Tom and the Wolf

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From today's Washington Post:

Most of the al Qaeda surveillance of five financial institutions that led to a new terrorism alert Sunday was conducted before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and authorities are not sure whether the casing of the buildings has continued, numerous intelligence and law enforcement officials said yesterday.

More than half a dozen government officials interviewed yesterday, who declined to be identified because classified information is involved, said that most, if not all, of the information about the buildings seized by authorities in a raid in Pakistan last week was about three years old, and possibly older.

"There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new," said one senior law enforcement official who was briefed on the alert. "Why did we go to this level? . . . I still don't know that."

One thing that's bound to help clarify things is the plan, now apparently endorsed by Bush, to add another level of intelligence bureacracy through the appointment of a national intelligence czar.

NEXT: Read Any Good RFIDs Lately?

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  1. 14 June 2004: John Ascroft announced the arrest of a man who was of the plotting a terrorist attacked against a Columbus, Ohio shopping mall. The man had been in secret custody since November 2003

    15-16 June 2004: John Kerry makes sucessful fund-raising campaign visit to Columbus, Ohio

    Coindicence?
    Can anyone give me a reason to ever pay a bit of attention to any “Terrorist” stuff coming from the administration?

    http://www.nbc4columbus.com/news/3416035/detail.html

    http://www.commondreams.org/cgi-bin/print.cgi?file=/views04/0621-01.htm

  2. gaius marius,

    “hat’s a terribly (intentionally?) naive idea of why these things are issued, shannon.”

    There is no way either practically or politically to keep the alerts secret.

    Practically, you can’t broadcast something to thousand of people and expect it to remain a secret in the internet age. The alerts would be uncovered and publicized by the press in short order.

    Politically, people would feel like they were being kept in the dark if the local beat cop new of the alert and they didn’t. Individuals such as yourself would be the first to ascribe sinister motives to the attempt.

    Cynical paranoia can lead one to naive beliefs even faster than blind trust in authority. These accusations of “suspicious timing” are reaching levels of self-parody. There is always some event within a few days of any “suspicious announcement” that one can image the announcement was intended to obscure.

    It reminds me of the humorous contention that post offices cause cancer since everybody who has cancer lives near or has visited a post office.

  3. Cynical paranoia can lead one to naive beliefs even faster than blind trust in authority.

    i concur — i try not to be wholly cynical or paranoid for this reason (and for my health). nor would i suggest that every item spilled from the black box of “intelligence” is specifically scheduled by the white house to hang on to power in 2004.

    but, decidedly, the american government — and ALL governments seeking extraordinary control and acquiescence — traffic in fear. creating the culture of perpetual fear in america is far older than terrorism — indeed, this is just the latest innovation, needed to replace the old one.

    why on earth were people taught to “duck and cover” all throughout the 50s and 60s, among many other things? because it made any sense? of course not. largely, it was to scare the hell out of americans — and, in so doing, make palatable massive military spending needed for the continuation of the global empire acquired in world war 2. not as part of an insidious master plan, perhaps, but as a natural reaction of government bureaucracy for self-preservation.

    likewise today, imo.

  4. “Duck and Cover” made perfect sense if you bother to think about it. While the immediate vicinity to the blast would indeed be obliterated with no body position saving you, further out from the blast, walls would hold as windows got blown in. “Duck and Cover” was sensible for protecting eyes and skin in just such a situation.

    But, of course, the story where it was a lube to facilitate global domination by the military industrial complex sounds pretty snappy too.

  5. facilitate global domination by the military industrial complex

    that’s not really the connotation i’m shooting for — i’m saying that any bureaucracy tends to be self-perpetuating. i don’t think you have to put an Evil Mastermind behind it.

    and national weekly “duck and cover” drills do so NOT make sense — please! and that’s just a fraction of it — go back and sample the 1950s propaganda (which is what it so clearly is in retrospect). the nation that entertains senator mccarthy as serious is obviously not thinking straight. lol…

  6. [Beaten on preview. Well, I typed it so I’ll post it.]

    why on earth were people taught to “duck and cover” all throughout the 50s and 60s, among many other things? because it made any sense?

    Post-“Atomic Cafe” it’s been trendy to snicker at Bert The Turtle and other Civil Defense education efforts of the early Cold War. “Duck And Cover” may have been ridiculous advice in the MAD era, but the movie by that name was made in 1951. The US wouldn’t test fire the H-Bomb for another year, and the ICBM was almost a decade away. If someone dropped an A-Bomb on your city, and you were a few miles away from the blast, “ducking and covering” wasn’t a futile gesture in the face of imminent doom — it was a sensible act with the potential to prevent significant injury or death. Or perhaps you’d rather have children sit upright at their desks so they can eat a faceful of flying glass when their classroom windows are blown out by a shockwave?

