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December 30, 2009

Things That Make You Go Hmm . . .
Posted by Michael Cohen

So perhaps I spoke a bit too soon a few days ago when I said that the dots on Abdulmutallab were not bright enough for the intelligence community to connect. When intel folks pick up leaders of an al Qaeda branch in Yemen talking about a "Nigerian" being prepared for a terrorist attack . . . how does that not affect aviation security screening?  At the very least if attention was being paid to Nigerian passengers the fact that Abdulmutallab paid for his ticket in cash and had no checked luggage would, one might think, lead to a more thorough search.

Frankly, I don't blame Obama for being pissed about this . . . or pissed about this report from CNN:

The father of terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab talked about his son's extremist views with someone from the CIA and a report was prepared, but the report was not circulated outside the agency. Had that information been shared, the 23-year-old Nigerian who is alleged to have bungled an attempt to blow up a jetliner as it was landing in Detroit, Michigan, on Christmas Day might have been denied passage on the Northwest Airlines flight.

Now I don't if this story is bulletproof, but if it's true it's far too reminiscent of the missed opportunities and lack of shared information that predated the 9/11 attack. How can this still be happening 8 years after September 11th? And how can Republicans with a straight face blame the Obama Administration exclusively for this failure?

In other news, it now appears that Abdulmutallab was recruited in London by al Qaeda and traveled to Yemen for training and to receive explosives. It's difficult to draw broad conclusions from this information, but a few things jump out to me. It's interesting that no one is talking about Afghanistan/Pakistan here, which bolsters the argument, oft heard during the Afghanistan policy debate, that al Qaeda has become a far more franchised organization. Certainly, the AQ training camps in the FATA should be of great concern (as the Zazi arrest showed), but clearly AQ can operate effectively elsewhere. 

Second, Abdulmutallab seems more like an easy recruit than necessarily an effective terrorist operative. As a Nigerian - and the scion of a wealthy family - he seems less likely to attract attention as a possible al Qaeda operative. I wonder if this speaks to AQ's recruiting challenges or perhaps that they are looking for potential operatives who are less likely to draw scrutiny from security officials.

On an unrelated note, it's interesting to me that al Qaeda continues to plot ways of outwitting one of the hardest possible US targets - aviation - while largely ignoring soft targets like trains, subways, shopping malls etc.  The arrest of Najibullah Zazi (who was a legal US resident) may have suggested that such a shift was in the offing, but one can't help but wonder if AQ's continued focus on aviation targets is a sign of a lack of capacity to hit other targets, rather than a lack of imagination.

Finally, it looks like Dick Cheney has slithered out of his cave long enough to comment on the latest doings:

“[W]e are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren’t, it makes us less safe,” Cheney said in a statement to POLITICO. “Why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war? It doesn’t fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn’t fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency — social transformation — the restructuring of American society.

I won't even bother to engage with Cheney's latest detritus, but here's the bigger question; why does Politico continue to reprint the ramblings of this decrepit old man? As Steve Benen accurately sums it up here - the man is a national disgrace.

GOP Continues to Cower in Front of al Qaeda
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Spencer Ackerman reports that despite Republican histrionics in the wake of failed Flight 253 bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Obama administration is still steadfast in its goal of closing Guantanamo. According to a senior administration official:

We are, as I suggested, going through this with a fine-tooth comb. But I also just hasten to add the bigger picture here which is that we believe closing Gitmo is in the national security interest of the country for the reasons I’ve just outlined.

This is obviously a resolute response to the Dick Cheneys and Peter Kings who want to revert back to the Bush administration policies that failed to keep us safe and inflamed the embers of extremism overseas. But it also goes back to a larger point. It's been official U.S. policy for nearly a year now that Guantanamo will be closing, despite some setbacks in congress and in the time line. This isn't just a rhetorical aspiration, it's actually encoded in U.S. law through executive order. Congress hasn't been able to stop it. Heck, even the former Vice President has been powerless to influence this outcome. But wouldn't the greatest gift we could give al Qaeda is for one 23 year old from Nigeria with failed explosives in his underwear to upend U.S. law, derail our political system, and cause a stated U.S. policy to be reversed? This for al Qaeda would be more important than the tragic deaths of innocent Americans, to see our way of life and political system continue to be disrupted by their terrorist tactics. Sadly, this has already happened with the previous Republican administration allowing torture to become official U.S. policy and casting aside the rule of law by opening Guantanamo in the first place. This didn't enhance American security. It gave dangerous moral victories our enemies.

