Commentary Magazine


Topic: anthrax

Israel: 1991-2011

Twenty years ago, Saddam Hussein’s Scud rockets began to rain down on Tel Aviv. The specter of a chemical attack was Israel’s nightmare, because anthrax was a reality in Saddam’s Iraq. Thirty-nine missiles fell on Israel. On those cold nights, the Israelis wore gas masks, because Saddam had revived the idea in the Israeli unconscious that the Jews could be gassed again. The Israelis checked the shelters, sealing doors and windows, they stood in line for gas masks in the hallways of neighborhood elementary schools, and watched chemical-warfare defense videos. Food cans quickly disappeared from the supermarkets. “Drink a lot of water” was the army’s advice against the effects of a possible biochemical attack. Saddam’s Scuds damaged 4,393 buildings, 3,991 apartments, and 331 public institutions. This accounting does not include the incalculable costs of equipping every Israeli with a gas mask, of the need for every Israeli family to prepare sealed rooms, of the national disruption caused by multiple alerts, and of lost business and tourism.

Twenty years ago, Saddam Hussein threatened to “burn half of Israel.” Today Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has promised to wipe out the “dead rats,” as he called the Israelis. Tehran is the biggest strategic threat to Israel’s existence, especially by the terror satellites of Hezbollah and Hamas. According to the new Israeli intelligence reports, Iran would now be able to launch 400 “lethal” missiles on Tel Aviv. Hezbollah could launch up to 600 rockets per day. From Teheran to Tel Aviv, an Iranian Shihab-3 rocket would take 12 minutes to hit the Jewish state. The Dan area of Tel Aviv, where live a quarter of the entire Israeli population, is the target of the next war, about which nobody knows if and when it will burst, but everyone knows that it will have emblazoned within it the eyes of the ayatollahs.

Israel is investing in its own survival. Both Tel Aviv and the port city of Haifa were severely hit by the rockets of 1991. But, for the first time since the birth of Israel, tomorrow these cities could be reached by devastating bombs. The power of death in the region has risen dramatically. It has been estimated that four years ago, Syria had 300 missiles that could reach Tel Aviv, a dozen for Hezbollah, 50 for Iran, and nothing for Hamas. Two years later, Syria had 1,300, Hezbollah 800, Hamas a dozen, and Iran 300. Today it’s 2,300 for Syria, 1,200 for Hezbollah, 400 for Teheran, and a good arsenal of Fajr-5 for Hamas. Jerusalem could be hit with a precision that would leave intact the Al-Aqsa Mosque. So Tel Aviv today is not extending only to the sky with its beautiful skyscrapers but also sinks into the ground because it’s a new target for Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Read More

Twenty years ago, Saddam Hussein’s Scud rockets began to rain down on Tel Aviv. The specter of a chemical attack was Israel’s nightmare, because anthrax was a reality in Saddam’s Iraq. Thirty-nine missiles fell on Israel. On those cold nights, the Israelis wore gas masks, because Saddam had revived the idea in the Israeli unconscious that the Jews could be gassed again. The Israelis checked the shelters, sealing doors and windows, they stood in line for gas masks in the hallways of neighborhood elementary schools, and watched chemical-warfare defense videos. Food cans quickly disappeared from the supermarkets. “Drink a lot of water” was the army’s advice against the effects of a possible biochemical attack. Saddam’s Scuds damaged 4,393 buildings, 3,991 apartments, and 331 public institutions. This accounting does not include the incalculable costs of equipping every Israeli with a gas mask, of the need for every Israeli family to prepare sealed rooms, of the national disruption caused by multiple alerts, and of lost business and tourism.

Twenty years ago, Saddam Hussein threatened to “burn half of Israel.” Today Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has promised to wipe out the “dead rats,” as he called the Israelis. Tehran is the biggest strategic threat to Israel’s existence, especially by the terror satellites of Hezbollah and Hamas. According to the new Israeli intelligence reports, Iran would now be able to launch 400 “lethal” missiles on Tel Aviv. Hezbollah could launch up to 600 rockets per day. From Teheran to Tel Aviv, an Iranian Shihab-3 rocket would take 12 minutes to hit the Jewish state. The Dan area of Tel Aviv, where live a quarter of the entire Israeli population, is the target of the next war, about which nobody knows if and when it will burst, but everyone knows that it will have emblazoned within it the eyes of the ayatollahs.

