The cycle time for the US wiping its collective memory and re-starting a training program for troops aimed against the enemy du jour seems to be getting shorter. While the covert CIA plan to train “moderate” rebels to fight in Syria has not even ended, the new $500 million Obama just got approved by Congress for the military to train rebels is being described almost as if it is the only program around:
Even if the training goes as planned, the rebels will be outnumbered. While the United States has proposed to train and equip 5,000 rebels, the Central Intelligence Agency has said it believes that the Islamic State has between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Elsewhere in that article we do see “This scaled-up training program would be overseen by the Defense Department, unlike the current covert program here and a similar program in Jordan, both overseen by the C.I.A.”, but since the number of fighters trained by the CIA isn’t added to those we plan to train using the military, it would appear that those “fighters” are in the process of fading into the sunset.
With David Petraeus still unavailable to run this
PR training program, we are actually seeing hints this time that at least a few of our Congresscritters may be learning that our history of training isn’t exactly stellar and could bode poorly for this effort:
Some lawmakers who voted against Wednesday’s measure argued the administration was moving too fast and did not yet have a feasible plan to arm the Syrian rebels. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said it was “pretty disturbing” that Thursday’s hearing was occurring after the House had voted.
“I don’t think the plan that I have seen was detailed enough to make me believe that your plan will work,” Sanchez said. “I hope I am wrong. I hoped the same thing when I voted against the Iraq war that I was wrong, but I don’t believe I was wrong on that.”
Still, the larger focus of Thursday’s hearing shifted from the push for Congress to approve arming and training the Syrian rebels to the future of the U.S. military campaign against ISIL.
Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) said she had doubts about the plan and asked Hagel to explain the endgame against ISIL. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) asked about the vetting of forces in Iraq — and not just Syria. And Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) wanted more details about potential airstrikes in Syria.
Remarkably, the press also is noticing that this effort is ill-fated. From the same NYTimes article linked above:
While the House approved an aid package for the rebels on Wednesday and the Senate followed on Thursday, at present the rebels are a beleaguered lot, far from becoming a force that can take on the fanatical and seasoned fighters of the Islamic State.
What’s more, the Times acknowledges that the “moderates” have different priorities from US goals in Syria:
Short of arms, they are struggling to hold their own against both the military of President Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists of the Islamic State. Their leaders have been the targets of assassination attempts. And some acknowledge that battlefield necessity has put them in the trenches with the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, an issue of obvious concern for the United States.
While they long for greater international support and hate the Islamic State, sometimes called ISIS or ISIL, ousting Mr. Assad remains their primary goal, putting them at odds with their American patrons.
As Marcy noted earlier this week, small amounts of recognition of the perverse role of Saudi Arabia in funding global terrorism is also finally creeping into general awareness. Former Florida Governor and Senator Bob Graham has been quite active lately in pushing on that front. In addition to the quote Marcy presented from a Tampa news outlet, there is this from a Patrick Cockburn interview:
Senator Graham, a distinguished elder statesmen who was twice Democratic governor of Florida before spending 18 years in the US Senate, believes that ignoring what Saudi Arabia was doing and treating it as a reliable American ally contributed to the US intelligence services’ failure to identify Isis as a rising power until after it captured Mosul on 10 June. He says that “one reason I think that our intelligence has been less than stellar” is that not enough attention was given to Saudi Arabia’s fostering of al-Qaeda-type jihadi movements, of which Isis is the most notorious and successful. So far the CIA and other intelligence services have faced little criticism in the US for their apparent failure to foresee the explosive expansion of Isis, which now controls an area larger than Great Britain in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
Senator Graham does not suggest that the Saudis are directly running Isis, but that their support for Sunni extremists in Iraq and Syria opened the door to jihadis including Isis. Similar points were made by Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, and MI6, who said in a lecture at the Royal United Services Institute in London in July that the Saudi government is “deeply attracted towards any militancy which effectively challenges Shiadom”. He said that rulers of the Kingdom tended to oppose jihadis at home as enemies of the House of Saud, but promote them abroad in the interests of Saudi foreign policy. Anti-Shi’ism has always been at the centre of the Saudi world view, and he quoted Prince Bandar, the ambassador in Washington at the time of 9/11 and later head of Saudi intelligence, as saying to him: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunni have simply had enough of them.”
So the long-term position of the Saudis is to promote Sunni jihadists against Shia forces globally. But part of how they avoid US ire is that they play both sides. From the Times article:
So far, the program has focused on a small number of vetted rebel groups from the hundreds that are fighting across Syria, providing them with military and financial help, according to rebel commanders who have received support.
The process is run by intelligence officials from a number of countries. The United States provides overall guidance, while Turkey manages the border, and Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia provide much of the funding.
Despite fostering the conditions that led to the formation of ISIS, the Saudis also are helping to fund what can only be described as a doomed before it starts effort to combat ISIS. In the world of terrorism, the Saudis are behaving like a hedge fund, betting on both sides of the ISIS issue. Despite their small position against ISIS in the short term, there is no doubt their long term position is one of radical Sunni jihadism. In fact, since the training is doomed, by helping to fund it, the Saudis are increasing the overall stature of their long term jihadist investment. No matter how much money the US throws at this effort or how many “moderate rebels” it trains, only a fool would believe the Saudis would allow the Syrian rebels and Iraq to defeat a Sunni jihadist movement.
