Newtown

The Find Every Terrorist at Any Cost Industry

As a thought experiment, replace the word “terrorist” in this paragraph with “soldier” or “military.”

All terrorists fundamentally see themselves as altruists: incontestably believing that they are serving a “good” cause designed to achieve a greater good for a wider constituency—whether real or imagined—which the terrorist and his organization or cell purport to represent. Indeed, it is precisely this sense of self-righteous commitment and self-sacrifice that that draws people into terrorist groups. It all helps them justify the violence they commit. It gives them collective meaning. It gives them cumulative power. The terrorist virtually always sees himself as a reluctant warrior: cast perpetually on the defensive and forced to take up arms to protect himself and his community. They see themselves as driven by desperation——and lacking any viable alternative—to violence against a repressive state, a predatory rival ethnic or nationalist group, or an unresponsive international order.

The paragraph comes from Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown Professor/ThinkTanker whose studies of terrorism predate 9/11 by decades. It forms part of his explanation, post Boston, for why people become terrorists: because they, like our own country increasingly, see violence as a solution to their grievance.

That’s not all of Hoffman’s description of what makes people terrorists, mind you. He goes onto discuss religion and the human relations that might convince someone to engage in violence. But the paragraph has haunted me since I read it over a week ago for how clearly it should suggest that one of the few things that separates terrorism from our country’s own organized violence is official sanction (and at least lip service about who makes an appropriate and legal target).

Which is one reason why Jack Levin, in a piece debunking four myths about terrorism, offers this as one solution.

Somehow, we must reinstate the credibility of our public officials — our president, our Congress, and our Supreme Court Justices — so that alienated Americans do not feel they must go outside of the mainstream and radicalize in order to satisfy their goals.

Blaming terrorism on our dysfunctional political system feels far too easy, but it’s worth remembering that in Afghanistan, Somalia, and parts of Yemen, Al Qaeda has at times won support from locals because it offered “justice” where the official government did not or could not.

In any case, the common sense descriptions Hoffman and Levin offer haven’t prevented a slew of people responding to Boston — some experts, some not — from demanding that we redouble our efforts to defeat any possible hint of Islamic terrorism, no matter the cost.

Batshit crazy Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert claims the Boston attack is all Spencer’s fault: because FBI purged some its training materials of some of the inaccurate slurs about Muslims (but did not even correct the training of Agents who had been taught that claptrap in the first place), it can no longer speak a language appropriate to pursuing terrorists. “They can’t talk about the enemy. They can’t talk about jihad. They can’t talk about Muslim. They can’t talk about Islam.” Which elicited the equally batshit crazy response from Glenn Kessler of taking Gohmert’s premise as a valid one that should be disproven by weighing how much offensive language remains in FBI materials, rather than debunking the very premise that only people who engage in cultural slurs would be able to identify terrorists. I award Kessler four wooden heads.

Somewhat more interesting is this piece from Amy Zegart, another Professor/ThinkTanker. She admits we may not know whether Boston involved some kind of intelligence failure for some time.

Finding out what happened will be trickier than it sounds. Crowdsourcing with iPhones, Twitter, and Lord & Taylor surveillance video worked wonders to nail the two suspects with lightning speed. But assessing whether the bombing constituted an intelligence failure will require more time, patience, and something most people don’t think about much: understanding U.S. counter-terrorism organizations and their incentives and cultures, which lead officials to prioritize some things and forget, or neglect, others.

But that doesn’t stop her from insisting FBI’s culture remains inappropriate to hunting terrorists “pre-boom.”

But it is high time we asked some hard, public questions about whether the new FBI is really new enough. Transformation — moving the bureau from a crime-fighting organization to a domestic intelligence agency — has been the FBI’s watchword since 9/11. Continue reading

How Can We Say John Brennan “Kept Us Safe”?

I was struck when I read this line in Dexter Filkin’s article on John Brennan and drones:

None of the above is intended as an attack on Brennan, who has spent the past four years as President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor. He has a hard job. He is almost always forced to act on the basis of incomplete information. His job is to keep Americans safe, and he’s done that.

How are we supposed to measure Brennan’s success in the White House?

His title, after all, is not just “Counterterrorism Advisor.” It is “Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.” Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

As Counterterrorism Advisory Brennan deserves credit, I guess, as terrorism has declined from 2009 levels (2009 was a spike year). Though it’s unclear how much of that is organic, and how much a result of Brennan’s efforts. In any case, I’m certainly willing to give him credit on that front.

But say his Homeland Security mandate includes cyberdefense? If that’s true — and it was for Richard Clarke when he was in that job — then Brennan has most assuredly not kept us safe. We’re getting hacked more than ever and we have yet to implement a comprehensive program that will keep critical infrastructure owned by corporations adequately defended.

