Commentary Magazine


Topic: Washington D.C.

Hillary Takes On Obama On Foreign Policy

Hillary Clinton delivered (amidst the distraction of costume-gate, which makes me think this was not an official Clinton tactic) a foreign policy address in Washington D.C. today. The full text is here. There is much standard fare: immediate withdrawal from Iraq, a strong dose of protectionism and lots of shots at President Bush. But the message is also clear: she is no softy, and Barack Obama is not ready to be commander-in-chief. On Cuba she had this to say:

We need to engage with our allies in Latin America and Europe to encourage Cuba on to the right path. But we simply cannot legitimize rouge regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential level talks that have no preconditions. It may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy. I have traveled to so many countries working on issues involving some of the most intractable challenges we face. And as we see people respond to their own conditions, we have to be ready to act.

She also threw this jab:

If I am entrusted with the presidency, America will have the courage once again to meet with our adversaries. But I will not be penciling in the leaders of Iran or North Korea or Venezuela or Cuba on the presidential calendar without preconditions, until we have assessed through lower level diplomacy, the motivations and intentions of these dictators. Raul Castro, for example, has a stark choice. He can continue to stifle human rights and economic freedom in Cuba, or he can chart a new course toward democratic reform. We need to engage with our allies in Latin America and Europe to encourage Cuba on to the right path. But we simply cannot legitimize rouge regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential level talks that have no preconditions. It may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy. I have traveled to so many countries working on issues involving some of the most intractable challenges we face. And as we see people respond to their own conditions, we have to be ready to act.

There are a few problems with this approach as a campaign strategy (other than the fact it comes too late). First, she needs to say it directly in a debate when eyes are trained on both of them, not in a speech no cable network chose to carry. Unless she is willing to do that, it is not only too late –it’s too little. Second, she tries to do the best she can with her own resume (traveling to China, sitting on the Senate Armed Services Committee), but it is rather thin and the obvious response from Obama is that she is hardly more experienced than he. And finally, the their policy positions ( more restrictionist trade policy, get tough with China, get out of Iraq) are not very different at all. Voters are left to stratch their heads about how in practice a Clinton foreign policy would differ from an Obama foreign policy (other than in willingness to lunch with tyrants). Now, she does rough him up a bit, and the language is worth saving for a general election attack by John McCain. But is this enough to knock Obama off his glide path to the nomination? Not likely, I think.

Hillary Clinton delivered (amidst the distraction of costume-gate, which makes me think this was not an official Clinton tactic) a foreign policy address in Washington D.C. today. The full text is here. There is much standard fare: immediate withdrawal from Iraq, a strong dose of protectionism and lots of shots at President Bush. But the message is also clear: she is no softy, and Barack Obama is not ready to be commander-in-chief. On Cuba she had this to say:

We need to engage with our allies in Latin America and Europe to encourage Cuba on to the right path. But we simply cannot legitimize rouge regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential level talks that have no preconditions. It may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy. I have traveled to so many countries working on issues involving some of the most intractable challenges we face. And as we see people respond to their own conditions, we have to be ready to act.

She also threw this jab:

If I am entrusted with the presidency, America will have the courage once again to meet with our adversaries. But I will not be penciling in the leaders of Iran or North Korea or Venezuela or Cuba on the presidential calendar without preconditions, until we have assessed through lower level diplomacy, the motivations and intentions of these dictators. Raul Castro, for example, has a stark choice. He can continue to stifle human rights and economic freedom in Cuba, or he can chart a new course toward democratic reform. We need to engage with our allies in Latin America and Europe to encourage Cuba on to the right path. But we simply cannot legitimize rouge regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential level talks that have no preconditions. It may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy. I have traveled to so many countries working on issues involving some of the most intractable challenges we face. And as we see people respond to their own conditions, we have to be ready to act.