NBC News’ Ann Curry interviewed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani yesterday in her second extended interview with him. She had been the first Westerner to interview Rouhani after his election. Remarkably, the story put up by NBC on their website to accompany the video seen above did not mention the part of the interview that Mehr News chose to highlight in Iran. From Mehr News:
Iran’s president has denounced ISIL terrorist group for its savagery and said US presence in the region has exacerbates [sic] the terrorism crisis since 2001.
That comment about US presence in the region exacerbating the terrorism crisis appears nowhere in the NBC article. The article does, however carry Rouhani’s accusation that the US approach to fighting ISIS is cowardly:
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Ann Curry, denounced ISIS for its savagery but also branded the U.S.-led coalition against the terror group as “ridiculous.” Speaking from the presidential palace in Tehran ahead of his visit to the United Nations, Rouhani questioned President Obama’s decision to go after ISIS with airstrikes.
“Are Americans afraid of giving casualties on the ground in Iraq? Are they afraid of their soldiers being killed in the fight they claim is against terrorism?” Rouhani said.
“If they want to use planes and if they want to use unmanned planes so that nobody is injured from the Americans, is it really possible to fight terrorism without any hardship, without any sacrifice? Is it possible to reach a big goal without that? In all regional and international issues, the victorious one is the one who is ready to do sacrifice.
Rouhani’s accusation that the US wants to carry out this fight without sacrifices seems to be a very accurate description of the approach by the Obama Administration.
Further evidence for the “ridiculous” charge comes in this Huffington Post story about a Congressional briefing on US strategy:
One Democratic member of Congress said that the CIA has made it clear that it doubts the possibility that the administration’s strategy could succeed.
“I have heard it expressed, outside of classified contexts, that what you heard from your intelligence sources is correct, because the CIA regards the effort as doomed to failure,” the congressman said in an email. “Specifically (again without referring to classified information), the CIA thinks that it is impossible to train and equip a force of pro-Western Syrian nationals that can fight and defeat Assad, al-Nusra and ISIS, regardless of whatever air support that force may receive.”
He added that, as the CIA sees it, the ramped-up backing of rebels is an expansion of a strategy that is already not working. “The CIA also believes that its previous assignment to accomplish this was basically a fool’s errand, and they are well aware of the fact that many of the arms that they provided ended up in the wrong hands,” the congressman said, echoing intelligence sources.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, already in New York for the beginning of talks on the nuclear deal and the opening of the UN General Assembly, told NPR that he still favors a deal with the P5+1 group of nations:
On the subject of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Zarif said all the “wrong options” have already been tried and that “we are ready” for an agreement.
Zarif is fully cognizant of the forces allied against reaching a deal, though:
“The only problem is how this could be presented to some domestic constituencies, primarily in the United States but also in places in Europe,” because “some are not interested in any deal,” he said.
“If they think any deal with Iran is a bad idea, there is no amount of — I don’t want to call it concession — no amount of assurance that is inherent in any deal because they are not interested in a deal, period,” Zarif said.
In sharp contrast with what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other political leaders have said about no deal being better than a bad one, Zarif said: “I think if you compare any deal with no deal, it’s clear that a deal is much preferable.”
Gosh, considering how the US is working closely with anti-Iran groups, even to the point of interfering in lawsuits to prevent disclosure of how the government shares state secrets with them, Zarif seems to have a very clear grasp of the problem a deal faces.
Despite his harsh comments about the US (and harsh comments about ISIS, as well), Rouhani also held out hope that the P5+1 final agreement can be reached.
There’s nothing terrifically insightful about Tom Friedman’s observation that the Saudis have fostered the extremist ideology that fuels ISIS.
The al-Sauds get to rule and live how they like behind walls, and the Wahhabis get to propagate Salafist Islam both inside Saudi Arabia and across the Muslim world, using Saudi oil wealth. Saudi Arabia is, in effect, helping to fund both the war against ISIS and the Islamist ideology that creates ISIS members (some 1,000 Saudis are believed to be fighting with jihadist groups in Syria), through Salafist mosques in Europe, Pakistan, Central Asia and the Arab world.
This game has reached its limit. First, because ISIS presents a challenge to Saudi Arabia. ISIS says it is the “caliphate,” the center of Islam. Saudi Arabia believes it is the center. And, second, ISIS is threatening Muslims everywhere.
But the fact that one of the chosen clerics of mushy conventional wisdom now feels it’s safe (admittedly in the second half of his column) to call out the Saudis for their extremism that has been ignored for over a decade is notable.
This comes against the background of renewed attention on the 28 pages from the Joint Congressional Inquiry George Bush suppressed 13 years ago to hide the Saudi role in 9/11.