And this reality is something the GOP just can't grasp. Every time they clamor for torture, every time they say we can't try terrorists in U.S. courts or detain them domestically, that ostensibly does more to embolden al Qaeda than actually them causing the loss of lives. Killing Americans is secondary to their larger goal of creating mass casualty of America's constitution, bedrock institutions and society in general. And the GOP's reactionary and hostile calls for Guantanamo to remain open because some twisted and wayward extremist failed to blow up a plane simply plays into our enemies hands. Simply put, American policies should not be the knee jerk reaction to the whims and tyranny of terrorists. We've been down that road before, and it did nothing protect American lives.

Instead of cowering in front of our enemies, the tougher, more resolute and inherently more patriotic approach would be to say it doesn't matter how many terrorists al Qaeda sends our way, we're going to remain steadfast in our system of governance, way of life, and uphold the values that make America great while keeping our country safe. And making sure America, not al Qaeda, dictates the course of which this process takes is central to that.

December 29, 2009

Great Moments in GOP Shamelessness
Posted by Michael Cohen

Generally here at DA I have tried to shy away from getting too overly political in my blogging, but the response of some Republicans to the alleged al Qaeda Xmas attack has dragged me out of my partisan slumber.

First we have what Steve Benen (the nicest man in the liberal blogosphere) decries as the cravenness of Pete Hoekstra, who is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. Apparently he is now using the attempted attack to raise campaign contributions for his gubernatorial run in Michigan. Steve sums it up well:
Just how pathetic does a politician have to be to try to raise money off the attempted murder of hundreds of innocent Americans? Just how desperate does that politician have to be to see a plot to blow up an airplane over American soil and think, "You know, maybe I can exploit this to pick up a few checks."
Remember when it was considered unseemly to run campaign ads that evoked 9/11? Not that any of this should be a surprise since manipulating the specter of international terrorism has been part of the GOP political palette for the past 8 years (See: 2002, 2004, 2006 elections).

Next we have Jim "Waterloo" Demint who has for several months now been blocking the appointment of Errol Southers to be the next TSA Administrator because . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . Demint is concerned that the TSA might allow their workers to unionize. Now keep in mind, two Senate committees have already pushed forward Southers nomination, in a bipartisan manner. But clearly that is not enough for Jim Demint. 

Now here's the funny thing about this. In 2002, Democrats held up passage of legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security for fear that workers there would not be able to unionize. The GOP then proceeded to run campaign ads in the 2002 election calling Democrats soft on security and unpatriotic because their stance was delaying creation of DHS. How is what Jim DeMint is doing today any different? It's not. But here's the difference, Jim DeMint has no shame whatsoever. Check out his comments this Sunday on the issue:

When we formed the airport security system, we realized we could not use collective bargaining because of that need to be flexible. Yet that appears now to be the top priority of the administration. And this whole thing should remind us, Chris, that the soft talk about engagement, closing Gitmo, these things are not gonna appease the terrorists. They’re gonna keep coming after us, and we can’t have politics as usual in Washington, and I’m afraid that’s what we’ve got right now with airport security.

So here we have it; the Administration is more focused on collective bargaining than stopping terrorism . . . thus putting American lives in danger. It's not the Senator who is preventing a new TSA chief from taking office because he doesn't like unions. And if you believe that "they're gonna keep coming after us" how can you possibly justify holding up the appointment of the head of the TSA?

And then we find out from Politico that Republicans are hardly dipped in gold when it comes to homeland security:

Republicans have cast votes against the key TSA funding measure that the 2010 appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security contained, which included funding for the TSA, including for explosives detection systems and other aviation security measures. 

The conference bill included more than $4 billion for "screening operations," including $1.1 billion in funding for explosives detection systems, with $778 million for buying and installing the systems.

Among those voting against this bill - Pete Hoekstra.
Oh and now Pat Buchanan in debating Spencer channels Michael Goldfarb in arguing that Abdulmutallab should be denied pain medication in order to get intelligence information out of him. Keep in mind, even if we are at war with al Qaeda (as Buchanan suggests) we still wouldn't deny medical care to enemy soldiers.

I wonder though if Michael Goldfarb and Pat Buchanan were as outraged when Ahmed Ressam, Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui were prosecuted by the Bush Administration in federal court and given due process under the US criminal justice system. I suppose the fact that our criminal system convicted all three men and in some cases actually got actionable intelligence out of them is not relevant to the conversation. After all there is just another election ten months away.

