Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The shoe bomber and the undies bomber

Josh Marshall has been working on the interesting contrast between the legal and political handling of Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Marshall vs Thiessen). Both are being treated identically from a legal perspective (in regular criminal proceedings), but Republicans are now demanding enemy combatant status for the latter. Here's some more opinion of the Reid case when the Bushies were still in charge. First, then press secretary Ari Fleischer in February 2003 --

Q Ari, with the threat level now at orange, what does that mean for us ordinary citizens? How are we to be protected or how can we protect ourselves against chemical, biological attacks?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think Secretary Ridge addressed this in his remarks, and General Ashcroft did, as well. I provided you the information about what this means to the government, what the government would be doing. As you've heard, everybody in our society can play a role in being vigilant and that's what has been called for.

Now, I recognize that it can sometimes be a nebulous phrase, but nevertheless, everybody -- Richard Reid is the perfect example of where vigilance stopped an attack that could have been a devastating one.

And the job of the average citizen is to continue to be vigilant, while knowing that the agencies of the government that the taxpayers pay for, at the federal level, the state level and the local level, will be kicking it into higher gear to provide greater protections, based on the new warning.

If the hapless Janet Napolitano had just used the "vigilance" line inside of the infamous words about the system working, she'd be on more solid ground.

More substantively, here's Bush's counterterror czar and now omnipresent terror pundit Fran Townsend in February 2006 explaining the so-called Library Tower/"West Coast" plot --

Khalid Shaykh Muhammad was the individual who led this effort. He initiated the planning for the West Coast plot after September 11th, in October of 2001. KSM, working with Hambali in Asia, recruited the members of the cell. There was a total of four members of the cell. When they -- KSM, himself, trained the leader of the cell in late 2001 or early 2002 in the shoe bomb technique. You all will recall that there was the arrest of the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, in December of 2001, and he was instructing the cell leader on the use of the same technique.

After the cell -- the additional members of the cell, in addition to the leader, were recruited, they all went -- the cell leader and the three other operatives went to Afghanistan where they met with bin Laden and swore biat -- that is an oath of loyalty to him -- before returning to Asia, where they continued to work under Hambali.

The cell leader was arrested in February of 2002, and as we begin -- at that point, the other members of the cell believed that the West Coast plot has been canceled, was not going forward. You'll recall that KSM was then arrested in April of 2003 -- or was it March -- I'm sorry, March of 2003.

So Richard Reid, she says, used a shoe bomb technique that was developed by KSM in late 2001 (it's item 4 in his 31 admitted plots), was almost immediately in US custody, but KSM wasn't tracked down till 2003? What were they doing with Reid in the intervening period?

Townsend was asked about the Reid connection --

Q Is there any connection between Richard Reid and this plot, or did they get the idea from Richard Reid? What came first?

MS. TOWNSEND: It's not clear what came first. It was clearly the same technique that they were intending to use, the shoe bomb. More than that, we don't have the intelligence to tell us whether the cells -- that is, Richard Reid and this cell -- knew each other or had contact with one another. We just don't know that.

Yet earlier she had said that the shoe bomb technique came from KSM. She seems pretty relaxed about a huge potential lead via Reid to KSM having being let go cold. And the breaking up of the West Coast plot via enhanced interrogation techniques and not a Richard Reid connection is critical to Marc Thiessen's defence of the Bush administration, soon to be collected in his forthcoming book.

Was Reid ever asked anything?

It must be the cannon

Although some defenders of the securocrats are claiming that the case of the Detroit plane bomber indicates that the problem is too much information, we now know that in addition to the critical information that the US government had on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and failed to piece together, there was one detail that should have clinched it --

As for off-campus activities, Mr. Rafiq said he liked to meet Mr. Abdulmutallab for Friday evening prayers at the Islamic Society’s campus prayer room, then walk to a nearby chicken-and-chips shop where they would eat and talk about their common enthusiasm for the Arsenal soccer club as well as Islamic Society business.

Who else was an Arsenal fan? Osama bin Laden. Case closed.

Arabia Felix

Frances Fragos Townsend appears frequently on CNN as a terrorism expert and has recently written in the Washington Post of the need for the US to issue an ultimatum to Yemen that sounded like very much like a threat of an invasion. Since the Detroit bomber trail leads to Yemen, the issue of how terrorism in Yemen got energized is going to be much discussed.

The fact that the backbone of al-Qaeda in Yemen comes from Guantanamo detainees released to Saudi Arabia under George Bush -- for whom she worked as counter-terrorism coordinator -- will certainly be relevant and is something that can be brought up when she is discussing terrorism and Yemen now.

