Another Stellar Week in the War on Terror

What is still fascinating and, as far as I know, almost unknown regarding the cartoon controversy, is why this brand of outrage over this particular provocation, and why now. We know certain things. Apparently some imams from Denmark traveled to the Middle East to arouse outrage. It may or may not be true that they included cartoons not published in the Danish newspaper – back in September! – that were at least borderline obscene to stoke more anger. The New York Times had an article about a meeting in Mecca, at which it was decided to make the cartoons an issue. So one can track a timeline.

My question is more basic. Was there strategic thinking behind the decisions to make an issue of the cartoons? Did various people believe that the jihadist movement needed a boost, and that sparking riots at Danish and Norwegian embassies just might help to bring in – or "blood" – more recruits? Some people, like the interesting-even-when-wrong Christopher Hitchens, thought Osama bin Laden sounded weak on the recent audiotape, and that this was in indication that al-Qaeda was losing and knew it. (Others disagree, of course.) Could it be that a vitiated jihadist movement felt a need to latch onto something that could re-attract attention and increase support, in part because one needn’t be a jihadist to be offended by depictions of Muhammad?

It could also be that the very fact of jumping onto this issue is a sign of weakness or tactical confusion among jihadists. The controversy has had the curious effect of pushing Europe and the United States, which had in general been divided over the war in Iraq and how to respond to the challenge of jihadist terrorism, closer together. It has also had the effect of pushing Shia and Sunni Muslims, who are usually divided on a number of issues, closer together. So it could be that the effect of uniting Shia and Sunni in outrage toward the West, if only temporarily, perhaps, was viewed as more of an advantage than the disadvantage of pushing Europe and the U.S. closer together.

I’m speculating, of course. It could be that the outrage simply built, in part fed by various leaders’ desire to fuel it but in part fueled by more or less spontaneous responses to the cartoons, in ways that were not planned and only minimally guided by leaders. But the angle of how this crisis fits in strategically in the overall confrontation between jihadist Islam and the West (to oversimplify radically; I don’t think I buy the "clash of civilizations" thesis) is one that has hardly been explored at all and might turn out to be more significant than most people realize just now.

Unanswered Questions

On the matter of the National Security Agency program of unwarranted surveillance of people in the United States who may or may not – the details are still secret and we are still asked to take our leaders’ word on faith – have been in contact with al-Qaeda or other jihadists overseas, there’s also a pertinent question that has received too little attention. President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have maintained that this program is not only more convenient for them – not having to go through all that paperwork to get warrants from the FISA court – but has been crucial to carrying on the vaporous and ever-shifting "war on terror."

Is there any evidence of this? Yesterday, the president gave a speech in which he talked of a planned attack on a high-rise in Los Angeles that had been foiled. The speech was obviously given in part for the reasons the president stated, to remind Americans that there are still real threats out there. But the timing made it seem apparent, at least to me, that it was also part of the campaign to defend the NSA domestic surveillance campaign, if only by association: This program is essential to our security and the threats are still out there, so shut up and stop criticizing.

In that speech, however, the president was careful not to go so far as to claim that the NSA program had anything to do with foiling the plot on the "Liberty Tower" – er, excuse me, the Library Tower, now known as the U.S. Bank Tower. In fact, he emphasized that foiling it had depended on the cooperation of other countries’ governments, specifically a Southeast Asian country he declined to name, perhaps for justifiable reasons. This is interesting from an administration that has been noted for defending unilateral action.

(I see the unilateral-multilateral argument that dominated conventional political discussion for the first couple of years as another empty issue. Obviously, there will be times when unilateral action is appropriate and times when multilateral action is appropriate. Making a fetish of either one turns a discussion about tactics into an unnecessary ideological divide. Perhaps it happened because neither side had much of an idea what would be effective given that intelligence was – and still is – so faulty and inadequate.)

The Dog That Didn’t Bark

No matter how inadequate the Senate hearings earlier this week were in terms of getting Mr. Gonzales to utter anything other than pious platitudes, this issue is not going away, and an increasing number of Republicans are beginning to question the program. I submit, therefore, that if the administration had anything even remotely resembling evidence that the NSA surveillance program had done anything to foil or neutralize anything remotely resembling a terrorist plot, they would have brought it forward by now.

To be sure, there are plenty of constitutional and civil-libertarian reasons to object to this kind of secret surveillance. But if it appears, on the evidence available to date, that the program simply didn’t accomplish what the president and his henchpeople said they were trying to accomplish, that might be a more persuasive argument against it to some Americans

In fact, the closest thing we have to evidence about the program is that it overwhelmed the FBI with a bunch of tips and "leads" that turned out to be not just useless but a waste of time that could have been spent on pursuing real leads. Not that the FBI is necessarily to be trusted on such matters. It is still culture-bound by the fact that its institutional incentive is to gather evidence to arrest people, when intelligence interests would sometimes suggest leaving suspects out there in the hope that they will lead to other contacts. Both retired Gen. William Odom and Seventh Circuit appellate court Judge Richard Posner have argued that a new domestic intelligence agency, without the power to arrest but with a mandate to contact law enforcement when an arrest seems the most efficacious course, should be formed, leaving the FBI to go after ordinary crooks and criminals.

Judge Posner, by the way, has been participating in an interesting discussion – the closest to a fruitful and relevant one I have seen so far – on whether the FISA law ought to be changed to allow something like the kind of program the president initiated in secret. Even though he has asked the question whether that kind of surveillance might be useful, and suggested that it might well be, he has not adduced any evidence that this program has done a bit of good in the war on terrorism.

It is difficult to avoid the suspicion, therefore, that this program was not initiated because George Bush, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, or anybody else in the administration really thought it would be particularly useful, let alone utterly essential. Rather, it struck them that having the government able to spy on Americans as a matter of course was a capital idea, and that the government probably should have been doing it all along anyway. The attacks of 9/11 thus became a handy justification, or pretext, for establishing a program that should offend most Americans but seems like the kind of thing government should be doing to others.

Of course, they weren’t so proud of the program as to want to make it public and brag about it. But for some government officials, secrecy is something of an end in itself anyway.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).