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April 25, 2012

This Week In Threat Mongering
Posted by Michael Cohen

Classic-scream1Two of my favorite things to write about these days are threat-mongering and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's unceasing string of misstatements, gaffes and untruths. Today, like peanut butter and chocolate, Ashford and Simpson and Batman and Robin these two forces have come together into a delicious "Panetta-threat mongering" sandwich.

Here's what Panetta had to say early this week about Iran's sponsorship of terrorism:

"We always have a concern about in particular the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and [their] efforts . . .  to expand their influence not only throughout the Middle East but into [South America] as well," Panetta told reporters Monday. "That, in my book, that relates to expanding terrorism. And that's one of the areas that I think all of us are concerned about," he added. 

Hezbollah in Latin America? Honestly? Has Rick Santorum done a John Woo Face Off with Leon Panetta? (Actually that would explain a lot). This notion of Iranian influence in South America has been thoroughly debunked, even by America's own State Department:

The threat of a transnational terrorist attack remained low for most countries in the Western Hemisphere. There were no known operational cells of either al-Qa’ida- or Hizballah-related groups in the hemisphere, although ideological sympathizers in South America and the Caribbean continued to provide financial and moral support to these and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia. 

The State Department makes no mention of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard operating in the region. (Here's Politifact also taking a 2 x 4 to this silliness). Honestly, for Panetta to be skinny-dipping in the feverish swamps of right-wing hysteria over supposed Iranian inroads to Latin America is enough to make me wish that Obama returned to the long Democratic tradition of appointing Republicans to be Secretary of Defense. 

Next comes the continued effort, waged by various terrorism experts (and national policymakers) to convince Americans that al Qaeda is a serious threat to the United States. Here is Seth Jones making the case in Foreign Policy. Here's Mary Habeck in the same publication arguing that al Qaeda "is in far better condition on a global scale than at any time in its history."

It's a claim that Will McCants destroys here:

I don’t agree that al-Qaeda has “made real progress” toward “the greater ends of overthrowing Muslim rulers, imposing their version of sharia, and controlling territory.” Al-Qaeda Central and its affiliates have overthrown no Muslim rulers. In fact, the Islamists (even the Salafis) in Arab Spring countries are opting for parliamentary democracy, which al-Qaeda hates. It is true that AQAP has tenuous control of a few towns in Yemen but it is at the pleasure of the local tribes. The Shabab certainly controls territory and is imposing its version of sharia but it is unclear how much of the organization is under al-Qaeda’s wing. Moreover, its hold on Somalia is slipping.

This isn't even to mention the fact that al Qaeda central, in so far as it actually still exists, decidedly lacks the capabilities to pull off anything resembling a major attack against the United States. Also unmentioned is that over the past ten years an American is probably more likely to die from falling out of bed, getting crushed by a television or hit by lightning than they are being killed by an al Qaeda terrorist attack. It begs the question: at what point does AQ's consistent lack of success in killing Americans and waging successful terrorist attacks begin to factor into threat assessments of the organization?

Suffice to say I find both Jones and Habeck's argument hard to accept - they appear to both be puffing up worst case scenarios and long-shot potentialities to argue that al Qaeda remains a serious threat. 

But the larger issue is that they arguing against a strawman. Who exactly in the federal government is suggesting that the potential threat of terrorist attack from al Qaeda should be ignored? Granted, US policymakers have said AQ is in decline, but at the same time drones continue to kill suspected al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. The US just signed a long-term partnership agreement with the Afghan government to remain in Afghanistan for many years to come - nominally, one might imagine, to prevent the unlikely scenario of a Taliban takeover and a return of al Qaeda. The organization will continue to remain at best a marginal threat to the US (and certainly not a strategically relevant one) and the United States will continue to work to ensure that things remain that way. 

No one is suggesting that we should simply close up shop in trying to stop AQ's bloody ambitions - but rather that the threat should be assessed in a proper context. Habeck and Jones aren't helping in that regard.

Finally, to finish up our week in threat mongering there is this interview in the Daily Beast with Shawn Henry, the top cybercop at the FBI who believes, wait for it, that cyber crime and cyber threats are "grossly underappreciated." From a bureaucratic standpoint this isn't terribly surprising. One would hardly expect the country's top "cybercop" (even a retiring one) to suggest 'you know what this whole cyber crime thing is pretty meh.' Even less unlikely is that said top "cybercop" would say such a thing as he prepares to join a start-up that, wait for it, specializes in cyber security.

This isn't to say that cyber crime does not represent a challenge - although the assertions by some of cyberwar or a cyber Pearl Harbor are bizarrely overstated. But the larger point here is that someone like Henry has good reason (both personal and professional) to want to protect the cyber "rice bowl" and hype up the potential threats of cybercrime, cyber war etc.

One way to decrease the effectiveness of this sort of threat-mongering is to consider the messenger and take such assertions with a rather sizable grain of salt. 

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