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20 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
03:34 pm

Huge Bombing at Islamabad Marriot


At least 40 dead — with the number likely to increase significantly.

You can find additional photos here.  It looks like the entire hotel went up in flames.

The New York Times quotes one of the leaders of the democratic opposition that helped push out Musharraf:

A prominent Pakistani lawyer, Athar Minallah, said: “It’s the 9/11 for Pakistan. It’s an attack on Pakistan, an attack on the people of Pakistan.”  Mr. Minallah, a leader of the lawyers’ movement that protested against the rule of President Pervez Musharraf, said the extremists “have crossed the limits. . . . There cannot be any justification for this,” he said. “It is for the people of Pakistan to join hands and sort out this menace. They are enemies of Pakistan.”

Back when I regularly traveled to Pakistan (almost 15 years ago), that’s where I stayed in Islamabad.  If memory serves me, security at the hotel was pretty extensive, so I have to wonder whether this was an inside job.  I also can’t help thinking about the fact that most of the people on the lower floors would have been local staff, not foreigners.

This is the second major terrorist attack in three days (the other was the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen).  There’s a good chance that this was undertaken by an al Qaeda affiliate.  I think it’s important to ask whether the two attacks’ proximity in time was planned or merely a coincidence.

Our thoughts go out to the victims and their families.

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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

| posted in foreign policy, politics, war & rumors of war | 1 Comment

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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17 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:45 am

While You Were Filing for Bankruptcy: Pakistan


Has Bush just gotten us into another war?  According to a number of press reports today, the Pakistani Army has orders to fire on American troops should they cross the border from Afghanistan:

Pakistani troops have been ordered to fire on U.S. forces, if they launch another raid across the Afghan border, an army spokesman tells the Associated Press.

“The orders are clear,” Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas  said in an interview. “In case it happens again in this form, that there is a very significant detection, which is very definite, no ambiguity, across the border, on ground or in the air: open fire.”

And they’re our ally.  Led by the guy we wanted to succeed Pervez Musharraf.

It looks like Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has suddenly decided to vacation in Islamabad.

Meanwhile, Jeff Stein over at SpyTalk suggests some troubling parallels to an earlier American conflict:

Pakistan is beginning to remind me of Cambodia.

Just as Pakistan gives shelter to the Taliban attacking us in Afghanistan, not to mention Osama Bin Laden, Cambodia in the 1960s provided a haven for the North Vietnamese Army, which was killing us across the border.

Just as in Pakistan, we “secretly” bombed Cambodia to get the North Vietnamese, killing innocent peasants.  When Cambodia’s prime minister resisted American pressure to oust the North Vietnamese, he was overthrown by U.S.-backed generals.

When we next sent combat units into Cambodia, there was a quantum leap of death, havoc — and radicalization — in the countryside, just as in Pakistan today.  Cambodia’s communists now found the peasants to eager to sign up, just as Muslim extremist leaders are finding today in Pakistan. . . .

Is something like that in Pakistan’s future? Nobody can be sure.  We do know that the escalation of U.S. (and some Pakistani) military operations there, much ballyhooed here for killing a few al Qaeda captains, is turning more and more Pakistanis against us.  And that’s a quandary for which there are no immediate answers, much less easy ones.

But we do know there’s one big difference between Cambodia and Pakistan.

Pakistan has nuclear weapons.

The analogy isn’t perfect.  We fomented the coup that brought Lon Nol to Cambodia, but in Pakistan, our guy got overthrown.  And there’s a big difference between a massive bombing campaign and a few cross-border incursions.  But it does make you think.

Undip reader Midwest McGarry, who raised similar concerns, also asks why American incursions don’t trigger the War Powers Act.  One reason is that both the U.S. and Pakistan officials are pretending none of this happened:

. . .the Pakistani and United States military publicly denied any such incident on Monday, and a Pakistani intelligence official said that an American helicopter had mistakenly crossed the border briefly, leading Pakistani ground forces to fire into the air. . . . On Tuesday, American officials repeated their denials that such an incident occurred.

