellent primer on port security can be found in Jon D. Haveman, Howard J. Shatz, and Ernesto A. Vilchis (2005) "U.S. Port Security Policy after 9/11: Overview and Evaluation", Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management: Vol. 2: No. 4, Article 1.

    ANOTHER UPDATE: Looks like DPW has requested the 45 day review, which has gone a long way towards alleviating Congressional concerns.

    posted by Dan at 10:23 AM | Comments (28) | Trackbacks (0)

    Saturday, February 25, 2006

    Will the wheel turn on the ports deal?

    Via NRO's the Corner, I see that Glenn Reynolds has an op-ed about the political reaction to the UAE ports deal in the weekend Wall Street Journal. Actually, the story is more about the blogosphere's reaction:

    When the story first appeared, bloggers were overwhelmingly negative. My own reaction, on Feb. 12, was "color me unimpressed." Other bloggers were more pungent, but the story got little attention in the national media, which were mostly preoccupied with the Cheney quail-hunting story. ... Some bloggers, meanwhile, were having second thoughts. One of them was me: Although my initial reaction was negative, I started getting emails from readers -- some of them longtime correspondents -- who had experience with the UAE. One had served alongside troops from the Emirates in Afghanistan; another had spent time in Dubai. Some had worked with UAE ports officials. All were positive. ... As I write this, it's not clear where the rest of the debate is headed, but there are already some useful lessons for the White House. First, blogs make an excellent early warning system. The White House, unaccountably, seems to have been blindsided by the furor over this deal, though most people's gut reaction was negative. As with the many bloggers like me who changed their minds, gut reactions can be overcome by evidence -- but the White House should have taken advantage of this early warning to have its arguments in order. It didn't. That's the second lesson: The White House should not only have read blogs, but responded to them with information and arguments, rather than waiting for blog readers to weigh in.
    I'll be intrigued to see whether the rest of the American people calm down as quickly as the blogosphere over a deal that should go through. I'd like to be optimistic, but I fear that Glenn's libertarian streak might be coloring how he thinks the rest of the vox populi will react. UPDATE: This is what I'm talking about.

    posted by Dan at 10:08 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

    Tuesday, February 21, 2006

    What's the big deal about the port deal?

    I can certainly see why there's some political controversy about a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates helping to run ports on the Eastern seaboard -- but after reading this Christian Science Monitor story by Alexandra Marks, I don't think there's any real basis for the kind of outrage I'm seeing. This section in particular stands out:

    Companies like P&O don't provide security at the ports. The US Coast Guard and Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement do. For instance, in New Orleans, P&O is one of eight terminal operators responsible for marketing the port, signing agreements with shipping lines, hiring labor, loading ships, and moving cargo.

    But P&O has no responsibility for security. "We have our own police force, harbor patrol, customs officers, and Coast Guard," says Chris Bonura, spokesman for the Port of New Orleans. "That won't change no matter who is operating the terminal."

    P&O is not commenting on the political uproar over the deal. But a source within the company worries that the media and politicians are misrepresenting the arrangements. Other who work within the port communities agree. They note that P&O will not be "managing" the ports, as many news organizations have reported. Instead, the company is one of many that leases terminals at the port.

    "I've never quite seen a story so distorted so quickly," says Esther de Ipolyi, a public-relations executive who works with the port of Houston. "It's like I go to an apartment building that has 50 apartments, and I rent an apartment. This does not mean I took over the management of the whole building."

    Then there's this from Heritage's James Jay Carafino in National Review Online:
    What happens when one foreign-owned company sells a U.S. port service to another foreign-owned company. Not much. Virtually all the company employees at the ports are U.S. citizens. The Dubai firm is a holding company that will likely play no role in managing the U.S. facilities. Likewise, the company is owned by the government, a government that is an ally of the United States and recognizes that al Qaeda is as much a threat to them as it is to us. They are spending billions to buy these facilities because they think its a crackerjack investment that will keep making money for them long after the oil runs out. The odds that they have any interest in seeing their facilities become a gateway for terrorist into the United States are slim. But in the interest of national security, we will be best served by getting all the facts on the table.
    Except, of course, all the facts were reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) earlier in the month. People aren't upset that there's been a review -- they're upset because there's been a review and the outcome is one they disagree with on a gut level. [Yeah, but hasn't CFIUS approved over 99% of the cases brought to its attention?--ed. Yes, but I dare the readers to find a case where CFIUS screwed up.]

    There's been a lot of hot air in the blogosphere on this -- and even hotter air from the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, and local politicians -- but I haven't seen anything approaching a rational, reality-based argument against this deal.

    I've been quite critical of President Bush as of late, but he deserves significant credit for sticking to his guns on this one. There is little political upside -- but in this case, George W. Bush has made the right decision.

    I have every confidence in the ability of my readers to try and persuade me that I'm wrong. But you had better have a better argument than American ports + UAE firm = terrorist attack in the U.S.

    UPDATE: A few commenters have raised the point that Dubai is considered to be the hub of Middle Eastern money laundering. This is a) true; and b) irrelevant to the question at hand. Dubai is the center of money laundering in the Middle East because it's the principal financial center in the region. It is undeniably true that pre-9/11, the UAE was remarkably uncooperative on terrorist financing. That did change with the terrorist attacks, however. Furthermore, this issue is irrelevant. Why would the UAE's government -- which has been an ally of the U.S. for decades -- use the ports as a source for money laundering?

    ANOTHER UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds is mystified why Bush is digging his heels in on this issue. I'm not -- I'm sure that Bush views the Congressional hullabaloo as legislative interference in routine executive branch functions. And we all know how Bush feels about that issue.

    YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Steve Flynn has been concerned about homeland security for quite some time, and he's not exactly Polyannish about the state of security in American ports. So I think it's telling that in this Time story by Tony Karon, Flynn is untroubled by this port deal:

    [T]o call the United Arab Emirates a country "tied to 9/11" by virtue of the fact that one of the hijackers was born there and others transited through it is akin to attaching the same label to Britain (where shoe-bomber Richard Reid was born) or Germany (where a number of the 9/11 conspirators were based for a time). Dubai's port has a reputation for being one of the best run in the Middle East, says Stephen Flynn, a maritime security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Dubai Ports World, which is a relatively new venture launched by the government of Dubai in 1999, has a number of Americans well known in the shipping industry in its senior leadership. It operates port facilities from Australia through China, Korea and Malaysia to India, Germany and Venezuela. (The acquisition of P&O would give them control over container shipping ports in Vancouver, Buenos Aires and a number of locations in Britain, France and a number of Asian countries.) "It's not exactly a shadow organization for al-Qaeda," says Flynn. Dubai, in fact, was one of the first Middle Eastern countries to join the U.S. Container Security Initiative, which places U.S. customs agents in overseas ports to begin the screening process from a U.S.-bound cargo's point of departure.
    Flynn has more to say to the Washington Post's Paul Blustein and Eric Rich:
    Stephen E. Flynn, a specialist in maritime security at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that although the company is state-owned, several members of its top management are Americans -- including its general counsel, a senior vice president and its outgoing chief operating officer, Edward H. Bilkey, who is a former U.S. Navy officer. And since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States has increasingly depended on such foreign port operators to cooperate in inspecting cargo before it heads for U.S. shores.

    "It's a global network at the end of the day that we're trying to secure here," Flynn said. "And that doesn't happen by the United States owning every bit of it. What we should be focusing on instead is the question, are the security standards adequate?"

    Robert C. Bonner, who until November headed U.S. Customs and Border Protection, agreed. Although U.S. dock workers have occasionally been caught colluding with drug traffickers, the possibility that terrorists or their sympathizers would end up working in U.S. ports is remote because of the strong role of unions in hiring, he said.

    "I think there's some specter that people from the Middle East are going to come over here and operate terminals," he said. "I don't think anything like that is going to happen."

    YES, I'M STILL UPDATING: David Sanger and Eric Lipton do raise a small but valid and reality-based concern in their New York Times story:
    The administration's review of the deal was conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a body that was created in 1975 to review foreign investments in the country that could affect national security. Under that review, officials from the Defense, State, Commerce and Transportation Departments, along with the National Security Council and other agencies, were charged with raising questions and passing judgment. They found no problems to warrant the next stage of review, a 45-day investigation with results reported to the president for a final decision.

    However, a 1993 amendment to the law stipulates that such an investigation is mandatory when the acquiring company is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government. Administration officials said they conducted additional inquires because of the ties to the United Arab Emirates, but they could not say why a 45-day investigation did not occur.

