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19 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
05:45 pm

The Decline of American Power, Iraq Edition, Part 356

This morning, The Washington Postdated confirms that yesterday’s attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was the work of a group known as the Soldiers’ Brigade of Yemen, an affiliate of al Qaeda, using techniques that they may have learned while fighting in Iraq:

[T]he first vehicle exploded near a guard post. Cameras then recorded attackers taking positions nearby, until a second vehicle packed with explosives detonated near a sidewalk. . . . The use of two vehicle bombs — one to breach the perimeter of a compound, a second to drive inside and explode — is a tactic used by the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Matt Duss over at Think Progress demonstrates how this blows away yet another justification for the Iraq war — the “we’re fighting them over there so that we don’t have to fight them over here” idea, also known as the flypaper theory:

Those who have been following the Iraq debate might remember “flypaper theory,” which was one of the earliest exponents of the “incoherent post hoc justifications for the Iraq war” genre. The idea was that there was some limited number of terrorists in the Middle East, and the presence of an occupying U.S. army would lure them to Iraq, whereupon they could all be conveniently killed, presumably as soon as they stepped off the bus.

This plan was prevented from working only by the fact that it was staggeringly dumb. The U.S. occupation radicalized scores of young Muslims, many of whom traveled to Iraq, where they learned terror warfare and were galvanized in the global jihad. And now they’ve begun returning home, to share the tactics and technology developed in a laboratory we provided for them by invading Iraq.

Of course, that doesn’t even take into account the role of torture, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and other such obscenities in helping to radicalize Muslims as well.

To put it another way, the Bush Administration have spent  billions upon billions of dollars on the Iraq War, largely based on the bankrupt theory that we are building an island of democracy that will de-radicalize the Middle East.  In reality, we have made things far worse than they would have been had we never invaded, so much so that we have unthinkingly created another generation of terrorists, in the process weakening ourselves to such a degree that we may not be able to fight back the next time the come “over here.”

Imagine how bad things would be if Bush had taken a similar approach to the economy.

Oh.  Wait.

Never mind.

Hat tip:  Obsidian Wings

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17 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
07:45 pm

U.S. Embassy in Yemen Attacked

You may not have heard, but the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen was attacked today, apparently by a group known as Islamic Jihad in Yemen.  Reports differ as to whether they are affiliated with al Qaeda.

At least sixteen people — six Yemeni police officers, six of the attackers, and four civilians died as a result of the attack.  None of the Americans or foreign nationals working at the embassy were harmed, but this does represent the second time that the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa has come under attack.  In March, the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda fired mortars, missing the Embassy and instead hitting a nearby girls’ school.

Here’s what the embassy spokesman said after the attack:

The first explosion happened about 9:15 a.m. Wednesday (0615 GMT/2.15 am ET) and was followed by several secondary blasts, said U.S. Embassy spokesman Ryan Gliha. . . . Gliha was at the embassy at the time of the attack and said he felt the compound shake.

“We were all ordered to assume what we call a duck-and-cover position which is a position where we guard ourselves and bodies from potential debris,” Gliha told CNN.  “From that vantage point, I can’t tell you much after that except we did feel several explosions after the main explosion that shook the ground.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said during his daily briefing today that the attack had the goal of breaching the Embassy’s walls.  Jeff Stein at Spy Talk notes that, given the number of people involved, at least one former intelligence agent thinks that the purpose may have been not to kill those working there but to take hostages, along the lines of what happened in Iran in 1979:

It seems like the team was large enough to do more than just blow something up. Tactically it would have been interesting: Think Tehran-like embassy takeover, in the middle of a presidential election, hostages being executed on live TV.  It would have to be a resolved by an assault, which the Yemenis are not trained to do.

As I’ve said before, I have long believed that Americans fail to understand or appreciate the heroism and courage of our foreign service officers.  The same goes for the foreign nationals who serve so ably in every American post.  As McCormack noted in his briefing today,

People understand, as we’ve seen today, that American personnel serving overseas serve in some dangerous places or places that have the potential to be dangerous. We’ve seen that borne out once again today. But we manage that risk. And we’re not going to take any steps or do anything that we think unduly puts any of our personnel or their family at risk.