If there were no incursions, there is no need to inform Congress as required by the War Powers Act.

But there’s another, more important reason.  Back in 2001, shortly after September 11, Congress passed a S.J. 23, Authorization for Use of Military Force:

[T]he President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons. . . .

SPECIFIC STATUTORY AUTHORIZATION- Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.

So you see, Midwest, the President already has the authorization he needs.

Am I the only one not comforted by that?

Maybe the October Surprise came a bit early this year.  So far, no new statements by either campaign.

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13 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
10:17 pm

Tragic News


Just two days ago, I linked to and reprinted a phenomenal essay on September 11 written for The Atlantic about a year ago by David Foster Wallace, the noted novelist and essayist.   Today comes the very sad news that he died.

David Foster Wallace, the novelist, essayist and humorist best known for his 1996 [novel] Infinite Jest, was found dead last night at his home in Claremont, according to the Claremont Police Department. He was 46.  Jackie Morales, a records clerk at the Claremont Police Department, said Wallace’s wife called police at 9:30 p.m. Friday saying she had returned home to find her husband had hanged himself.

If you have not done so, make sure you read Infinite Jest. It is not the easiest novel to read — a huge chunk of it, including key plot developments, is written in footnotes to the main text, and I hated the ending — but there are few better — and funnier — critiques of contemporary American culture and the coming decline of American power.

A great loss, not just for letters, but also for everyone who is willing to think critically about those things that our leaders want us to ignore.

If you missed it the other day, you can find the essay after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

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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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12 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
06:45 pm

John McCain Must Be at the Beach. . .


. . .because I sure do hear the sound of flip flops.  More from the View:

The man is either delusional, high, suffering from memory loss, or a flat-out liar.  Think Progress has a list of forty-two issues where he has changed course.  Here are three off the list, all concerning the Bush Administration’s pursuit of the War on Terror at home and abroad:

Detention of Detainees

McCain Flips:

In 2003, McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham wrote a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld urging him to resolve the issue of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The letter6/19/05] said that “a serious process must be established in the very near term either to formally treat and process the detainees as war criminals or to return them to their countries for appropriate judicial action.” In 2005, he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press that “I know that some of these guys are terrible, terrible killers and the worst kind of scum of humanity. But, one, they deserve to have some adjudication of their cases.” [Meet the Press,

McCain Flops:

In 2008 the Supreme Court ruled that detainees at Guantanamo are required to receive habeas corpus rights. McCain called the Court’s ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” “Senator Graham, and Senator Lieberman, and I…made it very clear that these are enemy combatants, these are people who are not citizens. They do not and never have been given the rights that citizens of this country have,” he said. [Newark Star-Ledger, 6/14/08]

Torture

McCain Flips:

In 2005, McCain pushed President Bush to sign a bill that would, among other provisions, prohibit “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” of anyone in U.S. government custody. McCain authored the torture ban himself. “We’ve sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists,” McCain said. McCain was also against waterboarding, saying during presidential primary campaigning “all I can say is that it was used in the Spanish Inquisition, it was used in Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, and there are reports that it is being used against Buddhist monks today…It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture.” [MSNBC, 12/15/05 & New York Times, 10/26/07]

McCain Flops:

In 2008, McCain voted against the Intelligence Authorization Bill, which requires the intelligence community to abide by the same standards as articulated in the Army Field Manual and bans waterboarding. [New York Times, 2/17/08]

Illegal Wiretapping

McCain Flips:

In an interview with the Boston Globe in December 2007, McCain was asked if, as President, he would ever authorize illegal wiretapping. “I think that presidents have the obligation to obey and enforce laws that are passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, no matter what the situation is,” he said. “I don’t think the president has the right to disobey any law.” [Boston Globe, 12/20/07]

McCain Flops

The New York Times reported that a letter from top McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin said that McCain believes that the Constitution gave President Bush the authority to wiretap Americans “without warrants.” The letter says that “neither the Administration nor the telecoms need apologize for actions that most people, except for the ACLU and the trial lawyers, understand were Constitutional and appropriate in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001.” [New York Times, 6/6/08]

Kudos to Think Progress for their work on this.

