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October 31, 2007


Eritrea: Who Knew?

Status as State Sponsor of Terrorism Seems Self-Evident

By Clay Varney | October 31, 2007

In what has so far been a widely overlooked arena in the war on terrorism, the Horn of Africa has emerged as a pivotal region for the prosecution of America’s long struggle against jihadist extremism. However, this should not be surprising, as al-Qaeda has long been a player in the region. There was, of course, the residence of Usama bin Laden and his organization in Sudan during the 1990’s, and the dual attacks against the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. In more recent times, a new player has emerged on the scene, threatening to do further harm to American interests in the region. This player would be the seemingly unimportant nation of Eritrea, a nation of 4.9 million people on the Red Sea surrounded by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. After a thirty year fight, Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Recently, Eritrea has come onto the radar of officials in the United States government regarding its support for Islamist insurgents operating in Somalia against the nascent government. After Ethiopia invaded Somalia with American backing to wrest power from the Islamic Courts Union, a Taliban-style grouping of Islamist militias, an insurgency ignited featuring tactics reminiscent of Iraq, including suicide bombings and assassinations. As an example, a suicide bomber targeted Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi unsuccessfully in his Mogadishu home this June, killing seven. Violence in Mogadishu has expanded significantly in recent days, causing thousands of refugees to flee the city as a result of increased fighting between the insurgents of the Islamic Courts Union and the combined Ethiopian and Somali government forces.

Eritrea has been fingered as a source of arms for these insurgents. In a July report by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia, Eritrea was blamed as a major weapons supplier. Specific accusations revolved around a plane that made 13 flights from Eritrea’s capital Asmara to Mogadishu and the importation of SA-18 surface-to-air-missiles. Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, danced around the question in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, stating: “I still would like to know what is behind this allegation. Nobody is convinced. What are the accusations?” Further, unsatisfied with merely supplying the Islamic Courts Union with weapons, Eritrea is also harboring its leadership, à la another prominent member of the list of state sponsors of terrorism, Syria. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the head of the Islamic Courts Union, now resides in Asmara, Eritrea. Why should this concern the average American? The answer is simple as the sheikh was placed on a State Department list as an al-Qaeda collaborator since shortly after September 11. Furthermore, he was also associated with the now defunct al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, which is believed to have played a role in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings perpetrated by al-Qaeda.

In early September of this year, a major gathering of figures opposed to Somalia’s current government was held in Asmara. The group included a number of prominent Islamists, whom at its conclusion formed the Alliance For The Re-Liberation Of Somalia. Isaias Afwerki openly backed the formation of this confederation. The previously mentioned Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was present at this gathering, leading Jendayi E. Frazer, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, to comment: “But clearly the fact that Eritrea is providing sanctuary for terrorists is best illustrated by the report that Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was in Asmara yesterday.” Dr. Frazer announced on August 17 that Eritrea was being considered for inclusion on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Other esteemed nations currently designated as such are Syria, Iran, Sudan, Cuba, and North Korea. Such a label would result in harsh economic sanctions against the African nation.

Eritrean officials have denied the allegations. In one telling statement, the information minister of Eritrea, Ali Abdu, responded to Secretary Frazier’s assertions by saying, “Eritreans kneel on only two occasions…when they pray and when they shoot.” No final decision has yet been made on Eritrea’s status and the possibility of such a designation may dissuade Eritrea from continuing to supply weapons to the Somali insurgency, but based on Abdu’s contention, compliance appears unlikely.

Though Eritrea’s actions may seem marginal at first, there are in fact major implications for American national security. Eritrea’s supply of weapons provides a major tool for the Islamic Courts Union in its campaign to unseat the delicate interim government. If the instability and violence continues, Somalia will remain a failed state, and as Afghanistan showed, failed states in which Islamist forces are free to operate can directly impact the United States. Additionally, a significant American military presence has been established in Djibouti, a tiny nation sandwiched between Somalia and Eritrea. In January of this year, a number of al-Qaeda members were targeted in air strikes by American military forces based in Djibouti. These members of the terrorist organization had been sheltered by the Islamic Courts Union. Individuals targeted in the strikes included Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the planner of the 1998 embassy bombings.

In short, Eritrea is giving weapons to an organization that has provided safe haven for members of al-Qaeda responsible for the deaths of Americans and is also granting sanctuary to that organization’s leader. The State Department defines state sponsors of terrorism as follows: “State sponsors of terrorism provide critical support to non-state terrorist groups. Without state sponsors, terrorist groups would have much more difficulty obtaining the funds, weapons, materials, and secure areas they require to plan and conduct operations.” Eritrea’s status as such seems self-evident.