On Second Thought . . .
Posted by Michael Cohen

Perhaps I was being a bit too fatalistic yesterday about the attempted terrorist attack on that Northwest flight next week. Comes word from across the pond that the Brits were well aware of Abdulmutallab.

The British government said Monday that it rejected an application by the Nigerian man accused in the failed Detroit airliner bombing plot for a renewed student visa in May, and that he was placed on an official watch list to prevent him from re-entering Britain.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson said Mr. Abdulmutallab’s application to renew his student visa was rejected in May after officials had determined that the academic course he gave as his reason for returning to Britain was fake. The secretary said the suspect was then placed on the watch list, a procedure that would normally involve informing American authorities of the action Britain had taken.

I got to say it's a bit hard to understand how if the British had banned Abdulmutallab from entering the country that information wasn't transmitted to US officials and acted on. It's one thing if the intelligence community picks up vague threats a mere few weeks ago. I understand that it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, but if an allied government is not letting this guy in the country how does that not set off alarm bells among US officials? Maybe he doesn't go on the no-fly list, but at the very least you'd think he would get an extra once-over before he boards a plane to the United States.

December 28, 2009

Why Democracy Matters
Posted by Michael Cohen

Spencer is a bit upset about the argument by Fred Hiatt that Hillary Clinton's equating of political rights with economic and social rights is wrong:

Ms. Clinton’s lumping of economic and social “rights” with political and personal freedom was a standard doctrine of the Soviet Bloc, which used to argue at every East-West conference that human rights in Czechoslovakia were superior to those in the United States, because one provided government health care that the other lacked. In fact, as U.S. diplomats used to tirelessly respond, rights of liberty — for free expression and religion, for example — are unique in that they are both natural and universal; they will exist so long as governments do not suppress them. Health care, shelter and education are desirable social services, but they depend on resources that governments may or may not possess. These are fundamentally different goods, and one cannot substitute for another.

Spencer responds with this:

What Fred Hiatt’s band of merry mind finds unable to comprehend is that when we’re talking about addressing what Jefferson called the tyranny over the minds of men requires building a constituency for the meaningfulness of freedom.

This always makes for an interesting argument. Spencer is right that health care, education and social services are not, sniff-sniff, merely "desirable. And the notion that HRC is making a Soviet-style argument is, how shall we say, in bad form. But while I generally agree with Spencer's sentiment I actually think that unintentionally Hiatt makes a good point here. 

Hiatt is right that communist leaders used to point to their "success" in providing basic services as somehow akin to the political freedom provided for in the West - and that became a convenient excuse and cover for denying basic rights to their citizens. Indeed, there are a growing crop of authoritarian governments (and one big one named China) that are using these types of arguments to justify the denial of basic political rights to their citizens. 

But of course, political right and social rights are, on a practical level, not equal; because only with political freedom, transparency, a free press and the ability of citizens to petition or influence their leaders etc can citizens ensure that any social service is being provided fairly to citizens - or even provided at all. In other words, political freedom is the sine qua non of the sort of social and economic freedom that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights says are . . . universal. And basic political rights are the only guarantee that any citizen has to maintain these rights. Otherwise they are simply relying on the benevolence of their unelected and unaccountable leaders.

Spencer is right to quote Samantha Power when she says, "democracy does not fill stomachs, alleviate malaria, or protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of militiamen." True indeed. But then a lack of democracy doesn't do these things either. And as Power suggests, "Democracy is valuable to people insofar as it allows them first to meet their basic needs."  No doubt. For most people around the world (gross generalization alert) free and fair elections take a back seat to basic health care, food security and education. Economic development is important, but when you have political leaders who rule by fiat and have little interest in providing for their citizens it ain't going to amount to much in the end. (Of course mileage may vary - China and Singapore are not Egypt or Rwanda or Cuba.) Of course, this is a constant challenge for aid officials and how they use aid to help people and not feed the coffers of rapacious public officials. 

To get this issue back to US foreign policy it's great that Clinton said in a recent speech that US engagement with Islamic countries would focus on "education, science, technology and "entrepreneurship," but you can't really have these things - particularly the latter - if you don't have rule of law? The focus of the Bush Administration on elections as the end-all, be-all was mindless, simplistic and actually did more harm than good. Creating a democracy agenda that focuses on rule of law development, civil society promotion and support, and institution building would be much more effective and would, in the long run, probably help support movements geared toward the promotion of social services like education and health care. But to date that hasn't been the focus of the Obama Administration; instead they seem a bit afraid to talk directly about democracy and have in places like Egypt actually cut funding for civil society support.

