Archive for the ‘FBI’ Tag
MoJo’s Michael Mechanic has pulled together how eight newspapers captured the defining moments of Osama bin Laden’s mortal entanglement with America. From the Gray Lady to the tabloids, it’s interesting to look through these juxtaposed front pages and reflect on all that transpired in the decade between:
(The Examiner’s awkward ad on May 2 is also evocative of historic changes — those roiling the news biz. Though I’m not totally sure about the tabloids, until a couple years ago the front pages were sacrosanct.) Check out the rest of the images here.
A report from the Washington Post on Wednesday describes an effort by the CIA to assess the impact of WikiLeaks on U.S. national security. The effort is known as the WikiLeaks Task Force. Apparently it’s also commonly referred to as “WTF” around the halls in Langley. While that acronym may be cracking some sardonic grins, the Post story also reveals a CIA perspective that is no laughing matter.
To some agency veterans, WikiLeaks has vindicated the CIA’s long-standing aversion to sharing secrets with other government agencies, a posture that came under sharp criticism after it was identified as a factor that contributed to the nation’s failure to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Even while moving to share more information over the past decade, the agency “has not capitulated to this business of making everything available to outsiders,” said a former high-ranking CIA official who recently retired. “They don’t even make everything available to insiders. And by and large the system has worked.”
Without a doubt the sharing of sensitive information among U.S. agencies remains a complex and unwieldy issue — perhaps as complex and unwieldy as the U.S. national security apparatus itself since it ballooned under George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. But while a strong majority of Americans believe that WikiLeaks has harmed the national interest, it could be dangerously foolish to buy into a resurgent lockdown mentality.
In his indispensable 2006 book “The Looming Tower,” journalist Lawrence Wright investigated the devastating effect of turf battles among the CIA, FBI and NSA prior to the 9/11 attacks. Wright’s book, as I detailed in an essay for Salon, made a persuasive case that the 9/11 plot may well have been foiled if not for fatal duplicity on the part of the CIA, which jealously guarded its intelligence gathering from the criminal-investigation focused FBI. A crucial opportunity apparently came and went in late 2000:
In Yemen, [FBI agent] Soufan was on the trail of an al-Qaida figure closely connected with Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khaled al-Mihdhar, two Saudi-born al-Qaida operatives who would later help seize planes on 9/11. The CIA had surveillance photos of all three men together from an al-Qaida summit in Malaysia the previous January, but when Soufan came knocking for information, the CIA slammed the door shut. It was part of what Wright calls “a bizarre trend in the U.S. government to hide information from the people who most needed it.”
As I noted in my piece about WikiLeaks and cyber warfare earlier this month, some U.S. officials have been warning anew about the dangers of inter-agency turf battles. Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair recently told Congress, “This infuriating business about who’s in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.”
What happens when the next 9/11 is in the works? The real imperative, it seems, is for the U.S. government to better protect any necessary secrets (the definition of which is another key subject — see Thomas Blanton on “the massive overclassification” of U.S. national security information) while improving upon the sharing of vital information among agencies. If it fails in that mission, the fallout could ultimately be far greater than anything perpetrated by the likes of Julian Assange and company.
“My parents, with admirable foresight, had their first child while they were on fellowships in the United States. My mother was in public health, and my father in a library-science program. Having an American baby was, my mother once said, like putting money in the bank.”
So begins Daniel Alarcón’s recently published short story “Second Lives,” whose narrator is a Latin American man with a potent longing for a First World life. His dream has eluded him; he realizes he is doomed to a “terminal condition” of Third World citizenship, despite that his older brother — the one lucky to be born on U.S. soil — had seized the opportunity to emigrate many years prior.
Alarcón is a writer I’ve long admired, in part for how he weaves complex cultural politics into quietly powerful narratives. (His luminous story collection War by Candlelight is a must-read.) “Second Lives” arrived with uncanny timing in this politically boiling August. At face value, its opening easily could be another rallying cry for the political far right, members of which have been stirring up anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria from California to Texas to lower Manhattan.
Even by today’s standard of partisan politics, the hot wave of demagoguery hitting the country feels off the charts. Take the fear mongering of Louie Gohmert, the Texas congressman who has been flogging the “terror babies” conspiracy on national television: Shadowy foreigners are plotting to give birth in the U.S., only to take their tots overseas, train them as terrorists and send them back decades later, courtesy of the 14th Amendment, to wreak havoc inside the country.