Israel is investing in its own survival. Both Tel Aviv and the port city of Haifa were severely hit by the rockets of 1991. But, for the first time since the birth of Israel, tomorrow these cities could be reached by devastating bombs. The power of death in the region has risen dramatically. It has been estimated that four years ago, Syria had 300 missiles that could reach Tel Aviv, a dozen for Hezbollah, 50 for Iran, and nothing for Hamas. Two years later, Syria had 1,300, Hezbollah 800, Hamas a dozen, and Iran 300. Today it’s 2,300 for Syria, 1,200 for Hezbollah, 400 for Teheran, and a good arsenal of Fajr-5 for Hamas. Jerusalem could be hit with a precision that would leave intact the Al-Aqsa Mosque. So Tel Aviv today is not extending only to the sky with its beautiful skyscrapers but also sinks into the ground because it’s a new target for Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

The Habima Theater, for example, will have four underground floors, with entrances on each side. Jerusalem should see the opening of the largest nuclear bunker across the country: 80 feet underground to accommodate 5,000 people. Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel, is building “the largest underground hospital in the world.” And the state is continuing the distribution of gas masks. These first appeared in 1991, when Benjamin Netanyahu, then the Israeli deputy foreign minister, appeared on CNN with a mask. Today thousands of private Israeli homes have been equipped with nuclear-proof shelters ranging from air filters to water-decontamination systems.

Drills have become a routine all over the country. Hospitals and emergency facilities have to be ready in case of necessity, and the municipalities have evacuation protocols. A postcard of the Home Front Command, delivered to Israeli citizens, divide the country into six regions, from the Negev to the Golan. Each region has different times of reaction in case of attack. If you live along the Gaza Strip, you have 20 seconds to shelter. In Jerusalem, it’s three minutes. But if you live close to Lebanon or Syria, the color red means that, unless you are already in a bunker, you just have to wait for the rocket. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is building a labyrinth of underground tunnels and rooms where the Jewish leadership would guide the country in case of attacks.

Twenty years after the first Gulf War, Israel remains the only “bunkered” democracy in the world and is now even more relentlessly demonized and ghettoized. But if in 1991 Israel responded with understatement and quiet civil courage, it will probably react differently to Iran’s nuclearization. Because, as Joe McCain wrote few years ago, “the Jews will not go quietly again.”

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The News Media vs. the Innocent

Should Congress enact a “shield law” for journalists, exempting them from the obligation to disclose their confidential sources to grand juries investigating crimes and in court cases?

I have explored some of the implications of such a law for our national security. But there is a civil-court dimension to the problem as well. In The News Media vs. the Innocent, Steve Chapman gets to the essence of it in today’s Chicago Tribune.

Years ago, Ray Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s labor secretary, was prosecuted for corruption, only to be acquitted. After the verdict, Donovan asked plaintively, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”

Steven Hatfill knows where to go to get his reputation back. But upon arriving there, he finds the door blocked by someone who says her privileges are more important than his good name. That someone, of course, is a journalist. And, not surprisingly, she enjoys the broad support of other journalists, who have proved to be slow learners about the obligations they share with their fellow citizens.

Hatfill was a casualty of the anthrax scare of 2001. Just after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, someone mailed letters containing anthrax spores to several news organizations and a pair of U.S. senators. Some 22 people were infected, and five died.

In the aftermath, the Justice Department labeled Hatfill, who had done research on biological warfare for the Army, a “person of interest.” Secret information leaked to the press suggested he was the terrorist behind the attacks.

But the suspicions were wrong. Hatfill asserted his innocence, and he was never charged in the case. He sued the government, the New York Times and others for damages. Federal Judge Reggie Walton concluded that the claims have “destroyed his life” even though “there’s not a scintilla of evidence to suggest Dr. Hatfill had anything to do with” the anthrax attacks.