Former Senate Intelligence Chair Bob Graham has been tireless at calling to have these pages — which he co-authored — released publicly.
Presidents Bush and Obama have both refused to release 28 pages of those classified records. Though Graham cannot reveal the specific contents, he accuses the Saudi government of working against us behind the scenes, and he accuses the U.S. government of keeping it a secret (possibly to protect our oil interests or alliance with the Saudi Arabia).
“For 13 years, that information has been denied to the American people,” said Graham. “The pot is going to break soon.”
He says only a few members of congress have seen the information.
“Without exception, when they have put down the 28 pages, their reaction has been, ‘Oh God, I can’t believe this has really happened!”
Lawrence Wright points to several unreliable sources — Bandar bin Sultan, Philip Zelikow — suggesting it would not reveal anything alarming.
The Saudis have also publicly demanded that the material be released. “Twenty-eight blanked-out pages are being used by some to malign our country and our people,” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was the Saudi Ambassador to the United States at the time of the 9/11 attacks, has declared. “Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide. We can deal with questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages.”
The questions raised by the twenty-eight pages were an important part of the commission’s agenda; indeed, its director, Philip Zelikow, hired staffers who had worked for the Joint Inquiry on that very section to follow up on the material. According to Zelikow, what they found does not substantiate the arguments made by the Joint Inquiry and by the 9/11 families in the lawsuit against the Saudis. He characterized the twenty-eight pages as “an agglomeration of preliminary, unvetted reports” concerning Saudi involvement. “They were wild accusations that needed to be checked out,” he said.
Zelikow and his staff were ultimately unable to prove any official Saudi complicity in the attacks.
One of Zelikow’s staffers (I suppose it could be Zelikow himself) reveals the real issue: reading these pages will make it harder for us to remain cozy with Saudi Arabia.
A former staff member of the 9/11 Commission who is intimately familiar with the material in the twenty-eight pages recommends against their declassification, warning that the release of inflammatory and speculative information could “ramp up passions” and damage U.S.-Saudi relations.
But given that the Saudis were far more closely tied to 9/11 (and, probably, some other attacks) than any other country, don’t we deserve to know that to act accordingly, especially as we prepare to fight a terrorist group strengthened by Bandar?
Matt Stoller calls all this censorship — and notes how it has prevented us from having the discussion we really need to have to resolve the underlying problems in the Middle East.
But the other part of the 9/11 narrative, aside from propaganda, was censorship. In America it’s not popular to talk about censorship, because it’s presumed that we don’t have it, as such. There are no rooms full of censors who choose what goes into newspapers, and what doesn’t. Our press is free. It’s right there in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..”
Somehow, though, Senators, Congressmen, and intelligence officials are not supposed to talk about those 28 pages in the 9/11 Commission report which are classified. And why not? Well because according to President Bush (and now President Obama), doing so would compromise “national security”. But what, exactly, is censorship, if it’s not a prohibition on individuals to speak about certain topics? Traditionally, First Amendment law gives the highest protection to political speech, allowing for certain restrictions on commercial speech (like false advertising). But there is no higher form of speech than political speech, and there is more important form of political speech than the exposition of wrongdoing by the government. So how is this not censorship?
It clearly is. In other words, explicit government censorship combined with propaganda helped prevent the public from having a full discussion of what 9/11 meant, and what this event implied for our government’s policies. Explicit censorship, under the guise of national security, continues today. While there are people in the U.S. government who know which Saudis financed and organized 9/11, the public at large does not. No government official can say ‘this person funded Al Qaeda in 2001, he might be funding ISIS now’, because that would reveal classified information.
Unwinding the classified state, and beginning the adult conversation put off for seventy years about the nature of American power, is the predicate for building a global order that can drain the swampy brutal corners of the world that allow groups like ISIS to grow and thrive. To make that unwinding happen, we need to start demanding the truth, not what ‘national security’ tells us we need to know. The Constitution does not mention the words ‘national security’, it says ‘common defense.’ And that means that Americans should be getting accurate information about what exactly we are defending.
In yesterday’s SASC hearing on ISIS, Joint Chiefs Chair Martin Dempsey said there is not military solution to ISIS (though he later, at the prodding of Carl Levin, modified that comment). But the non-military things we’d do — to combat the sources of and funding for ISIS’ ideology — all point in one direction, and it’s not Iraq or Syria.
Just as an example, the Obama Administration has repeatedly suggested that because the Iraqi government now has an “inclusive” government, it will mitigate the impetus behind terrorism. If that’s true, then why don’t we demand the same from the Sauds before we fight another war for them?
Whether or not you believe military involvement is wise or will be effective, it seems critical to do the other things to fight the treat of extremism. And for 13 years, we’ve been lying to ourselves about where that fight needs to start.
Although their first press release announcing their change in plans earlier this month got little fanfare, now that they have followed it up with a video (fortunately, there are no beheadings in the video), the Punjabi Taliban’s decision to cease violent attacks within Pakistan is being hailed as a “Watershed Event“:
“We have decided to give up militancy in Pakistan. I’ve taken the decision in the best interests of Islam and the nation. I also appeal to all other armed groups to stop violent activities in Pakistan,” Asmatullah Muaweya, the chief of the Punjabi Taliban, said in a three-minute video message released to the media on Saturday. He added that his group would now focus on Dawah (Islamic preaching) for the “supremacy of Islam and protection of the system.”
