Commentary Magazine


Topic: Michael Chertoff

Changing the Default Reaction to Obama

Paul Rubin (no relation) writes that, with regard to Katrina:

President George W. Bush and the federal government were limited in what they could do. For example, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wanted to take command of disaster relief on the day before landfall, but Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco refused. Federal response was hindered because the law gave first authority to state and local authorities.

State and local efforts—particularly in New Orleans, and Louisiana more broadly—interfered with what actions the federal government could actually take. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was late in ordering an evacuation and did not allow the use of school buses for evacuation, which could have saved hundreds of lives.

In contrast, Rubin notes: “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is on federal offshore territory. The federal government has primary responsibility for handling the situation, while state and local governments remain limited in what they can do.” He explains, however, that local authorities “believe that the federal government is undermining their efforts.” Obama and his team have refused to waive the Jones Act and has hassled Gov. Jindal about deploying barges to skim oil.

While the Obama team’s response has been arguably worse that the Bush response to Katrina, Rubin points out, the press criticism of Obama is only now intensifying:

Now Mr. Obama has much more power than did Mr. Bush, but the federal response is ineffective and often stands in the way of those in the best position to know what to do. It is only in the last week or two that the mainstream press has voiced any criticism of Mr. Obama.

This is because the media’s default position for Mr. Bush was “Bush is wrong,” and it sought stories aimed at justifying this belief. For Mr. Obama the media’s default is “Obama is right,” and it takes a powerful set of facts to move it away from this assumption.

The danger for Obama is that the default is changing. It may not be “Obama is wrong” quite yet. But it’s getting there. At the very least, it is “Obama is under siege because the public thinks he’s wrong.” That’s progress, considering the mainstream media’s investment in Obama’s success.

Paul Rubin (no relation) writes that, with regard to Katrina:

President George W. Bush and the federal government were limited in what they could do. For example, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wanted to take command of disaster relief on the day before landfall, but Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco refused. Federal response was hindered because the law gave first authority to state and local authorities.

State and local efforts—particularly in New Orleans, and Louisiana more broadly—interfered with what actions the federal government could actually take. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was late in ordering an evacuation and did not allow the use of school buses for evacuation, which could have saved hundreds of lives.

In contrast, Rubin notes: “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is on federal offshore territory. The federal government has primary responsibility for handling the situation, while state and local governments remain limited in what they can do.” He explains, however, that local authorities “believe that the federal government is undermining their efforts.” Obama and his team have refused to waive the Jones Act and has hassled Gov. Jindal about deploying barges to skim oil.

While the Obama team’s response has been arguably worse that the Bush response to Katrina, Rubin points out, the press criticism of Obama is only now intensifying:

Now Mr. Obama has much more power than did Mr. Bush, but the federal response is ineffective and often stands in the way of those in the best position to know what to do. It is only in the last week or two that the mainstream press has voiced any criticism of Mr. Obama.

This is because the media’s default position for Mr. Bush was “Bush is wrong,” and it sought stories aimed at justifying this belief. For Mr. Obama the media’s default is “Obama is right,” and it takes a powerful set of facts to move it away from this assumption.

The danger for Obama is that the default is changing. It may not be “Obama is wrong” quite yet. But it’s getting there. At the very least, it is “Obama is under siege because the public thinks he’s wrong.” That’s progress, considering the mainstream media’s investment in Obama’s success.

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Why Is Napolitano Still There?

Mickey Kaus wants to know why the chattering class is being so nice to Janet Napolitano. Maureen Dowd, David Broder, and a bunch of former and current office-holders rallied around her over the weekend. But she is a national punch line, forever tied to her “the system worked” hooey, so what’s the story? Kaus muses: “Does she give great parties? Is it that DHS has a highly effective, overactive P.R. person? Or does America’s bureaucratic capital simply overvalue those whose first instinct is to defend their bureaucracy?” Well, even conservatives who know her say she is pleasant, and that counts for something, I suppose. But when Michael Chertoff damns her with faint praise (“her heart is in the right place”) I get a bit suspicious.

Here’s a theory: it is in everyone’s interest (except that of the American people, but their views don’t count for much on vital national issues such as health care, so why listen to them on this, right?) to keep her around. The Republicans don’t want this to stop with the Secretary of Homeland Security. They place responsibility on the president and his weirdly inappropriate conduct of the war against Islamic fundamentalists (whom he won’t identify as the enemy). And as long as she is around saying dopey things, the Republicans’ case that the Obami are out to lunch on anti-terrorism is strengthened. She is a useful piñata. Meanwhile, the Democrats don’t want any heads to start rolling because then the public might get the idea that this is a really big deal. Dumping her would be inconsistent with their line that they’ve always been on top of things. And then the White House never likes to fire anyone (recall how long it took to get rid of 9/11 “truther” Van Jones) because that might suggest the Obami either have made a specific mistake or, more generally, lack judgment. So she just might be safe in the near term. Which makes everyone happy. Except the public.