There are a few problems with this approach as a campaign strategy (other than the fact it comes too late). First, she needs to say it directly in a debate when eyes are trained on both of them, not in a speech no cable network chose to carry. Unless she is willing to do that, it is not only too late –it’s too little. Second, she tries to do the best she can with her own resume (traveling to China, sitting on the Senate Armed Services Committee), but it is rather thin and the obvious response from Obama is that she is hardly more experienced than he. And finally, the their policy positions ( more restrictionist trade policy, get tough with China, get out of Iraq) are not very different at all. Voters are left to stratch their heads about how in practice a Clinton foreign policy would differ from an Obama foreign policy (other than in willingness to lunch with tyrants). Now, she does rough him up a bit, and the language is worth saving for a general election attack by John McCain. But is this enough to knock Obama off his glide path to the nomination? Not likely, I think.

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Is John Bolton a Reckless, Unilateralist, Right-Wing Ideologue?

What are we to make of John Bolton? The New York Times called his appointment as United Nations ambassador “a terrible choice at a critical time.” But if Bolton is despised by many on the Left, he is a hero to quite a few on the Right. What does he really deserve: contempt or adulation?

Bolton, now at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., has a new book out, Surrender is Not an Option, telling the story of his career. I’ve reviewed it in the latest issue of Commentary and I found myself agreeing with the New York Times. He was indeed a terrible choice for UN ambassador — terrible, that is, for the corrupt UN. 

If a Republican wins the presidency next year, what would be the most suitable appointment for Bolton in the new administration? My own preference would be to nominate him as Director of National Intelligence. Among other things, Bolton is a bureaucratic steamroller; and if there ever was a crying need for fixing a set of broken institutions, this is it.  

If readers have other suggestions, I would welcome them.

What are we to make of John Bolton? The New York Times called his appointment as United Nations ambassador “a terrible choice at a critical time.” But if Bolton is despised by many on the Left, he is a hero to quite a few on the Right. What does he really deserve: contempt or adulation?

Bolton, now at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., has a new book out, Surrender is Not an Option, telling the story of his career. I’ve reviewed it in the latest issue of Commentary and I found myself agreeing with the New York Times. He was indeed a terrible choice for UN ambassador — terrible, that is, for the corrupt UN. 

If a Republican wins the presidency next year, what would be the most suitable appointment for Bolton in the new administration? My own preference would be to nominate him as Director of National Intelligence. Among other things, Bolton is a bureaucratic steamroller; and if there ever was a crying need for fixing a set of broken institutions, this is it.  

If readers have other suggestions, I would welcome them.

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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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Extreme Prejudice

“I am extremely concerned about the tendency of the intelligence community to turn itself into a kind of check on, instead of a part of, the executive branch,” Henry Kissinger writes in today’s Washington Post. “When intelligence personnel expect their work to become the subject of public debate, they are tempted into the roles of surrogate policymakers and advocates.” In this instance, they created the “extraordinary spectacle of the president’s national security adviser obliged to defend the president’s Iran policy against a National Intelligence Estimate.”

Scott Johnson over at powerline is absolutely right: when someone of Henry Kissinger’s stature joins in in denouncing the intelligence community for its handling of the Iran NIE something significant is going on.

What exactly is it? Perhaps it is the fact that the intelligence failures of the last seven years have impressed upon all Americans the price of lapses in this vital area. This explains why voices on both the Right and the Left — even the New York Times has tepidly joined in — are criticizing the intelligence community for its handling of the Iran NIE. All this gives rise to the hope that after the presidential elections a bipartisan coalition will emerge that could find some radical way to address a problem that has become apparent to all.

But I am not holding my breath. American intelligence agencies, the CIA foremost among them, have proved themselves to be extraordinarily recalcitrant to reform. And the agencies are not the only problem. In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius, a long-time observer of the intelligence world, takes a look at the other end of the snake.

Intelligence oversight by Congress is in a “free fall,” Ignatius writes. And the problem is not the standard liberal complaint that the CIA is withholding vital information from congressional oversight panels. Rather, right now

we are getting the worst possible mix — a dearth of adequate congressional scrutiny on the front end that could improve performance and check abuses, and a flood of second-guessing at the back end, after each flap, that further demoralizes and enfeebles the spies. Congress silently blesses the CIA’s harsh interrogation tactics, for example, and then denounces the practices when they become public.

