Bombs in Briefs and Obama

By Dennis Loo

We have, on the one hand, the Nigerian student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, with briefs set to explode on his flight to Detroit.
We have, on the other hand, President Obama briefing the nation recently, revealing the bombshell that, despite an alphabet soup of agencies, staffed by tens of thousands, costing tens of billions of dollars, daily downloading four times more data than contained in the Library of Congress, a suspected terrorism list of close to half a million names, to which they add scores daily, and tight security measures at airports, they still can’t connect the dots and stop someone whose father had urgently warned US authorities in November that he’d told his family that he had joined extremists, and that they should forget about him because they’re not going to see him again.
This was on top of NSA intercepting communications from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula back in August that a Nigerian was going to carry out an attack on the US.
The good news is that the system sort of worked: they were planning to interview Umar after his flight landed.
A funny thing happened, though, on the way to Detroit.
So what’s wrong here?
Let’s begin with Obama’s speech. We can see in it what makes Obama different from Bush, and also what makes him the same. Unlike Bush, Obama accepted responsibility, something that Bush would never do. I can imagine Bush saying to the nation: “No one anticipated that his briefs might be breached.”
Like Bush, however, Obama can’t or won’t deal with the fundamental problems here and squares the error (as Coleen Rowley put it at Consortium News) by creating more bureaucracy. We’re dealing here with a situation in which more is less: more agencies, tasked with doing more, when prior to 9/11 they already had in place the institutional means to co-ordinate, synthesize, and act upon intelligence and threats. As Ray McGovern points out at Consortium News, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, President Truman created the institutional means to avoid surprise attacks again: producing the CENTRAL intelligence agency. The CIA was supposed to do precisely what the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) and DNI (Director of National Intelligence, head of NCTC) Homeland Threat Task Force are now supposed to be doing, along with the CIA still doing this abroad.
Except that somehow they didn’t and aren’t.
Obama’s report on this failure sounds to me like a student coming to my office and saying that he didn’t complete his final paper in my class, but that he had all of the information stored on his computer – in several different folders. He just needed to put the pieces together so that it became a coherent paper.
“F.” You still get an “F.”
What does the Obama administration’s assessment of the failures here say?
We had the information but we didn’t connect the dots. We are going to fix this by charging some people with the responsibility to connect the dots (Note to readers: already previously done a few times over) and we’re going to hold people accountable for doing so.
From the Summary of the White House Review of the December 25, 2009 Attempted Terrorist Attack:
“[A] process is needed to track terrorist threat reporting to ensure that departments and agencies are held accountable for running down all leads associated with high visibility and high priority plotting efforts, in particular against the U.S. Homeland.” (p. 4)
The Summary notes that by deliberate design, several different agencies were tasked with overlapping and redundant responsibilities for gathering, synthesizing, and acting upon intelligence. “Though the consumer base and operational capabilities of CIA and NCTC are somewhat different, the intentional redundancy in the system should have added an additional layer of protection in uncovering the plot…” (p. 3)
(The Summary notes that several agencies did in fact have the information about Abdulmutallab and about the plans of AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But despite this redundancy, none of them put this obvious information together and acted on it.)
Accountability. I hear this a lot where I work. The neoliberal solution to everything: create people who are going to hold other people accountable and assess their work. More layers.
Oh, and they’re going to tighten up the No Fly Lists and more full-body screening devices that Michael Chertoff, former head of DHS, makes money from.
In a related note, I was watching some of the College Football championship game last night at the Rose Bowl: number one ranked Alabama v. number two ranked Texas. In the waning minutes of the game, when Texas had the ball and a chance to pull out an upset win, in the play that decides the game, a ‘Bama defensive player rushes in on the Texas quarterback’s blindside, unmolested, knocks him down and forces a fumble, recovered by ‘Bama near Texas’ goal line. ‘Bama then scores again, putting the game out of reach. Game over.
There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. If you assume just 1% of them are angry enough and militant enough to become suicide attackers against the US, that’s 12 million. Imagine this in terms of a football game. Even if we committed the absurd number of one million, two hundred thousand people devoted to foiling the 12 million potential adversaries, that still leaves close to 11 million unblocked players rushing in to sack the quarterback. And more than that, all the other side needs to do to win, is succeed a few times, or even once.
You don’t play football against a team that outnumbers you by close to 11 million.
The game itself is a disaster. You don’t play this game anymore unless a) you are crazy or b) you want to lose.
You see, there’s another game in play here, but the nature of that game is being kept a secret. In that game, the US government gains ground when it loses in the football game. This Nigerian with the explosive briefs becomes the rationale for tightening up social control and repressive measures against Americans and non-Americans. That includes not only unfettered surveillance but also indefinite detention, torture, and ongoing, absurdly expensive and unjust wars.
The way to end this madness is to stop doing what is inflaming hatred of the US. It means ending the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the drone attacks on Pakistan, the support of Israel against Palestinians, the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, and the obscenity of Gitmo and Bagram.
You can’t fight malaria by trying to kill all of the mosquitoes. You fight malaria by draining the water bodies that mosquitoes are spawning in. That strategy works. You create the conditions that take away the grounds by which Al-Qaeda continues to recruit people for and the oceans of sympathy for those fighting against imperialism.
Some readers might think this is impossible to do. The alternative to doing this “impossible,” however, is to continue doing the very things that exacerbate and feed the monster of terror. Fighting terror with terror. There’s no end to that strategy and it will only get worse and only more and more expensive, not only financially but also in the costs to the people’s welfare and lives.
The resolution of this crisis isn’t to be obtained within the existing frameworks being offered to the people. The stakes are exceedingly high. The scope of these wars and policies mean that no one is able to escape from it. We can either cheer for and side with the Empire, or we can fight for justice. If you side with the Empire, you’re still possibly a target and you’re siding with a team that has much fancier uniforms than the other side, but is outnumbered by tens of millions. And you’re siding with a team that is not trying to win the game you think you’re playing.