Domestic terrorism is sort of included in Homeland Security. Indeed, Brennan has been involved in responses to mass shootings of both the domestic terrorist and non-terrorist varieties. If that’s part of Brennan’s mandate, than isn’t the spiraling rate of mass gun shootings proof he has failed? How can Filkins say Brennan “kept us safe” after Newtown?

And then there are things that should be included under any Homeland Security mandate but aren’t. Chief among them would be, at the very least, increasing resilience to extreme weather events, but preferably even efforts to minimize the risk of climate change. Hurricane response is included, and there are still people in NYC who lack heat from Hurricane Sandy. Drought badly damaged the navigability of the Mississippi this year; does our failure to resolve that problem count?

Infrastructure safety is another; some of the very same corporations that refuse to implement cybersecurity defenses have had major catastrophes caused simply by neglect (which suggests the push to get them to shore up only their cybersecurity defenses is a mistaken approach). How do we measure that?

Honestly, I’m as critical of Brennan as anyone, and I’m not sure it’s fair to hold him accountable for all the Homeland Security lapses on his watch. After all (as this Congressional Research Service paper makes clear), we don’t have a solid definition of what’s included in Homeland Security. So until we define it clearly, no one can be held accountable to that fuzzy definition.

That said, we ought to, at least, be cognizant of the definitions those executing the mission use. This is actually even relevant assuming (as is almost certain) that Brennan is confirmed; there has been debate, after all, whether or not CIA should be collecting intelligence on climate change. John Brennan prioritized his own work at the White House, and he appears not to have prioritized keeping first graders and Sikhs in their temple safe from crazy gunmen.

The point is, we as a country need to get better about defining what security for the “homeland” means, particularly because it is intended to include non-military defense. We need to shift our resources and emphasis accordingly based on what the greatest threats are. The fact that we don’t even know how Brennan defined that part of his job — and whether he was successful or not — tells us we’ve lost the big picture on our security.

Wayne LaPierre Demands $5 Billion Subsidy for His NGO

The central thrust of Wayne LaPierre’s press conference offering “solutions” in the wake of the Newtown massacre is to put armed security in every school.

There were 98,706 public schools in 2008-9 (plus 33,740 private schools, which I’ll leave aside).

Even assuming you underpay these armed security guards until such time as school unions represent them, you would pay at least $50,000 in wages and benefits for these armed guards.

That works out to roughly $5 billion, for just one guard in every public school.

That, at a time when we’re defunding education.

In short, Wayne LaPierre just demanded a $5 billion subsidy for his NGO, the price he presumes we should pay as yet another externalized cost of America’s sick relationship with guns.

I’ve got a better idea. Let’s tax gun owners, to cover thus potential cost and the cost of responding to the massacres the NRA enables. Anything short of such stiff taxes would be socialism.

If Gun Buyers Were Mexican

The NYT has a follow-up on Charlie Savage’s earlier article about all the gun safety provisions lying dormant at DOJ. It describes the gaps in the background check system due to states not sharing their data with the federal government.

Nearly two decades after lawmakers began requiring background checks for gun buyers, significant gaps in the F.B.I.’s database of criminal and mental health records allow thousands of people to buy firearms every year who should be barred from doing so.

The database is incomplete because many states have not provided federal authorities with comprehensive records of people involuntarily committed or otherwise ruled mentally ill. Records are also spotty for several other categories of prohibited buyers, including those who have tested positive for illegal drugs or have a history of domestic violence.

In the past I’ve drawn a comparison between our country’s treatment of terrorists and gun nuts, arguing that it has prioritized the less urgent threat.

But this background check database raises interesting comparisons with DHS’ Secure Communities, particularly the effort to ensure that any undocumented person arrested for a crime gets deported. Like terrorism, Secure Communities has hit a point of diminishing returns. As with terrorism, Secure Communities is built to allow for false positives.

Nevertheless, the government has prioritized getting that database completely functioning, with participation from every state.

While the law also allowed the Justice Department to withhold some general law enforcement grant money from states that did not submit their records to the system, the department has not imposed any such penalties, the G.A.O. found.

Not so with gun buyers, apparently.

And the comparison here offers one other lesson. One reason for the delay in data-sharing from the states is the difficulty in implementing an appeals process.

After the Virginia Tech shooting, Congress enacted a law designed to improve the background check system, including directing federal agencies to share relevant data with the F.B.I. and setting up a special grant program to encourage states to share more information with the federal government. But only states that also set up a system for people to petition to get their gun purchasing rights restored were eligible under the law — a key concession to the National Rifle Association — which proved to be an extra hurdle many states have not yet overcome.

Frankly, ensuring people have due process is one of the least offensive things the NRA does (would that they championed the civil rights of felons more generally).

If we demand this for gun ownership, why don’t we demand it for far more damaging terrorism and deportation data mining?