Ignatius’s column opens the door to some thoughts that have hitherto been unthinkable in Washington D.C.. Perhaps the time has come to ask whether an experiment embarked upon in 1975 in response to genuine abuses of intelligence is appropriate for our own time. To judge by the picture painted by Ignatius, the experiment clearly has failed:

The intelligence committees have become politicized. Members and staffers encourage political vendettas against intelligence officers they don’t like, as happened when [CIA Director Porter] Goss brought his congressional aides with him to the CIA. The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has become a political football; so has negotiation over legal rules on intercepting foreign communications, one of the nation’s most sensitive activities. The bickering has turned the intelligence world into a nonstop political circus, to the point that foreign governments have become increasingly wary of sharing secrets.

Congressional oversight was a “radical idea” when it was introduced in response to the abuses of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon years. Back then, Ignatius notes, “[s]ome experts questioned whether it was realistic to ask elected officials to sign off on the work of intelligence agencies — which, when you strip away all the high-minded language, basically involves the systematic violation of other countries’ laws. Intelligence agencies steal other nations’ secrets, bribe their officials into committing treason, intercept their most private conversations.”

Those skeptics seem to have been proved right. At a time when our intelligence agencies are the crucial front in the war we are facing, we cannot afford to have it managed by a “political circus.” The time has come to bring an end this state of affairs — with extreme prejudice.

“I am extremely concerned about the tendency of the intelligence community to turn itself into a kind of check on, instead of a part of, the executive branch,” Henry Kissinger writes in today’s Washington Post. “When intelligence personnel expect their work to become the subject of public debate, they are tempted into the roles of surrogate policymakers and advocates.” In this instance, they created the “extraordinary spectacle of the president’s national security adviser obliged to defend the president’s Iran policy against a National Intelligence Estimate.”

Scott Johnson over at powerline is absolutely right: when someone of Henry Kissinger’s stature joins in in denouncing the intelligence community for its handling of the Iran NIE something significant is going on.

What exactly is it? Perhaps it is the fact that the intelligence failures of the last seven years have impressed upon all Americans the price of lapses in this vital area. This explains why voices on both the Right and the Left — even the New York Times has tepidly joined in — are criticizing the intelligence community for its handling of the Iran NIE. All this gives rise to the hope that after the presidential elections a bipartisan coalition will emerge that could find some radical way to address a problem that has become apparent to all.

But I am not holding my breath. American intelligence agencies, the CIA foremost among them, have proved themselves to be extraordinarily recalcitrant to reform. And the agencies are not the only problem. In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius, a long-time observer of the intelligence world, takes a look at the other end of the snake.

Intelligence oversight by Congress is in a “free fall,” Ignatius writes. And the problem is not the standard liberal complaint that the CIA is withholding vital information from congressional oversight panels. Rather, right now

we are getting the worst possible mix — a dearth of adequate congressional scrutiny on the front end that could improve performance and check abuses, and a flood of second-guessing at the back end, after each flap, that further demoralizes and enfeebles the spies. Congress silently blesses the CIA’s harsh interrogation tactics, for example, and then denounces the practices when they become public.

Ignatius’s column opens the door to some thoughts that have hitherto been unthinkable in Washington D.C.. Perhaps the time has come to ask whether an experiment embarked upon in 1975 in response to genuine abuses of intelligence is appropriate for our own time. To judge by the picture painted by Ignatius, the experiment clearly has failed:

The intelligence committees have become politicized. Members and staffers encourage political vendettas against intelligence officers they don’t like, as happened when [CIA Director Porter] Goss brought his congressional aides with him to the CIA. The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has become a political football; so has negotiation over legal rules on intercepting foreign communications, one of the nation’s most sensitive activities. The bickering has turned the intelligence world into a nonstop political circus, to the point that foreign governments have become increasingly wary of sharing secrets.

Congressional oversight was a “radical idea” when it was introduced in response to the abuses of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon years. Back then, Ignatius notes, “[s]ome experts questioned whether it was realistic to ask elected officials to sign off on the work of intelligence agencies — which, when you strip away all the high-minded language, basically involves the systematic violation of other countries’ laws. Intelligence agencies steal other nations’ secrets, bribe their officials into committing treason, intercept their most private conversations.”

Those skeptics seem to have been proved right. At a time when our intelligence agencies are the crucial front in the war we are facing, we cannot afford to have it managed by a “political circus.” The time has come to bring an end this state of affairs — with extreme prejudice.