October 22, 2007

United States of America

Self Defense is National Defense

The most important factor in national security is you

By Michael Tanji | October 22, 2007

The defense of a nation ultimately depends on the wherewithal and actions of that nation’s citizens. The true measure of how secure a nation is against attacks of all sorts is not the number of federal agents employed or size of its intelligence agencies, but by how well those at every level of power and authority recognize current and emerging threats and prepare to deal with them.

In 2001, in the span of a few minutes, the people of this nation were reminded that threats to national security were not ethereal, far-off affairs that impacted someone else. Nearly every day since then we have been subjected to daily bombardment of information about threats to the nation and to ourselves as individuals. The response to these threats has ranged from military action to boosting the size, power, and authority of national security establishments. These are not entirely flawed courses of action, but they are by no means the ultimate source of protection for any citizen who values their life and liberty.

Consider the following:

Despite improvements, the Homeland Security Department still falls short in protecting its critical IT systems and data, according to a new report from the department’s Inspector General Richard L. Skinner.

Current regulations to protect the control systems that support power plants nationwide fall short of federal recommendations, posing a serious threat to the electric infrastructure and national security, witnesses testified at a hearing Wednesday. One lawmaker threatened legislation if standards don't improve.

A Ledbetter [TX] area business owner [James Walton] fatally shot a suspected burglar Sunday morning – the second time in three weeks that he killed an intruder . . . KDFW reporter Rebecca Aguilar has been indefinitely suspended, based on concerns about how Aguilar treated Walton [in an interview in which she berated Walton to the point of tears].

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives said they are suspicious of a proposed merger giving China a share in the 3Com computer security company . . . The company sells hacker-prevention hardware and the Pentagon is one of its key customers.

A Mexican national infected with a highly contagious form of tuberculosis crossed the U.S. border 76 times and took multiple domestic flights in the past year, according to Customs and Border Protection interviews and documents obtained by The Washington Times.

Security screeners at two of the nation's busiest airports failed to find fake bombs hidden on undercover agents posing as passengers in more than 60% of tests last year, according to a classified report obtained by USA TODAY.

In what could be the largest data security breach to date, MasterCard International on Friday said information on more than 40 million credit cards may have been stolen.

A somewhat eclectic and by no means comprehensive list of stories that all have a common if unwritten theme: the big national security machine cannot do it all, and in some cases it can do things that are expressly not in our best interests.

This is not to say that the security establishment is working against us out of malice, but when you are as large, complex, and secretive as the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, or any agency in the intelligence community, left and right hands are going to operate in a certain amount of ignorance of each other. It is also worth noting that a large patchwork of often conflicting policies can make a particular security decision make sense from one angle, but be outrageously misguided from another. Some of that is conflicting priorities, but a lot of it is politics (more on how to deal with that in a moment).

At a more granular level it is worth noting that when it comes right down to it, we do not in fact live in the police state that so many fear-mongers would have you believe. People who exercise their right to self defense are subjected to ridiculous scrutiny by those who feel that such actions are the sole domain of the state. The real and unreported story behind most self-defense cases is the fact that the police aren’t under any obligation to keep you alive. Don’t trust me, go look up Supreme Court case South v. Maryland.

What can any given individual citizen do to rectify these situations? Quite a lot actually, though each action requires a certain level of effort and not all of them are without financial or time-related costs.

For starters, get educated on both the foreign and domestic threats that we are facing today, as well as the emerging threats that we may have to deal with tomorrow. This doesn’t mean going to grad school to study national security, but you have to go beyond the 30-minute summary on the evening news and the half-page of print in the local paper. Seek out subject matter experts, not talking heads.

Second: vote. Use your newfound education and communicate your informed opinions to your elected representatives at all levels of government. The demands of everyday life often preclude attendance at political events, but politicians get phone messages and email and they appreciate the impact of a deluge of communication on the issues. If you want the laws of this nation to reflect a certain disposition with regards to security, you need to make a serious effort to influence those who make those laws.

Third, do your best not to place yourself under the “protection” of broken, fake or otherwise wildly imperfect security regimens. If you can avoid flying, drive; when online don’t rely solely on your Internet Service Provider, but buy and understand how to operate firewall and anti-virus software; Protect your personal information by pulling as much of it back as you can from vendors and other commercial concerns that promise you a few pennies in savings for your personal information (corporations are the real masters of data mining). If you have no choice but to subject yourself to the control of a security system you lack confidence in, be aware of your surroundings and don’t feel bad about reporting anything you feel is hinkey. Embarrassed and alive beats shy and dead.

