Heather Mac Donald takes the US Senate to task for voting to shut down the DARPA Total Information Awareness computer project to detect signs of terrorist activity in electronic data. Mac Donald says the ban is so far-reaching that it will leave the FBI and Department of Homeland Security frozen in time using woefully inadequate computer tools to identify and track terrorists in the United States.
The breadth of the Senate's overreaction is stunning. Until now, the government has been allowed to search its own databases and even--heaven forbid!--try to improve the efficiency of those searches. No more. The Senate bill, sponsored by Oregon's Ron Wyden, freezes government intelligence analysis in its current abysmal state. Under Wyden's ban, only anti-terror investigations conducted wholly overseas or wholly against foreigners may use TIA's ground-breaking technologies to search government intelligence more productively. This means that while the CIA or National Security Agency may adopt cutting-edge software to wade through the intelligence glut more effectively, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security will be stuck with the same grossly inadequate tools that led to 9/11. But remember that terror attacks on American soil are almost by definition rehearsed and executed, if not also planned, domestically. It is domestic law enforcement that will be the front line of defense against the next attack.
The hypocrisy of the Senate's leading Democrats is no less stunning. Many--including Hillary Clinton and presidential hopefuls John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and John Edwards--have lambasted the Bush administration for not doing enough to protect the country against future al Qaeda assaults. Yet when it comes to applying America's greatest military advantage--the information technology expertise that could preempt terrorists' evil plans--the administration's critics would keep the country's defenses in a primitive state.
See also Mac Donald's previous article on the subject "Total Misrepresentation".
Every element of TIA is now legal and already in effect. The government already has access to private databases for investigatory purposes, but searching them is extremely cumbersome for lack of decent software. Likewise, the government can legally search its own computers, but that capacity, too, is constrained by primitive technology. TIA's enemies have not called for ending intelligence access to private or public databases, so their gripe ultimately boils down to the possibility that the government might do what it is already doing more efficiently. The rule appears to be of Luddite origin: The terrorists can expertly exploit our technology against us, but we must fight back with outdated, inadequate tools.
Terrorism is essentially asymmetric warfare conducted within civil society. Terrorists do not wear uniforms. They do not fight in clearly circumscribed battle zones. They hide by living among and acting like civilians. They do so in an attempt to destroy civil society.
Some terrorists will be detected using conventional police work combined with intelligence work that utilizes information that is collected abroad. But it would be naive to suppose that all or even most will be caught that way. Most Al Qaeda terrorists have not been captured. The identity of most of them is not even known in spite of the intense efforts of a large number of national intelligence agencies around the world to identify them. Figuring out which people are terrorists is an extremely hard thing to do.
We can't find terrorists using a simple straightforward approach such as peering over a battlefield at night with infrared goggles to look for soldiers that are not our own. Terrorists look very much and act very much like people who are not terrorists. It is difficult to notice patterns of behavior that differentiate between terrorists and non-terrorists. Many terrorists can be identified only by looking for patterns in data about the activities of a large number of people.
The US Senate is saying in effect that they do not want to make the United States a battleground in the battle against terrorism. The problem with this decision is that it is not theirs to make.
Here's yet another reason to avoid being a middle manager. The top guys are too powerful to be held accountable. In an article entitled "The Logic of Israel's Targeted Killing" Gal Luft explains why the Israelis kill middle managers instead.
To assess the real impact of targeted killing on the infrastructure of terrorist groups, one needs to understand their organizational culture, psychology, and behavior. The operational branches of organizations such as Hamas or the PIJ consist of three layers: political-military command, intermediate level, and what can be referred to as the "ground troops." The political-military command echelon—most of which is in the Gaza Strip—consists of a small group, no more than a dozen activists, responsible for funding, political and spiritual guidance, and direction of the organization's strategy. They maintain regular contact with the headquarters of terrorist groups throughout the Arab world as well as with senior leaders of the PA and chiefs of its security forces.