Unfortunately, attacks like these will only make our diplomats’ jobs even harder.  After every such incident, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security finds ways to make it harder for terrorists to attack.  That’s a good thing — no one wants to endanger unduly our diplomats — but it also creates a new problem:  it cuts off our diplomats even further from the countries they’re covering.  The reality is that nothing will make our embassies completely safe.

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12 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
07:55 pm

While You Were Watching the View. . .

Don’t feel bad — I was too.  But meanwhile, the Administration continues its sightseeing tour of Pakistan’s NWFP.

The US military conducted another airstrike inside Pakistan’s lawless tribal agencies. The target of the strike was an al Qaeda-linked group called Al Badar, which is run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Unmanned Predator aircraft launched several missiles in the early morning at a target in the village of Tol Khel on the outskirts of Miramshah, the administrative seat of North Waziristan. Twelve members of Al Badar (or Al Badr) were reported killed and 14 were reported wounded in the attack, according to AFP. . . .

Hekmatyar runs the Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, a radical Taliban-linked faction fighting US forces in Afghanistan. He has close links to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, as well as the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency.

The US targeted a Hekmatyar compound in South Waziristan on Aug. 13. Taliban commanders Abdul Rehman and Islam Wazir, three Turkmen, and “several Arab fighters” were reported in the strike. Reports indicated up to 25 terrorists were killed in the attack.

The US has conducted eight airstrikes and raids in North and neighboring South Waziristan since Aug. 31. Five of the strikes have been aimed at compounds in North Waziristan. Four of them were operated by the Haqqani Network. . . .

The Haqqanis are closely allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda, and have close links with the Inter-Services Intelligence. The Haqqanis run a parallel government in North Waziristan and conduct military and suicide operations in eastern Afghanistan. Siraj Haqqani, Jalaluddin’s son, has close ties to Osama bin Laden and is one of the most wanted terrorist commanders in Afghanistan.

Holy Bush Doctrine, Batman!

Looks like Bush is taking Obama’s advice.  Too bad it’s seven freaking years after he first should have done it.

Call me a cynic, but I can’t help believe that the Bush Administration (and the McCain campaign, for that matter) and trying as hard as they can to find and kill Osama before the election.

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16 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:45 am

A Terrorism Double-Standard

What if I were to tell you that a man allegedly responsible for masterminding the bombing of a passenger plane that killed 73 people was not going to be prosecuted for the crime?

Would you be outraged?

Would you want the United States to demand that this terrorist be brought to justice?

What if I were to tell you that this individual was in the United States?  And that the United States government was not extraditing him to the country where the attack was planned or even to the country whose airliner was downed?

Welcome to Bushworld.

A U.S. appeals court has ruled that an anti-Castro Cuban exile and former CIA operative accused in Cuba of a 1976 plane bombing that killed 73 people should stand trial for an immigration violation, court records showed on Friday.  The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Thursday said a lower court erred in dismissing an indictment against Luis Posada Carriles days before he was to stand trial in El Paso, Texas, for allegedly lying during 2006 efforts to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

The court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone, who threw the charges out last year on grounds of government misconduct.  Posada Carriles, 80, who lives in Miami, has been sought for trial in Cuba and Venezuela for masterminding the bombing of a Cubana Airlines jet. . . .

In the U.S. Cuban exile community, he has been feted as a freedom fighter for his long fight against Fidel Castro, who took power in Cuba in a 1959 revolution and ruled until February, when his brother Raul Castro became president.

I have been a vocal critic of Cuba’s dictatorship for nearly twenty years.  In the early 1990s, I wrote a book on Cuba’s misuse of psychiatry to persecute dissidents.  In response, Granma, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper, called me a “creative fiction made up by diseased gusano minds.”  I have nothing but contempt for the Castro regime, and for what it has done to the Cuban people.

Yet now I find myself in the odd (and frankly, incredibly distasteful) position of taking the same side of an issue as the Castro brothers.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the bombing of Cubana Flight 455:

Flight 455 was a Cubana de Aviación flight departing from Barbados, via Trinidad, to Cuba. On 6 October 1976 two timebombs variously described as dynamite or C-4 planted on the Douglas DC-8 aircraft exploded, killing all 73 people on board. . . .

Investigators from Cuba, Venezuela and the United States traced the planting of the bombs to two Venezuelan passengers, Freddy Lugo and Hernán Ricardo Lozano. Both men were employed by Posada at his private detective agency based in Venezuela, and they both subsequently admitted to the crime.