Finally, acquire some new, or practice your old, self-defense and self-reliance skills. This is not an advertisement for the handgun industry; just identify the threats you are most likely to face and acquire the tools and practice the skills necessary to deal with them. You should also prepare yourself and your family for that gap period between when a crisis of any sort occurs, and when the government actually shows up to help you. The ultimate lesson of events like Katrina is not “FEMA sucks” but “bureaucracy blows.” Think about the last time you went to renew your driver’s license; do you really want to trust your life to that sort of methodology and mindset? Get to know your neighbors, find out what skills and tools they have, build your own neighborhood coalition of the willing that will band together when times get tough.

ThreatsWatch is all about “Supporting Security by Enhancing Awareness.” While we usually focus on the far-away, it would be a disservice to you all if we did not take a moment to reflect on what can happen right here at home. We face a wide range of threats to our lives and liberties daily and while these threats may lack the impact of September 11th or the scale of an insurgency, they are no less important to the defense of the nation and the preservation of freedom.

October 18, 2007

United States of America

Common Sense on Surveillance

Our security demands progress, not politics

By Michael Tanji | October 18, 2007

It was recently reported that the Bush administration would be turning over documents related to its terrorist surveillance program to members of the Senate, who are currently attempting to craft a legislative solution to the electronic surveillance dilemma. As a quick reminder; current law throws a myriad of serious roadblocks in front of our intelligence agencies when they try to monitor the communications of terrorists.

Civil libertarians decry almost any attempt to gain access to domestic communications systems. They wonder what is to stop the government from turning its intelligence capabilities away from terrorists and towards law-abiding citizens. Functionally speaking the answer is nothing, though the real defense against a true “domestic” surveillance program will be addressed later.

The problems here are numerous and at times complicated. The physical location of those we are attempting to target is not an issue; the fact that their communications are likely to transit a network in the US is. Whether it is a phone call or email, odds are that it passes through a network in the US because we serve as one of the world’s largest communications hubs. By US law, intercepting communications on a US network requires a warrant. An additional complicating factor is that one person on the end of the conversation might be a “US Person” (in short but not exclusively, citizens and legal resident aliens): there are special rules that must be followed before a US person can be monitored.

Whether you grasp the legal or technical complexities here or not, all you really need to understand is that FISA was passed in 1978; pre-Internet, pre-mobile phone, pre-instant messaging and back when you actually “dialed” numbers. In a word, current law is archaic.

There are multiple, straight-forward ways to address these problems. Through a mix of legal, technical and political approaches we can effectively monitor terrorists and others who would do us harm as well as protect the privacy of innocents.

First, craft surveillance legislation to focus on what we should be doing to targets, not how we should be viewing systems. In cyberspace physical location means nothing and the law should reflect that. That privacy is in danger because our conversation with Aunt Alice is co-mingled over the wires with communications between al-Qaeda operatives is a red herring.

Second, build a robust and rigorously peer-reviewed data minimization and anonymization scheme. The procedures for sharing “domestic” signals intercepts with other elements of the intelligence community make them useless for analytical work. They are worse than if we collected nothing because an obtuse protection mechanism ensures you will never know if you have a piece of groundbreaking information in your hands. A system that assigns a unique and arbitrary designator to those actually or potentially protected by surveillance law allows important intelligence work to continue without infringing upon anyone’s rights.

Third, allow the Government Accountability Office to act as Congress’s investigative arm inside the intelligence community. Such a move would have implications beyond just FISA and surveillance cases, but in this particular situation it adds a much needed and widely trusted watcher-of-watchers to ensure strict adherence to new law and policy.

Finally, those on both sides of this issue need to discuss these issues openly, honestly, and without the misleading and often insulting hyperbole that has been exchanged to date. No one who understands agencies like the NSA and its people would admit in a moment of frankness that it was a nest of spooks hell-bent on “spying on Americans,” yet that is just what those attempting to monitor terrorist communications are accused of doing. The idea that the current administration has put us back on a course to the bad old days of COINTELPRO and CHAOS neglect the fact that once such systems were in place, any administration could use them. Additionally, unlike the 70s, we seem to get a Pentagon Papers-level leak revealed in the press several times a year. The idea that an actual domestic spying program would not be subject to the antiseptic of sunlight within days of implementation is simply absurd.

This is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Few reject outright the general concepts of what needs to be done; both sides need to stop talking past one another and find some common ground to stand on. The government is, after all, the home of the 70% solution. The longer we dawdle the greater the threat we all face – party immaterial – from those who would use technology and our own laws against us.

