Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Politics, Plots and Paranoia

Two years ago blogger Julius created a chart and a timeline illustrating an apparent close relationship with Bush’s political fortunes and the announcement of terror alerts.

Now, over at Crooks & Liars is a WMV from MSNBC’S Countdown titled The Nexus of Politics and Terror in which Keith Olberman presents a similar examination with some cautious commentary.

Though Julius suspects Olberman’s team lifted his work and if so would like some recognition for it, he’s still glad that Olberman addressed the issue on TV. Julius’s work is IMHO more effective in its presentation than Olberman’s: this is a case where words are worth more than pictures and Julius’s information is more “accessible” and practical.

But there’s something they’ve both missed which I think strengthens the argument that most of the alerts were overblown and used for political rather than public benefit, to amplify supposed threats and amplify the Govenrment's activities in thwarting them :
Where the hell are all these terrorist plotters that the authorities have supposedly thwarted? Shouldn’t there have been some arrests and convictions -- even just a notification of in-camera trials?

Using Julius’ heavily researched and well-sourced work as a basis, here's a timeline featuring declared threats and thwarted plots that actually ignores Julius' premise and poses a different set of questions: which if any of the alerts were justified, and what has resulted? Is the US safer and are the DHS'S security efforts delivering any tangible results? :

Feb 12: General alert, no specific target. No arrests.
May 24: Transit system, Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge. No arrests.
June 10: “Dirty Bomb”. Jose Padilla arrested (actually a month before and eventually tried in Criminal Court—but never convicted on the principal “dirty bomb” charge).
September 10-24: General alert. No arrests.

Feb 9: General alert. No arrests.
May 20: General alert (possible Al-Qaida attack). No arrests.
June 20: Plot to cut through Brooklyn Bridge cables with blow torch. Iyman Faris arrested and convicted (he had reservations that he could actually do it)—Julius missed this one.
July 29: General alert (possible Al-Qaida attack). No arrests.
Sept 5: General alert (Al-Qaida “working on plans”). No arrests.
December 21: General alert. No arrests.
March 21: General alert. No arrests.
April 2: General alert (transportation the target, sometime in the summer). No arrests
May 25: General alert (as above). No arrests.
June 15: “Imminent” Ohio mall bomb attack averted. 1 arrest. (Except that the Somali immigrant was arrested November 28 2003 and was in jail since then for suspected terrorist ties and a “plot” that was dated to March 2000.)
July 8/11: No actual alert, but public discussion of the potential for terror alerts through the summer and possibly delaying elections.
August 2: Alert for Washington DC, New Jersey and New York financial institutions. Bush daughters visit one of the “targets” that very day (the Citicorp building). Information describing the plot is actually four years old. Arrests in Pakistan.

Adding-on to Julius’ list:

August 4, 2004: Though Katherine Harris (R-FLAke) claims arrest of a man in Carmel, Indiana planning to blow up power grid, caught with hundreds of pounds of explosives. Despite being refuted by all the authorities of Carmel, Ind. and having absolutely no evidence, she claims the next day that “over 100” plots had been thwarted since 2001 but she wasn’t at liberty to divulge any information on any of them. No arrest.

November 2, 2004: Ken Blackwell (Secretary of State for Ohio, Republican, and in charge of the entire election infrastucture) issues a terror alert exclusively for Warren County during the election, apparently denying would-be terrorists (and coincedentally anyone not associated with the GOP or Diebold) access to or observation of voting machines and the voting process. No arrest.

Anyway more recent terror announcements have been:
June 22: Miami-based plot to blow up Sears Tower. No Al-Qaida ties, no explosives, timing devices, travel plans, no money, but the plotters were jonesing for some new boots and uniforms so essential to the respectable terrorist. 7 arrested.
July 7: NYC Holland Tunnel Bomb Plot. Changed to PATH train bomb plot. Planning conducted in an internet chat room. Several arrests in Lebanon, Europe, Canada. Dissected by yours truly here.

I’ll leave the correlation of terror plots and politics in the capable hands of Julius, and instead ask the question: where are all the other purported plotters?

I appreciate that counterterrorism organizations can’t be expected to sweep up everyone involved in a plot at the same time, that information of plots do not necessariky lead directly to plotters, that time is required to gather evidence and that the wheels of justice turn at their own pace. But for all of the anti-terror activity described above what has been the result and where is the evidence to support the seriousness of the declared risks and the qualifications and presence of the plotters themselves in the courts of justice?

Out of this list of 20 plots/alerts, two were completely invented and six produced arrests (leaving 12 supposedly legitimate plots/threats with no result).

Of those arrested there’s not much cause for celebration given the basic details:

Note: Moussaoui—the “20th hijacker”-- is not part of this timeline and predates the “GWOT”. Though he had strong links with Al-Qaida, his credentials as an effective terrorist are doubtful. Al-Qaida basically disowned him.
Note: Richard “Shoe Bomber” Reid also predates this timeline and the “GWOT” and his capture was thanks to a diligent flight attendant; not Jack Bauer or "Rainbow-Six", let alone the DHS.

Jose Padilla was well known to US intelligence services for decades—indeed he worked with the CIA for several years. He was never convicted of the “dirty-bomb” plot and the entire prosecutorial process he underwent was remarkably inconsistent with both normal criminal proceedings and the extraordinary powers invoked and implemented by Bush regarding “terror” suspects. He was of no relevance to the “GWOT”.
Iyman Faris appears to have had some relevance to the GWOT, but even he had no real expectations of carrying out the scheme with any success. Not much of a threat there, then.
The Somali accused of planning mall bombings was already in jail for “terrorist ties” and had apparently made no attempt to execute his “plot” for three years. Yet the “plot’ was described as “imminent”.
The NY/NJ financial center “plot” was likewise ancient history, the plotters were in Pakistan at the time of the “alert” and going nowhere, and this announcement actually blew the cover of a Pakistani Al–Qaida mole—much to the anger of both Pakistan and the UK.
The “Miami Seven” clearly had neither the brains nor the resources to carry out their supposed scheme—in jail now, the strength of the case against them remains to be seen.
The “Holland Tunnel” plotters appeared to have the money to carry out their scheme, but the fact that it was discussed in an internet chat room suggests an impressive level of incompetence that casts doubt on the execution of the plan. In addition the plot as originally described by the DHS was implausible to say the least, and was then changed to something more plausible—but why?

So based on all the above, over the course of 5 years and at the cost of many billions of dollars during at least 20 major alerts US counter-terrorism efforts have yielded one well-known career criminal and about sixteen incompetent fantasists (without the actual means for causing any death or destruction).

By the DHS's own system a Yellow Alert or "Elevated" means "a significant risk of terrorist attack" and Orange Alert or "High" means a "high risk of terrorist attack". Now, of those alerts described above, how many of them seem to have qualified as presenting significant or high risks?

Of what benefit have the various terror-alerts been?
Has anyone actually been caught in the act of actually executing a terror plot? No.
Has anyone actualy been found with the means of their intended method attack (i.e. bomb components)? No.
Has the DHS halted any plots that had a reasonable probability of actually working? No.
Has the country freaked out every time a terror alert was announced? Pretty much.
Have the alerts coincided with bad political news for Bush? Yes.
Has Bush acquired higher ratings in the polls immediately afterwards even though either no evidence has been provided or usually only incompetents have caught? Almost always yes.
Has the alert system made us safer, or at least "feel safer"? No.
Has it made Bush feel safer? Yes.

So I guess the system does work!