To read the rest of Chapman’s column, click here.

Should Congress enact a “shield law” for journalists, exempting them from the obligation to disclose their confidential sources to grand juries investigating crimes and in court cases?

I have explored some of the implications of such a law for our national security. But there is a civil-court dimension to the problem as well. In The News Media vs. the Innocent, Steve Chapman gets to the essence of it in today’s Chicago Tribune.

Years ago, Ray Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s labor secretary, was prosecuted for corruption, only to be acquitted. After the verdict, Donovan asked plaintively, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”

Steven Hatfill knows where to go to get his reputation back. But upon arriving there, he finds the door blocked by someone who says her privileges are more important than his good name. That someone, of course, is a journalist. And, not surprisingly, she enjoys the broad support of other journalists, who have proved to be slow learners about the obligations they share with their fellow citizens.

Hatfill was a casualty of the anthrax scare of 2001. Just after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, someone mailed letters containing anthrax spores to several news organizations and a pair of U.S. senators. Some 22 people were infected, and five died.

In the aftermath, the Justice Department labeled Hatfill, who had done research on biological warfare for the Army, a “person of interest.” Secret information leaked to the press suggested he was the terrorist behind the attacks.

But the suspicions were wrong. Hatfill asserted his innocence, and he was never charged in the case. He sued the government, the New York Times and others for damages. Federal Judge Reggie Walton concluded that the claims have “destroyed his life” even though “there’s not a scintilla of evidence to suggest Dr. Hatfill had anything to do with” the anthrax attacks.

To read the rest of Chapman’s column, click here.

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Deterring World War V

Should a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran be called World War V or something else? That’s an irrelevant question. The real issue is who would come out ahead. The answer to such calculation might determine whether such a war erupts in the first place.

Let’s assume the worst about Iran — even if it is a bit of a stretch: that its leaders are in the grip of messianic ideas that might incline them to launch a nuclear fusillade to annihilate Israel even if it meant incurring significant Iranian casualties, including the incineration of major cities.

But would the ayatollahs launch such an attack if they would lose several cities and millions of Iranians — and not manage to destroy Israel? That is the question raised by a new study — based upon a war game — by the military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International Studies in Washington D.C.  The study does not appear to be on-line yet, but is summarized in Tuesday’s New York Post.

It seems that Israel’s anti-ballistic-missile systems might spare it the worst, not that the results wouldn’t be horrific. According to the Post’s Andy Soltis, among the main points of the study are:

An exchange of nukes would last about 21 days and immediately kill 16 million to 28 million Iranians and 200,000 to 800,000 Israelis.

Long-term deaths, from the effects of radiation and other causes, were not estimated.

The greater Iranian death toll is explained by several factors:

*Israeli bombs have a bigger bang. Israel has produced 1-megaton nukes, while Iran would be unable to produce anything more than 100 kilotons, a weapon with one-tenth the impact.

*Iran would have fewer than 50 nuclear weapons, while Israel would have more than 200.

*Israel also has a homebuilt Arrow-2 missile defense, buttressed by U. S. made anti-missile weaponry. Iran has a limited missile defense.

*Israel’s missiles would be more accurate, due to high-resolution satellite imagery.

If Syria joined its ally Iran in a wider war, it could attack Israel with mustard gas, nerve agents and anthrax in non-nuclear warheads.

That could kill another 800,000 Israelis, but in response, up to 18 million Syrians would die.

The implications of the Cordesman study would seem, at first glance, to cut against the necessity for a preemptive Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The logical inference one might draw from the conclusions of the CSIS study is that Iran would be deterred and Israel could therefore live with a nuclear-armed Iran.

That would be great news but, unfortunately, Israel cannot afford to gamble its future on the outcome of a Washington war-game. The Iranian calculation might differ significantly from Cordesman’s. More to the point, an Iranian nuclear umbrella would significantly embolden an already emboldened Iran in its quest for regional influence and the destruction of Israel by indirect means.  