    I do get some hives whenever I hear that the Bush administration has circumvented standard operating procedures -- but, again, there's nothing in the reports I've seen to suggest that there is any substantive reason for concern. The alarmists on both sides of the aisle are making the kind of conspiracy-based arguments that would make Michael Moore blush. See, for example, this nice debunking by Dick Meyer of CBS News, or this Financial Times story by Andrew Ward, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Edward Alden. And see also this fact-laden Q&A by Eben Kaplan at the Council on Foreign Relations website. This sentence stands out in particular: "Calls from lawmakers to reconsider the approval have come after the thirty-day period to raise objections had expired."

    WHAT THE HECK, ONE MORE LAST UPDATE: California Conservative -- one of the first bloggers to raise qualms about the port deal -- now concludes, "If you step back and look at the big picture, this isnt about port security. Its about elections and winning credibility on the issue of homeland security."

    Finally check out Mansoor Ijaz's defense of Dubai in NRO. Key section:

    Whatever the UAE's policies in the pre-9/11 world (whether as home to A. Q. Khan's illicit nuclear network, one of three Taliban embassies, questionable banking practices, or as an alleged repository for Iranian-terror funds), Dubai's record under these young leaders in the post 9/11 world reflects serious and structural change in national strategy. As Jim Robbins noted Tuesday, in December 2004, Dubai was the first Middle East government to accept the U.S. Container Security Initiative as policy to screen all containers for security hazards before heading to America. In May 2005, Dubai signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to prevent nuclear materials from passing through its ports. It also installed radiation-detecting equipment evidence of a commitment to invest in technology. In October 2005, the UAE Central Bank directed banks and financial institutions in the country to tighten their internal systems and controls in their fight against money laundering and terrorist financing.

    These are not the actions of a terror-sponsoring state.

    posted by Dan at 06:16 PM | Comments (83) | Trackbacks (0)

    Wednesday, January 18, 2006

    The Bush administration wants to be like France

    Marc Perelman has a piece on Foreign Policy's web site comparing and contrasting the American and French approaches to homeland security. One big difference is how the problem was viewed prior to 9/11:

    In 1988, the FBI invited Alain Marsaud, then Frances top antiterrorist magistrate, to speak about terrorism to the bureaus new recruits at its academy in Quantico, Virginia.

    Marsaud, now a conservative lawmaker, told the audience of would-be feds of the deadly threat that radical Islamist terrorist networks posed to Western societies. His talk was an unmitigated flop. They thought we were Martians, recalls Marsaud, who chairs the French Parliaments domestic security commission. They were interested in neo-Nazis and green activists, and that was it.

    Then there are the differences in approach now. It turns out the Bush administration wishes the U.S. system was more like the French:
    In the French system, an investigating judge is the equivalent of an empowered U.S. prosecutor. The judge is in charge of a secret probe, through which he or she can file charges, order wiretaps, and issue warrants and subpoenas. The conclusions of the judge are then transmitted to the prosecutors office, which decides whether to send the case to trial. The antiterrorist magistrates have even broader powers than their peers. For instance, they can request the assistance of the police and intelligence services, order the preventive detention of suspects for six days without charge, and justify keeping someone behind bars for several years pending an investigation. In addition, they have an international mandate when a French national is involved in a terrorist act, be it as a perpetrator or as a victim. As a result, France today has a pool of specialized judges and investigators adept at dismantling and prosecuting terrorist networks.

    By contrast, in the U.S. judicial system, the evidence gathered by prosecutors is laid out during the trial, in what in effect amounts to a make-or-break gamble. A single court, the secret panel of 11 judges, established by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) more than two decades ago, is charged with reviewing wiretap requests by U.S. authorities. If suspects are spied on without permission in the interest of urgency, the authorities have 72 hours to file for retroactive authorization. The Bush administrations recourse to extrajudicial meansmilitary trials, enemy combatantspartly stems from an assessment that the judicial system is unfit to prosecute the shadowy world of terrorism. The disclosures that the Bush administration skirted the rules to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects at home is apparently the latest instance of the governments deciding that rules protecting civil liberties are hampering the war on terror. French police and intelligence services, in contrast, operate in a permissive wiretapping system. In addition to judicially ordered taps, there are also administrative wiretaps decided by security agencies under the control of the government. Although the French have had their own cases of abuseevidence has exposed illegal spying by the Franois Mitterrand government in the 1980sthe intrusive police powers are for the most part well known by the public and thus largely accepted, especially when it comes to national security....

    Bush administration officials argue that the FISA law in its current form does not effectively counter the terrorist challenge. Yet, the administration has not made serious efforts to amend the law or push for broader reform of domestic counterterrorism. Doing so would no doubt be difficult politically and may require regular tweaking, as the French experience shows. But such an effort could pay dividends, for both law enforcement and the American peoples trust in their government.

    In recent years, French authorities claim they have thwarted a number of terrorist plots by using their forward-leaning arsenal, from a series of alleged chemical attacks planned by Chechen operatives against Russian interests in Paris to a recently reported ploy by French Muslims linked to a radical Islamist group in Algeria to target one of the capitals airports. The French have a very aggressive system but one that fits into their traditions, says Jeremy Shapiro, the director of research at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington. They seem to be doing the best job in Europe.

    The problem is that the French system doesn't fit very well with American traditions -- so I don't think grafting this system onto the American Constiution is going to work all that well.

    posted by Dan at 12:15 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

    Friday, December 23, 2005

    "The judicial equivalent of a bitch slap"

    That's Jacob Sullum's assessment of what 4th Circuit Court of Appeals judge Michael Luttig delivered to the Bush administration in denying their request to transfer Jose Padilla from military to civilian custody. Orin Kerr concurs.

    Luttig was on Bush's short-list for Supreme Court nominees, but as Sullum points out:

    The rebuke is richly deserved. Even a court that was prepared to recognize the detention authority asserted by Bush is not prepared to let him submit his policies to judicial review only when he feels like it.
    Indeed, just about every branch or bureaucracy of government is bitch-slapping George W. Bush this month on national security issues.

    There's the judicial branch. Beyond Luttig, another federal judge resigned from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in reaction to the NSA domestic surveillance program, forcing the administration to brief the rest of the FISA judges before they faced a full-blown judicial revolt.

    There's the legislative branch. As Jim VandeHei and Charles Babington point out in today's Washington Post:

    This week's uprising against a four-year extension of the USA Patriot Act was the latest example of a new willingness by lawmakers in both parties to challenge Bush and his notions of expansive executive power.

    Since this spring, Congress has forced Bush to scrap plans for a broad restructuring of Social Security, accept tighter restrictions on the treatment of detainees and rewrite his immigration plan. Lawmakers have rebuffed Bush's call to make permanent his first-term tax cuts and helped force the president to speak more candidly about setbacks in Iraq.

    "What you have seen is a Congress, which has been AWOL through intimidation or lack of unity, get off the sidelines and jump in with both feet," especially on the national security front, said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

    What is most striking is that the pushback is coming not just from Democrats and moderate Republicans, who often disagree with Bush, but also from mainstream conservatives.

    The year's events, say some legislators and scholars, reflect more than just a change in the president's legislative scorecard. They suggest Bush may have reached the outer limits of a long-term project to reshape the powers of the presidency.

    Finally, there's the permanent bureaucracy. As David Ignatius pointed out earlier this week in the Washington Post the torture question has revealed a clash between the Bush administration and national security professionals (link via Kevin Drum):
    The national security structure that the Bush administration created after Sept. 11, 2001, began to crumble this month because of a bipartisan revolt on Capitol Hill. Newly emboldened legislators forced the administration to accept new rules for the interrogation of prisoners, delayed renewal of the Patriot Act and demanded an investigation of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency.

    President Bush has bristled at these challenges to his authority over what has amounted to an undeclared national state of emergency. But the intelligence professionals who have daily responsibility for waging the war against terrorism don't seem particularly surprised or unhappy to see the emergency structure in trouble. They want clear rules and public support that will allow them to do their jobs effectively over the long haul, without getting second-guessed or jerked around by politicians. Basically, they don't want to be left holding the bag -- which this nation has too often done with its professional military and intelligence officers....

    One little-noted factor in this re-balancing is what I would call "the officers' revolt" -- and by that I mean both military generals in uniform and intelligence officers at the CIA, the NSA and other agencies. There has been growing uneasiness among these national security professionals at some of what they have been asked to do, and at the seeming unconcern among civilian leaders at the Pentagon and the CIA for the consequences of administration decisions.

    The quiet revolt of the generals at the Pentagon is a big reason U.S. policy in Iraq has been changing, far more than Bush's stay-the-course speeches might suggest. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is deeply unpopular with senior military officers. They complain privately about a management style that has stretched the military to the breaking point in Iraq. For months they have been working out details of troop reductions next year in Iraq -- not just because such action will keep the Army and Marine Corps from cracking but because they think a smaller footprint will be more effective in stabilizing the country.