But there's another issue. On 26 May 2009, she met with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh, as shown above. For a foreign private citizen to get a meeting with the King is not easy. One hopes that she is not pulling punches or tailoring messages so as not to interfere with any ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Terrorism's black swans

Matthew Yglesias thinks the problem revealed by the Detroit plane bomber is Too Much Information --

Out of the six billion people on the planet only a numerically insignificant fraction are actually dangerous terrorists. Even if you want to restrict your view to one billion Muslims, the math is the same. Consequently, tips, leads and the like are overwhelmingly going to be pointing to innocent people. You end up with a system that’s overwhelmed and paralyzed. If there were hundreds of thousands of al-Qaeda operatives trying to board planes every year, we’d catch lots of them. But we’re essentially looking for needles in haystacks.

OK, but of the 6 billion people on the planet, how many were 23 year old single men who paid for their ticket in cash, had no checked bags, had gotten a call to a US Embassy saying that they were bad news, had recently been denied a visa to the UK, and as a result of the Embassy tip, were already in one of the government's surveillance databases? And that's before we see all the recent passport stamps.

That's a pretty big needle in a pretty small haystack. The securocrats had the right amount of information. They didn't use it.

UPDATE: His visa for Yemen was apparently in the same passport as his US visa. Who looked at his passport when his journey to Detroit began?

FINAL UPDATE: The "too much information" talking point is buried -- by Barack Obama --

We've achieved much since 9/11 in terms of collecting information that relates to terrorists and potential terrorist attacks. But it's becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The dots are global

Among the things highlighted by the Nigerian underpants bomber case is that the bits of information that could have been collated to construct a red flag were in different countries, and he complicated it further through his route to the USA. For example, the fact of his UK visa refusal apparently never entered into the calculation about whether he could get on a plane to Detroit. And we still don't know what Saudi Arabia and Yemen know about his recent travels or who else they told. But is the world ready for the sharing of such administrative information on a large scale? With the alternative being an increasingly absurd system on checks for all passengers which will quitely build support for profiling, it will have to be considered.

UPDATE: And we reinstate our campaign to apply the term securocrats to the people in charge who believe that we are just one more restriction on passenger behaviour away from complete airline security.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thou rod of George's stem

It must be what passes for wit on the right on these days, but the headline on George Bush loyalist William McGurn's anti-healthcare op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which is ostensibly about Barack Obama and the politics of it all, is "O Come O Come, Emanuel" -- and thus an Advent hymn aimed at Obama's Jewish chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. You go to war with the digs that you have, not the ones that you'd want, apparently.

Monday, December 21, 2009

They haven't forgotten their project

John Hannah, who ran Dick Cheney's national security operation --

With a very real prospect in the not-too-distant future of rivaling Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer, Iraq has the potential to one day emerge as the economic and military powerhouse of the Arab Middle East — and, if we play our cards right, a central pillar in America’s strategy to fight and win the long war against violent Islamist extremism. In short, this is a relationship very much worth investing in — even as America’s combat presence declines.

It sounds so simple. What could possibly go wrong? It's not like this is an ambitious venture like expanding healthcare access, after all.

Friday, December 18, 2009

An Army of Dawoods

Inevitably, the Wall Street Journal story about Iraqi insurgents intercepting the video feed from Predator drones has attracted much attention. One quibble. Many have followed the WSJ's line that it was done with "$26 off-the-shelf software" i.e. Skygrabber. It's not that simple. The Predator sends its feed to a satellite which then transmits it to a ground station. So you also need a dish, the satellite positioning, and frequency. It's a bit more complicated than just downloading Skygrabber and watching it all on TV.

But anyway, Max Boot of the Center for Foreign Relations blogs for Commentary about it --

This is part of a historical process that I analyzed in my book, War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today:

"It is a truism that new technology, if it proves effective, tends to disseminate quickly…. The process of technological dissemination and nullification has speeded up since the rise in the mid-nineteenth century of such major arms manufacturers as Krupp, Winchester, and Armstrong, which were happy to sell to just about anyone…. Pervasive today are firms that sell dual-use devices such as computers, night-vision goggles, and GPS trackers which can have both military and civil applications. Thanks to their success, may of America’s key Information Age advantages are rapidly passing into the hands of friends and foes alike."

The U.S. has certainly sprinted to a lead in utilizing Information Age technology for military (as well as civil) purposes. But there is no room for complacency. Every new weapons system or surveillance platform we introduce only heightens our reliance on digital networks that are in turn very vulnerable to disruption. Wars of the future will have an important cyber aspect and it will be a major challenge for the Industrial Age bureaucracy known as the Department of Defense to adjust. The latest news about the hacking of the Predator feeds shows just how urgent is our need to stay ahead of our foes on these virtual battlefields.

Is that what his book actually said? His own description of it 3 years ago is a tad different --

Because creativity is so unpredictable, no country can count on making all, or even most, major scientific and technological breakthroughs.

Moreover, few if any technologies, much less scientific concepts, will remain the property of one country for long. France matched the Prussian needle gun less than four years after the 1866 Battle of Königgrätz; Germany matched the British Dreadnought three years after its unveiling in 1906; the USSR matched the U.S. atomic bomb four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a truism that new technology, if it proves effective, tends to disseminate quickly. Today, key American inventions such as computers, night-vision goggles, and GPS trackers are rapidly passing into the hands of friends and foes alike.

