Category Archives: American Empire

FBI Covers Up Marathon Bombing Mistakes

As the anniversary of the tragic bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon approaches, all we can hear is the sound of silence from our national security agencies. The FBI in particular, which appears to have made a number of mistakes in the years leading up to the bombing, is putting roadblocks in front of attempts to discover what went wrong.

The lead Boston Marathon bomber was pointed out twice to U.S. authorities by the Russian intelligence service; in spite of these warnings, the FBI, along with the Customs Bureau, let him get away.

The House Committee on Homeland Security has just released a report that “takes the FBI, Customs and Border Protection, and other officials to task for missing opportunities to scrutinize Tamerlan Tsarnaev after he was first investigated by the FBI in 2011.” Yes, the FBI was warned in 2011 by the Russian intelligence agency Federal Security Service (FSB) that he was known to associate with radical Islamists in Chechnya. The FBI sent an agent to investigate Tamerlan and his name was entered into a processing system called TECS, which is an information sharing system that links a number of security databases and can be used by multiple federal agencies. However, a few months later, the FBI closed the investigation saying “the assessment found no links to terrorism.”

As part of their closing of the case, the FBI did not notify the Boston Police Department of their investigation. An officer from the police department was assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston, “but the officer’s ability to handle information was severely restricted.” The House report states that no one knows what the Boston police would have done with this information, but “it is impossible to know how wider dissemination may have impacted events.”

In September of 2011, the FSB, perhaps amazed at the incompetence of the FBI, sent a second warning about Tamerlan to the CIA. Again, Tamerlan’s name was put in the TECS system with a note saying he must be detained if he attempted to leave the U.S. In January of 2012, when Tamerlan flew to Russia out of JFK airport in New York, the TECS system notified an FBI agent in the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston. For reasons the House Committee could not discover, no action was taken.

When Tamerlan arrived at the airport, Customs Bureau officials were busy with other high-interest travelers and the soon-to-be Boston bomber was not detained. He then spent six months in Dagestan, a region near Chechnya, and U.S. officials believe he received training from Islamic radicals during that time. When he booked a flight back to New York from Moscow, the TECS system notified the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston. Again no action was taken and again Customs Bureau officials did not detain him when he came through the airport.

Is it any wonder that the FBI refuses to co-operate with the House investigation? According to a member of the committee, U.S. Congressman Bill Keating of Massachusetts, the FBI turned down three opportunities to testify before the committee. “There hasn’t been full co-operation, Keating said. “Two trips to Russia and I get more information than I do going down the street 10 blocks in Washington.”

So, the cover-up continues. IT IS AN OUTRAGE: the FBI owes a full accounting to everyone – the more than 200 bombing victims and their families, the thousands of runners and by-standers, the residents of Massachusetts, and all Americans.

Advertisements

NSA Surveillance is an Ineffective Invasion of Privacy

General Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, told the House Intelligence Committee on June 18th that American surveillance had helped prevent “more than 50 terrorist events” since 9/11 including 10 “homeland-based threats.”  However, when Deputy Director Sean Joyce of the FBI told the committee about two of the cases, the first was of a Kansas City man who contacted an extremist in Yeman who was already being watched by U.S. agencies, and the second was a man from San Diego who wanted to send money to a terrorist group in Somalia who was identified through the use of the NSA database. 

 In other words, two of the ten “homeland-based threats” were really the results of surveillance of known terrorist groups overseas, rather than plots by people in the U.S. who were not already being watched.  The article goes on:

 “In a rare note of skepticism, Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat, pressed Alexander about why the FBI could not use subpoenas to get the necessary domestic phone logs surrounding a suspicious number without the government’s obtaining logs of everyone’s calls. Alexander said he was open to discussion, but added, “The concern is speed in a crisis.”

 Note that the speed in a crisis excuse here is a re-run of the Bush administration’s justification for the use of torture – the bomb is ticking so we need to use water-boarding.  However, the police work necessary to prevent terror plots seldom involves the kind of Jack Bauer “24” style drama.  Even the cases cited by Deputy Director Joyce were initial conversations, not bomb ticking crisis.