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11 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
03:03 pm

Seven Years Later: From Tragedy to Denial


Given everything going on around the election — lipstick, pigs, sex, wolves, seals and all sorts of other so very important matters — you might have missed this little gem, from yesterday’s White House press briefing:

Perino’s claim that Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, not Osama bin Laden, was the “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks is so staggeringly and blatantly a lie that it’s hard to know where to start.  For the Administration to cover up its failure to capture bin Laden by arguing the detention of KSM somehow matters more, is akin to suggesting that Radovan Karadzic’s arrest absovled Soblodan Milosevic of any responsibility for what happened in Bosnia.

Whenever any leader makes a decision, there are two levels of responsibility:  strategic and tactical.  The person who identifies the direction that an organization or country or business is going to take determines the strategy.  The person who designs and implements the actions necesssary to implement the strategy  determines the tactics.

In this case, Osama bin Laden chose the strategy — attacking the United States.  Khaled Sheikh Mohammed decided the tactics — how and where to make the attack a reality.  It is just mind-boggling that the Bush Administration doesn’t understand — or is pretending not to understand — the difference.

Just in case it’s the former, permit me to remind Ms. Perino and her boss what Osama bin Laden said in his first interview (with Taysir Alluni, al-Jazeera’s Afghanistan bureau chief)  after the September 11 attacks.  The transcript is from Messages to the World:  The Statements of Osama bin Laden:

As far as concerns [America's] description of these attacks as terrorist acts, that description is wrong.  These young men, for whom God has created a path, have shifted the battle to the heart of the United States, and they have destroyed its most oustanding landmarks, its economic and military landmarks, by the grace of God.  And they have done this because of our words — and we have previously incited and roused them to action. . . . And if inciting for these reasons is terrorism, and if killing those that kill our sons is terrorism, then let history witness that we are terrorists. . . .

Making connections is easy.  If this implies that we have incited these attacks, then yes, we’ve been inciting for years, and we have released decrees and documents concerning this issue, and other incitements which were published and broadcast in the media.  So if they mean, or if you mean, that there is a connection as a result of our incitement, then that is true.  So we incite, and incitement is a duty. . . .

I say that the events that happened on Tuesday September 11 in New York and Washington are truly great events by any measure, and their repercussions are not yet over. . . .These repercussions cannot be calculated by anyone due to their very large — and increasing — scale, multitude and complexity, so watch as the amount reaches no less than $1 trillion by the lowest estimate, due to thise successful and blessed attacks.  We implore God to accept those brothers within the ranks of the martyrs and to admit them to the highest levels of Paradise.

Now I know that Ms. Perino is not a lawyer, neither is President Bush.  I’m not either.  But unlike me, they’re surrounded by some of the top legal minds in the country.  One of them just might want to explain to Bush and Perino the concepts of conspiracy and incitement.  It just might clarify things a little.

Then again, those are the same lawyers who told Bush that torture was okay.  So maybe not.

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11 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
01:03 pm

9/11: Democratic Martyrs and the American Idea


About a year ago, The Atlantic asked a number of prominent thinkers to write, in 300 words or less, what they thought was “The Future of the American Idea.”

This is what novelist David Foster Wallace had to say in response.

Just Asking

Are some things still worth dying for?

Is the American idea one such thing?

Are you up for a thought experiment?

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?

In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price?

Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it?

Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

Links added.

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11 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:03 am

September 11, 2001


On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in New York City to interview some job candidates at my then-employer, Amnesty International USA.  As I walked from my hotel to the AIUSA office, I came upon  dozens of New Yorkers standing on the sidewalk outside a McDonald’s on the corner of 28th Street and 6th Avenue, staring at something going on downtown.