    A similar revolt is evident at the CIA. Professional intelligence officers are furious at the politicized leadership brought to the agency by ex-congressman Porter Goss and his retinue of former congressional staffers. Their mismanagement has peeled away a generation of senior management in the CIA's Directorate of Operations who have resigned, transferred or signaled their intention to quit when their current tours are up. Many of those who remain are trying to keep their heads down until the current wave of political jockeying and reorganization is over -- which is the last thing you would want at an effective intelligence agency.

    The CIA, like the military, wants clear and sustainable rules of engagement. Agency employees don't want their careers ruined by future congressional or legal investigations of actions they thought were authorized. Unhappiness within the CIA about fuzzy rules on interrogation, and the risk of getting clobbered after the fact for doing your job, was a secret driver for Sen. John McCain's push for a new law banning cruel interrogation techniques.

    The great thing about the American system of government is that whenever one branch exceeds its traditional scope of authority, that branch is eventually brought to heel by the other parts of government.

    This is one of the iron laws of politics that George W. Bush is now facing.

    posted by Dan at 03:49 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

    Tuesday, December 20, 2005

    And you thought Heidi Fleiss' little black book was bad

    If this Anne Kornblut story in the New York Times is true, then there are a lot of people inside the beltway who are going to be feeling very, very nauseous for the next few weeks:

    Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist under criminal investigation, has been discussing with prosecutors a deal that would grant him a reduced sentence in exchange for testimony against former political and business associates, people with detailed knowledge of the case say.

    Mr. Abramoff is believed to have extensive knowledge of what prosecutors suspect is a wider pattern of corruption among lawmakers and Congressional staff members. One participant in the case who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations described him as a "unique resource."

    Other people involved in the case or who have been officially briefed on it said the talks had reached a tense phase, with each side mindful of the date Jan. 9, when Mr. Abramoff is scheduled to stand trial in Miami in a separate prosecution.

    What began as a limited inquiry into $82 million of Indian casino lobbying by Mr. Abramoff and his closest partner, Michael Scanlon, has broadened into a far-reaching corruption investigation of mainly Republican lawmakers and aides suspected of accepting favors in exchange for legislative work.

    posted by Dan at 10:06 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

    Wednesday, September 14, 2005

    A good news post about New Orleans

    Kirsten Scharnberg and Mark Silva provide today's latest on New Orleans in the Chicago Tribune:

    As military helicopters circled overhead and rescue teams combed New Orleans' flooded neighborhoods in search of remaining survivors, Mayor C. Ray Nagin stood in historic Jackson Square in the city's fabled French Quarter and announced that air and water testing conducted throughout the city by the Environmental Protection Agency had yielded much more optimistic results than expected.

    Tests showed that at least four of the city's neighborhoods-- the French Quarter, the Central Business District, Uptown and Algiers--would soon be safe to occupy again. Those neighborhoods escaped much of the flooding that had covered 80 percent of the city.

    "If I had to guess, I'd say by Monday we can open parts of the city," said Nagin, adding that such a move would be possible only if a written EPA report was as positive as a briefing he had received over the phone earlier in the day.

    The city's death toll from the disaster jumped sharply Tuesday as body-recovery teams began finding some of the hidden victims that officials had been fearing....

    Elsewhere in the New Orleans area, officials were sounding upbeat as they permitted more business owners into the city center to begin damage assessments and cleanup work, and contractors and utility workers swarmed the streets to reconnect power and water lines.

    Nagin said he hoped many residents would be allowed to return to the city soon. Unlike officials in surrounding cities, who so far have allowed residents back in for only brief periods to assess damage and retrieve essential personal items, Nagin said residents of the cleared New Orleans neighborhoods would be allowed back permanently, with a curfew likely after nightfall.

    All the neighborhoods that may be reopened are suffering from power outages, but energy officials were predicting power would be restored by next week. Nagin said water, too, would once again be running, though probably not yet safe to drink.

    I hope in the ensuing days and weeks there are more stories containing this kind of good news.

    posted by Dan at 11:33 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

    Thursday, September 8, 2005

    "Katrina is not the Worst Case Scenario"

    Amy Zegart --'s resident expert on homeland securit and intelligence reformy -- e-mailed me these thoughts on Katrina's lessons for defending against terrorist attacks:

    The devastation from Hurricane Katrina is not the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario is a man made disaster with no warning: a catastrophic terrorist attack with a nuclear or biological agent. Make no mistake. The question is not whether such an attack will occur, but when.

    What can we do? Start by facing reality. It is not too soon to begin assessing what went wrong with emergency response in New Orleans and what makes terrorism different from natural disasters. Some initial thoughts:

    1. The keystone cops response in New Orleans stems, in part, from a flawed model of how to train for disaster.

    Training drills almost never prepare officials for the worst. New Orleans conducted disaster exercises in 2000 and 2004 for hurricanes, but these drills did not include the possibility of a levee failure. In Los Angeles, a major port security exercise, Determined Promise 2004, tested a new mobile radio patch unit that enables different emergency response agencies to talk to each other. Surprise surprise: the system worked well. Of course it did. When everyone knows disaster will begin at noon on Monday, they miraculously remember to bring the right radios and brush up on instructions about how to use them properly. Even worse, not only do many exercises avoid facing truly disastrous scenarios, they define success by how smoothly everything goes. This gives a false sense of comfort, or to use a technical term, it's STUPID. Instead, we need to drill into officials that the right measure of success is how much they learn. If things do not go wrong in a drill, then the exercise was not useful.

    2. At every level of government, elected officials work from a fictional premise: that they can, and should, protect everyone from every possible disastrous event. But the truth is hurricanes will hit. Terrorists will strike. Prevention will be far lower than 100%. If you start by acknowledging, rather than avoiding, this reality, you get a different approach: concentrate funding, planning, and efforts on potential events that would bring catastrophic consequences, rather than spreading resources too thin. Hurricane hits Florida, bad. Hurricane hits New Orleans rendering the entire city uninhabitable, catastrophe. Suicide bombs at shopping malls, bad. Nuclear bomb blasting a major U.S. city into oblivion, unacceptable. The goal should be to ensure that government is best prepared to prevent and respond to the worst possible outcomes rather than splitting time and money between an endless array of possibilities.

    Politicians hate thinking like this because it's scary and it's politically unattractive: they actually have to make choices about what ranks high on the priority list and what does not. And that is guaranteed to piss off more people than it pleases. In the three years after 9/11 Congress distributed roughly $13 billion in homeland security funding to the states using a formula that redefines crazy: 40% of the funds went to every state, regardless of population or terrorist targets. Rural areas with no major targets got a disproportionate share of the funds, while the most likely terrorist targets, like Los Angeles, got the shaft. Note to self: move back to Kentucky soon.

    Zegart also has a sobering reminder -- it is easier to cope with natural disasters than terrorist attacks:

    Natural disasters are obvious when they occur. Many types of terrorist attacks (biological attacks, radiological contamination) are not. If you think the slow pace of response to Katrina is bad, imagine the outbreak of an infectious disease, where fast diagnosis is all that stands between a few deaths and national tragedy. Natural disasters often come with warning. Terrorist attacks do not. This difference is huge. It is easy to forget, amidst the desperate struggle for survival by New Orleans residents, that many thousands more did successfully evacuate before the hurricane hit. In a massive terrorist attack, the likely scenario would be mass panic.

    posted by Dan at 12:37 PM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (3)

    Sunday, August 28, 2005

    Regarding the CIA's latest self-assessment

    Amy Zegart -- who is writing a book on intelligence reform and is's official go-to source on this issue -- e-mailed me her thoughts on the CIA's latest effort at self-criticism:

    Say it ain't so.

    The CIA has just finished an internal review of 9/11, and may be gearing up for disciplinary action against some former big wigs, including CIA Director George Tenet, Jim Pavitt, who headed the agency's spy branch, and Cofer Black, who used to run the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. I can hear the drums and chants already : "Hold them accountable!"

    Let us leave aside for a moment the irony that the fate of these men now rests in the hands of Porter Goss, the current CIA chief who chaired the House Intelligence Committee before 9/11 -- and who was "shocked shocked" to discover so many failures in the agency he was so vigilantly overseeing. Let us also leave aside the fact that these guys don't exactly come across as the most sympathetic figures, slam dunking their way to presidential medals and all. The fact is that holding a few people responsible for the failures of 9/11 is comforting but dangerous. Comforting because it makes us feel safer that there's someone to blame. Dangerous because it leads us to believe that if only a few individuals had done their jobs better, 9/11 could have been averted. The reality is much worse: yes, individuals made mistakes. But it was the system that failed us. And until we fix these systemic problems, nobody should be sleeping well at night.