Mickey Kaus wants to know why the chattering class is being so nice to Janet Napolitano. Maureen Dowd, David Broder, and a bunch of former and current office-holders rallied around her over the weekend. But she is a national punch line, forever tied to her “the system worked” hooey, so what’s the story? Kaus muses: “Does she give great parties? Is it that DHS has a highly effective, overactive P.R. person? Or does America’s bureaucratic capital simply overvalue those whose first instinct is to defend their bureaucracy?” Well, even conservatives who know her say she is pleasant, and that counts for something, I suppose. But when Michael Chertoff damns her with faint praise (“her heart is in the right place”) I get a bit suspicious.

Here’s a theory: it is in everyone’s interest (except that of the American people, but their views don’t count for much on vital national issues such as health care, so why listen to them on this, right?) to keep her around. The Republicans don’t want this to stop with the Secretary of Homeland Security. They place responsibility on the president and his weirdly inappropriate conduct of the war against Islamic fundamentalists (whom he won’t identify as the enemy). And as long as she is around saying dopey things, the Republicans’ case that the Obami are out to lunch on anti-terrorism is strengthened. She is a useful piñata. Meanwhile, the Democrats don’t want any heads to start rolling because then the public might get the idea that this is a really big deal. Dumping her would be inconsistent with their line that they’ve always been on top of things. And then the White House never likes to fire anyone (recall how long it took to get rid of 9/11 “truther” Van Jones) because that might suggest the Obami either have made a specific mistake or, more generally, lack judgment. So she just might be safe in the near term. Which makes everyone happy. Except the public.

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Are We Secure?

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded “security advisory system,” the terrorist “threat level” is currently yellow. To meet the elevated danger, citizens are urged to “develop alternate routes to/from work or school and practice them.” If the threat level rises to orange, or “high risk,” we are supposed to “exercise caution when traveling.” If it rises to red, or “severe risk,” we should, among other untoward things, “expect traffic delays.”

DHS’s traffic-light warning system is easy to mock, especially by New Yorkers like me who routinely expect traffic delays and, thanks to the vagaries of the subway system, are constantly compelled to practice alternate routes to work–whether we want to or not. 

But what about the DHS itself? In 2003, in the aftermath of the worst attack on our country in its history, the establishment of the agency was the centerpiece of the biggest reorganization of government since the New Deal. Five years later, how is it faring? By the most important measure, it is faring very well indeed. Against all expectations, the United States has not been struck again since September 11. The homeland appears to be secure.

But is that the work of the DHS or the FBI and CIA or the U.S. Army, or dumb luck, or a combination of all of the above? It is impossible to know. What is possible to know is that DHS is plagued by a number of severe problems. It ranks last or next-to-last in the U.S. government’s survey of Best Places to Work survey. In addition to “serious morale” issues–a GAO finding–some of the ailments of the previous fractured system of homeland protection are re-emerging, and some new ills are cropping up as well.

In creating the DHS, President Bush declared that “the changing nature of the threats facing America requires a new government structure to protect against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons.” His idea was to reconfigure “the current confusing patchwork of government activities into a single department whose primary mission is to protect our homeland.” That seemed reasonable enough in theory, promising efficiencies of all sorts in agencies with complementary and overlapping missions.

But it also promised to be extremely problematic in practice. Anyone with any familiarity with federal bureaucracies knows that combining two into one is as arduous a task as mating kangaroos with rabbits. In this instance, the proposal was to unite 22 very different bureaucratic animals, ranging from the Secret Service to the Coast Guard. The result is a lumbering behemoth, with a massive 180,000 employees spread out over hundreds of locations and subject to oversight by 86 Congressional committees. Although strong in certain things, it is also an unwieldy creature that may be quite ill-adapted to its initial primary mission of keeping the country secure from a major terrorist attack.

One problematic part of the venture is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2005, as is well known, it did a heckuva of a job in mishandling the consequences of Hurricane Katrina. Lessons are said to have been learned from that experience and immense resources have been invested in reconfiguring FEMA’s plans to cope with future natural disasters, ranging from tornados to earthquakes. That is fine, and necessary. Yet it means that DHS as a whole ends up compelled to devote a significant fraction of management resources to preparing for weather-related contingencies rather than focusing on the central threat.