I'm not sure if Fred Hiatt was trying to make this point, but it seems one worth making and a fair indictment of the Obama Administration's approach to democracy promotion to date. I'm all for promoting economic development - and fully resourcing AID, NED and the Millennium Challenge Corporation - but you can't have full economic rights without political rights (and that doesn't mean just elections). 

Michael Goldfarb Should Speak Less
Posted by Michael Cohen

In discussing the recent alleged al Qaeda attack, Michael Goldfarb reminds me why no sentient person should ever read Michael Goldfarb:

If he (Abdulmutallab) were treated as an enemy combatant and transferred to military commission system, we could use Army Field Manual techniques without Miranda (not as effective as enhanced techniques, of course, but much better than standard police practice). We could use his non-Mirandized statements against him in military commissions, so long as the statements were not forcibly coerced and were otherwise reliable. Instead, it's three squares a day, the best legal defense the ACLU can provide, and maybe the chance for parole before the kids he was trying to kill on that plane even make it out of college.

Yeah, that criminal justice system and due process is really a bitch. Things would be so much easier if we didn't have to abide by the rule of law in this country. I suppose there is no point in mentioning here that this guy and this guy are both serving life sentences without any chance for parole for doing basically the same thing that Abdulmutallab is accused of doing. And this guy, Ahmed Ressam, who tried to blow up LAX, has a reduced sentence because he cooperated with law enforcement officials. No, instead we should rely on a constitutionally dubious approach to law enforcement that has not actually garnered a single conviction against an alleged terrorist. Good thinking Michael Goldfarb!

The Less Said the Better . . .
Posted by Michael Cohen

To follow up on James smart point about not giving al Qaeda the media platform they desire, perhaps our elected officials could hold their tongue about the implication of last week's alleged al Qaeda attack on a Northwest flight until they have all the information . . . Ok, obviously I'm drunk, stoned or mentally incapacitated if I actually think that's going to happen. But you would think with how little we know about one Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab it might be better to withhold judgment.

For example, HHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is facing withering criticism for her department's failure to prevent this attempted attack. There has also been criticism that Abdulmutallab's name was not added to a no-fly list. After all, his father warned the US government of his radical views in November. But the father provided minimal information and there was little reason to believe that Abdulmutallab was a serious threat. I suppose there is a view that US intelligence agencies operate like they do in the movies but the fact is the USG simply lacks the resources to run down every possibly radicalized individual out there. As the Washington Post makes clear:

The lack of attention was not unusual, according to U.S. intelligence officials, who said that thousands of similar bits of information flow into the National Counterterrorism Center each week from around the world. Only those that indicate a specific threat, or add to an existing body of knowledge about an individual, are passed along for further investigation and possible posting on airline and border watch lists.

"It's got to be something that causes the information to sort of rise out of the noise level, because there is just so much out there," one intelligence official said.

I suppose some could argue that Abdulmutallab's name should have been added to the list as soon as his father showed up at the US Embassy in Abuja, but if we started doing that then we would begin to have a very long no-fly list. And as some may remember, the movement over the past few years has been to shrink, not expand the no-fly list.

Now of course, I fully recognize that this latest incident could be a giant screw-up (as I said earlier I don't know all the facts), but not to sound overly fatalistic, the United States is never going to be able to completely shut its doors to the world and prevent every lone bomber from wreaking havoc. It's the nature of terrorism and particularly suicide bombing. The fact that we haven't had a single airplane attack since 2001 suggests that we've been more successful than we think . . . or even that al Qaeda's capabilities are not quite what people would have us believe.  But above all it suggests that terrorism will remain a fact of life in this country for the foreseeable future. We should be vigilant, but realistic about the threat. In fact, it reminds me of some wise words spoken by a US politician five years ago:

''We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. We're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.''

Or dominating the foreign policy of your country . . .

December 26, 2009

What He Wants
Posted by James Lamond

Reactions to yesterday`s attempted attack by Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab seem to be limited.  But there have been a few that stick out:

Rep. Peter King, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee:

This was the real deal... This could have been devastating.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Ranking Member of the Intelligence Commitee:

It's not surprising... People have got to start connecting the dots here, and maybe this is the thing that will connect the dots for the Obama administration.