October 17, 2007

United States of America

The Congressional 'Peter' Principle

Honor sacrificed by others upon the Altar of Political Ambition

By Steve Schippert | October 17, 2007

This picture of an index card placed at the Vietnam Memorial is worth well more than a thousand words. It is exemplary of the character of a Marine who, rather than face vociferous Congressional opposition based on political objectives grounded in little more than a domestic public relations war, was asked to and chose to spare the nation such anguish and retire before he was otherwise inclined to do so. General Peter Pace has years of capable and needed service left in him. They have, for unconscionable reasons, been sacrificed by others upon the altar of political ambition.

His leadership, for over forty years guided by his "moral compass," has always has been embraced by those who followed him. And so, upon his reluctant retirement, feeling he still had service owed to those he commanded and lost in Vietnam, he presented his stars to Lance Corporal Guido Farinaro where the fallen Marine is honored at the Vietnam Memorial.

In the picture, above the stars pinned to a simple 3×5 index card placed among other notes at the foot of the Vietnam Memorial, were the humble words, "These are yours - not mine!" He did the same for each of the six other Marines who, after Lcpl. Farinaro, also paid the ultimate price under 2nd Lt. Pace's young command. Such selflessness had guided General Pace's entire career, one which he personally dedicated to honoring the seven Marines who followed his orders in combat and died in service to their country.

In a September address to enlisted military personnel ahead of his retirement as a Marine and as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Pace described what drove him daily in his active duty service after Vietnam and the loss of seven Marines under his command.

He explained, "There was never a doubt in my mind what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life when I came out of Vietnam without even a scratch. And that was to try as best I could to serve this nation on active duty in a way that would pay proper respect to those Marines who followed me as their platoon leader and gave their lives for their country. Enlisted Marines who taught me what love on the battlefield was about. When I came home, I tried to give those in my charge what I could no longer give to those who had lost their lives."

Lance Corporal Farinaro was the first Marine killed under then 2nd Lieutenant Peter Pace's command in Vietnam. An Italian immigrant from New York, Guido Farinaro joined the Marine Corps because he felt compelled to repay his adopted nation through service to it. With his sacrifice on the battlefield, it is this nation which in turn will forever owe him.

No one tried harder or did more to attempt to repay that eternal debt than Peter Pace, United States Marine. Such is the honor and character of a good man. Such is the honor sacrificed by others upon the altar of political ambition.

2nd Lieutenant Peter Pace. Captain Peter Pace. General Peter Pace. Mr. Peter Pace. Each exudes leadership by example.

Yet a majority in Congress telegraphed their intent to oppose his renomination as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and create a national spectacle for the self-serving political purposes of staging public opposition to the President of the United States. And as displayed by many in that elected body, leadership by example is a sword that cuts both ways. The Congressional 'Peter' Principle was on clear display.

And with that came the end of the exemplary service of a good man and outstanding Marine. He now must - and will - find another avenue to serve and honor those fallen Marines whom he led.

Yet there is nary a Congressional leader who does not famously proclaim "I support the troops." But the often hollow nature of these words has the effect of reducing such phases to little more than bumper sticker slogans. For they are immediately trumpeted following a sitting Senator who compares those in the United States Military as running abusive and torturous "gulags" and their actions no different from the genocidal "Pol Pot."

"I support the troops" immediately trailed a Congressman's hasty and false accusations of Marines as murderers based on the unscrupulous and uncorroborated accounts of those who supported the enemy on the battlefield. "Supporting the troops" remains the official position of a sitting Senator who falsely testified before the Congress he now serves within that his fellow servicemen in Vietnam had "cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan."

These are the words from among those who warned that General Pace's re-nomination confirmation process would be a difficult spectacle of political opposition. They are from the same Congressional leaders who unanimously confirmed General David Petraeus as a capable commander for the Iraq theater only to later accuse him of lying to them when he reported undeniable progress on the ground there.

Is it any wonder then that so many active duty and veteran military members cry out, "Please, spare us the indignity of such support."

Character matters. It is, unfortunately, a trait lost on so many who cannot seem to wrap their minds around the concept of service before self. Peter Pace wrapped his entire adult life around it, exemplified by a simple 3×5 index card and a hand scribbled note.

For General Peter Pace (USMC, Ret.), his four stars rightly belong to Lance Corporal Guido Farinaro. But the empty collars those stars once adorned surely belong to Congress. And worse off are we all for it.

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