 “June 1 is, of course, as you know, the kick-off for hurricane season,” explained Michael Chertoff, Secretary of DHS, at a press conference earlier this month. “I don’t think the official prediction for the season is out yet…In 2006, it was also a pretty mild season, but I hope that doesn’t lull us into believing we don’t have to prepare for 2008.” If the highest registers of the bureaucracy are deeply into weather forecasting, some of the lower registers are off into other ventures that also have zero connection to the larger goals of the reform. 

Another component of DHS is the United States Fire Administration, whose mission is to reduce the financial and human costs of one of our country’s major killers. “Take a flashlight with you,” the Fire Administration advises anyone checking into a hotel or motel. “If the fire is in your room, get out quickly. Close the door, sound the alarm and notify the front desk.” No reasonable person would quarrel with such instructions, but how relevant is this to stopping the next Mohammed Atta?

The Coast Guard, too, has major missions completely unrelated to homeland defense. These include the regulation of maritime navigation and safety, protection of the marine environment, search and rescue, and ice-breaking. All of which raises the question: has consolidation of so many disparate agencies, each with its own set of objectives not directly related to homeland security, made us safer or merely rejiggered the organizational charts?

The question is unanswerable and we are confronted with an unpleasant paradox. Whether the warning light is green, light, or red, unless and until a second major terrorist attack takes place, we won’t know whether DHS is up to its job. And at that moment, by definition, the DHS’s protective function will have been shown to fail. If the target happens to be a motel or hotel, we will be needing our flashlights and calling the front desk.

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded “security advisory system,” the terrorist “threat level” is currently yellow. To meet the elevated danger, citizens are urged to “develop alternate routes to/from work or school and practice them.” If the threat level rises to orange, or “high risk,” we are supposed to “exercise caution when traveling.” If it rises to red, or “severe risk,” we should, among other untoward things, “expect traffic delays.”

DHS’s traffic-light warning system is easy to mock, especially by New Yorkers like me who routinely expect traffic delays and, thanks to the vagaries of the subway system, are constantly compelled to practice alternate routes to work–whether we want to or not. 

But what about the DHS itself? In 2003, in the aftermath of the worst attack on our country in its history, the establishment of the agency was the centerpiece of the biggest reorganization of government since the New Deal. Five years later, how is it faring? By the most important measure, it is faring very well indeed. Against all expectations, the United States has not been struck again since September 11. The homeland appears to be secure.

But is that the work of the DHS or the FBI and CIA or the U.S. Army, or dumb luck, or a combination of all of the above? It is impossible to know. What is possible to know is that DHS is plagued by a number of severe problems. It ranks last or next-to-last in the U.S. government’s survey of Best Places to Work survey. In addition to “serious morale” issues–a GAO finding–some of the ailments of the previous fractured system of homeland protection are re-emerging, and some new ills are cropping up as well.

In creating the DHS, President Bush declared that “the changing nature of the threats facing America requires a new government structure to protect against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons.” His idea was to reconfigure “the current confusing patchwork of government activities into a single department whose primary mission is to protect our homeland.” That seemed reasonable enough in theory, promising efficiencies of all sorts in agencies with complementary and overlapping missions.

But it also promised to be extremely problematic in practice. Anyone with any familiarity with federal bureaucracies knows that combining two into one is as arduous a task as mating kangaroos with rabbits. In this instance, the proposal was to unite 22 very different bureaucratic animals, ranging from the Secret Service to the Coast Guard. The result is a lumbering behemoth, with a massive 180,000 employees spread out over hundreds of locations and subject to oversight by 86 Congressional committees. Although strong in certain things, it is also an unwieldy creature that may be quite ill-adapted to its initial primary mission of keeping the country secure from a major terrorist attack.

One problematic part of the venture is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2005, as is well known, it did a heckuva of a job in mishandling the consequences of Hurricane Katrina. Lessons are said to have been learned from that experience and immense resources have been invested in reconfiguring FEMA’s plans to cope with future natural disasters, ranging from tornados to earthquakes. That is fine, and necessary. Yet it means that DHS as a whole ends up compelled to devote a significant fraction of management resources to preparing for weather-related contingencies rather than focusing on the central threat.