    Case in point: why didn't the CIA watchlist Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, 2 of the 9/11 hijackers that first came to the attention of agency officials back in January 2000, when they attended a terrorist meeting described by one intelligence official as "the al Qaeda convention"? The simplest answer: keeping track of foreign terrorists had never been standard practice or a high priority. For more than 40 years, the Cold War had dominated both the thinking and operation of the CIA and the other agencies of the US intelligence community. When the Cold War ended and the threat changed, US intelligence agencies were slow to change with it. Before 9/11, in fact, there were no formal training programs or well honed processes for identifying dangerous terrorists and warning other US government agencies about them before they reached the US. CIA officers let Mihdhar and Hazmi into the country not because they failed at their jobs, but because they never considered watchlisting to be a part of their jobs.

    CIA leadership could only do so much to fix these kinds of problems because they were decades old and built into the structure, fabric and thinking of the intelligence community. Tenet, for example, actually did try to improve longer-term, strategic analysis in the CIA's counterterrorism center before 9/11, but his efforts were doomed before they ever began. Three reasons explain why:

    1) Location. When the Counterterrorism Center was created in 1986, it was housed in the Directorate of Operations, the CIA's spy branch, rather than inside the agency's analytic division. For analysts, this was like operating behind enemy lines. The Directorate of Operations was home for people who ran spies, stole secrets, and conducted clandestine operations, not for egghead analysts who sat in cubicles piecing together information about distant threats. Location ensured that the Counterterrorism Center would give short shrift to strategic analysis from day one.

    2) Culture. Nowhere was the "need to know" and aversion to information sharing more deeply rooted than inside the clandestine Directorate of Operations. Clandestine officials for decades had viewed analysts with suspicion, even disdain. So deep was the divide between them and analysts that when the Counterterrorism Center was first created, clandestine officers assigned there requested additional safes and procedures to keep their information out of the hands of analysts working alongside them.

    3) Career incentives. For analysts, the fast track to promotion required focusing on current intelligence and staying close to home. During the 1990s, the rise of 24 hour news cycles put so much pressure on analysts to provide current information, many joked that the CIA had become "CNN with secrets." For a savvy career minded analyst, the only thing worse than getting assigned to do longer term strategic analysis was getting assigned to do longer term strategic analysis outside the CIA's analytic branch--precisely what Tenet was trying to do in 2000 and 2001. Little wonder he found strategic analysis in counter-terrorism so weak, and why he struggled with such little success to fix it. After 9/11, the congressional intelligence committees found that on average, counter-terrorism analysts had less than half the experience of analysts in the rest of the CIA. Ironically, career incentives meant that the unit most in need of experienced analysts did not have them.

    Tenet and company may not deserve any medals. But let's not kid ourselves: searching for a few bad apples will not fix what's wrong in US intelligence.

    posted by Dan at 10:56 PM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

    Monday, August 8, 2005

    The CIA meets the Department of Common Sense

    Timothy Burger reports in Time on a recent initiative by Porter Goss:

    In what experts say is a welcome nod to common sense, the CIA, having spent billions over the years on undercover agents, phone taps and the like, plans to create a large wing in the spookhouse dedicated to sorting through various forms of data that are not secret--such as research articles, religious tracts, websites, even phone books--but yet could be vital to national security. Senior intelligence officials tell TIME that CIA Director Porter Goss plans to launch by Oct. 1 an "open source" unit that will greatly expand on the work of the respected but cash-strapped office that currently translates foreign-language broadcasts and documents like declarations by extremist clerics. The budget, which could be in the ballpark of $100 million, is to be carefully monitored by John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who discussed the new division with Goss in a meeting late last month. "We will want this to be a separate, identifiable line in the CIA program so we know precisely what this center has in terms of investment, and we don't want money moved from it without [Negroponte's] approval," said a senior official in the DNI's office.

    On the one hand, this seems like an excellent idea.

    On the other hand, I keep wondering why the hell something like this wasn't instituted, oh, ten twenty thirty sixty years ago??!!!!

    posted by Dan at 12:53 AM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

    Saturday, January 15, 2005

    Following up on Sibel Edmonds

    Remember FBI whistle-blower Sibel Edmonds? The Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General has just issued a review of how the FBI handled both Simonds' allegations of incompetence and security breaches among FBI translators, as well as the Bureau's decision to terminate Simonds. Ted Bridis reports for the Associated Press:

    The FBI never adequately investigated complaints by a fired contract linguist who alleged shoddy work and possible espionage inside the bureau's translator program, although evidence and witnesses supported her, the Justice Department's senior oversight official said yesterday.

    The bureau's response to complaints by former translator Sibel Edmonds was "significantly flawed," Inspector General Glenn Fine said in a report that summarized a lengthy classified investigation into how the FBI handled the case. Fine said Edmonds's contentions "raised substantial questions and were supported by various pieces of evidence."

    Edmonds says she was fired in March 2002 after she protested to FBI managers about shoddy wiretap translations and told them an interpreter with a relative at a foreign embassy might have compromised national security by blocking translations in some cases and notifying targets of FBI surveillance....

    Fine did not specify whether Edmonds's charges of espionage were true. He said that was beyond the scope of his probe. But he criticized the FBI's review of the spying allegations, which he said were "supported by either documentary evidence or witnesses other than Edmonds."

    The report did not name Edmonds's co-worker, although Edmonds has identified the employee in comments to journalists. The report said there could be innocent explanations for the co-worker's behavior, but "other explanations were not innocuous."

    The report noted that Edmonds's co-worker passed a lie detector test, as Edmonds has done, but it described the polygraph examinations as "not ideal" and noted that follow-up tests were not conducted....

    Edmonds is described in the new report as an outspoken, distracting worker who irritated FBI supervisors and was "not an easy employee to manage." Nevertheless, it concluded the FBI fired her largely because of her allegations, not her work habits. (emphasis added)

    That assessment of Simonds raises a point I've made in the past about whistle-blowers: "there's probably a strong correlation between being a whistle-blower and generally being a royal pain-in-the-ass."

    Jerry Seper has a similar story in the Washington Times (link via Glenn Reynolds). Better yet, why not read the unclassified summary of the actual OIG report?

    posted by Dan at 06:10 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

    Tuesday, November 16, 2004

    What happens if Conan the Bacterium infects Aquaman?

    John J. Fialka has a front-pager in today's Wall Street Journal (this link should be good for non-subscribers as well) that spurs a "Wow, this is cool" reaction in me. It's about research into microorganisms that can not only survive in nuclear waste dumps -- they thrive there:

    Eight years ago, scientists using a metal rod here to probe the radioactive depths of a nuclear-waste tank saw something that shocked them: a slimy, transparent substance growing on the end of the rod.

    They took the specimen into a concrete-lined vault where technicians peered through a 3-foot-thick window and, using robot arms, smeared a bit of the specimen into a petri dish. Inside the dish they later found a colony of strange orange bacteria swimming around. The bacteria had adapted to 15 times the dose of radiation that it takes to kill a human being. They lived in what one scientific paper calls a "witches' brew" of toxic chemicals.

    It was a step forward for the U.S. Department of Energy, which has been looking for a few good bugs -- in particular, members of an emerging family of microbes that scientists call "extremophiles." These microbes can survive in some of Earth's most inhospitable environments, withstanding enormous doses of radiation, thriving at temperatures above boiling, and mingling with toxic chemicals that would kill almost anything else.

    That makes them a potentially valuable tool in the Energy Department's effort to clean up vast amounts of nuclear waste, including the Savannah River Site near Augusta, Ga., and the Hanford Site near Richland, Wash. The department says it could cost as much as $260 billion to clean up its messes with conventional methods, which rely heavily on chemical treatment and robots. Using extremophiles could slash that bill....

    Scientists know of at least a dozen extremophiles. The first was discovered in 1956 in Corvallis, Ore. Scientists were zapping cans of horse meat with high radiation, trying to establish the preservative value of food irradiation. One can developed an ominous bulge. Inside, the scientists isolated pink bacteria they had never seen before.

    They gave it the scientific name Deinococcus radiodurans. But researchers were so amazed by the bug's resilience that some years later, they nicknamed it "Conan the Bacterium," spawning a folklore and debate among scientists that continues today. Because the microbes endure radiation at levels higher than any natural source, some scientists have argued that they must have ridden in on comets. Others speculate that they were the Earth's first residents after the planet was born in a radioactive explosion.

    The original Conan proved to be a wimp among extremophiles. It could handle radiation, but not the solvent toluene and other chemicals normally found in bomb makers' wastes. So, in 1997, the Energy Department started work on a genetically manipulated bug that researchers called Super Conan.