“I’ve taken the decision after consulting religious scholars and tribal leaders,” said Muaweya whose group had been blamed for several deadly attacks in the country, especially in Punjab. He also called upon other militant groups to renounce violence and come to the negotiating table as the country was passing through a critical juncture.
Nearly lost in this fanfare about renouncing violence inside Pakistan is that we learned, even in the earlier announcement, that violence by the group inside Afghanistan would continue:
“We will confine our practical jihadist role to Afghanistan in view of deteriorating situation in the region and internal situation of Pakistani jihadist movement,” Punjabi Taliban chief Ismatullah Muawiya said in a pamphlet faxed to the media, without clarifying further.
That part of the change in plans was not overlooked by Afghanistan:
“Pakistani Charge d’Affaires Syed Muazzam Shah was summoned to the Foreign Ministry on Sunday, and a strong protest was lodged over the declaration of war made by the Punjabi Taliban on the Afghan side of the Durand Line,” a Ministry’s statement said. The Dari-language statement was also emailed to The Express Tribune.
Abdul Samad Samad, head of political affairs in the Afghan foreign ministry, condemned the threats made by Muaweya, and described his remarks as “clear conspiracies against the stability and security of Afghanistan.”
“Such statements are against international laws and principles of good neighbourly relations,” the statement quoted the Afghan official as telling the Pakistani envoy.
The language gets even stronger from Afghanistan’s military:
In response to the assertions of the Punjabi Taliban, officials of the Afghan Ministry of Defense (MoD) have warned that any attacks on Afghanistan would face harsh response from the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
“We have a death message for those who want to attack Afghanistan,” MoD spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said. “Afghanistan would be a cemetery for those who want to attack it.”
Further, Afghan politicians believe that they see the hand of ISI behind the move: Continue reading
A central part of Barack Obama’s prime-time disclosure that he is authorizing air strikes in Syria was his call for half a billion dollars to train and equip “moderate” rebels in Syria. Proving that bipartisanism in Washington is not dead, John Boehner was quick to show his support for this nifty plan:
Congressional leaders rallied behind President Obama’s call to combat the Islamic State, vowing Thursday to back his request for funding to arm Syrian rebels as early as next week.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he expects the House to pass Obama’s $500 million funding request to train and equip Syrian rebels who are fighting the militant group, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
“We only have one commander in chief,” Boehner said. “At this point in time, it is important to give the president what he is asking for.”
Remarkably, though, even this USA Today article notes that there might be a slight problem or two with this brilliant plan to stop ISIS, otherwise known as “the personification of evil in the modern world“:
Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, another endangered Democrat, said he was opposed to arming Syrian rebels. “We must have greater assurance that we aren’t arming extremists who will eventually use the weapons against us,” he said.
House Republicans are divided into two camps, according to Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana. He told the Associated Press after a closed-door caucus meeting that one side hopes to hold Obama “accountable for doing the right thing.” The other group — that includes himself, Fleming said — believes Obama’s plans amount to an “insane strategy to go out there and depend on people that are proven undependable” to take down the Islamic State.
Wow. I think I just became a big fan of a Republican congressman from Louisiana.
So where could Begich have gotten the idea that if we arm extremists they might eventually use those arms on us? I mean, besides folks like Osama bin Laden and the death squads we have armed in Iraq and Afghanistan? And how could Fleming think the groups we plan to train and arm might be undependable? That is, besides the Iraqi troops we trained who then abandoned their posts and US-supplied weapons as soon as ISIS entered the picture or the Afghan troops that routinely give territory back to the Taliban as soon as US forces withdraw?
And about that half billion dollar budget. Note that back in June, SIGAR’s latest figures (pdf) showed that the US has already disbursed over $48 billion to the Afghan Security Forces Fund which provides funding for the training and support of Afghanistan’s troops. Despite those billions, of course, no one doubts that these forces will be completely unable to function once US troops and US funding are gone, just as we saw when Iraqi forces faded away in the face of ISIS.
So yes, we are still stuck in that version of the movie Groundhog Day where we just end up training and equipping groups to take on our latest enemy, only to have the effort fail. But who should lead this august effort? Our most accomplished failure on this front, hands down, is David Petraeus. How could we possibly not use the author of this brilliant prose, penned in September, 2004, claiming that his second attempt at training troops in Iraq was a smashing success: Continue reading
Pew released a new poll yesterday that has led to some remarkably bad reporting. The most problematic I’ve seen is the WaPo declaring the “Post-Snowden Era” that suggests the concern for civil liberties purportedly sparked by Edward Snowden’s disclosures has shifted in light of the “real fear” Americans have of ISIS.