The intermediate level of command is a group slightly larger in size, a few dozens in each Palestinian city. Its members are involved in planning operations, and recruiting, training, arming, and dispatching terrorists. The different cells are loosely connected, and their members do not usually operate outside their area of jurisdiction. Members of this group, especially those living in Gaza, meet frequently with the senior leadership and receive daily orders and funds to finance their operations. Unlike members of the first group, intermediate-level activists are not so familiar to the public, and their killing does not evoke the same rage as does the targeting of senior leaders. For this reason, Israel has so far preferred to target as few senior leaders as possible and focus on members of the second group.
Its not an exact analogy but it reminds of how top corporate executives can more easily hire the best lawyers and even to sell out their underlings in exchange for immunity. People with high status are more protected in any number of circumstances.
Jeffrey Goldberg has written an excellent piece for The New Yorker on the nature of intelligence gathering and analysis. The focus is on Al Qaeda and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups and on Iraq. One challenge of intelligence is to avoid dismissing a possibility because by one's own view of the world it would not make sense for one's opponents to choose a particular course of action. It is difficult to appreciate just how differently one's enemies look at the world.
America's early assessment of bin Laden was similarly flawed. In the American mind, of course, the bin Laden of April, 1998, was not the bin Laden of September, 2001. But his intentions were no secret. Two months before the Richardson meeting, bin Laden had issued a fatwa, a religious ruling, in which he called on Muslims to kill Americans—civilians and military. Yet, among the group of Americans travelling with Richardson five years ago, the fatwa was a passing source of black humor; the threat seemed too outlandish to be taken seriously.
In the foreword to Roberta Wohlstetter's classic 1962 study, "Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision," the national-security expert Thomas Schelling wrote that America's ability to be surprised by the actions of its enemies is the result of a "poverty of expectations." He went on, "There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously."
Wohlstetter's work revealed that Pearl Harbor was not much of a surprise at all. It showed that the American government's fatal mistake was not a failure to pick up signals—overheard conversations, decoded cables, unusual ship movements—but a failure to separate out signals from noise, to understand which signals were meaningful, and to imagine that the Japanese might do something as irrational as attacking the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific fleet. In other words, the Americans heard the signals but didn't listen to them.
The difficulty in understanding the numerous differences in how others see things is not just a problem for the intelligence community. It is a problem for policy makers, opinion leaders, and the public at large. Many types of threats are discounted because too many people just can't imagine that terrorists would, for instance, smuggle a nuclear bomb into a city and detonate it. Similarly, the idea that a government would sell nuclear weapons on the open market is another possibility that some have a difficult time taking seriously. One's own revulsion at the idea of performing a particular act cause many to discount the idea that someone else has values and beliefs that are sufficiently different to cause them to perform that act.
It is difficult to tell from George Tenet's statements in the article whether the CIA really is improving on its ability to understand the perspectives of our enemies. Can this ability be trained for? Or does it require the recruitment of people with different mindsets?
Goldberg discusses the nature of the relations between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The interrogation of captured Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan has strengthened the argument of a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The nature and extent of the links between Iraq and Al Qaeda will be known in much greater detail within 2 months. The capture of a great many Iraqi intelligence agents as part of the capture of Iraq will provide a treasure trove of valuable intelligence information for the United States and its allies.
Update: Joe Katzman makes some of the same points that Goldberg discusses about the limits of our ability to understand the intentions of others and the importance of all the things about our adversaries that we do not know. Quite a few arguments about why we don't need to worry about Kim Jong-il or Saddam Hussein amount to an argument that they would never launch a particular kind of attack against us or assist terrorist groups which would do so. Such lines of argument rest too much on what the arguers personally consider to be reasonable choices.
Update II: Also be sure to read Joe Katzman's long response to one poster in the comments section of hs post. One excellent point he makes is that we need to make assessments of intentions with a margin of error. We know we will years later discover both capabilities and intentions that are hidden from us now. We do not have a complete picture. Our picture has distortions and misconceptions. It is prudent to assume that there are hostile intentions and capabilities whose existence in some cases we can't prove and in other cases which we do not even suspect.