And Daniel Foster, at the Corner :

So Abdulmutallab could turn out to be a lone actor who invented the connection from whole cloth, but he could also represent a troubling, if abortive, comeback in the form of the first Qaeda-sponsored attack on American soil since September 11, 2001

Is it me or is this exactly the kind of grandiosity that both this individual guy and the actual organization of al Qaeda want? This 23 year old wants to be seen as part of a the al Qaeda brand name, while the organization enjoys the idea that it is vast interconnected movement.  I am not trying to downplay the dangers of terrorism. But, it remains unclear what exactly this guy`s connection to any organization actually is, and impulsive reactions like those above simply play into his hands.  When someone runs out on the field during a baseball game, television stations have a policy of not showing the offenders on screen -depriving them of the attention they are seeking.  Certain congressman and commentators could learn a lesson from these stations.  As Yglesias rightly points out, "it does no favors to anyone to blow this sort of thing out of proportion."

December 25, 2009

Proud to Be an American, Detroit Edition
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

There's going to be a lot of ink spilled about this apparent attempted terrorist attack on an Amsterdam-Detroit flight today.  I myself am going to wait to hear the facts of how the guy on a watchlist got on the flight with powder and liquid explosives -- not, apparently, a scruple that's troubling Peter King and Pete Hoekstra, who are already sure it's President Obama's fault.

But you might want to check out the Detroit Free Press/News' coverage -- on Christmas Day, by a newspaper that's so hard up it only delivers three days a week -- for these gems:

the child of a passenger who said hearing about how other passengers foiled the attacker made him "proud to be an American." Typically for Detroit, he was a Muslim whose dad was returning from visiting family in the Middle East. 

Within hours of the attack, a metro Detroit Muslim leader had taken time out of his day -- a joint Muslim-Jewish Christmas Day service project in needy parts of the city -- to make a statement:

 We want to do everything we can to make sure this doesn't happen," said Victor Begg, of Bloomfield Hills, head of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan. "We want to be on the front lines to help law enforcement."

Begg added that the Muslim community should partner with law enforcement "to stop these maniacs -- who in the name of religion -- pursue these political goals."

Begg said that he and family members have taken Northwest flights from Amsterdam to Detroit.

"We could have been on that flight," Begg said. "These guys kill indiscriminately."

I think this is a great statement.  I wish it neither seemed necessary for him to take time on a national holiday to make it, nor useful for me to take time on a national holiday to blog about it.

December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas, Mahmoud
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Christmas Eve brings Ahmedinejad the present that dictators all over the world are craving:  an op-ed in America's newspaper of record asserting not just that "military airstrikes could work" but that "Iran might need to be bombed more than once to persuade Tehran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons."  Yes, Christmas came early for Iranian hardliners and the Republican Guard, who desperately need evidence that the US intends to use force against their country no matter what to drown out and discredit the voices of democracy campaigners.

Matt Duss has already reminded us that we might not want to take our advice on military intervention from someone whose moral and strategic sense, as Matt put it, "has a history of providing intellectual cover for policy choices that result in huge numbers of deaths."  But Rwanda, Schmaranda, you say?  Let's see how his claims stack up against the views of bipartisan military and political leaders.

Kuperman:  "Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran's bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, last year on FOX News: 

I'm fighting two wars, and I don't need a third one... I worry about the instability in that part of the world and, in fact, the possible unintended consequences of a strike like that and, in fact, having an impact throughout the region that would be difficult to both predict exactly what it would be and then the actions that we would have to take to contain it.

Kuperman:  "Yes, Iran could retaliate by aiding America's opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does that anyway. Iran's leaders are discouraged from taking more aggressive action against United States forces - and should continue to be - by the fear of provoking a stronger American counter-escalation."

Former Under Secretary of State and Bush Admin chief Iran negotiator Nicholas Burns, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last May:

 Air strikes would undoubtedly lead Iran to hit back asymmetrically against us in Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider region, especially through its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. This reminds us of Churchill's maxim that, once a war starts, it is impossible to know how it will end.

And finally, what ought to be the coup de grace to any casual observer -- or, ahem, op-ed page editor.  What does the Secretary of Defense for the last two administrations think of this military proposal?  Kuperman insists that only the US can bomb Iran and should do it soon:

We have reached the point where air strikes are the only plausible option with any prospect of preventing Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. Postponing military action merely provides Iran a window to expand, disperse and harden its nuclear facilities against attack. The sooner the United States takes action, the better.

What say you, Secretary Gates?  What have you, in fact, said consistently, regardless of the political affiliation of your boss, the President?  He wrote in Parameters journal last year that, “Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need. In fact, I believe it would be disastrous on a number of levels.”


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