Norman Podhoretz argued back in June that an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was a strategic neccesity, and he predicted that President Bush was likely to carry out such a strike sometime in the remainder of his term. That always seemed improbable to me given the acute American difficulties in neighboring Iraq. In the wake of the U.S. intelligence community’s estimate that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003, the possibility of such action seems to have diminished to the vanishing point, even if the intelligence estimate is deeply flawed.

But U.S. action or no U.S. action under Bush, Norman’s case for a strike on Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons remains as compelling as before.

Should a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran be called World War V or something else? That’s an irrelevant question. The real issue is who would come out ahead. The answer to such calculation might determine whether such a war erupts in the first place.

Let’s assume the worst about Iran — even if it is a bit of a stretch: that its leaders are in the grip of messianic ideas that might incline them to launch a nuclear fusillade to annihilate Israel even if it meant incurring significant Iranian casualties, including the incineration of major cities.

But would the ayatollahs launch such an attack if they would lose several cities and millions of Iranians — and not manage to destroy Israel? That is the question raised by a new study — based upon a war game — by the military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International Studies in Washington D.C.  The study does not appear to be on-line yet, but is summarized in Tuesday’s New York Post.

It seems that Israel’s anti-ballistic-missile systems might spare it the worst, not that the results wouldn’t be horrific. According to the Post’s Andy Soltis, among the main points of the study are:

An exchange of nukes would last about 21 days and immediately kill 16 million to 28 million Iranians and 200,000 to 800,000 Israelis.

Long-term deaths, from the effects of radiation and other causes, were not estimated.

The greater Iranian death toll is explained by several factors:

*Israeli bombs have a bigger bang. Israel has produced 1-megaton nukes, while Iran would be unable to produce anything more than 100 kilotons, a weapon with one-tenth the impact.

*Iran would have fewer than 50 nuclear weapons, while Israel would have more than 200.

*Israel also has a homebuilt Arrow-2 missile defense, buttressed by U. S. made anti-missile weaponry. Iran has a limited missile defense.

*Israel’s missiles would be more accurate, due to high-resolution satellite imagery.

If Syria joined its ally Iran in a wider war, it could attack Israel with mustard gas, nerve agents and anthrax in non-nuclear warheads.

That could kill another 800,000 Israelis, but in response, up to 18 million Syrians would die.

The implications of the Cordesman study would seem, at first glance, to cut against the necessity for a preemptive Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The logical inference one might draw from the conclusions of the CSIS study is that Iran would be deterred and Israel could therefore live with a nuclear-armed Iran.

That would be great news but, unfortunately, Israel cannot afford to gamble its future on the outcome of a Washington war-game. The Iranian calculation might differ significantly from Cordesman’s. More to the point, an Iranian nuclear umbrella would significantly embolden an already emboldened Iran in its quest for regional influence and the destruction of Israel by indirect means.  

Norman Podhoretz argued back in June that an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was a strategic neccesity, and he predicted that President Bush was likely to carry out such a strike sometime in the remainder of his term. That always seemed improbable to me given the acute American difficulties in neighboring Iraq. In the wake of the U.S. intelligence community’s estimate that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003, the possibility of such action seems to have diminished to the vanishing point, even if the intelligence estimate is deeply flawed.

But U.S. action or no U.S. action under Bush, Norman’s case for a strike on Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons remains as compelling as before.

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Learning to Love Anthrax

Who was behind the anthrax attacks of 2001? The FBI has still not solved the case and, at this rate, it probably never will. But even if we never solve the mystery, we still were taught a terrifying lesson in the perils of biological terrorism. We really do need to worry about biowarfare (BW) agents like anthrax and botulinum falling into the hands of groups like al Qaeda.

Or do we? Perhaps not as much as we think. Last year, Christian Enemark, a national-security expert at the Australian National University in Sydney, prepared a comprehensive evaluation, “Biological Attacks and the Non-State actor: A Threat Assessment.” Focusing on the use of salmonella bacteria by the Rajneesh cult in Washington State in 1984, the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Japan in the early 1990’s, and the U.S. anthrax attacks, it offers a complete balance sheet of the pros and cons of using BW agents for terrorist purposes.