The nature of the shipping industry provides great opportunities for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to move around people and supplies and even to use ships as large weapons delivery vehicles. Ships carrying weapons of mass destruction could be blown up in harbors of densely populated cities. The ownership of many ships is already hidden behind layers of front companies for tax and regulatory reasons. Many sailors are using counterfeit identifications and counterfeit training certificates. Nations that serve as "flags of convenience" do little to regulate and track ships that are registered with their national authorities. The amount being moved by ships is enormous and it is next to impossible to check all incoming cargoes. Besides, if a ship is going to be used to deliver a bomb that will kill people at the harbor then its crew can arrange to have it blown up before the ship would have a chance to be searched unless the ship was searched at sea.
Al Qaeda is already operating a fleet of at least 15 ships. What is curious about this is that even though the US Navy knows the identity of some of those ships it is allowing them to continue sailing. Why is that? One probable reason is that the US and its allies would have a difficult time legally proving (and in the courts of a variety of countries) that a ship really is effectively owned by Al Qaeda. This article provides an indication of the number of difficulties facing US and allied efforts to reduce terrorist use ships.
In August, the captain of another of Nova's freighters, the recently renamed Sara, radioed to maritime authorities in Italy that 15 Pakistani men whom the ship's owner had forced him to take aboard in Casablanca, Morocco, were menacing his crew. Although the 15 claimed they were crewmen when questioned by U.S. and Italian naval officers, the captain said they knew nothing about seafaring.
U.S. officials say they found tens of thousands of dollars, false documents, maps of Italian cities and evidence tying them to al Qaeda members in Europe, and concluded that they, too, were possibly on a terrorist mission. The 15 were charged in Italy with conspiracy to engage in terrorist acts.
The Janes.com site has an article describing a recent report by the Singaporean Ministry of Home Affairs on the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group.
Of particular note are findings on the JI methods of recruitment and indoctrination. Potential candidates were first identified through religious study groups, where they would be introduced to discussion of Jihad and the world-wide plight of Muslim populations. Students demonstrating a particular interest in Jihadi theology were then engaged specifically over a period of around 18 months, and made to feel a sense of exclusivity by their recruiters.
Certain students were selected as JI members and gradually subjected to well- documented techniques of escalating commitment, the report states. They were first taught that anyone who left the group was an infidel, and that all Muslims who did not subscribe to Jihad were also infidels - a dogmatism designed to convince group members that even the killing of innocent Muslims was justified.
If you want to read the full report from the Singaporean Ministry of Home Affairs it is available as a zip of a PDF file entitled White Paper: The Jemaah Islamiyah Arrests And The Threat Of Terrorism. Unfortunately it is an image made of the actual published hardcopy document and so it is not possible to select text from it to post. Still, here are excerpts I typed in:
The relationship between the Al-Qaeda and the leaders of these indigenous South East Asian groups continued actively after the Soviet-Afghan War. Even while Taleban Afghanistan provided sanctuary for the Al-Qaeda to conduct terrorist training for members of such militant groups from all over the world, the Al-Qaeda leaders were already searching for new training bases elsewhere, including in South East Asia. They also secreted key operatives like Omar Al-Faruq into South East Asia. Several operatives acquired new identities indigenous to these countries. They acted as "sleepers" as well as advisers and resource persons who transferred funds and expert knowledge on terrorist tradecraft, including bomb-making, to the local groups linked to the Al-Qaeda. In addition, there are indications that some of the local leaders were co-opted into the Al-Qaeda organisation even as they continued to hold their positions in their indigenous organisations. Some analysts believe that the JI is the group which enjoys the closest relationship with the Al-Qaeda in the region.
In 1999, the JI regional leadership formed a secret caucus called the Rabitaul Mujahidin (Mujahidin Coalition) to bring together the key leaders of the various militant Islamic groups in the region. Representatives from the MILF, JI, various extremist groups active in Aceh and Sulawesi in Indonesia, as well as the Rohingyas (a predominately Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar), attended the Rabitaul Mujahidin's meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 2000.