A week after the men’s confessions, Luis Posada and Orlando Bosch were arrested on charges of masterminding the attack, and were jailed in Venezuela. . . .Posada was found not guilty by a military court; however, this ruling was overturned and he was held for trial in a civilian court. Posada escaped from prison with Freddie Lugo in 1977, turning themselves in to the less-than-sympathetic Chilean authorities. He was immediately extradited, and was held without conviction for eight years before escaping while awaiting a prosecutor’s appeal of his second acquittal in the bombing. His escape is said to involve a hefty bribe and his dressing as a priest.

So not only is this guy allegedly responsible for the bombing, he’s also an fugitive.  So why aren’t we turning him over to Venezuela?

The reality is that the Bush Administration will do almost anything to prevent Posada Carriles from being turned over to the governments of Venezuela and Cuba.  The Bushies realize any such move would set off a firestorm in Little Havana that will make the Elian Gonzalez case look like a garden party.

So instead, the U.S. government has charged Posada Carriles with immigration violations.  If he’s found guilty (or even if he’s not), he may be extradited to Panama for allegedly plotting to kill Castro during a 2000 summit.  Not to make light of those charges, but they pale in comparison to what he allegedly did to Flight 455.

If that wasn’t bad enough, here’s a kicker, via the National Security Archive:

The National Security Archive today posted additional documents that show that the CIA had concrete advance intelligence, as early as June 1976, on plans by Cuban exile terrorist groups to bomb a Cubana airliner. The Archive also posted another document that shows that the FBI’s attache in Caracas had multiple contacts with one of the Venezuelans who placed the bomb on the plane, and provided him with a visa to the U.S. five days before the bombing, despite suspicions that he was engaged in terrorist activities at the direction of Luis Posada Carriles.


There is no indication in the declassified files that indicates that the CIA alerted Cuban government authorities to the terrorist threat against Cubana planes. Still classified CIA records indicate that the informant might actually have been Posada himself who at that time was in periodic contact with both CIA and FBI agents in Venezuela.

So not only have we failed to turn him over now, we did nothingto warn the Cuban government or try to prevent the bombing back then.  Because our informant was in all likelihood Posada himself.

Ramsey Clark once argued that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom figher.”  What a load of horse dookie.  Terrorism is terrorism, no matter whether it’s commited by our enemies or our friends.  And those responsible should be brought to justice.

If the exiles in Miami had any sense, they’d see how important it is to apply the same standard of justice to this case as they want to use on a regime responsible for numerous deaths, innumerable human rights violations, and widespread misery.  You don’t have to accept the legitimacy of a government to recognize its right to prosecute those responsible for the murder of its citizens.

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15 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
06:45 pm

Come On, 9/11 Wasn’t THAT Big a Deal, Was It?

Another gem from Senator Rip van McWrinkle on the Russia-Georgia conflict:

Oh. My. God.

He really has been asleep for the past twenty years.

I think I might have to revise my Dean Wormer Theory of Politics.

Senator, angry, bitter, and asleep is no way to win an election.

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11 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
06:48 pm

Terrorism, Security, and the Foreign Service

I have long believed that Americans fail to understand or appreciate the heroism and courage of our foreign service officers (FSOs).  Spending three years in the bowels of the State Department only reinforced that conviction.

If you ever enter the State Department via its main (C Street) entrance, you should look for large green marble plaques at each end of the lobby.  Each lists those American diplomats who have lost their lives in the service of their country.  As then-Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead noted in 1988,

In the State Department lobby, just inside the C Street entrance, there are two large plaques, where the names of ambassadors and others who have died while serving their country are inscribed. It is a grim list, but a proud list, too; a list of those who defended peace and freedom to the very end.

Much to my surprise, there is no page on the State Department website that reproduces the list or provides brief biographical information.

That’s a tragedy, because each of these individuals deserve greater recognition. But equally sad, the plaques include only Americans who have died — foreign nationals, such as those killed in the 1998 Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, are not honored (at least not there).  That also is a fundamental — and almost criminal — oversight.

But the purpose of my post today is not merely to recognize the courage and heroism of those who have given their lives in the pursuit of American foreign policy, but also to ask whether Americans recognize the risks that diplomats must take to promote and protect American interests.

