Government Always Seems to Focus on the Wrong Things

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 vividly illustrated the continued use of the horrible attacks to score political points. The first promise that Barack Obama made as president was to close the torture-tainted Guantanamo prison. Although this could have been a meaningful step toward abandoning the lawless behavior of the George W. Bush administration, Obama has converted it into merely a symbolic act — and even that has been stymied by Congress blocking the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo to the mainland for trial in civilian courts.

Guantanamo is merely a prison that symbolizes the U.S. rendering suspected terrorists to offshore prisons, holding them indefinitely without a trial or detainee rights, torturing them, and then trying them in kangaroo military tribunals that don’t meet American or international standards of justice. Even in the best case of Congress allowing Obama to close Guantanamo, these horrendous policies either would continue or would still have the potential to continue.

Although Obama ended U.S. torture, in special cases, the CIA can render prisoners — that is, transfer them to countries that will torture them — so that the United States can keep its hands clean. In addition, a few days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, John Brennan, Obama’s lead counterterrorism adviser, punched back at Congress and said that no new inmates would be taken to Guantanamo, but they could be put in military custody and brought to the United States for trial by military tribunal. Also, the administration seems to be OK with detaining suspected terrorists indefinitely without trial, if insufficient evidence exists to try them in a civilian court or military tribunal — still a violation of the ancient right of habeas corpus. Also, to get around sending detainees to Guantanamo — and thus being blocked from transferring them to civilian courts — the administration recently interrogated Ahmed Warsame, a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for two months aboard a U.S. Navy ship before sending him to New York for a civilian trial. I guess going without detainee rights for two months is better than going without them indefinitely, which many suspected terrorists will still face. Thus, simply closing Guantanamo but continuing lengthy or indefinite detention without trial, rendition, possible torture, and kangaroo military tribunals elsewhere is not all that big an improvement, but it’s a bone Obama can throw to the left without being called “soft on terrorism.”

On the homeland security front, the government also pretends to do something to reassure a still jittery public. The government went on high alert for the 10th anniversary, with policemen swarming everywhere in downtown Washington, D.C., and other cities. Yet several days before, Brennan correctly indicated that al-Qaeda usually strikes when it is operationally ready, not on important anniversaries.

Janet Napolitano, Obama’s homeland security chief, recently said that, “We are moving toward an intelligence- and risk-based approach to how we screen [passengers to go on flights].” After 10 years, the government is now only “moving toward” using such an obvious approach. What is left unsaid is that the approach that the government used before (and really continues to use) is to initiate highly visible security measures that do more to assuage public fears than to foil terrorists — for example, the requirement that passengers remove their shoes when going through the screening line. Napolitano opined that “the solution to many if not all of these inconveniences is better and better technology.” No, Ms. Napolitano, the solution is to not create stupid security procedures that burden citizens while addressing only a low-level threat. She also railed against exempting children and the elderly from searches, because evildoers could exploit such gaps in security. But in trying to achieve zero risk — which the government only pretends to do — the absurdities mount because procedures are added but rarely reevaluated.

Frances Townsend, a homeland security adviser in the Bush administration, admitted, “When we implemented that 3-ounce liquids ban in the summer of 2006, did I think that would be a forever thing? No. It has to do with the complacency and laziness of the bureaucracy.” Given Townsend’s admission, shouldn’t we further ask what value a temporary ban on liquid containers greater than three ounces would have had?

The moral of the story is that the government rarely gets it right in fighting terrorism. But given this sorry track record, why do Americans continue to put so much trust in the government’s security and justice measures adopted to counter terrorists?

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.