 Big Data vs. Real Police Work

 In short, anti-terrorism work is police work, it is detective work, it is connecting evidence and figuring things out work.  NSA is unable to publically disclose even one case where big data was the principle means by which the agency deterred a real terrorist plot in the United States.  If there was such a case, it would be easy for General Alexander to release general details – for example, three men from Ohio were arrested for suspicious activities – without compromising agency methods.

 In fact, I believe the scale of the NSA data program (there are numerous stories about thousands of employees and billions of dollars spent on software and giant computer facilities) makes it less effective right now at tracking people who are possible terrorists.  That is, having billions of pieces of data and millions of people on watch lists, with more added daily, results in a process too vast to be used by people – the use of intuition and flashes of insight which are important in detective work is removed. 

We in Boston are especially sensitive to this issue.  The oldest Boston Marathon bomber, targeted for NSA and the FBI by his native Russian government, was not monitored closely enough to prevent his lethal attack.  Even more stunning are the hostile Twitter posts of his younger brother.  Why were these not flagged?  As least part of the answer is the agencies were busy siphoning up billions of pieces of data instead of carefully examining the ones that really mattered.  The fascination with technology is pushing aside more tradition and more effective methods of police work.

Now is the Time for Limits

The nature and scale of this surveillance program will only grow larger if we don’t create limits and safeguards while we are in this moment of national debate.  Already, there are more than 1,000 government security agencies and over 1,000 private companies invested in surveillance and data management.  More than one million people in these agencies and companies have top-secret security clearances.  As James Carroll pointed out:

“Such massive bureaucracy, staffed by un-named millions but commanded by no one, generates an impersonal dynamic of its own…Moral responsibility is diffuse.  Such a massive institution gathers its own momentum, and neither laws nor the Constitution nor oath-bound authorities may be able to channel it or stop it.”

Remember, this is only a point in time; the expansion of the power to watch you and track your movements is an on-going process.  If nothing is done now, I believe the next phase will be a greatly expanded use of surveillance drones, justified as fighting crime.

 We suffered grievously when we pushed aside fighting terrorism with police work in favor of using military power to invade and crush our enemies.  Let’s not make another terrible error by using computer technology to invade and crush our freedoms.

Big Data is Watching You

NSA surveillance methods can spin webs of guilt-by-association around any American who uses a telephone or the Internet. The end result will be unreasonable invasions of privacy and a big chill on political dissent.

Are you willing to give up your relationships with anyone who doesn’t toe the line?

I was watching the President’s press conference about NSA spying last week in the locker room of my local gym. The guy next to me was adamant that there is no problem. “They aren’t listening to your phone calls,” he insisted. I would not be surprised if this is a common reaction to the new revelations – I don’t talk about terrorism or subversion on the phone or the Internet, so I am free from suspicion.

As I thought about his words while finishing my shower, the flaw in his logic suddenly dawned on me. This kind of spying, using computers to track tremendous amounts of data, relies on the logic of guilt by association. There is no personal connection, no delving into the essence of who you are, no evaluation of you and your motives. This is “watching the tar baby” surveillance. The NSA collects the names and phone numbers and email addresses of tar babies and then records whoever gets touched by them.

The tar babies are anyone the NSA and its fellow spy agencies have decided are possible suspects. Here are a number of people whose names are almost certainly on their lists – Muslims who live in the U.S., people who participated in the Occupy Movement in any way, people who have friends or contacts in countries that are deemed influenced by terrorists, and people who participated in Tea Party rallies. There must be more because there are approximately one million people on Department of Homeland Security watch lists. And the lists are getting bigger. Wired.com revealed last year that NSA is building a $2 billion facility in Utah with enormous computers able to manipulate and track “yottabytes” (10 to the 24th bytes) of data from telephones and the Internet.