Most Americans think of our diplomats — if they think of them at all — as glamorous Cary Grant types, wearing black tie, attending parties, and sipping martinis.  Certainly such representation duties are a part of a foreign service officer’s job, but only on rare occasions.  Most of a typical FSO’s work involves tracking developments on the ground and then reporting back to Washington.

These days, that job is much harder, in large part because of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s fortress mentality — particularly their demand that FSOs work and live inside supposedly impregnable walls, often miles from a city center.

I fear that this emphasis on security at all costs has had a deeply corrosive impact on America’s ability to understand and interact with the world.  But it also makes it harder and harder for the average foreign service officer to do their jobs.

Part of the problem is that our government does not think of diplomats the way it thinks of members of the military:  as people who are willing to take certain risks to protect American interests.  Instead, FSOs are treated like museum pieces that must be kept behind multiple layers of protection.

I do not mean to make light of the very serious threats that our diplomatic outposts face or the risks taken by those, foreign national and American alike, who choose to work in them.  But is the greater security really worth the negative impact on American interests?  And by wrapping our foreign service officers in a false cocoon of security, aren’t we isolating them from the very people with whom they should be meeting?

Reversing this trend is not going to be easy.  Were a President or Secretary of State to instruct Diplomatic Security to stop building isolated citadels, sooner or later, terrorists (or an angry mob, as happened in Pakistan in 1979) would attack an embassy or consulate and kill Americans (and foreign nationals, lest we forget).  That will result in months of finger-pointing, accusations and counter-accusations, and Congressional hearings on why we failed to protect our diplomats.

But chances are that another catastrophic attack will occur regardless of whether we decide to move our diplomats out of the fortresses and back into city centers.  I didn’t check the Googles, but if memory serves me, there have been serious attacks on American diplomatic outposts in Serbia and Turkey in recent months.  Chances are that there are more I don’t remember, and that DS has succeeded in preventing a few as well.

In the end, we need to ask ourselves which is worse:  putting our foreign service officers at greater risk so that they can do their jobs, or turning them into diplo-hermits, so isolated that they cannot really understand or appreciate what is happening on the ground?

The time has come to recognize the courage of our foreign service officers.  I have had the honor to know many FSOs, and without exception have found them to be deeply dedicated to their work and their country.  They are nothing like the right wing stereotype, which paints them as disconnected East Coast elitists who share noting with the average American.  In fact, most are themselves average Americans whose profession just happens to be promoting American foreign policy rather than building cars or writing code.

But the time also has come for Diplomatic Security to stop forcing American diplomats to hide behind blast-proof walls and let them interact once again with the local populace.  Representing the United States means being seen by individuals who haven’t had to go through three layers of security — people whose assumptions about and stereotypes of Americans are only reinforced by such measures.  Yes, that will put FSOs at greater risk, but that is the nature of service to our country, whether it be in the armed forces or the diplomatic corps.

I think that most FSOs would agree with me, but I doubt their political masters (or DS for that matter) will ever have the guts to make the changes necessary.

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7 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
06:55 pm

Ten Years Ago Today. . .

. . .America’s entry into the age of terror began when truck bombs destroyed part of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  It was the first major attack by al Qaeda on the United States, killing at least 212 people and injuring somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 more.  Among the dead were 44 individuals working at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi — 12 Americans and 32 foreign nationals. (Diplopundit has a list of those killed and injured.)

During my years at Freedom House, I was a frequent visitor to both embassies.  A few of the people I worked with either died or were injured that day.  I hope you’ll join me in remembering them and honoring their service.

During my travels to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, I was a frequent guest in the home of Kiki Munshi, who then served as the USIS public affairs officer Dar.  It was that residence, which I remember as a lovely beachfront idyll far away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Dar, that subsequently became the temporary U.S. embassy — not because it was large, but rather because it was remote enough to be secure.

It was also ten years ago today that American foreign policy changed irrevocably — and not just because the Clinton Administration started to focus on al Qaeda.  The embassy bombings had a second and equally important impact:  they marked the day that U.S. Embassies turned into remote fortresses, and that the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) began to dictate how our diplomats interacted with the world.

That is not to say that Embassies weren’t built like bunkers before that day, or that previous attacks had not had an impact.  But after the Dar and Nairobi bombings, DS pushed for new embassy construction to focus on isolation from rather than proximity to the local populace.