On the pro side from the terrorist’s point of view, one of the attractive features of using biological weapons is the effect on the “worried well.” Even small attacks, like the 2001 anthrax episode, which sickened seventeen people and killed five, play upon “the visceral human fear of infection” so that even a modest attack generates a huge impact:

Read More

Who was behind the anthrax attacks of 2001? The FBI has still not solved the case and, at this rate, it probably never will. But even if we never solve the mystery, we still were taught a terrifying lesson in the perils of biological terrorism. We really do need to worry about biowarfare (BW) agents like anthrax and botulinum falling into the hands of groups like al Qaeda.

Or do we? Perhaps not as much as we think. Last year, Christian Enemark, a national-security expert at the Australian National University in Sydney, prepared a comprehensive evaluation, “Biological Attacks and the Non-State actor: A Threat Assessment.” Focusing on the use of salmonella bacteria by the Rajneesh cult in Washington State in 1984, the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Japan in the early 1990’s, and the U.S. anthrax attacks, it offers a complete balance sheet of the pros and cons of using BW agents for terrorist purposes.

On the pro side from the terrorist’s point of view, one of the attractive features of using biological weapons is the effect on the “worried well.” Even small attacks, like the 2001 anthrax episode, which sickened seventeen people and killed five, play upon “the visceral human fear of infection” so that even a modest attack generates a huge impact:

People are acutely sensitive to the prospect of infection, as distinct from other health risks in everyday life such as smoking and high fat consumption. In addition, we tend to distinguish between types of infection based on the historical reputation of a disease, whether it is characterized by grotesque symptoms and/or high fatality rates, and how common or familiar it is. Cities function normally in the midst of a community-wide epidemic of regular influenza. But an outbreak of plague, responsible for the 14th-century Black Death in Europe, would be likely to cause widespread panic. And the highly lethal Ebola virus, although not easily transmissible between humans, inspires particular dread because it causes massive hemorrhaging in its victims. New or unfamiliar diseases can also engender a level of fear out of proportion to the threat they pose, in morbidity and mortality terms, relative to other diseases. This is demonstrated by the panic reaction to SARS in 2003. In China alone, over 100,000 people die each year from tuberculosis, and there are projected to be 10 million Chinese with HIV/AIDS by 2010.Yet SARS, which ultimately resulted in fewer than 400 Chinese deaths, generated dread to an extent vastly disproportionate to the disease’s ability to kill.

On the other side of the ledger–and I have drawn only small snippets from Enemark’s comprehensive accounting–if biological weapons can easily cause terror, they cannot readily be employed by non-state actors to kill on a mass scale.

Enemark cites research showing that cult-like organizations, “may be the least suited to meet the complex requirements for a BW program.” The Aum Shinrikyo case, in particular, “illustrates that a paranoid, fantasy-prone, and sometimes violent atmosphere [inside a cult] is not conducive to the sound scientific judgments needed to produce and weaponize biological agents.”

Aum’s leaders reinforced the cult’s doctrines among members through the use of physical isolation, beatings, physical torture, and the administration of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD. As an organization, Aum was also fickle by nature and inclined to embark on numerous expensive, and sometimes bizarre, ventures rather than concentrate on perfecting a particular weapon. Its activities in pursuit of producing mass casualties included an expedition to acquire the Ebola virus during an outbreak in Zaire in October 1992. Aum also attempted to build a high-power laser weapon and sought a device for generating earthquakes.

Like Aum, al Qaeda is arguably “paranoid” and “fantasy-prone,” and its scientists–if it currently has any in its ranks–would definitely have to operate inside a violent environment. Even though al Qaeda has been able to plan some terrorism spectaculars, as on 9/11, its skills inside a bio-warfare lab might well lag.

Of course, states (like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) face far fewer obstacles in developing biological weapons, and Enemark examines the possibility that a Saddam-like regime would provide a toxic agent to a group like al Qaeda. But he concludes that “any state anxious for its own survival would be most unlikely to entrust a BW capability to ruthless outsiders.”