    Super Conan now lives in a petri dish at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a U.S. military research facility in Bethesda, Md. It can handle nasty chemicals as well as radiation, but the researcher who developed it, Michael J. Daly, says the government is afraid to let it out.

    "We're at a point where we could do some field trials," he says, adding that his sponsors at the Energy Department doubt the public is ready for the release of this laboratory-engineered bug into the environment. It might eat nuclear wastes, but they worry about what else might it do, he says.

    Rather than confront such touchy matters, the department is confident it can find Super Conan's equivalent in nature, says Ari Patrinos, the department's director of biological and environmental research. He estimates that fewer than 1% of the Earth's bacteria forms have been identified: "There are plenty out there for our needs. We just have to pick and choose." (emphasis added)

    I will confess that the bolded section was my second reaction when reading the headline. I immediately flashed back to when I would watch Superfriends on Saturday mornings. Inevitably Aquaman would experience some "freak genetic mutation" and turn into some giant pissed-off fish that wreaked havoc on the high seas until Superman finally gave him the antidote. It was always a nuisance. [Er, but these extremophiles would prevent this from happening -- so why did you think of Aquaman?--ed. I didn't say I was following a rational chain of logic here. I was describing gut instinct.]

    posted by Dan at 06:31 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

    Wednesday, September 15, 2004

    The CIA's take on intelligence reform

    Ted Barlow has a good summary of a talk given by deputy executive director of the CIA Marty Peterson. On Iraq:

    In his recounting, the CIA underestimated Saddam’s missile programs, which were more advanced than anyone realized; they overestimated his biological and chemical weapons programs, which he described as “more capabilities than functioning programs”; and they were approximately right regarding his nuclear weapons programs, which hadn’t restarted. In response to a question, he said that he doubted that Saddam had smuggled out WMDs to other countries before the war.

    He made the point that the CIA wasn’t involved in the policy decision to invade Iraq, without expressing an opinion about whether it was the right decison. In general, I felt that he was making a good-faith effort to be non-partisan.

    On China:

    He’s very concerned about China and Taiwan. He says that China is investing heavily in their military, and that we can tell that they’re doing drills that show that they’re learning how to use their new hardware. He thinks that the end result of this activity is likely to be a crisis over Taiwan. He mentioned a converstation with the former Prime Minister of Singapore, who said that China and Taiwan, not North Korea, was the East Asian security issue that he was most worried about.

    Read the whole thing.

    posted by Dan at 12:04 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

    Monday, September 13, 2004

    You say "Department of Homeland Security" I say "massive pork barrel"

    Amy Zegart had a must-read op-ed in yesterday's Newsday on homeland security and intelligence reform. Here's one of the disturbing bits:

    If we ask how far we have come since 9/11 in terms of safety planning the evidence is not encouraging.

    Homeland security funds are flowing, but not to the right places. Since 9/11, Congress has distributed $13 billion to state governments with a formula only Washington could concoct: 40 percent was split evenly, regardless of a state's population, targets or vulnerability to terrorist attack. The result: Safe places got safer. Rural states with fewer potential targets and low populations, such as Alaska and Wyoming, received more than $55 per resident. Target-rich and densely populated states like New York and California received $25 and $14 per person respectively. Osama bin Laden, beware: Wyoming is well fortified.

    It gets worse. Over the past three years, the federal government has spent 20 times more on aviation security than on protecting America's seaports, even though more than 90 percent of U.S. foreign trade moves by ship, but less than 5 percent of all shipping containers entering the country are inspected. One recent study showed the odds of detecting a nuclear bomb inside a heavy machinery container were close to zero. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, such a lopsided transportation strategy makes sense only if you intend to fight the last war.

    Read the whole thing.

    posted by Dan at 11:27 AM | Comments (26) | Trackbacks (2)

    Wednesday, September 8, 2004

    Bush flip-flops on intelligence reform

    Looks like President Bush has changed his mind on intelligence reform:

    The White House unveiled plans Wednesday to give a new national intelligence director strong budgetary authority over much of the nation's intelligence community, a key provision in the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations.

    President Bush intends to give the intelligence director full budget authority over the National Foreign Intelligence Program and "the management tools" to oversee the intelligence community and integrate foreign and domestic intelligence, the White House said in a statement.

    The administration's plan comes as the Senate prepares to start crafting its own legislation to address criticisms from the 9/11 commission that the nation's 15 different intelligence agencies did not work together properly to stop the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.

    Bush's actual statement is even more explicit: "We believe that there ought to be a National Intelligence Director who has full budgetary authority." According to the draft plan on the White House's web site, the NID would have significant authority over personnel decisions as well.

    Needless to say, this is a departure from what Bush proposed last month on the subject.

    I'm still not convinced it's the right thing to do -- and Phil Carter is on vacation, so I can't ask him. What's more interesting is why Bush changed his mind -- was this just blowing with the political winds or does he believe this is the right thing to do?

    The title to this post suggests my thoughts on the answer.

    UPDATE: It occurs to me that there's a slightly more generous interpretation of Bush's actions -- that he started out with a deliberately vague proposal and then filled in the details over time. Still, even within that vagueness, Bush implied a lot more decentralization than the current proposal.

    Meanwhile, over at Slate, Fred Kaplan thinks the debate over bureaucratic debate misses the point about personnel.

    posted by Dan at 04:28 PM | Comments (36) | Trackbacks (6)

    Thursday, August 26, 2004

    Amy Zegart goes medieval on Fred Kaplan

    As I said in my previous post on the topic, Fred Kaplan really disliked Senator Roberts' intelligence proposal. Some highlights from his Slate piece:

    Sen. Pat Roberts' plan to overhaul the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy is a true stinker, every bit as bad as his establishment critics contend....

    Anyone who studies the "intelligence community" as much as Roberts does would also know—or should—that the proposal, if it were put into effect, would do more harm than good. So again, what's going on here?

    ....The first is that he's advancing a deliberately extreme proposal in order to prod the stuffy, stodgy bureaucracy into moving. He's telling the White House that if Bush doesn't start making serious reforms, Congress will—possibly in ways that the executive branch won't like. And he's shifting the definition of "acceptable" reform: By proposing a plan that goes well beyond the 9/11 commission's proposals, he is making those commission proposals seem more moderate by comparison....

    However, there is a second, more cynical, and, alas, more plausible theory: He's putting out a proposal that's deliberately out-to-lunch, in order to distract the debate from more reasonable resolutions, to deflect attacks on Bush, and to discourage the whole idea of organizational reform.

    I think it's safe to say that intelligence reform expert Amy Zegart really dislikes Fred Kaplan's take. She e-mailed me the following reaction:

    I am, as my four-year old would put it, "steaming mad." Where to begin? First, anyone who has spent 5 seconds with Pat Roberts (and I spent 3 hours in front of him last week) knows he's deadly serious about reform. Where has Fred Kaplan been? Has he read the 500+ page Senate Intelligence Committee report Roberts' committee wrote in July about WMD in Iraq and the pathological deficiencies in the IC that led to it? Does he think this report descended like manna from heaven or does he realize the Committee's expert staff spent, oh I don't know, a year on it? I have anextra copy; perhaps I should send it to him.

    Second, Kaplan forgets conveniently the fact that 2 of the key ideas in this proposal --splitting the CIA's clandestine side from its analytical side and creating a new national intelligence director -- were EXACTLY the same as a proposal made 12 years ago by David Boren and David McCurdy, the Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees. Then there is the substance of his claims. There are many valid concerns about this proposal, but Kaplan does not raise them.

    Post your own thoughts below.

    UPDATE: Esther Pan has compiled an excellent backgrounder on the different reform proposals at the Council on Foreign Relations web site.

    posted by Dan at 01:14 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (1)

    Tuesday, August 24, 2004

    Open intelligence reform thread

    Feel free to comment here on Senator Pat Roberts' proposed plan for intelligence reform. As I've said before, I'm leery of the pushes towards centralization made in the 9/11 Commission report, and Roberts' proposal goes further in some ways. On the other hand, I really do like the idea of splitting up the analytic and clandestine components of the CIA, an I really like the idea of rotating intelligence officers through different agencies.

    My opinion don't count for much on this, however. On the other hand, Amy Zegart's opinion does count for a great deal -- intelligence reform is what she studies. So check out what Zegart said last night on Aaron Brown's NewsNight:

    It's one of the boldest proposals for reform that we've seen in the 57 years of the intelligence community....

    I think one of the critical differences between Senator Roberts' proposal and the 9/11 Commission is the 9/11 Commission essentially said, "Look at the pieces we have here. How can we make these work better?" Senator Roberts' proposal actually takes out that blank sheet of paper and says, "How could we actually redesign the entire intelligence system to work better?"

