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July 28, 2008

United States of America

My Country, 'Tis of Thee

Sweet Land of Liberty, Of Thee I Weep... And Plead

By Steve Schippert | July 28, 2008

"This, we will defend." It is a common refrain among brothers in arms. Yet, more pressing than the visible threat from terrorists and the states which sponsor them, we are at serious risk of losing sight of what “this” is while we call on those few dedicated men and women who defend it honorably and without hesitation. We appear at grave risk of losing our way. Right now.

In the Hamdan trial at Guantanamo Bay, we learn that bin Laden’s driver, captured and now on trial, said in interrogation that the United States could have killed bin Laden on more than one occasion in the 1990’s. The context is a far greater reflection upon us than our enemies.

The message was, ”You had these opportunities, America. You didn’t do anything,” FBI agent George Crouch Jr. testified Friday at Salim Hamdan’s war crimes trial.

The United States could have killed bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan, before he moved to Afghanistan in 1996, Hamdan told his interrogators. They could have killed him after al Qaida’s 1998 twin bombings at the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Or after the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, at the port of Aden in Yemen, which left 17 U.S. sailors dead.

Instead, ”Bin Laden was emboldened.” So he struck with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, leaving nearly 3,000 dead.

None of the information is new. It is ‘news’ simply because of the source and the setting. No more, no less.

It is bitter irony that lawyers are conveying such through a trial. Remote controlled Tomahawks, the illusion of safety beyond the sanctuary of oceans, and the hot pursuit via attorneys and law both remote and unrecognized by murderous men who seek our death. This was how we convinced ourselves of our certain and active defense.

Long before the Hamdan trial, we already knew that we were offered bin Laden in transit from Sudan to Afghanistan. But we did not want him. Our lawyers had no battle, our leaders no mettle.

Most of us, though not all, have learned nothing. After thousands smote and seven years of war, we are back to our superior ways, demanding Habeas Corpus and noting in the very first trial that bin Laden’s deputy was read no Miranda rights upon his capture - or was it arrest?

They say history repeats itself. Never before has it applied so swiftly, within the same generation and within the same conflict.

A selfish society incapable of sacrifice is equally incapable of self-defense. Our greatest concern is not the pursuit of madmen or the states which feed them. It is not even the cost of oil and its affect on our economy and future. Our most pressing concern seems the cost of the gasoline that cycles through our tanks and its affect on our personal checking account balances.

Cowardice, cloaked in arrogance and concealed behind self-assured brilliance, charts a troubled path; one which appears circular, where constant motion deceptively passes for progress. Progress towards what, we disagree, though our enemies do not, as they laugh.

Many say it will take another catastrophic attack to bring us to our collective senses. But it will likely not come. For, if al-Qaeda (et al) is smart - and they are - they will leave us alone on our own soil while we rip ourselves apart. No explosives, no bombs, no weapons of war required. We are, after all, suddenly and finally waging their centuries-long war upon ourselves. Brilliantly.

We allow ourselves to be told that we are what is wrong with the world; torturous, greedy, destructive, with disregard for the poorest and bitter intolerance for anyone not like us. We Balkanize our society and point fingers at each other, laying these same charges against one domestic group or another with the venom and aggression once reserved for distant, oppressive enemies.

Can we awaken from our own self-destructive slumber? The decisive war is not in Iraq, nor Afghanistan, nor Pakistan or any other distant place where we perceive our enemies to be. The decisive battle is right here, from Maine to San Diego, from St. Louis to Atlanta.

If we are incapable of rediscovering that which Constitutes us and what distinguishes America form every other nation on this planet, and acknowledging that America, her people, our liberty and our unequaled charity are indeed good and our values just, then what does Iraq or Afghanistan matter?

Can we truly identify that which we are defending? For if we cannot, we are not. We are simply preserving soil and borders, protecting cities and people - that which can be found anywhere else on this planet.

What will America be, what will she look like when our children are thrust at the helm? Will they write that we defended her, or will they write that we devoured and discarded her? This, not al-Qaeda or the War on Terror, keeps me up at night.