We’re now just 15 months removed from Edward Snowden’s first bombshell revelation about the United States’ massive surveillance apparatus. But with Islamic extremists putting down roots in Syria and Iraq, Americans are very much reverting to a pre-Snowden attitude toward civil liberties.
Or perhaps we should call it “post-Snowden.”
While the Snowden revelations led to a lot of American soul-searching when it came to just how much of our civil liberties we want to yield in the name of protecting ourselves from terrorism, the soul-searching has largely come to an end, according to a new poll.
Given that very real fear, it’s perhaps not surprising to see people willing to cash in some of their civil liberties in exchange for peace of mind when it comes to their safety. But it also suggests the shift toward civil libertarianism and the criticism of the National Security Agency in the aftermath of all the Snowden revelations — of which more could certainly come and change things again– were very temporary.
Before I get into why this is so bad, first, look at what the report said. Amidst reporting that people are increasingly worried about “Islamic extremism,” Pew claims,
The survey also finds a shifting balance between concerns about civil liberties and protection from terrorism. In a reversal from last year after Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, 50% today say they are more concerned that government anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to protect the country, while 35% are more concerned that the policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties.
It claims to be reporting on a “balance” between “government anti-terrorism policies” and “restricting civil liberties.” But here’s what they actually asked: “What concerns you more about the government’s anti-terrorism policies?” In addition to picking either “They have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties” or “They have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country,” people apparently answered “Both,” “neither,” “approve of policies” (9% of respondents in this poll answered one of those things; the number has varied from 8% to 13% since Pew started doing this question in July 2004), or “don’t know” or “refused” (6% in this poll, which is the all-time low, with the number ranging up to 13%). So around 10% of respondents have consistently rejected the structure of the question.
I’d say there’s a good reason for that: because there is not necessarily any reason to believe there is a balance between counterterrorism and civil liberties. Not to mention, there are plenty of other legitimate concerns about our counterterrorism policy that Pew didn’t poll. What would the polling look like, for example, if it included “Our anti-terrorism policies have involved far too many illegal wars launched against Muslim countries”?
In other words, Pew is asking people to choose, but it doesn’t actually ask respondents to “balance” these two things. Thus by reporting this as a balance, Pew is imposing its own judgment that it is a balance, a belief which its question isn’t designed to measure. Pew just assumes it is so and reports it as such.
Let me interject and say that I am not doubting the polls reflect a very real change in attitudes in recent weeks. Nor am I doubting that a lot of people do believe this is a balance. Nor do I doubt that some of the poll movement is satiation with a civil liberties focus or even a belief that we do have to double down on the dragnet.
It would be very interesting to measure those things, if someone actually asked questions designed to measure them. I am not doubting Pew’s numbers, just what we can conclude from them.
Now let’s go back to the WaPo. It claimed, in part, that polls reflected people choosing to “cash in some of their civil liberties in exchange for peace of mind.” That adopts the same unjustified “balance” interpretation that Pew did (perhaps because Pew used that language in its report). Some people likely are thinking in terms of cashing in their civil liberties, but this poll didn’t actually measure that.
The WaPo reporting is even worse with respect to its claims that Edward Snowden is the sole explanation for higher support for civil liberties last year. Not only does it have a correlation/causation problem, it doesn’t even have correlation.
Pew and WaPo compare — correctly for measurement purposes — last week’s results with the results from a poll taken in the same series July 2013 (though WaPo gets the timing of that poll wrong), just a month after Snowden’s leaks started. It is true that July was — in Pew’s poll — the high point for civil liberties support in its poll, and that an October 2013 poll showed the beginning of a decline in concern for civil liberties and a rise in concern about protecting the country. Therefore it is true that support for civil liberties since a month after the Snowden leaks first started appearing has declined.
Also Pew did a different series of polls tracking opinion about what Snowden disclosed, which is a fair measurement about changes in perception of spying since Snowden’s leaks. That measured a real decline in support for what Pew inaccurately described in questions as NSA’s counterterrorism spying that persisted at least as late as January. In that series, Pew also presumed factually false details about the dragnet. So a flawed series of polls had actually shown increasing disapproval of the dragnet the last time it was released, but we don’t know how that data has changed in the 8 months since it was polled.
But the real problem with WaPo’s proclamation of a post-Snowden era is it doesn’t cite any polling from before the Snowden stories started (Pew’s previous poll in the civil liberties or counterterrorism series was way back in 2010). To make a claim about how much Snowden influenced civil liberties support, you’d have to cite the same poll from before and from after those stories started. WaPo doesn’t do that at all; it just assumes the record high support for civil liberties was caused by Snowden.
Now I wish Pew had polling from just before the Snowden leaks, because they might show something really remarkable.
Consider this CNN poll, taken (from a much smaller sample) on April 30, 2013, just two weeks after the first successful terrorist attack targeted at civilians since the anthrax attacks. It showed a somewhat elevated level of concern that the respondent or a family member might be the victim of a terrorist attack. (It also showed an all time high in that series — 63% — believing that terrorists would always find a way to attack.)