Through this brotherhood of Afghanistan/Al-Qaeda "alumni", Al-Qaeda enjoys secure, reliable, and easy access into South East Asia. For instance, the two Al-Qaeda operatives who eventually crashed a plane into the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 stayed with Malaysian JI member Yazid Sufaat when they visited Malaysia in January 2000. Yazid and another Malaysian JI member Faiz Bafana are also believed to have provided assistance to Zacarias Moussaoui (the French national of Moroccan descent, currently indicted in the US for his involvement in the September 2001 attacks) when Zacarias visited Malaysia in September and October 2000.
The Singaporeans see a long-term threat from Al Qaeda's allies even if Al Qaeda is dismantled.
Al-Qaeda's links with the regional brotherhood of militant Islamic groups have given it a strong foothood in South East Asia. The US-led military campaign in Afghanistan may have disrupted its bases there, but Al-Qaeda is still able to launch terrorist attacks by tapping the network of militant groups in the region.As investigations into JI revealed, some Singapore Muslims have already been drawn into this web of terrorism.
Even if the US succeeds in dismantling Al-Qaeda, radical Muslim groups in the region will continue to pursue Al-Qaeda's agenda of global jihad. Some of these groups were started well before Al-Qaeda, and have stubbornly persisted over the years. With their radical agenda and their enhanced skills acquired from Al-Qaeda, these groups, if left unchecked, will pose a grave threat to the security of South East Asia for a long time to come.
Those who think that the movement to create radical Islamic states really only got started with the revolution that toppled the Shah might be surprised by the historical origins of JI:
Historically, JI traces its roots to the Darul Islam (DI or 'House of Islam), an organisation which emerged in the 1940s and which fought together with the Indonesian revolutionary army against Dutch colonial rule. After Indonesia gained independence in 1949, DI continued its armed and violent struggle for the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia.
The Indonesian government tried to suppress the group after independence but never completely succeeded. In 1985, several radical DI elements fled to Malaysia to avoid arrest by the Suharto government. They settled there, and later regrouped and renamed themselves Jemaah Islamiyah. They expanded the group's membership through recruitment in Singapore and Malaysia. After the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, several of these JI leaders returned to Indonesia.
JI members are fairly intelligent and not poor or ignorant. Though I wish the quantified what was meant by the terms used to describe their intelligence:
Independent teams of psychologists have interviewed the 31 detainees. All except two were assessed to have average or above average or above average intelligence. About one-third had intelligence above the population norm, including two with superior level intelligence. These men fully understood that they were not dabbling in childish play. Certain items among their possessions, including topographical maps with detailed markings (showing observation posts and "kill zones"), hunting knivs (for knife-throwing and jungle survival), forged immigration rubber stamps and documents for subterfuge, detection-avoidance and bomb-making, showed that they were deadl serious about their actions. Over a prolonged period, they had systematically conducted reconnaissance of key targets and had repeatedly and consciously accepted instructions from foreigners such as "Sammy".
These men were not ignorant, destitute or disenfranchised outcasts. All 31 had received secular education (although one later pursued and obtained a degree in Islamic studies at a university in Malaysia). Like many of their counterparts in militant Islamic organisations in the region, they held normal, respectable jobs.
Terrorist organisations need members. As is the case with other Islamic terrorist organisations the recruitment into terrorism employs Islamic worship services and classes to steer intellectual development toward Jihad and terrorism. Then the enthusiasts are gradually identified and recruited.
The first stage of JI recruitment involved religious classes organised for a general mass audience. The potential JI recruit was usually recommended quite innocuously to Singapore JI leader and spiritual advisor Ibrahim Maidin's classes by their friends, relatives, and colleagues. The majority of JI members were introduced to JI in this way and many continued studying not only because of the search for religious knowledge but also the sense of Muslim fraternity and companionship. The JI teachers would employ the tactic of inserting into lectures quotations from the Quran and Hadith, discussion on jihad and the plight of suffering Muslims worldwide.
The second stage of JI's recruitment involved identifying those who were captivated enough to find out more about the plight of Muslims in other regions suh as the Malukas, Bosnia, and Mindanao. Ibrahim Maidin identified potential members from those who were curious enough to remain after classes to enquire further. He engaged these students' interest and compassion further and finally invited those he deemed suitable to join JI. This recruitment process would usually take about 18 months. The few who were selected as members were further made to feel a strong sense of exclusivity and self-esteem.