When I looked up, I saw that the North Tower of the World Trade Center was on fire.  Nobody around me knew what had happened.  I pulled out my cell phone and called a friend to tell her to turn on CNN.  As we were chatting, I started yelling into the phone — “Oh shit oh shit oh God oh no no no. . . .”  As I and all those around me watched in horror, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower.

Before the day was out, I saw first the South Tower and then the North Tower collapse.  I watched as a convoy of dozens of ambulances raced down 8th Avenue.  I stood in the door of a neighborhood delicatessen as hundreds of soot-covered residents trudged past.  I consoled friends and colleagues who lost loved ones in the collapse. I saw a city I loved turn into a silent ghostly shell of itself.

I also had spent much of the day desperately trying to reach friends in Washington to make sure they were okay.  When the attacks had just taken place, there were dozens of what later turned out to be false alarms.  CNN reported was that a car bomb had destroyed the northwestern corner of the State Department — which was where my office had been and where many of my friends still worked.

That night, as a result of a tip from a friend still in government, I managed to get on one of the few trains leaving New York for Washington.  Sitting across from me for the first two stops was a firefighter who had lost over half of the members of his company.  The trip took a lot longer than it normally did — we must have stopped at least a half-dozen times while engineers checked the tracks to make sure nothing was wrong.

That train felt like a refugee convoy – except these refugees wore suits, carried suitcases, and kept trying to use their non-functioning cell phones.  The trip turned into a discordant symphony of repeated “call failed” signals.

I returned home to a city under siege, with military police in armored personnel carriers patrolling the streets around the Union Station.  Although that worried me, my main emotion was relief that I made it home.  But when I got there, I couldn’t go to sleep.  Instead I stayed up almost all night, watching CNN replay the days’ events over and over and over again.

I am not a “survivor” of September 11.  My life was never at risk, and none of those I love died.  I have no right to speak on behalf of those who lost their lives or loved ones on that sad day.

For the next few months, that’s what I kept telling myself:  what happened to me wasn’t that bad.  But then I started to have trouble sleeping.  When I did manage to get to sleep, I dreamed of planes crashing into my apartment building.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but these were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD is “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.”  Those suffering from PTSD often have flashbacks in which they believe the traumatic incident is happening again, as well as other symptoms.

That’s what happened to me.  That’s what the dreams were about: planes I could see coming but couldn’t stop.  I had no trouble getting on a plane or flying, but the sight of planes in the air freaked me out.  Living near the Potomac River, which is the approach path used by commercial airlines flying into Washington National, became a nightmare.  Planes come in low and fast, and often look as if they’re veering towards the city.  Every time I saw one, I would panic.  A couple of times, I had to pull off the road.

There were also other symptoms, ones that weren’t as obvious but which often manifested themselves in unexpected ways. I got angry a lot — irrationally and blindly angry — often for no reason.  I became moody.  I snapped at people –- no, I yelled at people.  Folks didn’t want to be around me.  I withdrew from the world.

The good news is that I got better.  Thanks to a wonderful therapist and caring friends (especially my future wife), I was able to understand what I was going through and start taking the necessary steps to get better.  After some bumps in the road, including one significant relapse triggered by a completely unrelated incident (also not uncommon among those with PTSD), I no longer have the dreams, get angry for no reason, or panic at the sight of planes over the Potomac.

What I wonder is whether my country — our country — also has gotten better.

There’s another moment that day that I still remember.  After I got off my cell phone that morning, when I and all those around me were still not sure what had happened, a woman next to me noticed the Amnesty pin on the lapel of my jacket.  She asked me if I worked for Amnesty and when I said yes, she said “Good luck.  You’re going to need it.  We’re all going to need it.”

I had no idea how right she was.