That this theory is plainly ridiculous, and has been debunked by FBI and U.S. Customs officials, is beside the point. As Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote from Phoenix, this is political opportunism of a very scary kind.
You might say that Gohmert is just small potatoes. But what about more influential Republicans eager this election season to foment a crusade against Islam? The tactics aimed at the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” — which in name is pure invention — are no less craven. Newt Gingrich put a Hitlerian stamp on the proposed Muslim center in lower Manhattan: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington,” he said by way of egregious comparison on Fox News. No doubt Gingrich is pleased to be in lockstep with the cowardly Anti-Defamation League; he could scarcely do more to exploit fearful support from Jews than to evoke the Holocaust.
There seems to be not a shred of empathy or basic human decency in this dark political campaign. Oh, sure, some agitators will say that some of their best friends are Muslims — which should ring about as true and logical as pronouncements on CNN by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association: “I love Muslims, I am pro-Muslim. I am anti-Islam. I would say to a Muslim, ‘Look, your ideology is destructive, it’s deceptive, it’s dark.'” Or as Fischer also put it: “Islam is not a religion of peace. It is a religion of war, it is a religion of violence.”
In this war, Gingrich, Boehner and Cantor are the generals, the Fischers their captains on the ground. For them anything goes in the battle for congressional power this fall, the rising dangers of nativist provocation be damned.
Which returns me to Alarcón’s story. Against the multitude in the media recently (no shortage of fictions among them) it is an unwavering prick of light. It brims with the humanism that America’s darkly cartoonish politicos so palpably lack. As great fiction should, the story never directly grapples with the Big Political Issues, like immigration. Indeed, the politics here are personal, etched in the lives of characters coping with family struggle, romantic heartbreak and the daily challenges and amusements of assimilation. “Second Lives” is a portrait of a divided family gazing across the chasm between the Third and First Worlds — and it is a vivid reminder of what is really in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of America’s immigrant hopefuls.
“In school,” recalls Alarcón’s narrator, “my favorite subject was geography. Not just mine, it should be said.” He continues:
I doubt any generation of young people has ever looked at a world map with such a powerful mixture of longing and anxiety; we were like inmates being tempted with potential escape routes. Even our teacher must have felt it: when he took the map from the supply closet and tacked it to the blackboard, there was an audible sigh from the class. We were mesmerized by the possibilities; we assumed every country was more prosperous than ours, safer than ours, and at this scale they all seemed tantalizingly near. The atlas was passed around like pornography, and if you had the chance to sit alone with it for a few moments you counted yourself lucky. When confronted with a map of the United States, in my mind I placed dots across the continent, points to mark where my brother had lived and the various towns he’d passed through on his way to other places.
That dream of “other places,” of course, has everything to do with the greatness on which our immigrant-rich society has been built. The demagogues who have forgotten this truth, or who knowingly have traded it for the miasma of deranged politics, would do well to read and ponder Alarcón’s tale. It is so much taller, as it were, than any of theirs.
A long article about CIA director Leon Panetta in the June 22 issue of the New Yorker has prompted a flurry of media attention for comments Panetta made in reaction to Dick Cheney’s latest fear mongering over terrorism and U.S. national security. “It’s almost as if he’s wishing that this country would be attacked again, in order to make his point,” Panetta said of Cheney, according to the article. “I think that’s dangerous politics.”
Cheney pushed back on his “old friend Leon” on Monday, according to Fox News. John McCain also jumped in, defending Cheney’s motivations and playing up discord among rank-and-file spooks: “By the way, I hear morale is not at an all-time high over at the CIA under Mr. Panetta’s leadership,” McCain said. Joe Biden weighed in on the talk-show circuit.
The back and forth is politics in the wake of dueling speeches from Obama and Cheney, but it’s a sideshow. Perhaps the famously secretive Cheney’s inner thoughts can’t really be known, but his hand in brutal interrogation policy couldn’t be better known. As I wrote about here recently, paramount for Cheney is protecting his political legacy and seeing his national security policies vindicated. (The essence of Panetta’s point.) The real news in the New Yorker article, buried deep into its 7,600 words, is the continuing absence of accountability for those who carried out Cheney’s vision to horrific ends.