    Sorry, I’m not trying to draw parallels between then and now, this is just a hot button for me for some reason. The fact that these programs seem naive to us fifty years later doesn’t mean they were foolish given the circumstances at the time.

  7. The fact that these programs seem naive to us fifty years later doesn’t mean they were foolish given the circumstances at the time.

    i would agree in the abstract — but that doesn’t remove from the age the intense paranoia that resonated (and now again resonates) through society and government. at best, such repetitive fright-reminder drills serve a dual purpose.

  8. Um, excuse me.

    Is it at all possible that the government might be doing what is expect it to do, protect US?

    I mean, do you all think life is like an episode of Seinfeld where no one says what they mean or means what they say?

  9. dan, i think nothing is as simple as that.

    it’s nice for you that you feel you can abstract what is going on within a complex, chaotic behemoth like the united states government into one simple thing. unfortunately, i find it’s far more realistic (and disconcerting) to think that there are thousands of reasons, many conflicting, for anything the bureaucracy does.

    if some are concerned about protecting citizens, others are concerned about propagandizing them for election purposes, others about maintaining a state of civil fear, others for justifying global conquest and personal glory, and yet others contrapuntally to all of those.

    are there some good civil servants trying to do common good as you suppose? undoubtedly. but, living in the age of hyperindividualism that we do, limitless personal ambition has become a hallmark of political success — and i suspect that some ideologues within this white house (and every white house) care relatively less about the public good that than you or i would care to know.

    how many times will we have to learn the lessons of fdr, of nixon and kissinger, of reagan and weinberger, of clinton — indeed, of gaius marius? a few more times, i guess.

  10. When the US military plans airstrikes, we often rely on old data for the simple reason that it is good enough, and not much has changed.

    Comment by: Jamie S at August 3, 2004 12:46 PM

    Which is how we bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia

  11. Which is how we bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia

    Except I suspect that a few H&R posters would point to the embassy bombing and say “That’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” 🙂

    When I found out that the gov’t couldn’t even muster the intelligence to consult mapquest before bombing, that was one of the factors that got me to start voting Libertarian.

  12. I have just alerted Italian authorities to an urgent terrorist threat against targets in Rome. CIA has learned Libyan group led by a man named Hannibal entered Europe through Spain, and may be heading to Rome.

  13. More good news:

    Our Macedon allies have announced plans to topple oppressive regimes throughout the Middle East, including Egypt, Syria, and Iran. By destroying the regimes that spawn terror and hopelessness General Alexander will win crucial victories in the War on Terror.

  14. Syd,

    You are absolutely correct, but my statement was over simplified to avoid a technical discussion. Certain types of data do not change much and can and should be used old, other types are different. The chinese embassy incident, which I use routinely as a training tool, was the result of a lot of different failures at a lot of different levels, one of which was the use of old data. It was not simply caused by old data, nor by any other single thing. When we do make mistakes, they are analyzed to death to make sure it doesn’t happen again – not that that will console the families of the dead, but we do our level best.

    Libs like to snicker when the lastest study come out “proving” guns cause crime, or TV “causes” violence, but there are a lot of people in thos column who are more than ready to assume that the timing of this thing “proves” its just a sham. I think that’s just intellectually dishonest.

    I know and work with a ton of civil servants. Dumb? sometimes. Ineffective? maybe. Self serving? Not as much as you might think, but yes, of course there are some. I have not, however, met a civil servant or military member working in intelligence collection that would fall into the catagories below:

    “others are concerned about propagandizing [citizens] for election purposes, others about maintaining a state of civil fear, others for justifying global conquest and personal glory”

    maybe I’m lucky, maybe I’m not high enough in the food chain, but I have not seen these motivations.

  15. CIA has learned Libyan group led by a man named Hannibal entered Europe through Spain, and may be heading to Rome.

    rotflmao… good one.

  16. I think there should be an offical Department of Doing Something (DDS). It should have an unlimited budget, not be scrutinized by Congress or the media, and not be bogged down by the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Only then can this country go forward.

    For example, the DDS can take old intelligence and lock down an entire city, and no one will ask any questions. Everyone will have that wonderful feeling that Something is Being Done.

  17. This has been bothering me all morning.

    What I have gathered is that the real intelligence that prompted the alert had to do with the fusion of recently captured laptop/documents with this older information concerning surveillance. Clearly the surveillance takes place well in advance, and then there is a cooling off period designed to make us let our guard down. After that, they sucker punch us. Just because information is old, doesn’t mean it’s irrellevant!