For we can defeat al-Qaeda and yet have defended nothing at all in the long, painful process. And our children will be compelled to write of us, ”You had these opportunities, America. You didn’t do anything.”

July 18, 2008

United States of America

Disconnect on Domestic Surveillance

Uncle Sam Is No “Eye in the Sky”

By Michael Tanji | July 18, 2008

With the passage of a new FISA law, a predictable hue and cry from privacy advocates and fear-mongers has reached a crescendo. So-called “domestic spying,” we are assured, will soon bring about an end to the republic and personal and civil liberties in a fashion that only the Emperor Palpatine could have conjured up. Thankfully the dark side of the force, Orwell’s Big Brother and fears of the return of Palmer Raids and internment camps are all equally fantastic and unreal.

Let’s address the clear, known problems with the government’s rush to know as much as it can about everyone under their purview.

The FBI’s misuse of devices such as national security letters is as good a place as any to start. Essentially administrative subpoenas, they allow government agents to gather information about you without the more rigorous scrutiny and oversight of a warrant. Roughly 3,000 violations of the NSL policy were recently reported.

The military’s TALON database was another example of data collection on Americans gone wrong. TALON was designed to support force protection, which is a military concept that focuses on identifying and countering or defeating threats to military personnel. TALON included information about Americans because it was largely Americans who showed up at anti-war protests and demonstrations outside of military bases. The collection was somewhat indiscriminate, in part because those gathering the information – military law enforcement – were unaware or unclear of what could or should be included in the database.

In the aftermath of September 11th one could be forgiven an overactive sense of immediacy about the threat of more attacks from within our borders. What the Feds might have known, local and state law enforcement did not; and vice versa. The fastest and easiest way to work from a common operating picture – disparate organizations with different responsibilities all using the same information – is to just vacuum up as much information as you can. The efficacy of the end result – DHS and state-fusion centers – is debatable. But with the passage of time we can look at these past activities through a filter of perspective.

No matter whose numbers you use, a tiny fraction of a percent of the people in the US have been “spied” upon – as defined by the privacy crowd – to some extent. That’s a few thousand people who the government knows more about than your average telemarketer. Anyone who thinks those numbers represent an epidemic of privacy violations should probably ask Santa for a dictionary. Furthermore, anyone who thinks this activity is going on with true secrecy and without oversight hasn’t been paying attention.

If we look at what really drives these “abuses,” it is largely your standard issue government bureaucracy screw-ups or human nature, not malice. Carefully read the reporting on the investigation into the national security letter misuse and you will note that a large part of the “abuse” is a record keeping exercise. In the case of TALON, it was a case of mission creep as a database designed to do one thing morphed into a system that did something else, which resulted not so much in a database on Americans’ private lives but a membership list of anti-war groups. To be sure, there are arms of the government that are snooping on the very personal information of Americans; IRS and State Department employees seem to have a penchant for peeking into the files of various politicians and celebrities, which should give you an idea of what really drives true invasions of privacy.

Why does intelligence need to have access to so much information about people? The short answer is that the information age has forced them to change their way of doing business. Intelligence used to be almost scientific in the pursuit of answers. You started with a question or hypothesis, gathered information, attempted to prove or refute the hypothesis based on the information gathered and expert opinion, and made decisions based on the answers. That sort of system worked well when the bulk of intelligence questions had to be answered with information stolen from myriad adversaries who were trying to keep the information away from us. Obtaining information of value required a lot of hard work and involved serious risk.

Today the reverse is true; information is plentiful and free. While the value of any discrete secret may have gone up, the vast majority of questions needed to make national security decisions can be answered with non-secret information. Consequently, intelligence agencies have been forced into a new operating model: gathering as much information as possible and then using various methodologies to identify and evaluate patterns and trends of interest. The bulk of such information, whether used by an intelligence agency, polling company or marketing firm, is never actually looked at with any granularity if at all; unless it is part of a pattern or meets a variety of criteria of interest it is worthless and unseen.