What is NSA looking for? First, it wants to identify people like you who might have contacts with one or more of the people on the watch list. Then, you go on the list, too, and the agency computers bring all of your digital information – phone numbers, number of times called, length of call, email destinations, Google searches, etc. – together in your file. The computers then go over your data to see if there are any suspicious patterns. If not, they keep collecting data and adding it to your file until your actions or contacts change, or future political leaders decide something should be done with or to people on the watch list.

Sadly, while all of this might be a bad idea, it is perfectly legal. In 2008, the U.S. Congress, including then Senator Obama, amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to give the executive branch powers to conduct surveillance without an individual warrant. The Supreme Court, in several 5 – 4 decisions has refused to review the revised law.

Thus, my fellow exercise adherent is not immune from being swept into the NSA big data net and now faces a choice – just like the rest of us. Either carefully monitor everyone you communicate with and rapidly cut ties with anyone you suspect might be placed on the NSA watch list, or reject the creeping surveillance state that, in the name of security, is threatening our age-old civil liberties.

The Center of Gravity in Afghanistan

Official U.S. military strategy highlights the idea proposed by Clausewitz that a nation should focus its efforts against an enemy’s “center of gravity,” the Schwerpunkt. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, the focus has always been too narrowly drawn toward military matters when the real weakness was always the inept and corrupt Afghan government.

This explains why the U.S. has won every battle and still lost the war in that far away country.

Whenever the U.S. loses a guerrilla war – first Vietnam and then Iraq – there is an intellectual debate over the nature of “The American Way of War” and whether it is a model that leads to success in wars against popularly based armed forces. Critics like Antulio Echevarria II, a retired officer and Director of Research at the U.S. Army War College, say that there is an “American way of battle” – hit the enemy fiercely with overwhelming firepower – and not an American way of war because our military victories have not translated into strategic successes.

Dr. Echevarria says that “The new American way of war appears to have misidentified the center of gravity in each of these campaigns [Afghanistan and Iraq], placing more emphasis on destroying enemy forces than securing population centers and critical infrastructure and maintaining order.” Here we can return to Clausewitz and the marvelous trinity. For Clausewitz, war is a wrestling match – a dynamic contest that features multiple points of contact and develops over time. In this situation, the center of gravity “is created by the interaction between the wrestlers and changes as they alter their relationship.”

To be more concrete, in any guerrilla war, where the U.S. is intervening to defend a local government from a rival political organization, the center of gravity, the dynamic point of interaction between the U.S. and the guerrilla army, is the native government . In Afghanistan (and in Iraq and Vietnam) the U.S. military focused on killing members of the guerrilla army while the government it was protecting was alienating and exploiting the population – driving them into the arms of the rebellion.

There are no written accounts of the Afghan government under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai that do not include the words incompetent and corrupt. For example, in the fall of 2010 there was a run on the Kabul Bank when the bank’s chairman, Sherkhan Farnood acknowledged to NBC that the bank had invested $160 million of the bank’s $1.3 billion in assets into luxury villas and two residential towers in Dubai. The villas were located in Palm Jumeirah, a man-made island that juts out into the Persian Gulf in the shape of a giant palm tree – you must see it. During the interview Farnood confirmed that the homes were acquired in his name and were used by the bank’s major shareholders, included President Karzai’s brother and the brother of Vice President Muhammed Fahim. When he was asked why the homes were purchased in his name, Farnood replied… “it was easier” to do it that way.

Every other matter of governance in the country is done in the same spirit. With little popular support, Karzai has been dependent since the beginning on local warlords – who control key economic assets and heavily armed militias – in every part of the country. Unconcerned about local governance once the war was “over” and the Taliban was defeated; the Bush administration propped up our shaky ally, allowing the enemy to regroup and begin a classic guerrilla war. Obama’s surge in 2009 did nothing to change the Afghan government and his escalation of the war merely slowed the Taliban’s rising influence.

The First Mistake in Afghanistan

Clausewitz studied the guerrilla war waged in Spain against Napoleon and decided that resistance by an aroused population could prove decisive in war, even if the national army was defeated. The Bush Administration failed to prepare for a long war in Afghanistan because it did not understand how the native population would react to an American occupation.

