Commentary Magazine


Topic: Joint Terrorism Task Force

When Watching Doesn’t Work

Daniel Foster has a good catch at The Corner: according to the New York Times profile of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, officials of the Joint Terrorism Task Force were investigating him as early as 2004.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that any suspicions about him at that time were actionable. But that, itself, is a more profound point than even the fully justified concern about our endlessly porous no-fly list, which came within minutes this week of – once again – letting a watch-listed individual take off on an international flight.

The point driven home by the 2004 investigation is that our established measures for identifying and tracking terrorists aren’t necessarily getting the job done. We can have suspicions about subjects, investigate them, apply all the rules to them – and we can still fail to intervene before they launch an attack.

It seems obvious to me that we can’t profile every naturalized citizen from Pakistan who suffers from unemployment and foreclosure, as Shahzad did in the years after 2004. That would be a waste of time. Apparently, he and his family left their Connecticut home in December in such a rush that they took no household belongings and left food to spoil. That move could, in retrospect, be characterized as a precipitate flight from the U.S. to Pakistan. Perhaps it was worth investigating. But was Shahzad, himself, still under any kind of investigation or surveillance at that point? Local police departments are overworked; it’s doubtful that the one in Shelton, Connecticut, would have made the connection between one more abandoned foreclosure property and a naturalized citizen’s interesting ties to Pakistan.

Faisal Shahzad’s numerous trips to Pakistan should perhaps have been a clue, but there are a lot of South Asian Muslims traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Pakistan. We do a lot of business with Pakistan and have many Pakistani immigrants. Many of them travel frequently, and for innocent purposes.

It is fair to say that this is a serious problem: one that is not the consequence of partisan politics. It’s not clear how we overcome it. But there are two patterns we’ve seen this week that are utterly counterproductive. One is the tendency of government officials to pretend that perpetrators are as likely to be domestic “militia” activists as radical Islamists – and to group peaceful opponents of Obama’s policies incautiously with bomb-makers. This practice is much worse than mere divisive rhetoric. It portends a negligent misuse of law-enforcement assets.

The other pattern is the left-wing punditry’s readiness to attack the right for demanding better performance from our counterterrorism infrastructure. A theme is emerging that it was only 53 hours from the first report of the car-bomb to the arrest of Shahzad, and hey, calm down, law enforcement seems to have done a pretty good job. But what matters is that the bomb was, in fact, planted, and it could have gone off. If this sequence of events constitutes an acceptable standard of performance against terror plots, then I would amend Abe’s conclusion as follows: street vendors aren’t our first line of defense, they’re our last.

Daniel Foster has a good catch at The Corner: according to the New York Times profile of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, officials of the Joint Terrorism Task Force were investigating him as early as 2004.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that any suspicions about him at that time were actionable. But that, itself, is a more profound point than even the fully justified concern about our endlessly porous no-fly list, which came within minutes this week of – once again – letting a watch-listed individual take off on an international flight.

The point driven home by the 2004 investigation is that our established measures for identifying and tracking terrorists aren’t necessarily getting the job done. We can have suspicions about subjects, investigate them, apply all the rules to them – and we can still fail to intervene before they launch an attack.

It seems obvious to me that we can’t profile every naturalized citizen from Pakistan who suffers from unemployment and foreclosure, as Shahzad did in the years after 2004. That would be a waste of time. Apparently, he and his family left their Connecticut home in December in such a rush that they took no household belongings and left food to spoil. That move could, in retrospect, be characterized as a precipitate flight from the U.S. to Pakistan. Perhaps it was worth investigating. But was Shahzad, himself, still under any kind of investigation or surveillance at that point? Local police departments are overworked; it’s doubtful that the one in Shelton, Connecticut, would have made the connection between one more abandoned foreclosure property and a naturalized citizen’s interesting ties to Pakistan.

Faisal Shahzad’s numerous trips to Pakistan should perhaps have been a clue, but there are a lot of South Asian Muslims traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Pakistan. We do a lot of business with Pakistan and have many Pakistani immigrants. Many of them travel frequently, and for innocent purposes.

It is fair to say that this is a serious problem: one that is not the consequence of partisan politics. It’s not clear how we overcome it. But there are two patterns we’ve seen this week that are utterly counterproductive. One is the tendency of government officials to pretend that perpetrators are as likely to be domestic “militia” activists as radical Islamists – and to group peaceful opponents of Obama’s policies incautiously with bomb-makers. This practice is much worse than mere divisive rhetoric. It portends a negligent misuse of law-enforcement assets.