    To illustrate using a very simple cold-war analogy. The US has a ten year long intelligence program that has determined the capabilities and ranges of russian ICBM’s. One day, the CIA starts hearing communications that strongly indicates some militant hard-line faction is getting ready to launch. The president puts the nation on high alert, and advises every one within range to take shelter. The press finds out that the US has known about the ranges of these missiles for 10 years, and starts complaining that the extent of the area’s put under alert is based on “old” intel.

    I think these “high level” law enforcement guys saw some classified data but only a few pieces of the puzzle – just what they needed. They weren’t satisfied with it because it and assumed there was nothing more. Maybe they are simply complaining to the press to try and bait the agancies involved to release more information to them. This is a major area of cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement that we are really bad at right now. As an intel guy, if someone says “hey, we think that this attack is going happen at this location.” Because of compartmentalization, I don’t necessarily get to analyze the data that led them to that conclusion if my job is to act on the information. Intel people are comfortable with this, cops are not.

  18. By all means, let’s just act on new trendy intel, this old stuff is so…old. Heck, this even takes the burden of blame off anyone for not stopping 9/11. After all, planning started in ’96 so by ’01, the whole plan was just passe.

  19. Wonder what they would say if there WAS an attack and this information was kept under wraps??? We know don’t we.

  20. Of course, the reason 9-11 happened was that we didn’t have enough federal agencies and bureaucracy to make sure it didn’t happen. Why adding another layer on top of our intelligence tree will sure to make things more effective and efficient.

  21. by all means, let’s “act” on the old intel. in fact, next time the enemy party has a convention, let’s release some photos of soviet missiles in cuba and remind everyone that fidel is only 90 miles offshore. that’ll get everyone in a tizzy, won’t it?

    this is just another CYA cry-wolf. i quit listening to the Panic Report a couple years ago already. its basic purpose is public manipulation through fear management, not any sort of safety. does anyone seriously believe that this four-year-old crap was released at the end of the dnc by accident?

    try this very probable reality on for size, panicky people: you can’t stop the next attack, you won’t know when it’s coming or where, and it’ll kill several dozen people at least. scared?

  22. I knew the US was anti-communist, but didn’t realize we needed so many CZARs to prove the point.

  23. According to a broadcast news story this morning, the last surveillance photos they found in pakistan was taken in January of this year.

    The alerts are really intended for law enforcement and other authorities especially those in charge of certain targets. The rest of us can pretty well ignore them.

  24. Hmm, fighting terrorism is soooo hard, and maybe we won’t be successful, and it costs so much! After all, the terrorists don’t kill *that* many people, maybe the best option is just let it happen.

    It’s not about being scared, it’s about stopping evil people because they are evil. The intelligence process is a very real concern, here’s a great article if anyone is genuinely interested in the topic.

  25. Who in this administration cares if they put a heavy, vague and useless burden on NYC and DC. They’re not going to vote Bush anyway, so they get to keep up the required fear level nationwide while not inconveniencing very many republicans.
    It’s a win-win

  26. Ay Caramba! No mas, no mas!

  27. I keep hearing about intel about the targets, but was anything ever discovered about the timing? If we know they’re interested in certain targets but have no idea when they plan to attack them, it seems counterproductive to raise the alert level. Sure, let it be known what the targets may be so as to better distribute resources, but raising the alert level should be tied to reason to believe that an attack may be imminent. Otherwise it doesn’t mean much.

  28. You know, it is possible that this old intelligence is simply one piece of a puzzle, and that many pieces of the puzzle are much fresher. It certainly is possible.

    But Tom Ridge has this long habit of crying wolf. And he did so just 2 days after the Democrats held their convention so, whaddaya know, attention is diverted from them.

    Hopefully my hunches are wrong. But this just illustrates that Tom Ridge and his national mood ring are sorely lacking in credibility.

  29. The question is, what exactly was al-Qaeda surveilling three years ago? Security practices, entrance and exit arrangements, and even building structure can change a lot in three years, especially with 9/11 intervening.

    If the pictures are three years old, they’re pretty much useless for planning terror attacks now.

  30. Hi, I suspect one of the reasons it’s been made so very public that this information is less than timely is to let someone know that they retrieved other information, maybe more significant than somewhat hazy plots on financial institutions. It seems like all the armored cops, headlines and then the actual news that this information is old and where it came from is the US gov’t explaining that they know something really useful and want Al Qaeda to be worried they know it. On the other hand, it might just be Tom Ridge airing it all out and having a little fun before he leaves his job.

  31. This alert seems to be the continuation of the administration’s use of terror alerts to refocus the public’s attentions (in this case, possibly to interrupt Kerry’s post-convention bounce) and is likely as politically motivated as it is founded in foreboding intelligence. At some point, though, this sort of manipulation will begin to harm the manipulator more than benefit as the credibility of the administration is already being brought into question. And not just by those like me who know that they are sniveling scoundrels.