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Musharraf and the Tragedy of American Policy

In what is being described as “a second coup,” Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf threw his country into more turmoil on Saturday. He suspended the constitution, imposed a state of emergency, called out the army, and rounded up hundreds of opponents. As the Washington Post noted, the general has decided to shoot his way out of an eight-month crisis surrounding his increasingly unpopular rule. “I cannot allow this country to commit suicide,” the former commando said. In reality, what he could not allow is the judiciary to invalidate last month’s election in which he won another term as president. That’s why Musharraf, among his other acts, rounded up lawyers and purged the Supreme Court.

In response, Washington cranked up the word machine. There were the perfunctory calls for a return to democracy from our Secretary of State, but the most telling comment came from Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. “Pakistan is a very important ally in the war on terror,” he said. Of course. Condoleezza Rice threatened to cut aid to Islamabad, but she also noted that “some of the assistance that has been going to Pakistan is directly related to the counterterrorism mission.” To make a long story short, Musharraf, when he hears such ambiguous statements from the American capital, evidently believes he can do what he wants. Washington, he knows, is terrified by instability in his country.

It is, however, the general who is causing instability in Pakistan, and his efforts to fight Islamic fanatics are less than impressive. Yet American policymakers seem to think there is no alternative to him. “The United States has never put all of its chips on Musharraf,” said Condoleezza Rice yesterday. This, however, is news to the world. For decades, Washington has been held hostage to the series of miscreants who have misruled Pakistan. To support them, successive administrations in the America capital always opted for short-term compromises. Those compromises were always intended to solve the problem of the day, but unfortunately they have, over the long term, made the situation in that country worse.

People complain about the predominance of idealism in American foreign policy. Yet the events now unfolding in Islamabad once again show the failure of realism. It’s evident that cynical bargains meant to protect America are producing a disaster—possibly of historic proportions. The tragedy of our policy is that policymakers have been afraid that true democracy in Pakistan would result in the election of Islamic militants. Yet from all we know, free elections would produce moderate leaders. Max Boot wrote about this in July, and the New York Times does so today.

In what is being described as “a second coup,” Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf threw his country into more turmoil on Saturday. He suspended the constitution, imposed a state of emergency, called out the army, and rounded up hundreds of opponents. As the Washington Post noted, the general has decided to shoot his way out of an eight-month crisis surrounding his increasingly unpopular rule. “I cannot allow this country to commit suicide,” the former commando said. In reality, what he could not allow is the judiciary to invalidate last month’s election in which he won another term as president. That’s why Musharraf, among his other acts, rounded up lawyers and purged the Supreme Court.

In response, Washington cranked up the word machine. There were the perfunctory calls for a return to democracy from our Secretary of State, but the most telling comment came from Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. “Pakistan is a very important ally in the war on terror,” he said. Of course. Condoleezza Rice threatened to cut aid to Islamabad, but she also noted that “some of the assistance that has been going to Pakistan is directly related to the counterterrorism mission.” To make a long story short, Musharraf, when he hears such ambiguous statements from the American capital, evidently believes he can do what he wants. Washington, he knows, is terrified by instability in his country.

It is, however, the general who is causing instability in Pakistan, and his efforts to fight Islamic fanatics are less than impressive. Yet American policymakers seem to think there is no alternative to him. “The United States has never put all of its chips on Musharraf,” said Condoleezza Rice yesterday. This, however, is news to the world. For decades, Washington has been held hostage to the series of miscreants who have misruled Pakistan. To support them, successive administrations in the America capital always opted for short-term compromises. Those compromises were always intended to solve the problem of the day, but unfortunately they have, over the long term, made the situation in that country worse.

People complain about the predominance of idealism in American foreign policy. Yet the events now unfolding in Islamabad once again show the failure of realism. It’s evident that cynical bargains meant to protect America are producing a disaster—possibly of historic proportions. The tragedy of our policy is that policymakers have been afraid that true democracy in Pakistan would result in the election of Islamic militants. Yet from all we know, free elections would produce moderate leaders. Max Boot wrote about this in July, and the New York Times does so today.