That change, which virtually guaranteed the isolation of our diplomats, has had almost as much to do with America’s increasing isolation as the Bush Administration’s bad policy decisions.  Our foreign policy professionals don’t walk around foreign capitals anymore.  The nearly simultaneous destruction of our public diplomacy capacities also hasn’t helped.

One other thing strikes me about this day.  Can you imagine the tenth anniversary of 9/11 passing without notice?  But that is exactly what is happening today.  Is that because Americans have no appreciation of the foreign service, or because the vast majority of casualties were not Americans?  Either way, that too is a tragedy and disgrace.

I’ll have more tomorrow on the how the bombings have changed the foreign service.

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7 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
12:44 pm

Compare and Contrast

I was struck by similarities in the following two descriptions of individuals subjected to information overload.

First, a description from Jane Meyer’s The Dark Side of the Bush Administration trying to cope with a deluge of raw intelligence after 9/11:

[Bush] and Cheney demanded to see all available raw intelligence reports concerning additional possible threats to America on a daily basis. . . . Others who saw the same intelligence reports found the experience mind-altering.  .  .  .Readers suffered “sensory overload” and became “paranoid.” . . .[T]he cumulative effect turned national security concerns into “an obsession.”

Now take a look at this report from Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald about the trial of Salim Hamdin, Osama bin Laden’s driver and, subsequent to this report, convicted war criminal:

In the al Qaeda world of driver Salim Hamdan, exhortations to martyrdom and railing at the infidels [became] mind-numbing.  Or so claimed several FBI agents who testified last week at the trial of Osama bin Laden’s driver, the Yemeni with a fourth-grade education. ”Mr. Hamdan pretty much got tired of hearing the same thing over and over again,” said FBI Agent George Crouch Jr. And so, he “tuned out.”

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting some sort of moral equivalence here.  But the fact that both Bush Administration staffers and al Qaeda camp followers had similar sensory overload experiences is quite striking.  There’s a reason that interrogators, torturers, and cults all use sensory overload — it softens up targets and makes them much more willing to cooperate.

The jury in Hamdan’s case apparently concluded that sensory overload was an inadequate defense (I say apparently because the court’s decision to keep the jurors’ identities secret means we’ll never really know what was behind their deliberations).

Yet the almost exact same conditions existed inside the Bush Administration in the days after 9/11.  And it was the fear and panic of those early days, as Meyer notes, that led Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, and others to conclude that they needed to use any and all means necessary to protect the United States.

Perhaps the time has come to stop thinking of the Bush Administration as evil and start thinking of them as untreated survivors of post-traumatic stress disorder.  PTSD certainly can significantly alter an individual’s behavior, and historians have documented numerous instances where a national trauma has generated what some have called collective psychosis.

That said, I don’t think we can excuse what someone has done just because they were traumatized.  Permit that argument, and almost anything — say, for example, torturing suspects or flying planes into buildings — can be justified.  And that way lies true madness.

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6 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
01:42 pm

Kangaroos in Guantanamo, Pope Benedict on Trial

If you haven’t heard, the kangaroo court military tribunal in Guantanamo has found Salim Ahmed Hamdan guilty of providing material support for terrorism.  Because he was Osama’s driver. From The New York Times:

A panel of six military officers convicted a former driver for Osama bin Laden of a war crime Tuesday, completing the first military commission trial here and the first conducted by the United States since the end of World War II. . . .  The conviction of Mr. Hamdan, a Yemeni who was part of a select group of drivers and bodyguards for Mr. bin Laden until 2001, was a long-sought, if somewhat qualified, victory for the Bush administration, which has been working to begin military commission trials at the isolated naval base here for nearly seven years.

This is just nuts.  According to the theory of justice used in this trial, anybody who ever served under anybody committing war crimes or crimes against humanity is subject to prosecution, even if they never had anything to do with the crimes itself.

To put it another way, if the Bush Administration had run things at the end of the Second World War, Pope Benedict and the first three postwar Chancellors of West Germany all would have been convicted as war criminals.  That is a perversion of the Nuremberg principle, not its extension.

I’ve already blogged about how absurd this is. But I’d like to revisit the question of why the Bushies chose Hamdan as its first case rather than, oh, I don’t know, Kalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind behind 9/11.

I think there are two possible explanations.