 “June 1 is, of course, as you know, the kick-off for hurricane season,” explained Michael Chertoff, Secretary of DHS, at a press conference earlier this month. “I don’t think the official prediction for the season is out yet…In 2006, it was also a pretty mild season, but I hope that doesn’t lull us into believing we don’t have to prepare for 2008.” If the highest registers of the bureaucracy are deeply into weather forecasting, some of the lower registers are off into other ventures that also have zero connection to the larger goals of the reform. 

Another component of DHS is the United States Fire Administration, whose mission is to reduce the financial and human costs of one of our country’s major killers. “Take a flashlight with you,” the Fire Administration advises anyone checking into a hotel or motel. “If the fire is in your room, get out quickly. Close the door, sound the alarm and notify the front desk.” No reasonable person would quarrel with such instructions, but how relevant is this to stopping the next Mohammed Atta?

The Coast Guard, too, has major missions completely unrelated to homeland defense. These include the regulation of maritime navigation and safety, protection of the marine environment, search and rescue, and ice-breaking. All of which raises the question: has consolidation of so many disparate agencies, each with its own set of objectives not directly related to homeland security, made us safer or merely rejiggered the organizational charts?

The question is unanswerable and we are confronted with an unpleasant paradox. Whether the warning light is green, light, or red, unless and until a second major terrorist attack takes place, we won’t know whether DHS is up to its job. And at that moment, by definition, the DHS’s protective function will have been shown to fail. If the target happens to be a motel or hotel, we will be needing our flashlights and calling the front desk.

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Why The Bin Laden Speculation?

Lately there’s been a lot of speculation about who will succeed Osama bin Laden, either formally within the ranks of al Qaeda or generally as the most dangerous terrorist on the planet. Some of my fellow Contentions bloggers may be able to shed more light on this, but I’m starting to find the “who’s next?” speculation curious. Is bin Laden nearly captured? Is he dying or dead? Or is his demotion in status–to cave-dwelling spoken word artist–simply so bathetic as to no longer be newsworthy?

If you were to read the following lead from this March 12 Washington Times article, you’d assume Osama bin Laden was dead:

Internal divisions between Saudi and Egyptian leaders of al Qaeda are producing “fissures” within the terrorist group and a possible battle over who will succeed Osama bin Laden, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said yesterday.

Michael Hayden goes on as if al Qaeda’s bin Laden years are as over as Camelot.

Bin Laden is now an “iconic” figure hiding in the remote border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mr. Hayden said in a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

“And frankly, then, we think there has been an awful lot of jockeying” among possible successors, Mr. Hayden said.

“Keep in mind, he’s a Saudi. An awful lot of that leadership is Egyptian. If the Saudi dies, who becomes the next guy may be quite a contentious matter,” he said.

[…]

Asked whether bin Laden is alive, Mr. Hayden said: “We have … no evidence he’s not. And frankly, we think there would be evidence. … Given the iconic stature, his death would cause a little more than a wake in the harbor.”

Of course, it’s impossible to overestimate the lengths to which the CIA will go to defend their failures. They may think describing bin Laden as irrelevant helps excuse their inability to locate him. But if bin Laden really is becoming a CIA footnote, his inaction is also pushing the MSM to find the “next big thing” in jihad. There’s a story up at ABC News about “[a]n emerging leader, sources say, who threatens to eclipse Osama bin Laden as the world’s top terrorist.” They’re talking about Pakistani warlord Baitullah Mehsud, who’s allegedly behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto:

With his identity protected, Mehsud told the Arab network al Jazeera, “We want to eradicate Britain and America …We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York, and London.”

“He’s saying the same thing that bin Laden said then years ago,” Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said. “And it doesn’t mean that the attack’s coming tomorrow, but yeah, it’s certainly, he’s the kind of person and his group is the kind of group that we need to mindful about.”

I’m all for being prepared, but I’m not thrilled about moving on in quite this way. In watching the video at the above link you can feel the over-eagerness of producers trying to sell “bin Laden II.” We’ve not finished with bin Laden, or if we have we should know about it. Osama bin Laden hasn’t released a video in which he demonstrably talks about current events since October 2004. While over the past four years, Ayman Al-Zawahiri has practically maintained a running v-log. There’s no question al Qaeda’s supposed number one has been (at least) marginalized into operative impotence, but to let the promise of his capture simply fade without explanation is an outrage.

Lately there’s been a lot of speculation about who will succeed Osama bin Laden, either formally within the ranks of al Qaeda or generally as the most dangerous terrorist on the planet. Some of my fellow Contentions bloggers may be able to shed more light on this, but I’m starting to find the “who’s next?” speculation curious. Is bin Laden nearly captured? Is he dying or dead? Or is his demotion in status–to cave-dwelling spoken word artist–simply so bathetic as to no longer be newsworthy?