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Let’s Help al Qaeda to Kill Americans

What is the best way for terrorists to wreak havoc in the United States? That was the question posed, and answered, yesterday on the New York Times website by Steven D. Levitt, the University of Chicago professor of economics and author of the best-selling book, Freakonomics.

Levitt’s advice to al Qaeda, based upon the economic principle of generating the greatest quantity of harm with the least possible input of resources, would be to learn from the Washington D.C snipers of 2002. He suggests arming

20 terrorists with rifles and cars, and arrang[ing] to have them begin shooting randomly at pre-set times all across the country. Big cities, little cities, suburbs, etc. Have them move around a lot. No one will know when and where the next attack will be. The chaos would be unbelievable, especially considering how few resources it would require of the terrorists. It would also be extremely hard to catch these guys. The damage wouldn’t be as extreme as detonating a nuclear bomb in New York City, of course; but it sure would be a lot easier to obtain a handful of guns than a nuclear weapon.

This does indeed sound like a terrifying scenario and perhaps there is a terrorist cell hidden here that will carry it out.

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What is the best way for terrorists to wreak havoc in the United States? That was the question posed, and answered, yesterday on the New York Times website by Steven D. Levitt, the University of Chicago professor of economics and author of the best-selling book, Freakonomics.

Levitt’s advice to al Qaeda, based upon the economic principle of generating the greatest quantity of harm with the least possible input of resources, would be to learn from the Washington D.C snipers of 2002. He suggests arming

20 terrorists with rifles and cars, and arrang[ing] to have them begin shooting randomly at pre-set times all across the country. Big cities, little cities, suburbs, etc. Have them move around a lot. No one will know when and where the next attack will be. The chaos would be unbelievable, especially considering how few resources it would require of the terrorists. It would also be extremely hard to catch these guys. The damage wouldn’t be as extreme as detonating a nuclear bomb in New York City, of course; but it sure would be a lot easier to obtain a handful of guns than a nuclear weapon.

This does indeed sound like a terrifying scenario and perhaps there is a terrorist cell hidden here that will carry it out.

Levitt believes that putting such suggestions in print for terrorists to read is “a form of public service.” By thinking of plausible ways of causing violent destruction, he writes, “it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur.”

Levitt’s column generated what he says today, in a subsequent posting on the Times website, was an immense amount of hate mail: “The people e-mailing me can’t decide whether I am a moron, a traitor, or both.”

But there are also quite a few letters on the site applauding Levitt, like this one from a person who identifies herself simply as Kelly: “I think you are doing a terrific job actually THINKING about our situation rather than reacting like so many of our fellow Americans.”

Is Levitt indeed performing a public service, or is he a moron, traitor, or both?

Answering this is not as easy as it might appear at first glance. The fact is that we do need to think carefully about the manifold ways terrorists might attack us again. The U.S. government has failed abysmally at that task in the past.

In his memoir, At the Center of the Storm, CIA Director George Tenet recalls with some pride how on the evening of September 12, 2001, he was sitting in his office “kicking around ideas” with a senior agency official when they hit upon the idea of creating “a group with the CIA whose sole purpose in life would be to think contrarian thoughts.” Such a unit, duly created by Tenet and dubbed the “Red Cell,” was given the assignment of “speculat[ing] on what was going through Osama bin Laden’s mind.”

In other words, up until September 11, it never occurred to the clueless Tenet or anyone else in a position of responsibility at our premier intelligence agency to perform the elementary task of thinking systematically about how our terrorist adversaries were thinking about us, including about how they might attack us.

There is thus a case for a public discussion of the issue raised by Levitt. But raising the issue and generating actual scenarios in public are two different things. Levitt defends himself on this point by noting that “a lot of the angry responses [he received made] me wonder what everyday Americans think terrorists do all day. My guess is that they brainstorm ideas for terrorist plots. And you have to believe that terrorists are total idiots if it never occurred to them after the Washington D.C. sniper shootings that maybe a sniper plot wasn’t a bad idea.”

True enough. Or is it true at all?

Yes, there are terrorist masterminds out there who do not need our help cooking up the most intricate and lethal plots against the United States. The attacks of September 11 alone are sufficient evidence of that.