No criminal charges have ever been brought against any C.I.A. officer involved in the torture program, despite the fact that at least three prisoners interrogated by agency personnel died as the result of mistreatment. In the first case, an unnamed detainee under C.I.A. supervision in Afghanistan froze to death after having been chained, naked, to a concrete floor overnight. The body was buried in an unmarked grave. In the second case, an Iraqi prisoner named Manadel al-Jamadi died on November 4, 2003, while being interrogated by the C.I.A. at Abu Ghraib prison, outside Baghdad. A forensic examiner found that he had essentially been crucified; he died from asphyxiation after having been hung by his arms, in a hood, and suffering broken ribs. Military pathologists classified the case a homicide. A third prisoner died after an interrogation in which a C.I.A. officer participated, though the officer evidently did not cause the death. (Several other detainees have disappeared and remain unaccounted for, according to Human Rights Watch.)
That’s just the tip of the black iceberg, if you add in the numbers involving U.S. military operations — entwined with CIA operations — under Bush and Cheney. As I reported for Salon back in 2005, by then 108 detainees were known to have died in U.S. military and CIA custody since the start of the so-called war on terror. At least 26 deaths were deemed criminal homicides. Who knows if additional bodies piled up since.
As was also reported long ago, medical doctors and mental health professionals were involved in the torture, too, although the extent of their roles remains buried. Citing recently declassified Justice Department memos, Nathaniel Raymond, who works with the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights, says that medical personnel working for the CIA were “the designers, the legitimizers and the implementers” of interrogation using torture. “We still don’t know how many detainees were in the black sites, or who they were,” Raymond says in the New Yorker. “We don’t fully know the White House’s role, or the C.I.A.’s role … This is arguably the single greatest medical-ethics scandal in American history. We need answers.”
If the accountability picture remains grim (both in terms of the operators and the policy overlords) there is one positive development detailed in the New Yorker piece: Panetta has ambitious plans for a new kind of legally acceptable interrogation capability. A task force led by Harvard Law professor Philip Heymann has been advising Panetta on a proposal to create an elite U.S. government interrogation team, staffed by some of the best CIA, FBI and military officers in the country, and drawing on the advice of social scientists, linguists and other scholars. According to the New Yorker, Heymann describes it as an effort to create “the best non-coercive interrogation team in the world,” the equivalent of “a NASA-like, man-on-the-moon effort” for human-intelligence gathering.
The president’s decision this week not to make public additional graphic photos from U.S. military investigations into torture was the right one. I say that as someone who had a hand in helping make public a large collection of such photos three years ago.
In early 2006, I was part of a team of reporters and editors at Salon that spent many weeks scrutinizing, reporting on and carefully assembling a cache of raw evidence from a classified Army investigation that had been obtained by investigative reporter Mark Benjamin. The culmination of our work was “The Abu Ghraib Files,” a groundbreaking report documenting the notorious Iraq war scandal and its aftermath.
One purpose then of our publishing nearly 300 disturbing images from the Army’s criminal investigation was to help deepen the American public’s understanding of what some members of its military had done. The other essential purpose of our report was to underscore that, two years after the scandal had come to light, nobody above the level of foot soldier in the U.S. military or government had been held accountable — even though it had become clear that the criminal acts sprang from policies crafted and directed at the highest levels of the Bush government.
That failure of accountability remains in place today, to our national discredit. And that should be the primary focus now: The continued pursuit of those responsible for the policies that gave rise to the war crimes.
That’s not to say Obama’s choice was an easy one, particularly given his vows of greater transparency, but I think his cost-benefit analysis here is wise. The nature of the crimes has been documented extensively and is known the world over. Publication of the additional images, based on the contours we have of them from news reports, is not likely to add “any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out,” as Obama put it on Wednesday. Allowing past if newly revealed images of intimidation and degradation to be splashed across the media in an explosive news cycle, on the other hand, would likely enrage legions worldwide and do fresh damage to America’s reputation.
Beginning to repair the grave damage done to America’s standing in the world under Bush was part of the great promise of Obama’s election. He’s been off to a strong start, with his gestures of respect for the Muslim world and his reaching out to political adversaries from Tehran to Havana. Perhaps it would be worth the risk of undermining that shift if the torture perpetrated by Americans at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere somehow remained obscure. But that’s not the case.