    .... I think there are three major differences that make it better than, for example, the 9/11 Commission proposal. The first is that the national intelligence director has even more power in Senator Roberts' proposal than in the 9/11 Commission.

    Now, bear in mind that the details of this proposal of Senator Roberts' proposal are not widely known but my understanding is the national intelligence director would have hiring and firing power that goes far deeper in agencies that now reside in the Pentagon, like the National Security Agency.

    The second change is, as you mentioned, dismantling the CIA, separating in particular the clandestine side of the CIA from the analytic side of the CIA.

    But there's a third change. And I think it is harder to see and equally important. And that's Senator Roberts' proposal tries to get at cultural changes inside the community. The 9/11 Commission identified critical cultural pathologies in our intelligence system, but really put off proposals for solving them and put them in the hands of the national intelligence director.

    Senator Roberts' proposal actually goes much farther than that. For example, you'll notice the language refers to a national intelligence service. Dismantling the CIA is part of creating that one-team approach. And there are also requirements in this proposal to, for example, require the rotation of intelligence officials to different agencies outside their own, which is crucial for getting them to trust and understand each other and share information better.

    UPDATE: I think it's safe to say that Fred Kaplan doesn't like the proposal.

    posted by Dan at 11:46 AM | Comments (22) | Trackbacks (1)

    Sunday, August 15, 2004

    The shifting threat from Al Qaeda

    The Economist has a good rundown of the latest intelligence about Al Qaeda and its altered post-9/11 state, reaffirming some points that Daniel Byman made a few weeks ago. The good parts version:

    With most of its leaders probably now lurking in the wilder parts of South Asia, deprived of their radios and telephones by fear of detection, the group's organisational function has shrivelled. Although Mr Khan's activities suggest that al-Qaeda is still more cohesive and active than has often been said, its card-carrying members represent nothing like the threat they did when Mr al-Hindi allegedly cased the New York Stock Exchange in late 2000....

    But in its second coming, as the battle-standard and the ideology for a generation of militant Muslim youth, al-Qaeda is scoring a nightmarish success. Witness the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian believed to be leading hundreds of Islamist militants in Iraq. While running terrorist training camps in Afghanistan ten years ago, Mr Zarqawi was Mr bin Laden's rival of sorts. Now, wanted for the same $25m bounty as Mr bin Laden, he is routinely described as the head of al-Qaeda operations in Iraq.

    Noting this shifting role, Jason Burke, a writer on al-Qaeda, says: “Since 9/11, there's been a rampant dissemination of al-Qaeda's ideology, which, even if its capability has diminished, has made it far easier for the group to recruit individuals.” The result, Mr Burke predicts, will be fewer spectacular strikes, such as those of September 11th, and many more small-scale, more randomly directed attacks, such as this year's bombings in Madrid. As in Madrid, these attacks will often be carried out by individuals who have only a passing contact with the al-Qaeda organisation, even if they claim to be members of it.

    For any American president hoping to claim victory in the war on terror, such an analysis brings both good news and bad. Massive, potentially election-wrecking attacks look less likely, though not impossible. On the other hand, it would no longer be possible to claim—as Mr Bush would doubtless like to be able to claim—that by knocking out Mr bin Laden, the war had been taken to its final round.

    Ironically, perhaps, a happier prospect for America is that if al-Qaeda should increasingly become the label of choice for all Islamic militants, its ire would be redirected towards an increasing number of local enemies, giving America some much-wanted allies. This process can already be tracked in Pakistan....

    A very tentative conclusion is that while America is practising for another September 11th, the threat of Islamic militancy is becoming less spectacular, more general and more unpredictable. In short, it may be becoming more like the sort of insurgencies that Britain has fought during many decades.

    Accordingly, says Rand's Mr Jenkins, Americans must learn not only to minimise the threat of al-Qaeda, but also to live with it. “Americans can't be phlegmatic,” he laments, “there's no question we've cranked up the threat. Whereas the Brits are capable of taking the long view, of seeing that this is a long-term problem, Americans look to do everything for short-term gain.” He argues that the American public needs to get risk-savvy, and the authorities need to find ways to handle the intelligence better, so that they can alert the nation to the threat of terrorism in a way that does not alarm people unduly.

    Such lessons will probably take another terrorist threat or two to master, but mastered they may eventually have to be. Because, as most al-Qaeda watchers agree, a quick end to the war on terror is very hard to envisage.

    posted by Dan at 10:56 PM | Comments (26) | Trackbacks (0)

    Thursday, August 5, 2004

    What kind of intelligence reform is necessary?

    Members of the 9-11 Commission are not pleased with President Bush tweaking their intelligence reform proposals:

    Two members of the Sept. 11 commission criticized President Bush's proposal to create a national intelligence director, telling Congress on Tuesday that the White House plan fails to give the new spy chief the executive powers needed to revamp the nation's intelligence agencies.

    Without the power to set budgets and hire and fire senior managers, the new intelligence czar will lack the clout to make major changes at the nation's 15 spy agencies, the commissioners told lawmakers at the first House hearing prompted by the panel's 567-page report on the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

    "The person that has the responsibility needs the authority," Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator, told the House Government Reform Committee. "Absent that, they're not going to be able to get the job done."

    Republican commissioner John Lehman, a former Navy secretary who has been seen as a possible replacement for retiring CIA Director George Tenet, also urged the president to reconsider his proposal to base the director outside the White House. The commission recommended establishing the position within the White House to keep the director from being overshadowed by powerful Cabinet members, such as the defense secretary.

    "Our recommendations are not a Chinese menu," Lehman said. "They are a whole system. If all of the important elements are not adopted, it makes it very difficult for the others to succeed."

    Sounds like a bad omen for the administration, and more fuel for the left half of the blogosphere.

    However, intelligence expert Anthony Cordesman argues in a Council on Foreign Relations interview that Bush did the right thing in his initial proposal:

    Cordesman: [Bush] wisely, I think, talked about endorsing the recommendations of the commission in some areas, but provided no details as to which he would endorse, the timing, or how [the recommendations] would be implemented. Given the fact that the commission report basically provides no details as to what these recommendations mean in terms of staffing, costs, procedures, information technology, or any of the other steps necessary to implement them, the president has effectively left most issues open.

    CFR: Is this good or bad? Is this now open for discussion with Congress? It will take some time to put together a plan.

    Cordesman: That is one of the key issues. Nothing could have been worse or more impractical than calling Congress back to essentially try to vote on legislation to implement recommendations that have no details and no specifics. I think one of the great problems people face is that politicians rushed to join the bandwagon, effectively endorsing chapters 12 and 13 of this report. But they could not possibly have bothered to read what they were endorsing. Nobody in Congress with any experience is going to endorse a generalized recommendation for organizational change without any specifics, without any knowledge of the cost or the effectiveness, or even, because this is the major failing of the report, any knowledge of what has been done since 9/11 to try to fix the problems exposed in the commission report.

    CFR: Are you implying that Senator John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, was premature in endorsing the report's recommendations?

    Cordesman: In fairness to Senator Kerry, there were many people in both parties who rushed out to gain political visibility and do the same thing. But it isn't a matter of being premature; it is a matter of being totally irresponsible to think that you can rush Congress back to pass legislation when you haven't the faintest idea of what it means, when most of the recommendations have never been reviewed or commented on by the intelligence community, and nobody has any idea of the staffing requirements or costs.

    CFR: There has been some criticism that the president, by declining to give the DNI control over the government's intelligence budget, has made the job meaningless. Is this criticism premature?

    Cordesman: I think it is. The president has to consider some very real problems. Most of the intelligence budget goes to what are called "national technical means" [such as photo and communications satellites]. These are extremely sophisticated high-technology systems. Almost all of the planning and development of these systems occurs in the Defense Department [DOD]. They are designed to be integrated into an overall command-and-control system for military crisis management and war fighting. Now, when you reach budget decisions you have to have a budget structure where both the new DNI and the DOD can play the proper roles in budget review, and where there is programming authority and a programming staff to look beyond the current annual requirement to the overall needs for intelligence and how they fit into our command-and-control and communications systems.

    Again, one of the great problems in the commission report is that it looked at exactly one issue--counterterrorism--and none of the others. But [U.S.] intelligence users consist of more than 1 million people, many of them in uniform, and when you talk about budgeting and programming authority, you have to consider that. The other difficulty is that at some point--and it will have to be very quick, if the new DNI is given budget authority--the [current] archaic and outdated budget system, which has many different elements and information systems, is going to have to be integrated and converted into a more modern system. You cannot simply wave a magic wand and tell somebody how to create a system that can manage what is certainly more than $20 billion a year.