It is worth noting that the Americans who work in the intelligence community and their families don’t get a get-out-of-spying-free card. That is to say that a true, invasive dragnet of personal information, emails and phone conversations would just as easily scoop up information of the people doing the collecting and their own families. When you join the intelligence community you willingly agree to live under a regime of certain suspended liberties, but freedom from unreasonable search and seizure is not one of them. Does anyone think that the hundreds of career, professional intelligence officers would willingly sign themselves and their families up to be subjected to a truly sinister plot to undermine our liberties?

Advocates of privacy strangely ignore the fact that Americans frequently and willingly subject themselves to much more surveillance than any government program might bring to bear upon them. The millions of visitors to Las Vegas are given the informational equivalent of a colonoscopy just by setting foot on the strip, not to mention in a casino. What happens in Vegas may or may not stay in Vegas, but one this is certain: everything that goes on there is documented indiscriminately. In fact surveillance in Vegas is probably much more accurate to the fear-mongering descriptions of what privacy advocates would have you believe the government is doing. In a casino the “eye in the sky” watches all because you never know who is going to try and pull a fast one. On the gaming room floor it is assumed that anyone is a potential crook: intelligence doesn’t work that way.

Those who believe Orwell’s 1984 has finally been realized also fail to point out just how the government would carry out the reckless, wanton arrests and detentions of innocents based on the flimsiest information without public awareness or backlash. Guantanamo Bay is not Manzanar on many levels, and in case you have not been paying attention, this is a technological era in which a photo snapped on your cell phone can be posted online and seen by millions worldwide in a matter of minutes. No one subscribing to the Orwellian paranoia has yet explained how the people of this country would allow a government action akin to the Red Scare to quietly take place under our very noses in this day and age.

Those who complain the loudest about supposed violations of privacy are almost always people who have never been involved in intelligence work. This is not to say that you cannot learn a lot about a subject through study and discussion with actual practitioners. But unless you have done the work, you really don’t have a full and complete understanding or appreciation of how the work is done, how hard it is to get even fundamental tasks completed, and the scrutiny you work under. Real intelligence work is so totally and completely unlike 24 or Enemy of the State that both shows – in an intelligence context – should be reclassified as comedies.

Let us also not forget that people who leak information about surveillance programs are hardly paragons of morality, ethics or integrity. By revealing the existence of such programs they are violating a sworn oath to protect the information they are leaking, which should immediately set off an alarm. More importantly, most chose to stay anonymous not out of fear of their jobs – any serious investigation should root any given leaker out (and in the case of Mary McCarthy, it may very well have) - but for purely political reasons. At some point they forgot that they were instruments and not crafters of policy. At some point they decided that professional integrity and honor were just words. You may not agree with what Daniel Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers, but at least he had the integrity and conviction to put his career and freedom on the line. Those who fancy themselves Ellsberg’s heirs are operating with much more base motives and considerably less intestinal fortitude.

This is neither an apology nor cheers for the government. We are as quick to jump on the legitimate foibles and missteps as anyone. But we are not going to get carried away with fantasies and imagined abuses when reality is so much more interesting and challenging. More intelligence capabilities would be preferable to less, as would more oversight of said capabilities. Absent a perfect regime for a perfect world that does not exist, we should be content to recognize that in an age of fast, cheap and accurate information, it takes very little time for any sort of improper activity to see the light of day. This reality can be witnessed in the news each week.

At the end of the day, it is not without irony that the same Americans who screamed loudest that the intelligence community failed to protect us and prevent the attacks of 9/11 are the same Americans that steadfastly oppose seemingly every action taken by that same intelligence community since in efforts to learn more and perform better - seemingly as demanded. The enemy was among us then, using our systems and institutions with the comfort of relative obscurity, and is still using those systems today. If the enemy is in your house, one does not trot to the neighbor's to find them.

One thing is for certain. We cannot continue to complain about real and perceived specific intelligence failures only to in turn object to productive means of addressing them.

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