Obama did miscalculate with part of his rationale, emphasizing that releasing additional photos could endanger U.S. troops. As Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell reiterated in the Washington Post, “With 20,000 additional forces coming into Afghanistan, an election in August and the fighting season in full swing right now, the timing is particularly bad.”
The commander in chief wants to show support for the troops, especially at a time of escalation — but it’s a misguided emphasis, because on its face it aligns Obama too closely with tactics used at the outset of the torture scandal by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld as they sought to cover it up. (Unsurprisingly, some on the political left have used this point to pounce on Obama.) Moreover, it’s an unconvincing argument — U.S. troops are already in danger on a daily basis in Iraq, Afghansitan and elsewhere.
More important to consider in all this is the president’s courageous decision recently to declassify Justice Department memos and reignite a national debate, false dogma of Dick Cheney and all, about the policy origins of the disaster. The important development of the week, then, was not Obama’s about-face but the congressional testimony of Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent directly involved in the interrogation of crucial terrorist captives early in the war. Soufan, a highly authoritative source on the matter by most counts, barely stopped short of testifying that George W. Bush and his top officials peddled lies apparently fed to them by the CIA about the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. (Soufan called the former president’s statements “half truths.”)
Allegations that serious, atop further evidence concerning the authors of the brutal interrogation policy — and there are indications that other revealing memos may be forthcoming — seem to suggest real momentum toward greater accountability, possibly at a much higher level than we’ve seen. That of course is the goal here. Are more grim photos necessary to reach it?
I have friends in the human rights community, some of whom I worked with at length to help expose the troubling national security policies of Bush and Cheney. But I have to disagree with them on this one.
“This essentially renders meaningless President Obama’s pledge of transparency and accountability,” said the ACLU’s Amrit Singh this week, regarding the reversal on the photos. The Obama administration, she said, “has essentially become complicit with the torture that was rampant during the Bush years by being complicit in its coverup.”
It’s an advocacy group’s job to keep the heat on, but that’s rhetoric pretty far gone. It has long been clear that the torture debacle must be resolved to higher account. How best to do that remains up for debate. Meantime, what I see is a president working to navigate treacherous political waters, and doing it mostly with skill and conviction, in a prolonged and painful storm not of his making.
UPDATE 5/24/09: Heartening today to see that I’m in good company on the Op-Ed pages of the Sunday Times, where journalist Philip Gourevitch, who has explored the Abu Ghraib nightmare at great length, underscores why releasing additional photographs wouldn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. After all, as he points out, Dick Cheney has been glad to take credit lately for having terrorists under interrogation slammed against walls or waterboarded.
“Photographs can’t show us that the real bad apples were at the top of the civilian chain of command in Washington,” Gourevitch writes, “but that is what we need to know — or, rather, since we’ve known it and gone along with it for a long time, that is what we need to come to terms with now.”
In yesterday’s “Why Dick Cheney keeps torturing us,” I chose not to address the immorality of interrogation by torture because I wanted to focus on the true purpose of the former vice president’s cynical political tactics. But as commenter ‘Briar’ rightfully noted, a utilitarian argument against torture is in some sense too narrow. Even in the rare theoretical instance in which torture might produce useful results (we have yet to learn of a single one in the prolonged war on terror, as I wrote yesterday), its use would still be wrongheaded and reprehensible.
There are numerous reasons for this, of course, not least what it does to the person being tortured. Also deeply disturbing, although less often discussed, is what it does to the people who carry out the torture or who witness it being carried out. The New York Times article I cited yesterday with regard to intelligence extracted from Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah also reported that “watching his torment caused great distress to his captors.” Even for those who believed that brutal treatment could produce results, according to a former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case, “seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.”
In an in-depth article on torture I reported for Salon back in 2005 (also cited in yesterday’s post), this point was made particularly well by U.S. Army Captain Ray Kimball, who spoke with me about reports of Special Operations Forces brutalizing prisoners in Iraq:
“Torture not only degrades the victim, it also ultimately degrades the torturer,” said Kimball, who served in Iraq and now teaches history at West Point. “We already have enough soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after legitimate combat experiences. But now you’re talking about adding the burden of willfully inflicting wanton pain on another human being. You tell a soldier to go out there and ‘waterboard’ someone” — strap a prisoner to a board, bind his face in cloth, and pour water over his face until he fears death by drowning — “or mock-execute someone, but nobody is thinking about what that’s going to do to that soldier months or years later, when it comes to dealing with the rationalizations and internal consequences. We’re talking about serious psychic trauma.”