The other pattern is the left-wing punditry’s readiness to attack the right for demanding better performance from our counterterrorism infrastructure. A theme is emerging that it was only 53 hours from the first report of the car-bomb to the arrest of Shahzad, and hey, calm down, law enforcement seems to have done a pretty good job. But what matters is that the bomb was, in fact, planted, and it could have gone off. If this sequence of events constitutes an acceptable standard of performance against terror plots, then I would amend Abe’s conclusion as follows: street vendors aren’t our first line of defense, they’re our last.

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Get to the Bottom of It

Marty Peretz writes:

Well, yes, of course, you’ve read about the lecture Major Nidal Malik Hasan, M.D., delivered at Walter Reed Hospital in 2007. Hasan’s ostensible topic was “The Koranic World View As It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military.” It might as well have been titled, as the scholar Barry Rubin suggested, “Why I Intend to Murder 13 American Soldiers at Foot Hood.” But, since nobody in the higher-up military actually noticed that a very shaky psychiatrist, indeed, gave an official medical rounds talk–maybe even grand rounds–on Islam, Hasan did, in fact, go on to kill 13 men and women and wound another 28. Had two police not brought him down he would have gone on to shoot (how?) many others.

The information is piling up, and the public, as they learn of the ample evidence of Hasan’s jihadist predilections, will, I suspect, be demanding some answers. Stephen Hayes and Tom Joscelyn take us through chapter and verse. Part of the problem is eerily reminiscent of the pre-9/11 dilemma:

But the FBI did not know all that the Army knew. And the Army did not know all that the FBI knew. The participants in an FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force discussed Hasan’s case briefly and concluded that it did not warrant an investigation. If they had performed even a cursory, unobtrusive examination of this man, his contacts, and his radical views, they would have quickly turned up a great deal of troubling information.

And then there is the connection to Anwar al-Awlaki, which as Hayes and Joscelyn note is troublesome in the extreme. (“A Muslim officer in the U.S. Army was seeking guidance –spiritual? academic? — from an openly pro-jihad cleric whose past was so troubling he had been investigated by the U.S. intelligence community on three separate occasions and whose words had inspired a plot to attack a U.S. Army installation.”) If, in fact, “too little information was shared and too little attention paid to a man whose words and actions demanded attention,” we have a serious lapse in national security, one that, unlike 9-11, cannot be excused by a “failure of imagination.” We know what terror looks like, and we know the identity of the enemy.

The question, however, is whether the will to ignore the obvious, the pressure of political correctness, and a lapse into a pre-9-11 mentality have overtaken us. It would seem a complete, independent, and public evaluation of all this is in order. Why, after all, should we trust the malefactors to investigate themselves? We didn’t after 9/11. There is no reason to do so in the case of the first major terror attack since 9/11.

Marty Peretz writes:

Well, yes, of course, you’ve read about the lecture Major Nidal Malik Hasan, M.D., delivered at Walter Reed Hospital in 2007. Hasan’s ostensible topic was “The Koranic World View As It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military.” It might as well have been titled, as the scholar Barry Rubin suggested, “Why I Intend to Murder 13 American Soldiers at Foot Hood.” But, since nobody in the higher-up military actually noticed that a very shaky psychiatrist, indeed, gave an official medical rounds talk–maybe even grand rounds–on Islam, Hasan did, in fact, go on to kill 13 men and women and wound another 28. Had two police not brought him down he would have gone on to shoot (how?) many others.

The information is piling up, and the public, as they learn of the ample evidence of Hasan’s jihadist predilections, will, I suspect, be demanding some answers. Stephen Hayes and Tom Joscelyn take us through chapter and verse. Part of the problem is eerily reminiscent of the pre-9/11 dilemma:

But the FBI did not know all that the Army knew. And the Army did not know all that the FBI knew. The participants in an FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force discussed Hasan’s case briefly and concluded that it did not warrant an investigation. If they had performed even a cursory, unobtrusive examination of this man, his contacts, and his radical views, they would have quickly turned up a great deal of troubling information.

And then there is the connection to Anwar al-Awlaki, which as Hayes and Joscelyn note is troublesome in the extreme. (“A Muslim officer in the U.S. Army was seeking guidance –spiritual? academic? — from an openly pro-jihad cleric whose past was so troubling he had been investigated by the U.S. intelligence community on three separate occasions and whose words had inspired a plot to attack a U.S. Army installation.”) If, in fact, “too little information was shared and too little attention paid to a man whose words and actions demanded attention,” we have a serious lapse in national security, one that, unlike 9-11, cannot be excused by a “failure of imagination.” We know what terror looks like, and we know the identity of the enemy.

The question, however, is whether the will to ignore the obvious, the pressure of political correctness, and a lapse into a pre-9-11 mentality have overtaken us. It would seem a complete, independent, and public evaluation of all this is in order. Why, after all, should we trust the malefactors to investigate themselves? We didn’t after 9/11. There is no reason to do so in the case of the first major terror attack since 9/11.

Read Less




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