But the most remarkable part of that poll — one which got a lot of coverage at the time — was this question:
Again, this can’t be compared with the Pew poll; the questions and polling methodology are different. Though to the extent they might be comparable, it would support an interpretation of a decline in relative support for civil liberties. It would also, however, raise real questions about whether Snowden was responsible for all or even most of Americans’ heightened support for civil liberties.
But what a poll taken two weeks after an actual terrorist attack and a month before Snowden’s stories started being reported showed that Americans were far more worried that the response to the attack would be a crackdown on civil liberties than they were about needing new anti-terror policies. Americans already showed a remarkably high degree of support for civil liberties.
Now I agree with the WaPo: a slew of polls do show Americans peeing their pants about perceived threats. As the WaPo notes, this NBC/WSJ poll shows more Americans feel less safe now than they have since 9/11 — almost a 20 point spike from this time last year, a year when terrorists actually succeeded in attacking the US.
And I’d love to know what’s behind the numbers on whether changes have been more good than bad. Are so many people peeing their pants because a general malaise has the susceptible to fear-mongering? Does that mean they like or hate the dragnet? Or just the President?
But here’s the thing.
If there is a tie between the way America is peeing its pants and support or not for civil liberties, this is not about actual threats. Here’s what President Obama said last night.
So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East — including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.
This is not to say ISIS is not a threat or — more accurately, a very dangerous entity that is currently focused far away from the US. But the President, at least, doesn’t think they’re about to attack Boston.
13 years after 9/11 the American people are far more afraid after a month of fearmongering about an inflated threat than they were last year, weeks after terrorists succeeded in attacking.
But all this seems to be saying that Americans are far more afraid of the fearmongering images than of the actual threat of terrorism. If Americans have changed their relative concern about civil liberties because they are afraid, it’s not the actual threats that are causing that change.
Perhaps Pew should start a new series: Are you more afraid of terrorism, or of what your country will do by inflating the threat of terrorism?
Polls taken almost exactly one year apart show a remarkable reversal in US opinion regarding the prospect of air strikes on Syria. Last year, in a poll conducted September 6-8, (pdf) there were a number of questions regarding action in Syria. By a margin of 59% to 39%, Americans overwhelmingly said they thought Congress should not pass the then pending resolution authorizing “military action for 60 to 90 days” that also banned use of US troops in a combat role. Further, 55% of those polled stated that even if Congress passed the resolution, they opposed US air strikes in Syria while only 43% favored them. In the hypothetical of no Congressional authorization, opposition to the air strikes rose to 71% with only 27% favoring them. Just one year later, those numbers have reversed. In a poll conducted September 4-7, 65% of Americans now say they support expanding US air strikes against the Sunni insurgents into Syria, while only 28% oppose them. Checking the crosstabs, support for the strikes jumps to 74% for Republicans but still is 60% for Democrats.
So why is this year’s Drum-Up-War week working, when last year’s failed?
Despite the heinous nature of last year’s sarin attack, it seems to me that most Americans did a good job of recognizing that what is underway in Syria is a civil war in which the US has no vital interest other than humanitarian concern for widespread death and displacement of citizens. Having failed to paint Bashar al-Assad as an evil-doer on the level of Saddam Hussein (or perhaps after Americans rejected such an obvious campaign to do so) Obama and his fellow war hawks now consider ISIS “the focus of evil in the modern world“.
The beheading of US journalists in Syria got huge play in the press. And yet, if we drill down a bit, the rate of journalists being killed in Syria is going down from its peak in 2012.
Somehow, Obama’s war gang has managed to convince ordinary Americans that ISIS represents a real threat to the US. That same poll that favors attacks on ISIS in Syria found that a staggering 91% of Americans find ISIS to be a serious threat to the US (59% said “very serious” and 31% said “somewhat serious”). Sadly, there is no reality behind this fear on the part of Americans. Even Time, in doing its best to support the hysteria, winds up undercutting the concept in a story today. In a piece creatively titled “Understanding the ISIS Threat to Americans at Home“, we learn:
On the one hand, Attorney General Eric Holder has said western fighters joining ISIS and returning home radicalized are the national security danger he worries about most. “We are seeing, I would say, an alarming rise in the number of American and European Union nationals who have been going to Syria to help extremist groups,” Holder told TIME last month. “This represents a grave threat to our security,” he said.
But in a thorough presentation on Sept. 3 at the Brookings Institution, outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, presented a less scary picture. ISIS has no cells in the U.S., Olsen said, “full stop.” Further, Olsen said, “we have no credible information” that the group “is planning to attack the U.S.” ISIS, Olsen said “is not al Qaeda pre-9/11.”
At most, the article concludes, quoting Obama in his “exclusive” with Chuck Todd, he needed “to launch air strikes to ensure that towns like Erbil were not overrun, critical infrastructure, like the Mosul Dam was protected, and that we were able to engage in key humanitarian assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives.”
The links Holder is hyping about ISIS and AQAP simply do not exist:
Holder says the danger comes from the combination of westerners joining ISIS and the expert bomb-makers working for the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is not clear what if any evidence exists of such collaboration yet. On the one hand, AQAP has issued statements in support of ISIS, and both groups are active in Syria and Iraq; on the other, al Qaeda and ISIS split in the last year after a debate over tactics and territory.
