Getting serious

Three attacks inside what should have been secure areas (Fort Hood, NWA and Khost) raise two related questions. The first is how good are the intelligence services of the opposition? The second, not necessarily related to the first, is how good is American counterintelligence?


It may be past time to stop thinking of the enemy as a bunch of ignoramuses in a cave (“isolated extremist”) who are enaged in a largely do-it-yourself jihad and to begin regarding them as having access to, or perhaps being by directed intelligence operatives of the highest caliber, capable of recruiting a medical doctor within the US Army; capable of putting a man with explosive underwear in an airplane; capable of sending a man with a suicide vest into a CIA base in Afghanistan.

These operations all required a degree of professionalism, patience and attention to security that really can’t be ascribed to a bunch of 8th century cavemen picking lice out of their beards. Put it this way: considering the attacks of the last three months, how infeasible would it be for the enemy, if that word can still be used, to send a suicide bomber to a high school graduation? A prom? To a dinner party of prominent people or to simply launch a Mumbai style attack inside a shopping mall?

If they can attack Fort Hood, why should a high school be any safer? Because it’s a gun-free zone?

Without classified information, we can’t answer the question of how good the enemy is. It’s now an article of liberal faith that terrorism isn’t really state sponsored but really something spontaneous. In that world, the opposition consists entirely of amateurs. Second, it’s a law enforcement problem and must therefore be combatted with the same attention to rules of evidence, etc that attend LE problems. Be that as it may, the nature of the enemy is hard to characterize from open source information.


But the second question: how good is American counterintel? has partial answers from what we now know about Hassan, Mutallab and what we will be learning about Khost. The answer is probably not good enough. Hassan practically announced his attention to kill Americans from the housetops. Mutallab was denounced by his own father and had a profile just short of a billboard saying “I am an extremist” on his back.

The “system worked” but no one could connect the dots. Why David Broder just wrote in the Washington Post that Napolitano’s potential was “unlimited”. Broder wrote of her performance in the face of the underwear bomber’s challenge:

It must have been a frantic time for her. She was in San Francisco, far from her Washington office, and she must have had a sleepless night. But her eyes were bright, and her voice was calm. Everything appeared to be completely normal, except that her usual sense of humor was absent, as it should have been, given the circumstances.

The Washington elite is still judging competence by public relations skill, where good on camera == good at the job. It’s lived too long in a bubble if it can conclude, as Marc Ambinder did that responding to the NWA attack was a question of appropriate messaging. In that world, it’s all about talking points, all about image, all about messaging. If the last three attacks convey anything, it is that while messaging is important, it is not all important.


There is a reason why Obama hasn’t given a public statement. It’s strategy.

Here’s the theory: a two-bit mook is sent by Al Qaeda to do a dastardly deed. He winds up neutering himself. Literally.

Authorities respond appropriately; the president (as this president is wont to to) presides over the federal response. His senior aides speak for him, letting reporters know that he’s videoconferencing regularly, that he’s ordering a review of terrorist watch lists, that he’s discoursing with his secretary of Homeland Security.

But an in-person Obama statement isn’t needed; Indeed, a message expressing command, control, outrage and anger might elevate the importance of the deed, would generate panic (because Obama usually DOESN’T talk about the specifics of cases like this, and so him deciding to do so would cue the American people to respond in a way that exacerbates the situation).

Just recently the BBC announced that President Obama was “rallying the CIA” after the Afghanistan bomb attack. That’s all to the good, but the CIA needs more than comforting, or “healing” in the face of traumatic losses. It needs more than words and the question is whether anyone can provide anything beyond that.

Barack Obama has sent a letter of support to the CIA after seven staff were killed by an Afghan bomber – one of the worst attacks in its history. The US president’s condolence message praised the work of those killed.


In the early part of its war against Nazi Germany, Great Britain suffered a number of humiliating defeats. The HMS Royal Oak was sunk at its anchorate in Scapa Flow. The HMS Hood blew up after a few minutes against the Bismarck. The fabled fortress of Singapore fell in a few weeks to a force 1/3 the size of the British force. And while Churchill provided words of inspiration at these low moments, at no point did anyone think that words sufficient. But then the Britons of 70 years ago had the wisdom to know they were up against a capable, determned foe. They did not fool themselves into thinking that nothing was wrong and try to manage the problem with press releases.

America has never lost a major warship at sea since the Second World War, but it came close to losing the USS Cole in Aden. America never suffered an attack on its homeland in World War 2, but it suffered September 11. And yet these attacks are airily brushed off. Vice President Dick Cheney said, “We are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren’t, it makes us less safe … why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war? It doesn’t fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn’t fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency — social transformation — the restructuring of American society.”

Maybe one shouldn’t go that far, but neither ought one go to the lengths of saying that Janet Napolitano is a person of “unlimited potential” just because she exuded warmth in Mexican restaurant. There are self-evidently serious shortcomings in the intelligence apparatus, problems which cannot be fixed by talking points. Whatever the personal charms of Janet Napolitano may be, Washington isn’t doing well enough at a practical level in a conflict it largely refuses to even acknowledge.


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