We have, over the past seven years, suffered from a collective form of PTSD, one from which we have yet to recover fully.  It manifests itself in many ways:  the fear of the other, the blanket hatred of Muslims and Arabs (and, for a brief period of deep insanity, even Sikhs), the irrational anger, the use of torture and other heretofore unspeakable acts.

Is it too soon to suggest that we need to move on?

We must find a way to continue mourning those who lost their lives but stop trying to revenge their deaths.  We must remember that we were wronged but stop using it as an excuse to inflict harm on innocents.  We must recognize that what happened that day, horrible though it was, cannot justify moral relativism or situational ethics.  We must accept that we do not honor the dead by undermining our values or abrogating our freedoms.

I believe that we as a nation can do these things.  I believe that we can get beyond the symptoms of our collective stress disorder and start living our lives again — without fear, without anger, and with acceptance.

But we’re not there yet.

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10 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:15 pm

Department of Things They Should Have Thought of Seven Years Ago


From the BBC today:

US to focus on Pakistani border

Adm Mike Mullen said he had asked for a “a new, more comprehensive military strategy for the region that covers both sides of that border”. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff has called for a new strategy in Afghanistan which will deny militants bases across the border in Pakistan. The US must work closely with Pakistan to “eliminate [the enemy's] safe havens”, he told Congress.

. . .Mullen was giving evidence to the House Armed Services Committee months before the seventh anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taleban and pursue al-Qaeda.  He argued that militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan were waging a common fight.

“In my view, these two nations are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them,” he said.  “We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan… but until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming.”

You think?

Um, pardon the impertinent question, but shouldn’t you have freaking done this seven years ago????

Our earlier incompetence in Iraq is going to look like a walk in the park compared to what we’re now trying to do in Afghanistan.

Heckuva job, Dubya.

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9 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
11:15 am

While You Were Away: Pakistan


Third in an ongoing series on important stories you might have missed as a result of Conventionspalooza.

When we last looked at Pakistan, it already was a huge mess.  President Pevez Musharraf was on the verge of being impeached, the multi-party coalition was squabbling about everything except getting rid of Musharraf, and the Inter-Services Intelligence Service had been implicated in the bombing of India’s embassy in Pakistan.

One month later, things are even worse.  The good news is that Musharraf is no longer President, having resigned before he was impeached.

Now the bad news.  Where to start?

1.  The two largest parties in the ruling coalition, the Pakistan People’s Party (the late Benazir Bhutto’s party, now led by Asif Ali Zadari) and the Muslim League-N (led by Nawaz Sharif, who was Prime Minister when Musharraf staged his coup back in 1999), continue to fight one another.  The most recent conflict was over the reinstatement of Supreme Court justices fired by Musharraf back in November of last year.  Those firings were the first in a series of events, including the assassination of Bhutto and the resignation of Musharaf, that have largely restored democracy in Pakistan but have done little to actually give the new rulers the authority or ability to rule.

On the day after Musharraf resigned, the conflict over whether to reappoint all of the fired justices came to a head.  ML-N leader Nawaz Sharif told the PPP that if it did not agree to reinstate former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry within 72 hours, the ML-N would leave the government.  PPP leader Zadari refused, in part because he believes that Chaudhry would reopen the numerous investigations into his alleged personal corruption.  In the end, the ML-N quit the coalition and on September 5, the PPP reinstated three of the four justices.  The one exception was Chaudhry, who the PPP argued had become too political a figure because of his vocal opposition to Musharraf’s rule.

The end result?  One of Pakistan’s most important advocates for democracy and transparency has been sidelined because of his willingness to support investigations into past corrupt practices by. . .

2.  . . .the new President of Pakistan.  On September 6, Zadari was elected President by the National Assembly, Senate, and four provincial assemblies, as required under the Constitution.  Zadari won, in part, by pledging to support the elimination of a constitutional amendment giving the President the power to dismiss parliament.  In response to his election, the ML-N called on him to step down as head of the PPP.

