Foreign Policy

They Were Misinformed

Why intelligence doesn't make us safe

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It seems as if the frightening story that shut down New York's harbors to all but emergency vehicles and had upstanding citizens (such as Seattle's Dan Harrington) insisting they were riding on Greyhound buses with would-be Mohammad Attas was a hoax. The FBI had put out the word to look for five men that they were told had snuck into the U.S. from Canada on Christmas Eve with faked passports and possible sinister terroristic intent, or at least unspecified links to those with such intent. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "We want to know why they are here. We want to question them … and find out more."

The information came from Michael Hamdani, a professional document forger, who had been extradited from Canada and apparently decided to feed FBI agents exactly what he thought they wanted—a common occurrence among jailhouse informants.

The testimonies of people who are already in custody are notoriously unreliable; following this sensible list of guidelines from an Arizona police department could have helped the FBI avoid embarrassing themselves on this one. See 400 (A), "User of information must evaluate motive of supplier and corroborate the information."

Of course, the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community in general is still reeling from accusations that they criminally flubbed surveillance and information gathering that might have prevented the 9/11 plot from succeeding. It is perfectly understandable that they are unwilling to discount any story—however uncorroborated or possibly cockamamie—that might lead to squashing another such plot before its deadly blossoming.

But this incident underscores the foolishness of expecting that police action—however energetic or unrestrained by procedural niceties or boldly rejecting fussily punctilious looking before leaping—can promise us safety. If another damaging terrorist attack happens on U.S. soil (and it is worth noting that all those Al Queda sleeper agents we've been hearing about since 9/12 continue to enjoy a nice long rest) it may not necessarily be because our police and intelligence agencies were obviously negligent.

They are clearly out there trying; maybe, as the case of the Fake Five shows, trying a little bit too hard (if not a little bit too smart). The world is unpredictably dangerous; the worlds of terrorism and spying are filled with liars and crooks. No amount of "cracking down" can guarantee a risk-free world. Which ought to make us more seriously question the value of the cracking down. And, as the FBI should have done with Michael Hamdani, think harder about what the real motives at work might be. Just as criminals have an incentive to tell cops what they want to hear, so do cops have an incentive to tell us what want to hear as they grab more power for themselves.