If you were to read the following lead from this March 12 Washington Times article, you’d assume Osama bin Laden was dead:

Internal divisions between Saudi and Egyptian leaders of al Qaeda are producing “fissures” within the terrorist group and a possible battle over who will succeed Osama bin Laden, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said yesterday.

Michael Hayden goes on as if al Qaeda’s bin Laden years are as over as Camelot.

Bin Laden is now an “iconic” figure hiding in the remote border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mr. Hayden said in a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

“And frankly, then, we think there has been an awful lot of jockeying” among possible successors, Mr. Hayden said.

“Keep in mind, he’s a Saudi. An awful lot of that leadership is Egyptian. If the Saudi dies, who becomes the next guy may be quite a contentious matter,” he said.

[…]

Asked whether bin Laden is alive, Mr. Hayden said: “We have … no evidence he’s not. And frankly, we think there would be evidence. … Given the iconic stature, his death would cause a little more than a wake in the harbor.”

Of course, it’s impossible to overestimate the lengths to which the CIA will go to defend their failures. They may think describing bin Laden as irrelevant helps excuse their inability to locate him. But if bin Laden really is becoming a CIA footnote, his inaction is also pushing the MSM to find the “next big thing” in jihad. There’s a story up at ABC News about “[a]n emerging leader, sources say, who threatens to eclipse Osama bin Laden as the world’s top terrorist.” They’re talking about Pakistani warlord Baitullah Mehsud, who’s allegedly behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto:

With his identity protected, Mehsud told the Arab network al Jazeera, “We want to eradicate Britain and America …We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York, and London.”

“He’s saying the same thing that bin Laden said then years ago,” Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said. “And it doesn’t mean that the attack’s coming tomorrow, but yeah, it’s certainly, he’s the kind of person and his group is the kind of group that we need to mindful about.”

I’m all for being prepared, but I’m not thrilled about moving on in quite this way. In watching the video at the above link you can feel the over-eagerness of producers trying to sell “bin Laden II.” We’ve not finished with bin Laden, or if we have we should know about it. Osama bin Laden hasn’t released a video in which he demonstrably talks about current events since October 2004. While over the past four years, Ayman Al-Zawahiri has practically maintained a running v-log. There’s no question al Qaeda’s supposed number one has been (at least) marginalized into operative impotence, but to let the promise of his capture simply fade without explanation is an outrage.

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Where’s the Outrage?

Are we serious about defending ourselves from terrorism? The various departments of the executive branch, from the CIA to the FBI to the Department of Homeland Security, have had their lapses, and we have had ample occasion to explore some of those here.

But Congress is a coequal branch, and some of the bizarre shortcomings of the executive branch –for example, the fixation on instituting racial quotas inside our intelligence agencies, first initiated by the Clinton administration — are sustained by constituencies on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Michael Chertoff, the man charged with the awesome responsibility of running the Department of Homeland Security, was testifying  before the House Judiciary Committee. The Washington Times offers a snapshot of the proceedings:

Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat, led off his questions to Mr. Chertoff by demanding that the secretary’s staff stand up to be scrutinized. Minutes later, during his own questions, Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat, said the point was to prove that none of the 10 staffers who stood met his definition of diverse.

“You brought 10 staff people with you, all white males. I know this hearing is not about diversity of the staff, but I hope you’ve got more diversity in your staff than you’ve reflected here in the people you’ve brought with you,” Mr. Watt told the secretary.

According to a National Intelligence Estimate issued last July, al Qaeda has significantly reconstituted itself in the lawless borderlands of Pakistan and is working hard to find a way to attack the United States again.

“We assess,” the document warns,

that al Qaeda will continue to enhance its capabilities to attack the Homeland through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups. Of note, we assess that al Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland. In addition, we assess that its association with AQI helps al-Qa’ida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.

We assess that al-Qa’ida’s Homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the U.S. population.

The only thing more frightening than this assessment is the behavior of Congress in response.

But where’s the outrage? The answer is: there is none. Seven years after 9/11, we’ve seemingly become inured to the clowns now running the circus. 

Are we serious about defending ourselves from terrorism? The various departments of the executive branch, from the CIA to the FBI to the Department of Homeland Security, have had their lapses, and we have had ample occasion to explore some of those here.