The members were taught that anyone who left the group was an infidel. On the other hand, those who remained enjoyed a sense of exclusivity and commitment in being in the in-group of a clandestine organisation. Secrecy, including the secrecy over a true knowledge of jihad, helped create a sense of sharing and empowerment vis-a-vis outsiders. Esoteric JI language or "JI-speak" was used as part of the indoctrination process. Code names for instance resulted in a strong sense of "in-group" superiority especially since JI members were said to be closer to Allah as they believed in the "truth" (JI doctrine); even Muslims who did not subscribe to militant jihad were seen as infidels. This dogmatism convinced many JI members that in the course of jihad, innocent lives (Muslim or non-Muslim) could be sacrificed.
The members get a feeling of higher status and empowerment. They also get a sure route to heaven (bold emphasis below mine):
The psychologist concluded that many JI members turned to leaders like Ibrahim Maidin as they wanted a "no fuss" path to heaven. They wanted to be convinced that in JI they had found "true Islam" and free themselves from endless searching as they found it stressful to be criticial, evaluative and rational. They believed they could not go wrong, as the JI leaders had quoted from holy texts. The psychological profile of the JI members (e.g. high compliance, low assertiveness, low in the questioning of religious values, and high levels of guilt and loneliness) suggested that the group of JI members was psychologically predisposed to indoctrination and control by the JI leaders and needed a sense of belonging without close attachments. Some where altruistic and wanted to help the ummah. Others wanted to accumulate "points" for a place in heaven.
There's no shortage of people in the world who fit that psychological profile. This isn't a problem if the religion they believe doesn't have pretensions of being destined to rule the whole planet and doesn't see killing of non-believers as a doctrinally correct way to achieve global rule. Unfortunately there are too many Muslim clerics throughout the world who are willing to encourage those who are predisposed to be attracted to that message.
What is Jemaah Islamiyah?
A militant Islamist group active in several Southeast Asian countries that’s seeking to establish a Muslim fundamentalist state in the region. Jemaah Islamiyah (“Islamic Group” in Indonesian) is alleged to have perpetrated attacks and crafted plots against U.S. and Western targets in Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines. In the fall of 2002, an alleged member of the group, Imam Samudra, confessed to organizing the October 2002 bombing that killed nearly 200 people at a Bali nightclub. Governments in Southeast Asia have taken a range of approaches to the group, from aggressive law enforcement to ambivalence. Following the Bali bombing, the United States—which suspects the group of having ties to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network—designated Jemaah Islamiyah a foreign terrorist organization.
Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory believe that terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction are inevitable.
The grim familiarity Livermore scientists have with doomsday scenarios that were once reserved for Hollywood thrillers-and their understanding of statistical probability-gives them an air of fatalism when talking about the likely toll of death and injury in the war on terrorism. It's not a matter of whether terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction will attack the United States, they say. It's a matter of when.
"That's why I think one of the first acts of the Department of Homeland Security," said Livermore's Stoutland, "should be to define a matrix of success that will not judge them as failures in the event of a single successful terrorist attack. Because I think an attack by terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction is inevitable. I don't know how many people will be killed or what kind of attack it might be. But it's inevitable."
Once a WMD terrorist attack happens on American soil the resulting populist rage will force the government to do things which today are considered to be totally beyond the pale. Large scale deportation of Muslim non-citizens would become probable and it it is not impossible to imagine even the deportation of some citizen Muslims. Also, some Muslims regimes which are now safe from US attack would become immediate targets for overthrow. The rage directed toward Saudi Arabia would certainly send that regime into the dustbin of history. The Saudis really ought to crack down much harder in order to save themselves from American rage once a WMD terrorist attack happens. Elite opinion can only ignore the opinions of the populace on a given issue when the populace cares less about that issue than about other issues. In the wake of a WMD attack the elites would lose their ability to control the response.