Is Enemark right? Are we worrying too much about BW when we should be worrying about other things? However one answers that question, this is a paper deserving close attention.

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The Media vs. the American People

Are reporters above the law? Should they be?

We have lately been running laps around this block in connection with the 2005 leak of the NSA terrorist surveillance program and the 2003 exposure of Valerie Plame’s CIA status. The first of these two episodes did not land any reporters into trouble, but a federal grand jury is still hearing evidence in the case and there was movement in it last month. The second led to Judith Miller of the New York Times being put in the slammer by a court. There she remained for 85 days, until she disgorged the identity of her confidential source: Scooter Libby.

Another issue is now compelling us to running around the block yet again: the anthrax attacks of 2001 that killed five people. Steven J. Hatfill, the bioterrorism expert who was named in the media as a suspect, has brought a civil suit against the government for violating his rights under the Privacy Act. In order to demonstrate how the government trampled on his privacy, Hatfill wants to obtain the notes of journalists who received disparaging information about him from confidential sources in the FBI and Justice Department.

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Are reporters above the law? Should they be?

We have lately been running laps around this block in connection with the 2005 leak of the NSA terrorist surveillance program and the 2003 exposure of Valerie Plame’s CIA status. The first of these two episodes did not land any reporters into trouble, but a federal grand jury is still hearing evidence in the case and there was movement in it last month. The second led to Judith Miller of the New York Times being put in the slammer by a court. There she remained for 85 days, until she disgorged the identity of her confidential source: Scooter Libby.

Another issue is now compelling us to running around the block yet again: the anthrax attacks of 2001 that killed five people. Steven J. Hatfill, the bioterrorism expert who was named in the media as a suspect, has brought a civil suit against the government for violating his rights under the Privacy Act. In order to demonstrate how the government trampled on his privacy, Hatfill wants to obtain the notes of journalists who received disparaging information about him from confidential sources in the FBI and Justice Department.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, the same judge who presided over the trial of Libby, is hearing the matter. Yesterday, he dealt a blow to the five reporters whose notes are being sought. “The names of the sources are central to Dr. Hatfill’s case,” he wrote in a 31-page opinion.

Is this good news or bad? Attorneys and lobbyists for the news media argue that forcing a breach of confidentiality in this way will impair the ability of reporters to gather the news. Government officials are unlikely to tell reporters what they know, goes the argument, if their identities might one day be disclosed.

True enough, but the law is the law. Journalists cannot merely declare themselves above it, whether they are disclosing U.S. counterterrorism programs or besmirching the reputation of an innocent individual. (Hatfill was never charged with any crime but in 2002 was named by Attorney General John Ashcroft as a “person of interest” to the investigation.) The press, of course, does enjoy First Amendment protection, but this is hardly unlimited and does not constitute a license to do or say as one pleases regardless of the consequences, as so many journalists seem to believe.

If members of press think we are ill-served by the laws as they stand, they can lobby to change them. A bill to do just that and establish a “shield” for journalists is currently before the U.S. House of Representatives. But successive congresses have considered such a bill only to reject it. I have argued, on a number of grounds, that such a bill is a bad idea whose time has not arrived. Thus far the American people, acting through their elected representatives, would seem to concur. Until such a law is passed, journalists are obliged to follow the rules as they stand or, as Judith Miller chose to do, defy the courts, which means defying the duly passed laws of the United States and taking the consequences.

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Have We Become Complacent About Terrorism?

Now that Afghanistan is no longer a sanctuary for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, many Islamist attacks or attempted attacks have been mounted by individuals who have spent time in Pakistan. Here in the U.S. we have had a spate of recent cases.

On April 12, an Ohio man, Christopher Paul, was indicted on federal charges that he conspired to bomb European tourist resorts and U.S. military bases overseas. According to prosecutors, he had been schooled in paramilitary techniques at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in the 1990’s and later signed up with the terrorist group in Pakistan.

On April 2, a Maryland taxicab driver, Mahmud Faruq Brent al Mutazzim, pleaded guilty to conspiring to aid a terrorist organization after admitting he attended training camps operated by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan in 2002 and was involved with that terrorist group from 2001 through 2005.