But Congress is a coequal branch, and some of the bizarre shortcomings of the executive branch –for example, the fixation on instituting racial quotas inside our intelligence agencies, first initiated by the Clinton administration — are sustained by constituencies on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Michael Chertoff, the man charged with the awesome responsibility of running the Department of Homeland Security, was testifying  before the House Judiciary Committee. The Washington Times offers a snapshot of the proceedings:

Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat, led off his questions to Mr. Chertoff by demanding that the secretary’s staff stand up to be scrutinized. Minutes later, during his own questions, Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat, said the point was to prove that none of the 10 staffers who stood met his definition of diverse.

“You brought 10 staff people with you, all white males. I know this hearing is not about diversity of the staff, but I hope you’ve got more diversity in your staff than you’ve reflected here in the people you’ve brought with you,” Mr. Watt told the secretary.

According to a National Intelligence Estimate issued last July, al Qaeda has significantly reconstituted itself in the lawless borderlands of Pakistan and is working hard to find a way to attack the United States again.

“We assess,” the document warns,

that al Qaeda will continue to enhance its capabilities to attack the Homeland through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups. Of note, we assess that al Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland. In addition, we assess that its association with AQI helps al-Qa’ida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.

We assess that al-Qa’ida’s Homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the U.S. population.

The only thing more frightening than this assessment is the behavior of Congress in response.

But where’s the outrage? The answer is: there is none. Seven years after 9/11, we’ve seemingly become inured to the clowns now running the circus. 

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Is a Terror “Spectacular” On the Way?

Is our domestic counterterrorism effort failing, and if so why?

We have not suffered an attack since September 11, which is obviously a critical indicator of success. Michael Chertoff, who heads the Department of Homeland Security, told George Stephanopoulos that he has no evidence of an impending attack on the territory of the United States. But news reports last week spoke of a secret warning by his department that al Qaeda is preparing a terror “spectacular” for this summer.

As always, the trouble is that Michael Chertoff, like the rest of us, doesn’t now what he doesn’t know. When it comes to terrorism, we cannot see around the corner. In this regard, there is a significant and little-discussed parallel between the latest plots uncovered in the United Kingdom and the planned attack on Fort Dix in New Jersey, uncovered back in May.

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Is our domestic counterterrorism effort failing, and if so why?

We have not suffered an attack since September 11, which is obviously a critical indicator of success. Michael Chertoff, who heads the Department of Homeland Security, told George Stephanopoulos that he has no evidence of an impending attack on the territory of the United States. But news reports last week spoke of a secret warning by his department that al Qaeda is preparing a terror “spectacular” for this summer.

As always, the trouble is that Michael Chertoff, like the rest of us, doesn’t now what he doesn’t know. When it comes to terrorism, we cannot see around the corner. In this regard, there is a significant and little-discussed parallel between the latest plots uncovered in the United Kingdom and the planned attack on Fort Dix in New Jersey, uncovered back in May.

In both cases, the authorities were not on top of the problem. In New Jersey, the most striking thing about the planned attack was that it was averted not by successful police work but by an alert video-rental clerk. In the United Kingdom, the bombers actually got through.

In London, it was only technical incompetence in bomb-building that kept the plotters from successfully causing mass carnage. In Glasgow, bollards kept a Jeep Cherokee from penetrating the airport building. Hardening the target there proved to be a critical step in saving lives. Still, there was a complete absence of intelligence on the plot. Until they were caught in the act, the main suspects in the case were only dimly on the radar scopes of Scotland Yard.

Why? At this juncture, we are only confined to supposition; hard facts are not yet established. Could one possibility be that these presumably well-informed perpetrators maintained effective operational security, and avoided behavior, like engaging in telephone conversations and sending emails, that was likely to get them caught? And could this have anything to with the steady stream of news reports detailing many, if not all, of the counterterrorism techniques used by the authorities?

Last week, here in the U.S., a federal appeals court reversed a lower-court’s injunction (that had been stayed on appeal) shutting down the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance program. That program permits the interception, without warrants, of telephone and email communications where one party to the communication is located outside the United States and the NSA has a reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication is a member of al Qaeda or affiliated with al Qaeda.

The positive effects of last week’s reversal are limited, because the NSA program has already been modified and placed under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But the entire episode reminds us once again of the damage that was done by the program’s initial disclosure by the New York Times.

Aspiring terrorists, here and overseas, have been made well aware that they are facing highly sophisticated monitoring technology. They act accordingly. Is that one reason we are not learning about their identities and activities until their bombs are already in place?

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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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