The moral imperative not to torture is manifold, powerful and obvious to most. The single greatest weapon against it is the argument that using torture saves American lives — so in that respect Cheney’s demonstrably false argument, that torture has worked, deserves to be called out for its cold political calculus.
Especially now, as the ongoing media campaign from Cheney and others who share his views appears to be working to a degree. From an analysis on the torture debate by reporter Scott Shane appearing in today’s New York Times:
Many intelligence officials, including some opposed to the brutal methods, confirm that the program produced information of great value, including tips on early-stage schemes to attack tall buildings on the West Coast and buildings in New York’s financial district and Washington. Interrogation of one Qaeda operative led to tips on finding others, until the leadership of the organization was decimated. Removing from the scene such dedicated and skilled plotters as Mr. Mohammed, or the Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali, almost certainly prevented future attacks.
It becomes more difficult to doubt the efficacy of torture after reading a paragraph like that from a respected national security reporter. (Even in an article containing a hefty dose of skepticism favoring the other side of the debate.) But if the above is accurate, why, for more than seven years, have no specific details been made public as to how and what “information of great value” was gained through brutal interrogations?
As Shane notes, “which information came from which methods, and whether the same result might have been achieved without the political, legal and moral cost of the torture controversy, is hotly disputed, even inside the intelligence agency.”
In light of all the known evidence to date, though, one thing is crystal clear: The political — and moral — onus rests squarely on the backs of the torturers.
UPDATE: Ali Soufan, an FBI agent directly involved in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, speaks out publicly today for the first time on the torture issue. His Op-Ed is well worth reading in its entirety; here’s what stands out in particular per above:
There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.
It’s also worth noting that Soufan is the central figure in Lawrence Wright’s account of a pivotal interrogation prior to 9/11, which I cited here yesterday.
Nobody should be surprised that the former vice president keeps returning from the political wilderness to defend the brutal treatment of suspected terrorists. Without providing any specifics, Cheney continues to intone that torturing Al Qaeda suspects yielded information vital to protecting America. Countless news reports have suggested strongly that claim is false.
Make no mistake: What Cheney is doing isn’t about protecting America, it’s about protecting political power. (Anyone who needs a refresher on his views of amassing and wielding that commodity should go back and read this Pulitzer Prize-winning series from the Washington Post.) With President Obama’s courageous decision to declassify Bush administration legal memos and return the unfinished torture debate to the headlines, Cheney and those who helped do his bidding in the Bush administration’s war on terror still have a lot to lose in terms of legacy and liability.
Once again we watch Cheney double down on an ugly bet: “I haven’t announced this up until now,” he said on Fox News on Monday, “but I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country.” The U.S. government should declassify those reports, too, he said, so that Americans can see “how good the intelligence was.”
Obama is unlikely to do that, and Cheney knows it. That’s because the chances are that most if not all documentation of actual intelligence operations — as opposed to memos laying out the Bush administration’s legal justification for them — contains information too sensitive to disclose regarding sources and tactics. Obama should call Cheney’s bluff not only by noting that distinction, but also with a full-throated rejection of Cheney’s false argument: He should remind Americans that torture simply does not work.
That truth has been borne out in reams of media reporting on the war on terror, and has been reiterated time and time again by senior U.S. military and intelligence officials, several of whom I spoke with when covering the issue at length for Salon back in 2005. It was on full display again in late March, in a Washington Post report further examining the treatment of the terrorist Abu Zubaida, who was waterboarded by the CIA at least 83 times:
The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads. In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.
A New York Times report last weekend underscored that valuable intelligence gleaned from Zubaida did not come via torture:
His interrogation, according to multiple accounts, began in Pakistan and continued at the secret C.I.A. site in Thailand, with a traditional, rapport-building approach led by two F.B.I. agents, who even helped care for him as his gunshot wounds healed. Abu Zubaydah gave up perhaps his single most valuable piece of information early, naming Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whom he knew as Mukhtar, as the main organizer of the 9/11 plot.
Lawrence Wright’s definitive volume about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “The Looming Tower,” recounts in vivid detail another example of how the measured, savvy manipulation of a captured terrorist suspect — not the beating and simulated drowning of him — yielded critical intelligence. No doubt there are other such examples that have not been made public.