Several senior administration officials tell TIME they have seen no evidence of direct contact between individual members of AQAP and ISIS.
In the end, the article concludes, Obama’s war team has deduced that we must attack ISIS because at some point in the future, they will turn their sights on us. Never mind that in this case, attacking ISIS in Syria winds up helping Assad, whom we wanted to attack last year:
Jane Harman, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, said that while the Assad government was a major topic of discussion, she and other participants told Mr. Obama that he could order military action in Syria without fear of helping Mr. Assad, since ISIS was occupying ungoverned territory that his forces were unlikely to reconquer.
I guess that Harman and Obama know that Assad won’t be able to reconquer those once ISIS is gone because of the bang-up job we will do training and equipping our famous “moderate” rebels, but hey, what could go wrong on any of this?
In the end, though, the apparent support for this version of strikes on Syria seems to me to have come about because of the shift in focus on the “enemy” from a president oppressing the citizens of his country to an international terror group that we must fear and that represents true evil. As far as the average American is concerned, meddling in another country’s civil war is out of bounds, but when it comes to protecting the homeland against evil-doers, anything goes.
And it doesn’t even need Congressional approval.
Eli Lake has a piece trying to explain the big disparities between claimed numbers of Americans who have joined ISIS.
One might think that a government that secretly collected everyone’s cellphone records would be able to find out which Americans have joined ISIS. But actually that task is much harder than it would appear.
On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told CNN more than 100 Americans have pledged themselves to the group that declared itself a Caliphate in June after conquering Iraq’s second-largest city. Hagel added, “There may be more, we don’t know.” On Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman walked back Hagel’s remarks, saying the United States believes there are “maybe a dozen” Americans who have joined ISIS.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast when asked if there were more than 12 Americans in ISIS. “We have some identifying information on some of the Americans, it may not be their name but we have enough information. That said, we readily acknowledge that that number is probably low and there are others we don’t know about.”
“I think 12 is probably low only because there is always stuff we don’t know,” said Andrew Liepman, who left his post as the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in 2012 and is now a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation. “I would not say that number is hugely low, but we always have to remember what we don’t know.”
But at least some of these discrepancies are actually quite easy to explain.
First, Lake jokes about the NSA’s dragnet. But that is actually one explanation for the larger numbers: in FISC documents, it is clear NSA treats association as transitive, meaning that an association with someone who is known to be associated with a group is itself, in many cases, considered evidence of association with the group. And some of this analysis is not going to go beyond metadata analysis (meaning NSA may not get around to reading the content to confirm the association unless the metadata patterns suggest some reason to prioritize the captured communication).
Thus, for any Americans who are in email or phone contact with a known or suspected member of ISIS, NSA likely considers them to be associated with ISIS. And remember, NSA’s collection of email and phone records overseas is almost certainly more extensive than their collection here, meaning those contact chains will be more exhaustive.
In addition, we know that the government considers traveling to an area of terrorist activity to be reasonable suspicion that someone is a known or suspected terrorist. The watchlist guidelines list just that as one behavioral indicator for being watchlisted as a known or suspected terrorist (see page 35).
3.9.4 Travel for no known lawful or legitimate purpose to a locus of TERRORIST ACTIVITY.
This means that any Americans who have traveled to Syria or Iraq are likely classified, by default, as terrorists. And many of those may have traveled for entirely different reasons (like freelance journalism).
That the Pentagon responded the way it did to Chuck Hagel’s fear-mongering is itself tacit admission that the government’s means of tracking terrorist affiliation sweep far wider than actual terrorist affiliation actually does. All Americans who have communicated with ISIS or traveled to Syria may not even want to join ISIS, and not all that want to will succeed in doing so. But NSA and NCTC are going to track everyone who might want to join, because that’s the best way to keep us safe.
Of course, that means the numbers can be used as Hagel used them, to fearmonger about the possible rather than the actual threat of American ISIS members.
All the more reason to make these watchlisting details public!
Today’s New York Times wants us to be very afraid because Samantha Power tells us that Syria may have failed to declare some of its chemical weapons (all declared category 1 materials have been destroyed) and those materials just might fall into the hands of the ISIS evil monsters. This is a very interesting development because now with ISIS as the most evil operator out there, the Syrian WMD’s that we have been fearmongering about now are scarier in the hands of ISIS than they are in the hands of Bashar al-Assad, whom many believe was responsible for the deadly August, 2013 sarin attack in Ghouta.
The long journey of Syrian WMD’s and just who makes them scary is a case study in the process of intelligence and diplomatic sources feeding propaganda to a willing press. Recall that just after the Ghouta attack, Joby Warrick was used, in a very Judy Miller fashion, to try to develop fear of a probably non-existent Syrian bioweapons capability. Less than a month after that feeble attempt to claim bioweapons in Syria’s arsenal, Warrick was dumbfounded that ricin (see below for a description of this toxin) appeared on the list of materials that Syria declared for destruction (ricin did not appear anywhere in Warrick’s “documentation” of Syria’s bioweapons capability just a month earlier):
The movement of chemicals and equipment in recent days — which initially spurred fears that Syrian officials were trying to hide parts of their stockpile — suggests instead that the weapons are being consolidated ahead of a first visit by inspection teams that arrived in the country last week, administration officials said.