The way to gain a military advantage, therefore, is not necessarily to be the first to produce a new tool or weapon. It is to figure out better than anyone else how to utilize a widely available tool or weapon.

That's much more about the futility of believing that there's some way of "staying ahead" of the bad guys -- a recipe for huge defence spending -- and concentrating on getting the basics of existing systems right. Incidentally, Boot doesn't intend it this way, but his description of the decentralized and unpredictable nature of the innovative process and how governments aren't good at it is an oblique tribute to these insurgents. What they did was a tad clever. Which raises the more general point that just as the world's slickest technology might have its limitations against them, so might the world's most brilliant Powerpoint war strategy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"I've seen worse in Belfast on a Friday night"

Truly classic live TV news as Phelim McAleer (husband of Ann McElhinney) in a polar bear suit in Copenhagen is interviewed by Fox News Neil Cavuto and the hecklers get more hostile.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The talking point bust

It's the claim that keeps popping up in English newspapers and keeps being recycled by US conservatives. Here's the Telegraph's Con Coughlin in today's Wall Street Journal --

Soon after his [Obama's] inauguration, he sent back to the U.K. a bust of Sir Winston Churchill that had been loaned to President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks. The sculpture had enjoyed pride of place in the Oval Office.

Above, George W. Bush accepting the bust on July 16, 2001. Perhaps the spirit of Winston was trying to warn about an imminent attack but was being ignored.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars

One of the mysteries with these politicians-on-the-front visits, as with Gordon Brown in Afghanistan, is why they insist on wearing the armour with a suit.

But the Little Heathrow thing is funny. One assumes that by virtue of having fewer terminals, the transfers are easier than at its namesake.

AP Photo/Matt Cardy, Pool

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pigs Fly

In which we agree completely with a Wall St Journal editorial, the topic being Alistair Darling's bankster bonus tax --

If our politicians are concerned about windfall profits at banks, they'd do better to re-examine the ways in which their own bailouts and calls for re-regulation are cartelizing the banking industry and insulating the biggest banks from competition.

And as in previous instances, Paul Krugman's uncritical endorsement of any financial sector policy coming out of London looks a tad strange.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Another generation's high stakes

This is the opening film from the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen.

It's effective. But is it just a slicker version of the Lyndon Johnson 1964 Daisy Commercial?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

We have our own den of thieves

Writing at National Review's The Corner, David Yerushalmi of the Center for Security Policy outlines the thesis that Sharia-compliant finance is a Trojan horse used by Islamic radicals to institutionalize Islamism in the west --

What makes this institutionalization a bit tricky is that the financial jihadists must convince the Western financiers and their governmental counterparts that Shariah-inspired finance is somehow distinct from Shariah-inspired global jihad against the infidel West. In other words, how do you export a financial model among infidels when that model is built upon a doctrine that manifestly calls for the death and destruction of the infidels and their political and social systems? The answer to this quandary is found in the second group of SCF advocates: the Western facilitators.

The financial jihadists built their strategy upon both sovereign wealth and the cravenness and fecklessness of the Western facilitators who would sell their own well-being and physical security for a place among the Fortune 500. Led by the Saudis but also joined by the other oil-soaked Persian Gulf regimes, the Shariah-inspired jihadists learned quickly that Western financial institutions and their professional lackeys in the legal and accounting fields would do anything for that next billion-dollar transaction.

Greed, self-indulgence, and even treason are of course not new to the international banking and multinational corporate worlds. But what the Shariah advocates have found even more to their liking is the fact that the Western technocrats and government policymakers have been more than willing to ignore Shariah’s call for global jihad and its resonance as the common doctrine articulated by jihadists around the globe.

There are a few practical problems with this thesis, as the factual evidence surrounding it signals. From the minor errors elsewhere in the post ("the Carter-era oil embargo" -- it was Nixon) to more on-point mistakes --

Dubai World, a company wholly owned by the Dubai sovereign, has funded itself through debt to the tune of $60 billion in the form of Shariah-compliant bonds (or “sukuk”).

Much of Dubai World's funding is boring old conventional syndicated loans or bonds. And the real Islamic scholars aren't sure if its sukuk was actually Sharia-compliant.

But most of all there is the absence of any demonstrable objective or outcome of all this Islamo-infiltration of western finance. As the global financial crisis shows, Wall Street and London did a fine job pulling down the roof all on their own, and likewise this massive Persian Gulf conspiracy to popularize Islamist finance helped pull down the roof in, er, the Persian Gulf.

The bottom line: trying to look at financial crisis through the War on Terror lens is just not very helpful. Sometimes a sukuk is just a sukuk.

New Dubai

Headline -- Qatar to Build World's Largest Chandelier