    As someone who urged the Bush administration to take the 9-11 Commission's policy recommendations seriously, this sounds about right to me.

    Furthermore, Columbia sociologist Duncan Watts has a Slate piece that suggests the urge to centralize control/authority is mistaken:

    Centralizing is an understandable response to the pre-9/11 intelligence fiasco. But as organizational science and history show, it's also a misguided one.

    When organizations fail, our first reaction is typically to fall into "control mode": One person, or at most a small, coherent group of people, should decide what the current goals of the organization are, and everyone else should then efficiently and effectively execute those goals. Intuitively, control mode sounds like nothing so much as common sense. It fits perfectly with our deeply rooted notions of cause and effect ("I order, you deliver"), so it feels good philosophically. It also satisfies our desire to have someone made accountable for everything that happens, so it feels good morally as well.

    But when a failure is one of imagination, creativity, or coordination—all major shortcomings of the various intelligence branches in recent years—introducing additional control, whether by tightening protocols or adding new layers of oversight, can serve only to make the problem worse....

    [C]ombining the many different agencies involved in intelligence gathering and analysis at a single point—that of the director of intelligence—is almost certain not to succeed in delivering the kind of ambiguous yet essential functionality that everyone wants. So, some other kind of connectivity, along with a more creative approach, is required—one that incorporates not only the sharing of information across agency boundaries (a recommendation of the commission's that has received relatively little attention), but active collaboration, joint training, and the development of long term personal relationships between agencies as well. Creative intelligence analysis has a lot in common with other kinds of problem-solving activities: thinking outside the box, challenging deeply held assumptions, and combining different, often seemingly unrelated, kinds of expertise and knowledge. By understanding how innovative and successful organizations have been able to solve large-scale, complex problems, without anyone "at the top" having to micromanage the process, the intelligence community could learn some valuable lessons that might help it escape the mistakes of the past.

    Watts might be overestimating the extent to which even the 9-11 Commission wants to centralize inelligence. However, his points about the power of informal social networks and decentralized efforts sounds awfully familiar with James Surowiecki's arguments about intelligence reform.

    The left half of the blogosphere seems exercised about the notion that the Bush administration suggests that it is implementing the Commission recommendations when it actually isn't. Re-reading Bush's Rose Garden announcement, I think they do have half a leg to stand on. However, I don't really care whether the administration is trying to spin the atmospherics on this -- duh, of course they are -- but I do care about whether the substantive recommendations are the right ones to make. There's an implicit assumption in much of the blogging on this that the Commission must be correct.

    The more I think about it, the more I believe that the Commission has put forward a serious proposal -- but there should not be an a priori assumption that it's the best proposal.

    UPDATE: I received the following e-mail this morning:

    I agree with Dr. Watts about the value of informal networks. As a former CIA analyst, I never felt that we lacked more managers. In fact, we needed more line staff and better process--both operationally and for professional development. There was one bright spot, and it could be a model for what Dr. Watts explains.

    When I joined the Agency, I was lucky to be part of the Career Training program. Besides the obvious benefits of the program (preparation for service), I was told that the program had the additional goal of building cross-directorate relationships to facilitate informal networks. The hope was that these networks would speed sharing of information and problem resolution.

    In my brief experience, the CT program definitely helped. It's major shortcoming was its limited scope. While all operations officers went through the program, only a handful of new hires for the other directorates (intelligence, administration and science and technology) participated. Also, the Agency did little to build on what it started in the CT program. More opportunities to bring alumni together both socially and professionally in succeeding years would have been helpful.

    While no panacea, the CT program is a good start and a modified and expanded version might serve the intelligence community well.

    ANOTHER UPDATE: Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok share their thoughts over at Marginal Revolution

    posted by Dan at 06:18 PM | Comments (29) | Trackbacks (8)

    Wednesday, August 4, 2004

    What the f#$% is going on at the FBI?

    Let's say you're running the organization responsible for trying to track potential terrorists in the United States. Immediately after 9/11, let's say that one of your new employees tells you that some of the people doing necessary translating work (from Middle Eastern languages into English) are incompetent, helping to explain why relevant information never made it to the necessary links in the chain of command. What do you do?

    A) Give this person a medal and start cleaning house;

    B) Fire the person, request a gag order to prevent her from speaking publicly about the case, and attempt to retroactively label anything said about the case as a state secret?

    Alas, in the case of FBI whistle-blower Sibel Edmonds, it appears that both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice picked option B. For more background on the story, check out this Boston Globe story by Anne E. Kornblut, as well as Fred Kaplan's justifiable rant in Slate. The FBI admitted last week that Edmonds' whistle-blowing was "a contributing factor" in her firing. [Last week? That's, like, a decade in blog-years--ed. Better late than never.]

    The coverage of this story reveals the extent to which the FBI has resisted any efforts at reform. In a 60 Minutes story on Edmonds from October 2002, consider this section:

    In its rush to hire more foreign language translators after Sept. 11, the FBI admits it has had difficulty performing background checks to detect translators who may have loyalties to other governments - which could pose a threat to U.S. national security.

    Take the case of Jan Dickerson, a Turkish translator who worked with Edmonds. The FBI has admitted that when Dickerson was hired the bureau didn't know that she had worked for a Turkish organization being investigated by the FBI's own counter-intelligence unit.

    They also didn't know she'd had a relationship with a Turkish intelligence officer stationed in Washington who was the target of that investigation. According to Edmonds, Dickerson tried to recruit her into that organization, and insisted that Dickerson be the only one to translate the FBI's wiretaps of that Turkish official....

    Does the Sibel Edmonds case fall into any pattern of behavior, pattern of conduct on, on the part of the FBI?

    “The usual pattern,” says Sen. Grassely. “Let me tell you, first of all, the embarrassing information comes out, the FBI reaction is to sweep it under the rug, and then eventually they shoot the messenger.”

    Special agent John Roberts, a chief of the FBI's Internal Affairs Department, agrees. And while he is not permitted to discuss the Edmonds case, for the last 10 years he has been investigating misconduct by FBI employees. He says he is outraged by how little is ever done about it.

    “I don't know of another person in the FBI who has done the internal investigations that I have and has seen what I have, and that knows what has occurred and what has been glossed over and what has, frankly, just disappeared, just vaporized, and no one disciplined for it,” says Roberts.

    Despite a pledge from FBI Director Robert Mueller to overhaul the culture of the FBI in light of 9/11, and encourage bureau employees to come forward to report wrongdoing, Roberts says that in the rare instances when employees are disciplined, it's usually low-level employees like Edmonds who get punished and not their bosses.

    “I think the double standard of discipline will continue no matter who comes in, no matter who tries to change,” says Roberts. “You, you have a certain, certain group that, that will continue to protect itself. That's just how it is.”

    Has he found cases since Sept. 11 where people were involved in misconduct and were not, let alone reprimanded, but were even promoted? Roberts says yes. (emphasis added)

    And then there's this New York Times account of another case study in FBI management:

    As a veteran agent chasing home-grown terrorism suspects for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mike German always had a knack for worming his way into places few other agents could go.

    In the early 1990s, he infiltrated a group of white supremacist skinheads plotting to blow up a black church in Los Angeles. A few years later, he joined a militia in Washington State that talked of attacking government buildings. Known to his militia colleagues by the alias Rock, he tricked them into handcuffing themselves in a supposed training exercise so the authorities could arrest them.

    So in early 2002, when German got word that a group of Americans might be plotting support for an overseas Islamic terrorist group, he proposed to his bosses what he thought was an obvious plan: Go under cover again and infiltrate the group.

    But German says FBI officials sat on his request, botched the investigation, falsified documents to discredit its own sources, then froze him out and made him a "pariah." He left the bureau in mid-June after 16 years and is now going public for the first time - the latest in a string of FBI whistle-blowers who claim they were retaliated against after voicing concerns about how management issues had impeded terrorism investigations since the Sept. 11 attacks.

    Look, maybe the FBI has changed its ways and these examples are exceptions to the rule. And it should probably be acknowledged that there's probably a strong correlation between being a whistle-blower and generally being a royal pain-in-the-ass.

    But they're still pretty scary exceptions. And this open letter from Edmonds to the 9-11 Commission doesn't make me feel any more sanguine. Particularly this part:

    After the terrorist attacks of September 11 we, the translators at the FBI’s largest and most important translation unit, were told to slow down, even stop, translation of critical information related to terrorist activities so that the FBI could present the United States Congress with a record of ‘extensive backlog of untranslated documents’, and justify its request for budget and staff increases. While FBI agents from various field offices were desperately seeking leads and suspects, and completely depending on FBI HQ and its language units to provide them with needed translated information, hundreds of translators were being told by their administrative supervisors not to translate and to let the work pile up....