First, the Bush Administration had so little confidence in this process, that it felt it had to get a win — any win — under its belt.  This means that they were so afraid of what might happen during the first trial, they felt a practice round was necessary before they got around to the serious prosecutions.

Second, this may be revenge.  After all, it was in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that the Supremes ruled that the Administration’s original military commissions plan was utterly unconstitutional.  So in response, they’re taking their anger out on this poor schlub.  What a despicably Nixonian approach to justice.

There is both irony and tragedy in this verdict.  The irony is that they didn’t entirely succeed.  Hamdan was found guilty of material support for terrorism, but also found innocent of the more serious charge of conspiracy.  So despite the fact that the Administration used every trick in the book to secure Hamdan’s conviction, they were not able to convince a jury of six officers — people whose future careers will in part be determined by their actions in this trial — that Hamdan was part of bin Laden’s inner circle. Of course, that’s not much consolation to Hamdan or his family.

The tragedy, of course is that Hamdan, who by all accounts has a fourth-grade education and was never anything more than one of several drivers and errand boys for bin Laden, will now spend the rest of his life in jail.

I have no sympathy for al Qaeda; I want our government to throw the book thrown at bin Laden, Zawahiri, Mohammed, and the rest of these thugs.  But to suggest that this guy is anything other than a tiny cog in that machine is ridiculous.  Whoever wins the next election should give serious thought to commuting Hamdan’s sentence to time served.

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1 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:08 pm

Parochial Headline of the Week

From Telegraph (UK):

US officials given power to seize British visitors’ laptops

Along with everyone else’s, you solipsistic blinkered twits.

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31 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
04:00 pm

Citizens of the World, Remember

I can’t let go of how the right has latched onto the whole “Citizen of the World” thing.  This time, however,I want to be serious.

Read the rest of this entry »

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28 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
01:00 am

Where are the Media? Where is the Outrage?

Imagine, if you can, that a series of more than 24 bombings took place in two key Western cities, killing at least 40 and injuring close to 150.  Imagine the media frenzy, the days of coverage, the breathless speculation, the hunt for those responsible.

So why is there hardly a mention of the terrible events of the past two days in the world’s largest democracy?  From Reuters:

India’s major cities were put on high alert on Sunday, with fears of more attacks after at least 40 people were killed in two days of bombings that hit a communally-sensitive western city and a southern IT hub  At least 16 small bombs exploded in the Indian city of Ahmedabad on Saturday, killing at least 39 people and wounding 110, a day after another set of [8] blasts in Bangalore killed a woman [and injured 29].

Where are the media?  Where’s the outrage?

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26 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
01:30 pm

Olympics: Security vs. Terror vs. Protest vs. Fun

The Chinese now have an idea of who was behind the bombings in Kuming on Monday:

A group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party released a video threatening the Beijing Olympic Games and claiming responsibility for recent deadly explosions on two Chinese buses, a terrorism monitoring firm said on Friday.

IntelCenter, a U.S.-based terrorism monitoring firm, said the group had released a video entitled “Our Blessed Jihad in Yunnan,” featuring a statement by the group’s leader, Commander Seyfullah, threatening next month’s Olympics.

“Despite the Turkistan Islamic Party’s repeated warnings to China and international community about stopping the 29th Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese have haughtily ignored our warnings,” IntelCenter quoted Seyfullah as saying.

Mark Magnier in The Los Angeles Times summarizes the impact on the Olympics of both the hard reality of the terrorist threat and the Chinese obsession with security:

The Chinese have worked overtime to get all their checklists ticked, buildings built and security secured in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics. But something seems to have happened on the way to the arena: they forgot the fun.  Fearful of political protests or terrorist attacks, Beijing feels increasingly battened down as the Aug. 8 opening ceremony approaches, leading some wags to predict a “fun-free” or “kill-joy” games. Many of the best things about Beijing, the little corners, the characters, the outdoor cafe tables are being nibbled away by omnipresent police and neighborhood snoops in security overdrive.

We can now expect a level of security at the Olympics to rival that at G-8 and NATO summits.  And my gut is telling me that whether it’s a terrorist attack or an overzealous security response to a peaceful protest, the end results aren’t going to be pretty.

UPDATE: China is now saying that the Turkistan Islamic Party is not connected to the bombings.

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24 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
04:00 pm

Cutest. Terrorists. Evah.