Zadari is regarded as friendly toward the United States, in large part because he appears willing to pursue those elements of Al Qaeda and the Taliban currently in control of sections of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province.

His election was not without controversy:  he is known as “Mr. Ten Percent” because he allegedly demanded 10 percent of all foreign contracts signed while his wife was Prime Minister (these are the allegations that led Zadari and the PPP to oppose the reinstatement of Chaudhry as Chief Justice).

In addition, there was this report:

Asif Ali Zardari, the leading contender for the presidency of nuclear-armed Pakistan, was suffering from severe psychiatric problems as recently as last year, according to court documents filed by his doctors.  The widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was diagnosed with a range of serious illnesses including dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in a series of medical reports spanning more than two years.

In court documents seen by the Financial Times, Philip Saltiel, a New York City-based psychiatrist, said in a March 2007 diagnosis that Mr Zardari’s imprisonment had left him suffering from “emotional instability” and memory and concentration problems. “I do not foresee any improvement in these issues for at least a year,” Mr Saltiel wrote.  Stephen Reich, a New York state-based psychologist, said Mr Zardari was unable to remember the birthdays of his wife and children, was persistently apprehensive and had thought about suicide.

Mr Zardari used the medical diagnoses to argue successfully for the postponement of a now-defunct English High Court case in which Pakistan’s government was suing him over alleged corruption, court records show.  The case – brought to seize some of his UK assets – was dropped in March, at about the same time that corruption charges in Pakistan were dismissed. However, the court papers raise questions about Mr Zardari’s ability to help guide one of the world’s most strategically important countries following the resignation last week of Mr Musharraf, under whose rule the corruption cases against the PPP leader and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, were pursued.

In other words, Zadari, who may be corrupt, mentally unstable or both, is now the leader of a state with nuclear weapons.  Of course, it could have been worse — there was an attempt to get A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and leader of a smuggling ring responsible for selling nuclear technology to North Korea and Libya, to run.

3.  It is not yet clear whether the ISI and the Pakistani military will actually take orders from President Zadari.  The chances of a military coup are lower than they were a month ago, but it would be inaccurate to suggest that they have receded completely.  Meanwhile, the ISI has not yet been held accountable for their role in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

4.  The war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda is not going well — despite the fact that the government of Pakistan officially “outlawed” the Taliban two weeks ago.  The two groups control large swathes of the NWFP, and have the support of locals.

Last week, American special forces mounted a raid into Pakistani territory in order to take out a “moderately important terrorist target.”  They followed that up Monday with a unmanned drone attack on a compound believed to belong to Jalaluddin Haqqani, a senior Taliban commander.

The first response from the Pakistani government came not form elected officials but rather the army:

A Pakistan army spokesman warned that the apparent escalation from recent foreign missile strikes on militant targets along the Afghan border would further anger Pakistanis and undercut cooperation in the war against terrorist groups.

On Saturday, Pakistan closed the Torkham Border Crossing in the Khyber Pass in response to the incursion.  Torkham is the main supply route for NATO forces operating in Afghanistan; roughly 70 percent of NATO materiel comes in via that route.  On Monday,  the Pakistani army spokesman issued the following statement:

Border violations by US-led forces in Afghanistan, which have killed scores of Pakistani civilians, would no longer be tolerated, and we have informed them that we reserve the right to self defense and that we will retaliate if the US continues cross-border attacks.

As Sean-Paul Kelley over at The Agonist noted, is anyone in Washington paying the least bit of attention to all this?

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about. Hey, I got a great idea, let’s accidentally start a war with Pakistan, a very unstable country, with no real leader and nukes. Great idea!

Also last week, thirty-five people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Peshawar, and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was the target of an assassination attempt in Islamabad.

In sum, the departure of Musharaf has done nothing to slow Pakistan’s descent into chaos.  And once again, the United States remains unwilling or unable to develop anything resembling a coherent policy.