The activity has contributed to a cautious optimism among U.S. officials over the prospects for quickly dismantling the chemical arsenal. Syrian officials a week ago turned over their first inventory of chemical weapons and storage sites, a list that U.S. analysts described as detailed, although incomplete.
The records have helped shed light on a sizable Syrian stockpile that U.S. officials say contains hundreds of tons of precursors for the nerve agents sarin and VX, as well as a surprise: ricin, a highly lethal poison derived from castor beans.
Yesterday, The Intercept finally (the document is marked as having been approved for release just before last Christmas!) liberated a cache of email conversations (pdf) taking place between a number of national security reporters and the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs. The document is 574 pages long, but I want to focus on only one email to the office and the reply it generated, because it fits perfectly into this overall pattern of intelligence (and diplomatic) operatives catapulting propaganda with the eager cooperation of sychophantic reporters and because it mentions ricin. The email in question comes from Wall Street Journal reporter Siobhan Gorman and appears to be sent to at least two redacted recipients at CIA and mentions ricin in the context of Syria:
Okay. So this email takes place in July of 2012, just over a year before the Ghouta attack that used sarin.
Before we get to more of this story, a bit of background on ricin is in order. Continue reading
One point I tried to make in this post on George Orwell’s fighting in Spain is that the fight between Bashar al-Assad and ISIS is one that has become an ideological magnet. I was trying to argue that we’re offering little by way of positive ideology to combat ISIS, particularly among those most susceptible to its draw.
Two recent commentaries have made related points. This Jocelyne Cesari NYT op-ed on Europe’s need to more fully embrace Muslims notes the “collapse” of ideologies in Europe.
Third, the collapse of all major ideologies in Europe — nationalism, Communism, and liberalism — has left room for new radical options. For some young Europeans, adherence to radical Islam provides a viable alternative ideology, comparable to that of radical leftist groups in the 1970s.
And at the New Yorker, Steve Coll notes that ISIS is the kind of thing that arises when people feel they have no other avenue for security and justice.
The group’s lightning rise is a symptom, however, of deeper instability; a cause of that instability is failed international policy in Iraq and Syria. If the United States is returning to war in the region, one might wish for a more considered vision than Whack-a-Mole against jihadists.
The restoration of human rights in the region first requires a renewed search for a tolerable—and, where possible, tolerant—path to stability. ISIS feasts above all on the suffering of Syria, and that appears to be unending. The war is in its fourth year, with almost two hundred thousand dead and nine million displaced, inside the country and out. The caliphate now seated in Raqqa is the sort of dark fantasy that can spring to life when people feel they are bereft of other plausible sources of security and justice.
Though the very terms Coll discusses may betray part of the problem — and the neoliberal ideology Cesari doesn’t account for in her piece.
It is not yet clear that ISIS will endure as a menace. Fast-moving extremist conquerors sometimes have trouble holding their ground. ISIS has promised to govern as effectively as it intimidates, but its talent lies in extortion and ethnic cleansing, not in sanitation and job creation. It is vulnerable to revolt from within.
Conceiving of governance as “job creation” may undersell what a destabilized region is looking for — not to mention ignore what ISIS has done in Syrian areas they control.
The group also has a surprisingly sophisticated bureaucracy, which typically includes an Islamic court system and a rovingpolice force. In the Syrian town of Manbij, for example, ISIS officials cut off the hands of four robbers. In Raqqa, they forced shops to close for selling poor products in the suq (market) as well as regular supermarkets and kebab stands—a move that was likely the work of its Consumer Protection Authority office. ISIS has also whipped individuals for insulting their neighbors, confiscated and destroyed counterfeit medicine, and on multiple occasions summarily executed and crucified individuals for apostasy. Members have burned cartons of cigarettes and destroyed shrines andgraves, including the famous Uways al-Qarani shrine in Raqqa.
Beyond these judicial measures, ISIS also invests in public works. In April, for instance, it completeda new suq in al-Raqqa for locals to exchange goods. Additionally, the group runs an electricity office that monitors electricity-use levels, installs new power lines, and hosts workshops on how to repair old ones. The militants fix potholes, bus people between the territories they control, rehabilitateblighted medians to make roads more aesthetically pleasing, and operate a post office and zakat (almsgiving) office (which the group claims has helped farmers with their harvests). Most importantly for Syrians and Iraqis downriver, ISIS has continued operating the Tishrin dam (renaming it al-Faruq) on the Euphrates River. Through all of these offices and departments, ISIS is able to offer a semblance of stability in unstable and marginalized areas, even if many locals do not like its ideological program.
I’m not saying this is the societal solution the Middle East seeks. Continue reading