Sunday, September 23, 2012

Preventing Terrorism

I happened on found this essay on my favorite (and perhaps only!) Miami blog,( ) and realised how appropriate this essay is on this day when I am flying to Iowa to pick up a scooter (as a result this blog will likely go dormant for a week!). I hate flying, I hate the check points and the general helplessness of the modern cattle car version of commercial flight. I would never fly if I could get away with taking the time to drive (or sail). Apparently I am not alone. here is some food for thought on flying terrorism and surveillance in modern America:

I've been spending a lot of time in airports lately. A lot of time waiting in lines to pass through TSA security checkpoints. Time watching a heavy-handed, cumbersome, Department of Motor Vehicles mentality that is the insistent marker of TSA checkpoints.

It is time to change how Americans are being herded into a national security landscape on the retail level, that seems hopelessly driven by a down-market bureaucracy.

True, there have been no airline hijackings in the US since 9/11/2001. But there would have been no 9/11 if our elected officials had been vigilant.

It was all there: the information, the data, the intel that Al Qaeda was coordinating a major attack on US soil, as a New York Times editorial on the 9/11 anniversary, reminds us.

The other day my wife was singled out for a random security check at LAX. My wife is in her sixth decade. The check involved a TSA screener not only feeling her body, but also putting fingers along inside the waist hem of her blue jeans. Excuse me?

Yesterday's OPED in the New York Times by Kurt Eichenwald reminds me that it was political incompetence that changed America. What worries me most is that there is no road map for dialing back government surveillance and national security initiatives. Every day the TSA illustrates how we have become captives of our own incompetence.

What am I saying? A couple of things. The explosion of domestic surveillance (and presumably human intelligence gathering) by the US national security apparatus has a very high likelihood of identifying terrorist plots within the United States before they are executed.The chance of the TSA stopping a well-coordinated terrorist attack is, in my opinion, nil. The chances of someone slipping through the TSA checkpoints? Fairly high.

The probability of identifying every plot against citizens may never be better than predicting the weather. So why do we behave as though we can, as retail travelers at airports?

The enormous problem that overshadows even those threats to our security that are real and present danger, is that a ponderous, wealthy and cosseted security infrastructure has created its own support system. How do you back it down, now?

Is it even possible to ratchet back, when every vested interest in national security spending and infrastructure has set its alarm bell to ring, at the first hint, scent or indication of a calamity averted or caused?

I don't mean to diminish the horror of 9/11, the lives lost, and tragedy imprinted on families. But part of me looks at the TSA security checkpoints every time I travel and thinks, the bad guys won.

The bad guys not only put us on the defensive, they have apparently done so permanently. Al Qaeda used box cutters to rearrange the playing field so our democratic freedoms now conform with the same instinct that organizes their hatreds. We are all victims, taking off our shoes, belts, and removing all coins from our pockets.

On the one hand, I understand that the TSA security checkpoints are a price we pay for a world made small by technology and freedom of access and movement to anyone with an airline ticket and identification. How would I like being on a passenger flight commandeered by terrorists because we "let down our guard"? Not at all.

Still. Tear down those TSA checkpoints, Congress.

Keeping America safe from terrorism depends, in the end, on a few elected officials paying attention and not falling asleep. 9/11 could have been prevented. Stopping the next 9/11 is consuming billions if not hundreds of billions of tax dollars. TSA security checkpoints are as effective as putting your seat in the upright position on take-off and landing. We can do better, without. Click, read more for the NY Times OPED by Kurt Eichenwald)

The Deafness Before the Storm

IT was perhaps the most famous presidential briefing in history.

On Aug. 6, 2001, President George W. Bush received a classified review of the threats posed by Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, Al Qaeda. That morning’s “presidential daily brief” — the top-secret document prepared by America’s intelligence agencies — featured the now-infamous heading: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” A few weeks later, on 9/11, Al Qaeda accomplished that goal.

On April 10, 2004, the Bush White House declassified that daily brief — and only that daily brief — in response to pressure from the 9/11 Commission, which was investigating the events leading to the attack. Administration officials dismissed the document’s significance, saying that, despite the jaw-dropping headline, it was only an assessment of Al Qaeda’s history, not a warning of the impending attack. While some critics considered that claim absurd, a close reading of the brief showed that the argument had some validity.

That is, unless it was read in conjunction with the daily briefs preceding Aug. 6, the ones the Bush administration would not release. While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it.

The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.

“The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden,” the daily brief of June 29 read, using the government’s transliteration of Bin Laden’s first name. Going on for more than a page, the document recited much of the evidence, including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya.

And the C.I.A. repeated the warnings in the briefs that followed. Operatives connected to Bin Laden, one reported on June 29, expected the planned near-term attacks to have “dramatic consequences,” including major casualties. On July 1, the brief stated that the operation had been delayed, but “will occur soon.” Some of the briefs again reminded Mr. Bush that the attack timing was flexible, and that, despite any perceived delay, the planned assault was on track.

Yet, the White House failed to take significant action. Officials at the Counterterrorism Center of the C.I.A. grew apoplectic. On July 9, at a meeting of the counterterrorism group, one official suggested that the staff put in for a transfer so that somebody else would be responsible when the attack took place, two people who were there told me in interviews. The suggestion was batted down, they said, because there would be no time to train anyone else.

That same day in Chechnya, according to intelligence I reviewed, Ibn Al-Khattab, an extremist who was known for his brutality and his links to Al Qaeda, told his followers that there would soon be very big news. Within 48 hours, an intelligence official told me, that information was conveyed to the White House, providing more data supporting the C.I.A.’s warnings. Still, the alarm bells didn’t sound.

On July 24, Mr. Bush was notified that the attack was still being readied, but that it had been postponed, perhaps by a few months. But the president did not feel the briefings on potential attacks were sufficient, one intelligence official told me, and instead asked for a broader analysis on Al Qaeda, its aspirations and its history. In response, the C.I.A. set to work on the Aug. 6 brief.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush officials attempted to deflect criticism that they had ignored C.I.A. warnings by saying they had not been told when and where the attack would occur. That is true, as far as it goes, but it misses the point. Throughout that summer, there were events that might have exposed the plans, had the government been on high alert. Indeed, even as the Aug. 6 brief was being prepared, Mohamed al-Kahtani, a Saudi believed to have been assigned a role in the 9/11 attacks, was stopped at an airport in Orlando, Fla., by a suspicious customs agent and sent back overseas on Aug. 4. Two weeks later, another co-conspirator, Zacarias Moussaoui, was arrested on immigration charges in Minnesota after arousing suspicions at a flight school. But the dots were not connected, and Washington did not react.

Could the 9/11 attack have been stopped, had the Bush team reacted with urgency to the warnings contained in all of those daily briefs? We can’t ever know. And that may be the most agonizing reality of all.

Kurt Eichenwald, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a former reporter for The New York Times, is the author of “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars.”

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