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8 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
05:05 pm

The Hamdan Jury (Almost) Listens to Me


This can’t be good news for the Bush Administration:

Osama bin Laden’s ex-driver, Salim hamdan, has been sentenced to five-and-a-half years imprisonment for supporting terrorism at the first US military trial in Guantanamo Bay.  Hamdan’s acquittal of conspiracy to murder means that on time served he could be eligible for release in just six months, despite prosecutors’ pleas to give him no less than 30 years imprisonment.

I have argued that the next President should commute Hamdan’s sentence to time served.  To their credit, that is for all intents and purposes what the jury did.  Given the fact that they also refused to convict him on the conspiracy charge, this decision represents a pretty serious blow against the Bush Administration’s subvert justice.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Bushies don’t have arrows left in their dark quivver.  Before the trial started, Administration officials intimated that even if he were found not guilty, Hamdan would not be released.  If that proves to be the case, then the entire tribunal process truly is a farce.

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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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7 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:50 am

Beyond November: J. Brian Atwood


The Connect U.S. Fund has launched a new two-year initiative to help shape debate during the upcoming Presidential transition.  As part of this effort, they’ve asked leading thinkers and advocates to talk about what should be the top two or three foreign policy priorities for the next President.  They’ve also kindly allowed us to cross-post the responses here.

Yesterday we heard from Connect U.S. Fund executive director Eric Schwartz.  Today, it’s Brian Atwood’s turn.

Transitions are a time of great expectations in Washington. I had the great honor of leading the State Department transition team prior to the Clinton-Gore administration. I worked with an excellent team that included Connect U.S. Fund executive director Eric Schwartz.

The ‘92 transition was a move from a reasonably pragmatic administration of the center-right to a pragmatic administration of the center-left. This year’s transition will see the country moving away from an administration that broke a mold that had roughly accommodated the previous foreign policy spectrum, the “realists” and the “progressive internationalists.”  While there has been some effort in the second Bush term to move away from radical, neo-conservative policies, the residuum continues to influence the attitudes and behavior of much of the world towards the United States.

The first test of a new administration must be to demonstrate by action that our nation can listen and cooperate. Rhetoric to this effect will be well received, but active diplomacy on several fronts will be essential. These include: the Israeli-Palestinian issue; climate change; nuclear proliferation with an emphasis on Iran and North Korea, ratifying the NPT and negotiating with Russia to reduce and eliminate stockpiles; completing the DOHA round; engaging NATO and neighboring countries on our withdrawal from Iraq and our efforts to bolster the Afghan government; working with Pakistan on our common effort to contain Al Qaeda.; creating mature political and economic relations with India and China; and reestablishing American leadership in the effort to mitigate the poverty challenge in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

These objectives are on the top of most people’s list. I would add two more general goals that are often difficult for administrations pre-occupied with crises: (1) we need to spend some political capital on reforming the United Nations; and (2) we need to create a “culture of prevention” within the U.S. government.

The United Nations has been a whipping boy of the right because of its institutional weakness and because, periodically, the Security Council doesn’t support the U.S. position. Often even pro-UN Democratic administrations prefer to avoid the need to reform while regretting the lack of capacity to intervene for peace. The UN can be a useful tool as we pursue a new climate change treaty, the control of nuclear weapons, international cooperation against the terrorist threat and peaceful post-conflict transitions. It is past time that we invest the resources and influence in helping the Secretary General create a stronger organization.

I served on the Brahimi UN Peace Operations Panel. I was impressed by the potential of the UN and quite depressed that our own country, in lieu of supporting the needed reforms, expended its political capital by seeking to reduce our UN contributions. We helped pass many Security Council Resolutions that could not be implemented fully because of a lack of resources. U.S. leadership is capable of changing this vital organization for the better. Now is the time to exercise it.