But there are also more than a few terrorists and would-be terrorists roaming around who might qualify as “idiots,” or something close. Most recruits for terrorist action in the Islamist cause are not sophisticated planner types like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed but angry, ignorant, low-level figures, used by the higher-level terrorist plotters as expendable “muscle.”

Richard Reid is one such figure. If he had been smart enough to set off his shoe-bomb in the privacy of the bathroom instead of while remaining in his seat, American Airlines Flight 63 might now be resting quietly on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with all of it 197 passengers and crew.

Then there was Zacharias Moussaoui, who was encountering trouble in his Minnesota flight school. This deranged fanatic might have only needed scant prompting, perhaps by stumbling across a clever scenario cooked up by Steven Levitt, to find a way to work al Qaeda’s will that was easier than poring through aviation manuals and struggling to operate a Boeing 747 simulator.

There was also el Sayyid Nosair, an operative in the nascent al Qaeda operation, part of the band that was to attack the World Trade Center the first time around in 1993. In 1990, Nosair spent his time and energy planning and carrying out the assassination of the firebrand rabbi Meir Kahane. Given the combination of Kahane’s extremist views and marginal status, this act was senseless, and even counterproductive, from the point of view of Nosair’s own cause. In choosing his victim, Nosair could well have used some help from an economist like Levitt. Will Levitt now offer to provide a public list of superior human targets, whose deaths would be far more useful to the Islamist cause? The logic of his argument suggests that the answer would be yes.

But beyond the logic or illogic of Levitt’s argument, there is something else. Thousands of Americans died on September 11. Although Levitt minimizes the dangers that lie ahead, blithely writing that his guess is that “the terrorism threat just isn’t that great,” the fact is that, like everyone else, he does not know what he does not know. It is entirely possible that the United States will be hit again, and hit harder than we were on September 11.

To Levitt, however, this solemn subject is not solemn at all. He writes about it in a glib and flippant tone, as in his summons to the public to come up with even more lethal scenarios by which al Qaeda might wreak death and destruction on the United States: “I’m sure many readers have far better ideas. I would love to hear them.”

One of the better ripostes to Levitt on the Times website came from a reader named Steve: “Sir, unable to determine if you are demonic, but your actions are demonic. Contemplate this name, Christine Lee Hanson.”

Christine Lee Hanson was a two-year old who perished on board United Airlines Flight 175 when it plowed into the World Trade Center on September 11.

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The Bush Administration’s Secret Secret

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, calls the Bush presidency the “most secretive of administrations.”

Helen Thomas of UPI says “[t]his is the most secretive administration I have ever covered.”

Caroline Fredrickson of the ACLU says “this has been the most secretive administration since the Nixon years.”

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, says “it is one of the most secretive administrations in recent history.”

The British Guardian Weekly calls it “the most secretive administration in U.S. history.”

Glenn Greenwald of Salon, call it “the most secretive in history.”

Is Bush really so secretive, and if so, so what?

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Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, calls the Bush presidency the “most secretive of administrations.”

Helen Thomas of UPI says “[t]his is the most secretive administration I have ever covered.”

Caroline Fredrickson of the ACLU says “this has been the most secretive administration since the Nixon years.”

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, says “it is one of the most secretive administrations in recent history.”

The British Guardian Weekly calls it “the most secretive administration in U.S. history.”

Glenn Greenwald of Salon, call it “the most secretive in history.”

Is Bush really so secretive, and if so, so what?

The U.S. was struck by terrorists on 9/11 killing thousands. Our troops are now engaged in two hot wars overseas. If under those circumstances our government were not generating lots of secrets, that would be a cause for worry and alarm.

But the biggest secret of all is that, despite what one hears incessantly from the New York Times and its echo chamber, the Bush administration has been making significant strides toward more open government.

The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) in Washington D.C. is the official body that keeps tracks of such things. According to its latest report, the executive branch declassified 37,647,993 pages of “permanently valuable historical records” in fiscal year 2006, which is a 27-percent increase over the previous fiscal year.

At the same time, the number of newly classified documents—called “original classification decisions” in the lingo of the bureaucracy—declined by 10 percent. Perhaps of even greater significance is the fact that for the second year in a row, the majority of new secrets have been assigned a ten-year classification period. Historically, only 34 percent of new secrets were given such a short life; 25-year sentences used to be the norm.