So I’ve been taking a closer look at China’s new online guide to help its citizens spot troublemakers dissidents terrorists.  I don’t speak either Mandarin or Cantonese, so I’m not sure what exactly it says.  But take a look at one of the pictures on the site:

Either the BBC’s original post on this is a bad link, or the Chinese have gone completely bananas.

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24 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
02:45 pm

Believe the Government. Even If You’re About to Die.

It turns out that the ChiComs are so worried about terrorism that they have created an online guide for its citizens on how to detect terrorist suspects.  The BBC has translated part of it.

Read the rest of this entry »

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24 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
01:30 pm

Some Unsolicited Advice to China’s “Anti-Terror” Squads

Clearly the ChiComs are concerned about terrorism in the run-up to the Olympics — as well they should be.  Terrorism has been a plague on the Olympics, both in terms of actual attacks and in terms of turning the Olympic celebration into a miniature police state.  But when a police state starts ratcheting up the repression, things can get a little freaky.

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16 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:32 pm

Cyber War or Cylon War?

Increasingly, this election is becoming a referendum on how much our President needs to know about technology to be effective.  I’ve already made fun of John McCain’s utter incomprehension of  the intertubes, and made clear my concern that our next president have at least a basic understanding of how the modern world works.

Today, Barack Obama demonstrated that he gets it, and in the process also showed just how far apart he and McCain are when it comes to technology.  In a speech at Purdue University in Lafayette Indiana, Obama outlined how he would prepare for a future cyber war:

As President, I’ll make cyber security the top priority that it should be in the 21st century. I’ll declare our cyber-infrastructure a strategic asset, and appoint a National Cyber Advisor who will report directly to me. We’ll coordinate efforts across the federal government, implement a truly national cyber-security policy, and tighten standards to secure information - from the networks that power the federal government, to the networks that you use in your personal lives.

To protect our national security, I’ll bring together government, industry, and academia to determine the best ways to guard the infrastructure that supports our power. Fortunately, right here at Purdue we have one of the country’s leading cyber programs. We need to prevent terrorists or spies from hacking into our national security networks. We need to build the capacity to identify, isolate, and respond to any cyber-attack. And we need to develop new standards for the cyber security that protects our most important infrastructure - from electrical grids to sewage systems; from air traffic control to our markets.

I think Obama’s speech does a good job of recognizing the reality of cyber threats, and he deserves credit for that.  I do wish he placed less emphasis two of the politician’s favorite dodges:  appointing a czar to manage a key issue and naming a commission to study it.

But even he’s not painting a complete picture.  It’s not just about what “they” can do to us.  It’s also about what we have done to ourselves.

Let’s start with  four critical factors that Obama overlooked.  Two involve the technology itself and two involve the people chosen to design, manage, and implement the systems we put in place.

A.  Technology

1.  Our current cyber-security infrastructure is built on antiquated legacy systems that desperately need upgrading.  The degree to which this is true varies from agency to agency (which also is a problem).  To put it another way, all over the government, there are lanes on the internet superhighway with car-eating potholes and bridges to the 21st century that are on the verge of collapse.

2.  Six years after 9/11 interoperability and inter-agency (and sometimes intra-agency) communications remain serious problems.  This is not just an issue of systems being able to talk to one another, but also a question of proper systems integration and coordination. And that doesn’t even address the challenge of getting agencies to stop using good systems just to wall themselves off from the rest of the government.

B.  People

3.  Unles we seriously upgrade both recruitment and compensation, the US Government does not have the resources to hire the best and the brightest away from the private sector.  A National Cyber Advisor is a good start, but what is really needed is a Cyber Corps capable of identifying and solving serious technological, technical, and interoperabilty challenges.

4.  We desperately need to rewire our people as well, giving them the mental models they need to utilize rather than just apply technological solutions.  The existing heavily bureaucratic and rules-based (as opposed to values-based) approach prevalent in most government agencies generates outcomes that short-circuit even the best technology.

To make matters worse, these problems don’t operate in isolation from another.  Instead, they often combine to create new challenges while doing nothing to solve the old ones.  Let me cite just one example:  the national terrorist watch list, which the government started as part of its response to 9/11.  Today, according to the ACLU, that list contains more than a million names.  Does anybody in the government seriously think that there are that many terrorists in the world?