Creating a culture of prevention within the U.S. government means an intelligence community that can anticipate future crises by better understanding the fault lines of impending disaster. It means having a diplomatic presence in more places. It means creating a new Department for International Development Cooperation capable of coordinating development assistance within the USG and possessing a strong voice on trade and finance decisions that effect development. It means working with the U.N. voluntary agencies, the international financial institutions and regional banks, and the bilateral donor community to help nations develop and avoid crises. It means using our understanding of development conditions, inter-ethnic or religious tensions, international criminal activity and the impact of all of the above on weak governance systems. If we mobilize U.S. government and international partners, we can prevent many of the crises that cause such pain and exhaust our resources today.

The next administration has much to overcome if it is to recover the reputation of a nation that once stood on a “shining hill.” Our foreign policy in the past seven years has been influenced more by fear than by the grandest aspirations of our past. We need to restore our image by stopping torture, closing Guantanamo and standing tall for the principles of human rights and democracy. Those who argue that we cannot be both tough in the battle with terrorists and be true to our most important principles have been proven wrong. It may not have been their intention, but they strengthened our avowed enemies and turned allies into skeptics and opponents. It is time to get back on the right track.

J. Brian Atwood is the dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. Atwood served for six years as Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) during the Administration of President William Clinton. Atwood also led the 1992 transition team at the State Department and was Under Secretary of State for Management prior to his appointment as head of USAID. In 2001, Atwood served on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s Panel on Peace Operations. He joined the Foreign Service in 1966 and served in the American Embassies in Cote d’Ivoire and Spain. He served as legislative advisor for foreign and defense policy to Senator Thomas F. Eagleton (D-MO) from 1972 to 1977. During the Carter Administration, Atwood served as Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations. He was Dean of Professional Studies and Academic Affairs at the Foreign Service Institute in 1981-82. Atwood was the first President of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) from 1986 to 1993. Atwood received the Secretary of State’s Distinguished Service Award in 1999.

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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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27 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
10:00 pm

Isn’t That Your Job, WaPo?


So Dahlia Lithwick of Slate had a piece in The Washington Postdated’s Outlook section today called “Light Reading for the Paranoid.” Contrary to expectations, it was not about conspiracy theories but rather the Bush Administration’s counter-terrorism policies, particularly Guantanamo.  I’m not  exactly sure why we should be paranoid about Guantanamo — angry, disgusted, outraged, sure — but paranoid?  Is Lithwick worried about being sent there?

In any case, her list of suggested books, blogs, and newspapers is a pretty comprehensive.  But I did find one paragraph rather odd:

Read the rest of this entry »

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16 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
11:00 pm

Reductio Ad Absur-dumb


Barney Rubin, the outstanding scholar on Afghanistan who is also part of the talented blog collective over at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, has a great post tonight addressing the huge problem we have in this country with bureaucrats mindlessly following rules.

The story, as he relates it, is that he’s heading to a major conference in DC to try to find solutions to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan:

I am… in LaGuardia going to a conference to see whether there is a way to keep Afghanistan from going where it looks like it’s going. And what happened?

THEY CONFISCATED MY TOOTHPASTE!

Yes, I had a tube of toothpaste (Sensodyne) in a regulation one-quart clear plastic bag which I dutifully took out of my bag and placed in the grey plastic bin along with my jacket (required at the conference) and my loafers (special flying shoes). My computer was in another bin. When I got to the other side the TSA employee was eyeing my toothpaste suspiciously. He turned it over and peered through the sealed clear plastic bag.

“You can’t take this on. This is 4 ounces, and the limit is 3.5 ounces.”

I didn’t say anything. Probably they will have toothpaste at the conference center. But it’s good to know that at least one part of the War on Terror is being implemented flawlessly.

I’m a progressive/liberal Democrat, and I believe in the potential of government to make our lives better.  But right now, as a result of a series of genuine tragedies, we have a bureaucracy that is increasingly becoming a farce.  TSA has turned into the evil stepchild of the Indian civil service and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

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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.

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