    Today, almost three years after 9/11, and more than two years since this information has been confirmed and made available to our government, the administrators in charge of language departments of the FBI remain in their positions and in charge of the information front lines of the FBI’s Counter terrorism and Counterintelligence efforts. Your report has omitted any reference to this most serious issue, has foregone any accountability what so ever, and your recommendations have refrained from addressing this issue, which when left un-addressed will have even more serious consequences. This issue is systemic and departmental.

    UPDATE: In the interest of fairness, here's a link to yesterday's testimony by the Executive Assistant Director for Counterterrorism/Counterintelligence to the Senate Government Affairs Committee on what the FBI thinks it has done right since 9/11. And here's the FBI's official response to the 9-11 Commission's report.

    posted by Dan at 01:52 PM | Comments (61) | Trackbacks (5)

    Monday, August 2, 2004

    Evaluating the threat from Al Qaeda

    Dan Byman, a counterterrorism specialist at Georgetown, has a counterintuitive Slate essay on why the U.S. homeland is safer than commonly thought -- despite the recent terrorist advisory for certain East Coast locales:

    The greatest blow to al-Qaida has come from the removal of its haven in Afghanistan and the disruption of the permissive environment it enjoyed in numerous countries in Europe and Asia. The leaders of the organization are under intense pressure, with killings and arrests commonplace. As a result, attacks that require meticulous planning and widespread coordination are far more difficult to carry out.

    Al-Qaida has changed in response to these pressures. As former CIA Director George Tenet testified earlier this year, "Successive blows to al-Qaida's central leadership have transformed the organization into a loose collection of regional networks that operate more autonomously." Before Sept. 11, al-Qaida worked closely with various local jihadist movements, drawing on their personnel and logistics centers for its own efforts and working to knit the disparate movements together. Since 9/11, local group leaders have played a far more important role, taking the initiative in choosing targets and conducting operations, looking to al-Qaida more for inspiration than for direction.

    This shift from a centralized structure to a more localized one has made the U.S. homeland safer. The United States, in contrast to many nations in Europe and Asia, does not have a strong, well-organized, radical Islamist presence on its shores. Although there are certainly jihadist sympathizers who might conduct attacks on their own or be used by foreign jihadists as local facilitators, the vast sea of disaffected young Muslim men that is present in Europe and elsewhere has no U.S. parallel. Similarly, the logistics network of forgers, scouts, recruiters, money men, and others is far less developed.

    Safer does not mean safe, and the risk of less sophisticated attacks remains particularly high. Attacks on U.S. allies where jihadist networks are better organized and more resilient are a grave concern, and Americans traveling abroad are particularly vulnerable. Nor is the homeland necessarily secure, as al-Qaida has adjusted to U.S. vigilance. FBI Director Robert Mueller has warned that the organization is seeking recruits who will easily blend in to the United States. Tenet also darkly noted that for groups sympathetic to al-Qaida's ideology, attacks on the U.S. homeland remain the "brass ring."

    There's another reason to believe that an Al Qaeda attack might stoppable. Although the U.S. might still not be prepared to protect critical infrastructure, this Washington Post story suggests that Al Qaeda isn't targeting it either. For all the talk about Al Qaeda's flexibility, they appear to be relatively orthodox in targeting symbols. The key paragraph:

    The information that emerged appears to confirm that al Qaeda continues to plan operations and conduct surveillance against targets inside the United States. It buttresses the warnings of law enforcement and intelligence officials that al Qaeda has operatives in the United States and that U.S. financial institutions -- particularly ones in New York and Washington -- remain favorite targets of the terror network.

    More on this point from Knut Royce of Newsday.

    None of this means that the Al Qaeda threat has been eliminated -- but it's still worth noting.

    UPDATE: Douglas Jehl and David Johnston report in the New York Times that, "Much of the information that led the authorities to raise the terror alert at several large financial institutions in the New York City and Washington areas was three or four years old." However, both the Times account and this Chicago Tribune story make it clear that while most of the information was old, it was only in the past few weeks that it was obtained by U.S. intelligence. The Tribune report also states, "The senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while much of the surveillance predated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some information about one of the targeted buildings was from 2004."

    Tom Maguire (who's been on a roll as of late) has some relevant thoughts.

    posted by Dan at 11:33 PM | Comments (52) | Trackbacks (4)

    Thursday, July 22, 2004

    The trouble with racial profiling

    It looks like the Annie Jacobsen story has been put to bed, but the debate on the relative merits of racial profiling in the comment threads here, here, here, and here has been pretty intense.

    So, as a public service, here is Sara Sefeed's response to Annie Jacobsen in the Persian Mirror. Sefeed has her own disturbing experience with airport security when she's issued a boarding pass with the wrong name and no one notices.

    Safeed's proposed reforms sound just as overwrought as Jacobsen's original account -- her complaint that "everything in the US is privatized and there is no unison among the different states, companies, and airlines, no one person seems to have jurisdiction or responsibility over anything" is as unfocused as the supposed target of her lament. That said, she does have a good closing paragraph:

    I, an Iranian, born in Tehran have green eyes, light skin and light brown hair. You would never “profile” me under anything except maybe a wasp from the Upper West Side. I know plenty of Italians, Spaniards, Irish, Serbs, Croatians, Greeks, Portuguese, French, and Russians who have black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. And even within the Arab community, should there not be a difference between a Saudi, an Egyptian, a Jordanian, a Kuwaiti, or an Iraqi? How do we “profile” them? Instead of trying to make the world a Mickey Mouse Park where things fit neatly into boxes and security agents can pick and choose “terrorists” with color-coded instructions from the government, shouldn’t we put some real brains behind the plethora of terrorist networks that continue to terrorize our daily activities all over the world? The question then is not would I mind “racial profiling” as a “Middle-Easterner” but rather would do you mind, if they ask you a few relevant questions at the airport the next time you board a plane.

    UPDATE: This story by Eric Leonard casts further doubt on Jacobsen's account:

    Undercover federal air marshals on board a June 29 Northwest airlines flight from Detroit to LAX identified themselves after a passenger, “overreacted,” to a group of middle-eastern men on board, federal officials and sources have told KFI NEWS.

    The passenger, later identified as Annie Jacobsen, was in danger of panicking other passengers and creating a larger problem on the plane, according to a source close to the secretive federal protective service....

    “The lady was overreacting,” said the source. “A flight attendant was told to tell the passenger to calm down; that there were air marshals on the plane.”

    The middle eastern men were identified by federal agents as a group of touring musicians travelling to a concert date at a casino, said Air Marshals spokesman Dave Adams.

    Jacobsen wrote she became alarmed when the men made frequent trips to the lavatory, repeatedly opened and closed the overhead luggage compartments, and appeared to be signaling each other.

    “Initially it was brought to [the air marshals] attention by a passenger,” Adams said, adding the agents had been watching the men and chose to stay undercover.

    Jacobsen and her husband had a number of conversations with the flight attendants and gestured towards the men several times, the source said.

    “In concert with the flight crew, the decision was made to keep [the men] under surveillance since no terrorist or criminal acts were being perpetrated aboard the aircraft; they didn’t interfere with the flight crew,” Adams said.

    The air marshals did, however, check the bathrooms after the middle-eastern men had spent time inside, Adams said.

    FBI agents met the plane when it landed in Los Angeles and the men were questioned, and Los Angeles field office spokeswoman Cathy Viray said it’s significant the alarm on the flight came from a passenger.

    “We have to take all calls seriously, but the passenger was worried, not the flight crew or the federal air marshals,” she said. “The complaint did not stem from the flight crew.”

    “You made me nervous,” Kevin said the air marshal told him.

    “I was freaking out,” Kevin replied.

    “We don’t freak out in situations like this,” the air marshal responded.

    Federal agents later verified the musicians’ story.

    “We followed up with the casino,” Adams said. A supervisor verified they were playing a concert. A second federal law enforcement source said the concert itself was monitored by an agent.

    “We also went to the hotel, determined they had checked into the hotel,” Adams said. Each of the men were checked through a series of databases and watch-lists with negative results, he said.

    The source said the air marshals on the flight were partially concerned Jacobsen’s actions could have been an effort by terrorists or attackers to create a disturbance on the plane to force the agents to identify themselves.

    Air marshals’ only tactical advantage on a flight is their anonymity, the source said, and Jacobsen could have put the entire flight in danger.

    LAST UPDATE: Michelle Malkin, blogging with a vengeance, reports and follows up on the visa status of the Syrians.

    posted by Dan at 03:49 PM | Comments (23) | Trackbacks (5)