But in seven years, not a single example has emerged of specific information vital to U.S. national security that was obtained through torture — not even when protected from public view. As the Post reported late last month, “Since 2006, Senate intelligence committee members have pressed the CIA, in classified briefings, to provide examples of specific leads that were obtained from Abu Zubaida through the use of waterboarding and other methods, according to officials familiar with the requests. The agency provided none, the officials said.”
Of course, Cheney and his supporters will continue muddying the waters — including through leaks of nonspecific claims — in hopes of warding off political and legal vulnerability as the nation realizes the truth about torture.
UPDATE: More here on Dick Cheney’s defense of torture.
Pondering the rise of new media and the decline of the traditional newsroom, skeptics still tend to cling to either-or thinking: You’ve either got shrill partisan hacks or experienced professional reporters, and never the twain shall meet. The failure of imagination involved is pretty obvious. Digital media has unlocked great potential for nontraditional approaches to the gathering and analysis of information — a vast middle ground of additional possibilities.
Let’s say the government releases a bunch of documents related to a controversial, secretive activity. Now anybody with a computer, an Internet connection and a little motivation can dig in. (Of course, this has already been going on for quite a while.)
Today brings a fresh example of how reporting by bloggers can contribute to, or even lead, a major news cycle. In a front-page story today, the New York Times announces that the CIA used waterboarding, a torture technique provoking fear of death by drowning, hundreds of times on two Al Qaeda suspects — far more than was previously known. It’s newsworthy information on several levels, including for how it punches holes in past testimonials from U.S. officials about covert interrogations conducted by the Bush government.
This was not a scoop from the nation’s largest newsroom. The information underpinning the Times report came via blogger Marcy Wheeler, who discovered over the weekend that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month when she examined the fine print in a newly declassified Bush administration memo from 2005. Wheeler also used the memo to look at a telling clash between the FBI and CIA over the interrogation program and to examine the key question of whether waterboarding actually is effective, as has been claimed by Dick Cheney et al.
The Times report underscores that this story remains far from over (also see Mark Danner for an in-depth political discussion of the unresolved torture issue) — and the public has an enterprising blogger to thank for pushing it ahead.
President Obama’s predecessor famously terrorized the English language. But lately, as the new, more fluent commander in chief and his team leave behind George W. Bush’s linguistic legacy on national security — jettisoning hard-line terminology such as “war on terrorism” and “enemy combatant” — they seem in danger of over-articulating.
In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Janet Napolitano explained why, in her first testimony to Congress as Homeland Security chief, she used particular language to describe continuing perils. “In my speech, although I did not use the word ‘terrorism,’ I referred to ‘man-caused’ disasters,” she said. “That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”
A worthy goal. But considering the mass casualties perpetrated in Manhattan or Madrid or London in recent years, is it really a good idea to deploy a phrase that’s in danger of suggesting accidental tragedy?
As Peter Baker reports in the New York Times, the Obama administration is opening itself to criticism that it doesn’t take the dangers of the world seriously enough. Says Shannen W. Coffin, who served as counsel to former Vice President Dick Cheney: “They seem more interested in the war on the English language than in what might be thought of as more pressing national security matters. An Orwellian euphemism or two will not change the fact that bad people want to kill us and destroy us as a free people.”
One can always count on a loaded partisan volley from the Cheney camp, but in this case one perhaps not easily deflected in the battle of political perception.
Another national security legacy of the Bush era, deeply troubling, lingers. An internal report from late 2008 assessing the state of the U.S. intelligence system, made public this week, found precious little progress since 9/11 in terms of fixing serious bureaucratic risks. That’s despite the greatest overhaul since World War II of the system, including the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to oversee America’s spy agencies.
Many senior U.S. intelligence officials interviewed “were unable to articulate a clear understanding of the ODNI’s mission, roles, and responsibilities,” according to the report. U.S. spy agencies are still running “largely disconnected and incompatible” computer systems and have “no standard architecture supporting the storage and retrieval of sensitive intelligence.” And “intelligence information and reports are frequently not being disseminated in a timely manner.”
And while the concept of sharing information between agencies is “supported in principle” among some intelligence leaders, according to the report, “the culture of protecting ‘turf’ remains a problem, and there are few, if any, consequences for failure to collaborate.”
Hopefully the true consequences of such recent turf battles, and the excruciating story behind them, haven’t already gone forgotten.