  32. thoreau, intelligence is very inspecific by and large. What to do about it is a real conundrum. Set aside the manipulation of fear theory of it for a moment and just look at the practical. You get intelligence indicating a possible plot: do you alert people or not? If you do it too often and there is no attack, people will stop paying attention. Not often enough and when there is an attack, it will surface that you had information and didn’t act on it. There’s a third option – send in the security forces and don’t tell anyone why. I think that last option is too creepy for the US; if you’re going to try and protect a target, you’re going to have to explain a little bit about why agents are all over the place and cars are being searched.

    Yes, the “mood ring” system is goofy and ineffectual, but in my experience it is very similar to the ways real decision makers use intelligence. We used to put together matrices of indicators, and color them based on a green-yellow-orange-red system. It is a simple way for analysts to pass their work to non-analysts. It’s not scientific, but it works.

    I am not realistic enough to know that a system like this could be manipulated for political gain. However, simply assuming it is being manipulated based on the fact that some of the intel was “old” is a very wrong conclusion. As indivduals we are free to decide that orange alerts are bogus/politically motivated/don’t affect me but the intelligence community has a responsibility to have some way of responding to the information it does get.

  33. The rest of us can pretty well ignore them.

    LMMFAO! which is why they put them on the nightly news instead of on the police dispatch radio! that’s a terribly (intentionally?) naive idea of why these things are issued, shannon.

  34. maybe the best option is just let it happen.

    jamie, you comments are predicated on the notion that we CAN observe, understand and control essentially everything that happens — or even some minute fraction thereof.

    i would humbly submit that no such condition has ever existed. israel, for example, has a far smaller population and territory to manage, has built an openly militant secret police state, engages in every manner of brutality to “fight terrorism” — and still are killed regularly by dirt poor men and women with cheap bombs. all you can do by engaging in the activities the united states government has since 9/11 is install a domestic police state to dominate the population and conquer an expensive empire.

    put your best detectives on it and let them work. then go about your business as best you can.

    unfortunately, we are far too frightened a nation to allow that to happen.

  35. Crimethink,

    I disagree. Even after 9/11, there have not been enough changes to warrent more than minor updates to a plan. The physical setup of the buildings/doors/roads in that area has not changed much in many years. About the only thing you could do to alter it would be to divert all traffic and erect jersey barriers to deflect a blast.

    When the US military plans airstrikes, we often rely on old data for the simple reason that it is good enough, and not much has changed.

  36. “On the other hand, it might just be Tom Ridge airing it all out and having a little fun before he leaves his job.”

    Lee, that is hilarious. I love the idea of Ridge crying wolf just to fuck with the public. Maybe he’ll kick it up to red in the next month or two just to see what happens.

    I work in DC and see quite a few beer-gutted, Ray-banned, jack-booted, jumpsuit commandos walking around with auto-rifle at the ready and a big, smug look. If they actually take down some Talibastard I’ll be first in line to shake their hand. In the meantime, I’m a little nervous. How much training did these guys have in automatic weapons, and when was the last psych evaluation?

  37. Gaius Marius

    “jamie, you comments are predicated on the notion that we CAN observe, understand and control essentially everything that happens — or even some minute fraction thereof.”

    I know as a matter of my own professional and personal experience that the US intelligence can and does observe, understand, and control a minute fraction of everything that happens. A very minute fraction, but enough to draw some conclusions that are often, but not always, correct. In a minute fraction of those instances, the US can act and control to some degree what happens.

    “put your best detectives on it and let them work. then go about your business as best you can.”

    Precisely. That’s what we in the intelligence community try to do every day. I think you are wrong about the “domestic police state” although I agree wholeheartedly that the intel community and the police are far to eager to resort to liberty infringing tactics when others would be more effective and less chilling.

    For the record, my comments about “letting it happen” were an attempt at sarcasm.

    Regards.

  38. maybe I’m not high enough in the food chain

    jamie, i’m not sure where you are on the food chain — but if you go up to wolfowitz’s office, you’ll find this ilk in residence.

    it’s not as if they don’t exist — plainly, history illustrates in technicolor glory that every society is replete with them. in more normal times, civilization and institutions function specifically to keep such men out of power.

    but these are not normal times, and our society has come to *deify* unlimited ambition. shoud it be any surprise that megalomaniacs ascend to the highest offices?

  39. I never believed the Chinese Embassy bombing was accidental. It happened a few days after the Serbian military somehow managed to shoot down an F-117 steath attack fighter. I think the Chinese gave their old red buddy Slobo some pointers on anti-stealth technology, and we gave them a big thank you card throug the roof.

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