Obviously, secrecy has many dimensions, and such statistics do not tell the whole story about current trends. But they do tell a part of it. Why are they not better known?

This brings us to one of the major hidden sources of secrecy in recent years. For even as the media and the interest groups lambaste the Bush administration for being the most secretive of all time, they are keeping these numbers from the public. One certainly can not read about them in the New York Times.

The exception that proves the rule comes from Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientist, who has posted a notice about the ISOO report on his invaluable blog, Secrecy News.

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Off With Libby’s Head?

When he is sentenced this coming Tuesday, Scooter Libby may be sent directly to jail. If so, this would be grossly unfair since he stands an excellent chance of having the verdict against him overturned on appeal. But it would also be the moment for President Bush to pardon him immediately.

Back in March, when he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice by a jury in federal court in Washington D.C., I explained why I thought the case “represents a terrible injustice.” The federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, had insisted to both the public and the jury that the disclosure of the identity of the CIA operative Valerie Plame—which was the underlying action he had been appointed to investigate—was in fact a crime. But this was a point that had never been established or even formally alleged. Fitzgerald’s overreaching on this colored the jury’s thinking about the gravity of the issues at stake, suggested a motive for Libby to lie that did not reside in proved facts, and conflicted with the judge’s ruling that the case would not hinge on Plame’s status.

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When he is sentenced this coming Tuesday, Scooter Libby may be sent directly to jail. If so, this would be grossly unfair since he stands an excellent chance of having the verdict against him overturned on appeal. But it would also be the moment for President Bush to pardon him immediately.

Back in March, when he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice by a jury in federal court in Washington D.C., I explained why I thought the case “represents a terrible injustice.” The federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, had insisted to both the public and the jury that the disclosure of the identity of the CIA operative Valerie Plame—which was the underlying action he had been appointed to investigate—was in fact a crime. But this was a point that had never been established or even formally alleged. Fitzgerald’s overreaching on this colored the jury’s thinking about the gravity of the issues at stake, suggested a motive for Libby to lie that did not reside in proved facts, and conflicted with the judge’s ruling that the case would not hinge on Plame’s status.

Now Fitzgerald has been back in court, arguing that when Libby is sentenced on Tuesday, the judge should throw the book at him precisely on the grounds that he committed the underlying crime-that-was-not-a-crime. Fitzgerald approvingly cites Judge David S. Tatel’s ruling in the Judith Miller case that “because the charges contemplated here relate to false denials of responsibility for Plame’s exposure, prosecuting perjury or false statements would be tantamount to punishing the leak.”

But this a vicious circle. Convicted on the basis of something that was never proved or even formally alleged, is Libby now to be punished on the same basis? With Fitzgerald continuing to overreach, the case for a presidential pardon is growing stronger by the day. If Libby is imprisoned, will Bush do the right thing?

Meanwhile, in closely related news, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wants Valerie Plame to be re-interviewed. Back in March, in a dispatch entitled Lying Liars and Their Lies, I asked whether Plame was under oath when she testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and declared that she played no role in sending her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, on a fact-finding trip to Niger. “I did not recommend him. I did not suggest him. There was no nepotism involved. I did not have the authority,” she said.

Plame was under oath, and Senator Bond has pointed out that she has put out three separate versions of the circumstances under which her husband was sent to Niger. According to USA Today‘s summary, they are:

*She told the CIA’s inspector general in 2003 or 2004 that she had suggested Wilson.

*Plame told Senate Intelligence Committee staffers in 2004 that she couldn’t remember whether she had suggested Wilson.

*She told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in March that an unidentified person in Vice President Cheney’s office asked a CIA colleague about the African uranium report in February 2002. A third officer, overhearing Plame and the colleague discussing this, suggested, “Well, why don’t we send Joe?” Plame told the committee.

Which of these is the real story? Is Plame telling three versions of the truth, or is she a lying liar, or even worse, a perjuring perjurer? Bond would like to find out.

But the Intelligence Committee is now under the control of the Democrats who have no interest in calling attention to the antics of the Plame-Wilson provocateurs. Stay tuned, in other words, for the cover-up of the cover-up.  

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