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Our "crazy pants" war on terror

Here's a great headline from McClatchy -- quoting a member of the national security class: Broad U.S. terror alert mystifies experts; ‘It’s crazy pants,’ one says:

U.S. officials insisted Tuesday that extraordinary security measures for nearly two dozen diplomatic posts were to thwart an “immediate, specific threat,” a claim questioned by counterterrorism experts, who note that the alert covers an incongruous set of nations from the Middle East to an island off the southern coast of Africa.

Analysts don’t dispute the Obama administration’s narrative that it’s gleaned intelligence on a plot involving al Qaida’s most active affiliate, the Yemen-based Arabian Peninsula branch. That would explain why most U.S. posts in the Persian Gulf are on lockdown, including the U.S. embassy in Yemen, which on Tuesday airlifted most of its personnel to Germany in an “ordered departure,” the government’s euphemism for an evacuation. ...

If ordinary Americans are confused, they’re in good company. Analysts who’ve devoted their careers to studying al Qaida and U.S. counterterrorism strategy can’t really make sense of it, either. There’s general agreement that the diffuse list of potential targets has to do with either specific connections authorities are tracking, or places that might lack the defenses to ward off an attack. Beyond that, however, even the experts are stumped.

Take this sampling of reactions from prominent al Qaida observers:

“It’s crazy pants – you can quote me,” said Will McCants, a former State Department adviser on counterterrorism [2009-2011, i.e. under Obama] who this month joins the Brookings Saban Center as the director of its project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world.

We just showed our hand, so now they’re obviously going to change their position on when and where” to attack, said Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who was part of the team that hunted Osama bin Laden for years.

“It’s not completely random, but most people are, like, ‘Whaaat?’ ” said Aaron Zelin, who researches militants for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and blogs about them at

“I’m not going to argue that it’s not willy-nilly, but it’s hard for me to come down too critical because I simply don’t know their reasoning,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington research institute.

Meanwhile, while Obama shuts down a ton of embassies because of an AQ threat, AQ dominates the Syrian rebels, who Obama is trying to fund.

You can't tell the players without a scorecard, that's for sure.

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Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

To me, this is the salient quote:

“I’m not going to argue that it’s not willy-nilly, but it’s hard for me to come down too critical because I simply don’t know their reasoning,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

When the data collection, analysis, and decision making is all done in secret, it's pretty hard to argue, isn't it? I sometimes liken this sort of thing to Madam Cleo, the character who was on all those TV infomercials claiming she could talk to the spirits. I don't think that intelligence collectors and analysts are deliberately deceiving us, but like Madam Cleo, they make claims they aren't required to prove, as long as every once in a while a prediction actually comes true. They could be utter incompetents and yet still be that right occasionally, just as Madam Cleo could be a complete fraud and still fool some otherwise bright people into thinking she was legit.

Submitted by Hugh on

I am of two minds about these serendipitous terror alerts following on Snowden's revelations about NSA spying. Hannah Arendt remarked that it has been a hallmark of secret services for centuries.

Since the totalitarian secret police begins its career after the pacification of the country, it always appears entirely superfluous to all outside observers —or, on the contrary, misleads them into thinking that there is some secret resistance. The superfluousness of secret services is nothing new; they have always been haunted by the need to prove their usefulness and keep their jobs after their original task had been completed. The methods used for this purpose have made the study of the history of revolutions a rather difficult enterprise. It appears, for example, that there was not a single antigovernment action under the reign of Louis Napoleon which had not been inspired by the police itself. Similarly, the role of secret agents in all revolutionary parties in Czarist Russia strongly suggests that without their "inspiring" provocative actions the course of the Russian revolutionary movement would have been far less successful.

So it is entirely possible that the surveillance state has created this most recent terrorist threat to justify itself and its activities which have come under scrutiny. It seems a bit suspect that the "intelligence" gleaned from the programs under criticism is just good enough to tell us there is a threat (when is there not?) but insufficient to supply any who, what, or where.

On the other hand, I am sure the top ranks of al Qaida are bright enough to realize that the real damage to this country is not being done by their attacks but by our government and elites' overreaction to them. It seems reasonable to me for them from time to time to dump some chatter precisely into those channels they know are being surveilled by the NSA and sit back and enjoy the ensuing panicked, excessive response.