So what happened here?  Frankly, I don’t know for sure — I’m neither familiar with the database nor privy to how it has been used.  And let me emphasize once again that I am not an expert on technology, security, or how the government works.  But if I were to speculate, I’m guessing that this is how events played out:

  • To create the database, the U.S. Government issued a request for proposals and subsequently hired a contractor, probably the lowest bidder.  Since the USG did not pay top dollar and relied on an outside source, chances are that the company ultimately responsible for building the database did it in a way that minimized effort and maximized profit.
  • When the system was installed, the people who were to use the database received only minimal training — how to enter suspects, how to look up names, etc.  No one inside or outside the government was shown how to use the database’s dynamic qualities, and no one actually doing the data input was taught to think about what they were doing.
  • Once the system was up and running, multiple agencies simultaneously added names to the database, probably with minimal inter-agency consultation or cooperation.  The end result was that no one paid any attention to what anyone else was doing.  According to an October 2007 report by Glenn Fine, the Justice Department Inspector General, an average of 20,000 new names get added every month.
  • To minimize hassle and maximize ease of use, no safeguards were installed either to protect civil liberties or address the due process implications of say, having two John Smiths in the database but ten thousand John Smiths trying to get on flights.
  • As a result, those using the database to check for terrorists only know that they have a match, with no capacity to ferret out false positives and mistaken identities.
  • Since the system is designed only to penalize those who don’t obey the rules, those using the system have absolutely no incentive to help those inadvertently identified as terrorists.
  • Once someone is in the system, there is little or no recourse for them to get their name removed, condemning them to a permanent negative feedback loop involving unnecessary delays, futile searches, and ritualized humiliation.
  • And since multiple agencies means no responsibility, there’s no accountability. No one is in charge.
  • The end result is a database not only functionally useless, but actually a real hindrance to ferreting out real terrorists.

If Senator Obama really wants us to be prepared for external attacks, he first has to make sure our own hose is in order.  That will require him — and his new Cyber Advisor — to move beyond the very real threat of cyber-terrorism to address the far more prevalent challenges caused by a broken system.

I’ll be interested to see whether John McCain has a response to this.  I’m afraid that when he does, however, he just might confuse the idea of cyber war with Cylon War.  And then we’d end up in a 100-year war against the robots.  You gotta think that won’t end well.

| posted in foreign policy, politics, pop culture, war & rumors of war, world at home | 1 Comment

3 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
04:19 pm

Punk’d, Foreign Policy Edition

Just before I started sixth grade, my parents moved from Saginaw to Ann Arbor, Michigan.  I found myself in a new school — St. Thomas Elementary, for those of you in A2 — trying to make new friends.  I wasn’t very good at it, and to complicate matters further, I faced for the first time kids ready, willing, and able to use my name to abuse me.  I got into a bunch of fights, and usually lost.  I became a target because I was weak.

All that changed one day.  It was recess and the boys were playing football on the school’s concrete playground.  About halfway through the game, I walked over to the opposing team’s huddle, heard the play, and then lined up.  When everybody went out, I went short and waved madly at the quarterback.  He threw to me and I ran it back for a touchdown.  He then tackled me in the end zone (concrete and all), but a few scrapes were a small price to pay.  After that, I might not have been popular, but I didn’t get into any more fights.

I bring up this little blast from my past because the Colombian Army managed yesterday to do something not very different from my sixth-grade fake-out:

Colombia said the rescue mission hinged on soldiers posing as members of a fictitious group apparently sympathetic to the rebels. Supposedly they were going to transport the hostages to a FARC commander’s camp by helicopter.

Once the aircraft was in the air, the soldiers disarmed two [FARC] guerrillas and informed the hostages that they were free.

I’m no fan of the Colombian Army — their record on human rights is, at best, abysmal — but I’ve got to give them credit for this one.

Ashton \

It’s one thing to defeat your enemy by killing a few of its soldiers or one of its leaders.  But it’s an entirely different level of disgrace to be punk’d so thoroughly that you look like the guerrilla version of the Washington Generals.

If anyone deserves to be discredited, it’s FARC.  They give the Colombian army a real run for the money when it comes to the question of who has the worse human rights record.  They’re responsible for numerous deaths and untold suffering.  But they’ve had a really, really, really bad run of it lately.  Let’s hope that this total loss of face represents the beginning of the end for them.

| posted in pop culture, war & rumors of war | 0 Comments

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