On January 8, Shahawar Matin Sira, a Pakistani immigrant living in New York, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his part in an unsuccessful plot to blow up a Manhattan subway station as revenge for alleged wartime abuses of Iraqis.

If we connect these three dots—and there are many more such dots overseas—we can see why Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security, has been dickering with his British counterparts about curbing the travel of British citizens of Pakistani origin to the United States.

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Now that Afghanistan is no longer a sanctuary for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, many Islamist attacks or attempted attacks have been mounted by individuals who have spent time in Pakistan. Here in the U.S. we have had a spate of recent cases.

On April 12, an Ohio man, Christopher Paul, was indicted on federal charges that he conspired to bomb European tourist resorts and U.S. military bases overseas. According to prosecutors, he had been schooled in paramilitary techniques at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in the 1990’s and later signed up with the terrorist group in Pakistan.

On April 2, a Maryland taxicab driver, Mahmud Faruq Brent al Mutazzim, pleaded guilty to conspiring to aid a terrorist organization after admitting he attended training camps operated by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan in 2002 and was involved with that terrorist group from 2001 through 2005.

On January 8, Shahawar Matin Sira, a Pakistani immigrant living in New York, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his part in an unsuccessful plot to blow up a Manhattan subway station as revenge for alleged wartime abuses of Iraqis.

If we connect these three dots—and there are many more such dots overseas—we can see why Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security, has been dickering with his British counterparts about curbing the travel of British citizens of Pakistani origin to the United States.

Today’s New York Times reports that all British citizens currently enjoy the right to enter the U.S. without a visa. There are approximately 800,000 Britons of Pakistani origin in the United Kingdom. Members of this subgroup have been disproportionately behind recent successful and thwarted terrorist plots in England.

But the effort to address the problems posed by a particular nationality raises delicate political issues. Thus, one proposal put forward by the U.S. would be “to single out Britons of Pakistani origin, requiring them to make visa applications for the United States.” The Times reports that, at the moment, “the British are resistant, fearing that restrictions on the group of Britons would incur a backlash from a population that has always sided with the Labor party.”

Will such political considerations trump the imperative of protecting our security? It is impossible to say. But strange things are taking place in American counterterrorism that raise all sorts of questions about whether, nearly six years after 9/11, we have become complacent.

In late April, the New York Times reported that under a system set up by the FBI in 2004, every time a terrorism suspect tries to buy a gun in the U.S., counterterrorism officials have three days to block the transaction. If the officials are successful in doing so, they can then find out what kind of gun was being sought and where exactly the transaction was to have taken place. But if they are unsuccessful, they are barred from gaining any further information.

To end this unsatisfactory state of affairs, the Justice Department has proposed legislation that would empower the attorney general to block gun purchases by buyers found “to be or [to] have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism.”

But what, one wonders, are these terrorism suspects doing roaming freely around? How many are there of them? Are they being monitored, or is it only when they try to buy a firearm that authorities even learn of their whereabouts?

That is not the end of it. In mid-March, the FBI issued a bulletin to local police departments noting that it was investigating foreigners, “some with ties to extremist groups,” who had been engaged in “recent suspicious activity” and been purchasing school buses and acquiring licenses to drive them. Facing public alarm as word of the advisory leaked out, the FBI issued a statement: “Parents and children have nothing to fear.”

Perhaps we do have nothing to fear. But I, for one, doubt that the FBI, an agency beset with profound internal problems, has a handle on counterterrorism. See my How Inept is the FBI? for a picture of some of their earlier failures.

As CNN’s Glenn Beck has put it, the FBI’s reassurances about the school buses are “kind of like saying, ‘Your drinking water is now laced with anthrax and Clorox, but don’t worry about it. I’m sure you’re going to be fine,’. . . [it] sounds a little like the Muslims who were taking flying lessons without learning how to land the plane. How can the FBI warn law enforcement about this and then tell us, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it,’”?

A very good question. Let’s hope that we do not have to wait for another September 11 for some answers.

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