Dangerous Gun Lobby Seizes Platform from President

Yesterday, the President rolled out his answer to the Newtown massacre. He’s putting the guy who was put in charge of the Middle Class Task Force during a different crisis in charge of a similar commission to solve gun violence.

If you’re wondering how Joe Biden does with these task force thingies, here’s what the MCTF promised to deliver:

  • Expanding education and lifelong training opportunities
  • Improving work and family balance
  • Restoring labor standards, including workplace safety
  • Helping to protect middle-class and working-family incomes
  • Protecting retirement security

Ahem. Given that Obama’s gun control press conference was dominated by questions about his plans to make retirement less secure by cutting Social Security, I guess we shouldn’t put too much stock in Biden’s new Task Force.

Meanwhile, the NRA has obviously put more serious thought into how to “lead” on this issue than the White House. They have scheduled a Friday night news dump press conference for tomorrow, at which they will describe how they plan to be “part of the solution.”

Few reporters are going to dedicate a lot of energy to a press conference as they’re trying to pack up for Christmas.

But the press conference did provide Meet the Press with an excuse to schedule Wayne LaPierre for a one-on-one chat with hack David Gregory. No matter what you think of MTP, it accords the leader of a group that has spent decades making it easier for gun nuts to massacre people a certain stature and the opportunity to frame this debate.

Mind you, I don’t blame the NRA here, I blame the White House. The White House has a use-it-or-lose-it soapbox. And in this case, they seem to have had little interest in using it.

Which suits LaPierre and his massacre-enablers just fine.

Complicit in 20 Children’s Death, Mitch McConnell Claims He Can Do Nothing

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This afternoon, the man who will soon lead a filibuster against laws intended to lessen the chances that a massacre like Newtown will happen again had this to say for the people for Newtown.

So we stand with the people of Newtown today and in the days ahead. We can do nothing to lessen their anguish, but we can let them know that we mourn with them, that we share a tiny part of their burden in our own hearts. And that we lift the victims and their families and the entire community in prayer.

He said nothing in his speech about the personal responsibility he bears for not having acted to prevent this massacre and similar ones before 20 children died. He said nothing about immunizing gun manufacturers and making it easier to buy a gun. Indeed, he remained silent–simply clearing his throat once–when specifically asked about the actions he might take or obstruct to prevent similar massacres in the future.

No, Mitch McConnell. We may not be able to do anything to lessen their anguish, but we sure as hell can do more than your proposed solution–to pray.

I’ve been mentally responding to reactions like this much as The Economist’s Democracy in America did generally.

So unless the American people are willing to actually do something to stop the next massacre of toddlers from happening, we should shut up and quit blubbering. It’s our fault, and until we evince some remorse for our actions or intention to reform ourselves, the idea that we consider ourselves entitled to “mourn” the victims of our own barbaric policies is frankly disgusting.

Unless Mitch McConnell is willing to reverse his career of catering to the NRA, he has no business offering solace to the victims. Because he was one of the people ensuring the perpetrators of this gun violence would have easy access to their guns.

Note, McConnell is not the only one who followed bold words with silence (though he does have the NRA A rating, unlike these others). The White House today refused to say whether gun control was a top priority. And as Alec MacGillis notes, “in the decade since [2000], we’ve heard nary a peep from the side of the spectrum that had previously made this one of their causes.”

Emptywheel Twitterverse
emptywheel .@RonWyden "ignorant abt...ways in which govt using EO 12333 to conduct overseas data collection w/o court oversight" http://t.co/0BIigEaMcD
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bmaz @michaelbkiefer Nice looking couple!
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emptywheel @wizardkitten 2012 WAS fun. Can we haz clown car again, pleez?
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emptywheel @Krhawkins5 Oh, you're right. Updating.
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emptywheel Remember when Snyder said the flood was like a hole in his lame home? Now it was devastating. https://t.co/lv7cJrkNiv
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emptywheel At least 8 pieces of evidence on torture have already disappeared/been altered. https://t.co/A4G2WfmObL Did the access logs get altered too?
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bmaz @JasonLeopold Think DOJ might have been wanting to send me anyway.
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emptywheel @normative Except given how they treated this review, I assume they'll be stingy with that as well. @onekade @JameelJaffer
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emptywheel @normative The real big revelations WOULD come from the 215 and Exigent reports, which should have lots new declass. @onekade @JameelJaffer
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JimWhiteGNV RT @GregMitch: Wolf Blitzer still looking for more gunmen in Ottawa. Barbara Starr overhead in NORAD drone.
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emptywheel @normative Also outdated reference to what USED to be included in assessments. @onekade @JameelJaffer
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emptywheel @normative Short version is: Almost nothing, except that they're not using 1 NSL authority. @onekade @JameelJaffer
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October 2014
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