Seeking an easy victory in Afghanistan, Bush and Cheney did not consider the consequences of fighting an enemy who possessed the will to fight a protracted war.

Humiliated by Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussian army at Jena in 1806, Carl von Clausewitz watched with fascination as guerrilla soldiers in Spain harassed and frustrated thousands of French soldiers. His patriotic passions then boiled over in the spring of 1812, when Napoleon intimidated Prussian King Frederick Wilhelm into sending a corps of Prussian troops to participate in the Emperor’s invasion of Russia. Clausewitz resigned his commission in the Prussian army and became an officer in the Czar Alexander’s army.

Before leaving he wrote Bekenntnisdenkschrift, roughly meaning “statement of belief.” In it he declared that Napoleon meant to occupy the German nation and the King and his court were fools to cooperate with the country’s real enemy. He then laid out an alternative plan of resistance based on the Prussian army breaking up into small units combined with a general arming of the patriotic citizenry. Clausewitz and the State. In Russia, he had a front row view of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign. Russian generals avoided decisive battles, drew the Emperor deep into an armed, hostile countryside, and then successfully counter-attacked.

Later, Clausewitz wrote in his seminal work On War “As we shall show, defense is a stronger form of fighting than attack.” Clausewitz in the 21st Century. In the modern era, when whole nations are mobilized to go to war, no attacker can achieve a decisive victory with “a single, short blow…Even when great strength has been expended on the first decision and the balance has been badly upset, equilibrium can be restored… The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.”

The Bush Administration made the mistake of viewing the Taliban as merely a government and believed that the loss of formal ruling powers would lead to a break-up after their military defeat in late 2001. However, the Taliban is really a movement, the principal representative of the Pashtun people.

A quick look at a map shows that their tribal area includes about one-third of Afghanistan, the southeastern region, and a similar size area in Pakistan’s southwestern region. It is estimated that there are about 50 million Pashtuns in all. The Afghan Pashtuns are the most populous ethnic group in their country while Pakistani Pashtuns are a distinct minority in theirs. The tribe has lived in this region since around 1,000 BCE; that is, long before Rome was founded or the golden age in Greece. To act as if this organization would simply disappear after a military defeat was the height of folly.

Politics and Unintended Consequences

Who knew that the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz came up with a brilliant theory about politics that explains why it is shot through with unintended consequences and unusual twists and turns.

His “fascinating Trinity” offers a unique way to think about political life.

One of my good friends is always cautioning me about my bold statements about politics and what will happen next.  He is a devotee of the notion that life is extremely complex and all actions lead to unintended consequences.  It turns out that Clausewitz, who fought in the Prussian and Russian armies against Napoleon, felt the same way.

After Waterloo, he became the Director of the Prussian equivalent of West Point and wrote On War, one of those complex 19th century books that everyone talks about and nobody reads.  However, he still generates plenty of controversy amongst military theorists – the internet is crowded with debates about his ideas.

Clausewitz describes war as a “fascinating Trinity.”  In all wars, he says, both full tilt combat between major powers and guerrilla wars, there are three dimensions. First is the realm of passion and emotion, anger, loyalty, and violence because war is like a heavyweight wrestling match – direct and brutal.  Another realm is the element of chance, intuition, military genius, willpower, and “friction,” his term which is the genesis of the idea we know as the fog of war.  Finally, there is the realm of rational planning, policy making, and strategic decision making.

The course of every war veers around in a non-linear, chaotic fashion between these three elements. Clausewitz says it is like a metal object hanging on a string that is being attracted simultaneously by three magnets set up in a triangle arrangement.  I saw a demonstration of this situation on a video.  What happens is the metal object careens around wildly, being pulled almost randomly this way and that way between the three magnets.  It is a fascinating multi-dimensional demonstration that smashes the cramped linearity of lines and arrows and circles on a piece of paper.

Thus, war is unpredictable and all planned activities generate unforeseen, unintended consequences. Once a war starts, no one can predict its course.  Therefore, a nation must plan carefully for a war, trying to examine a wide array of possible outcomes to events. It must then be flexible and ready to re-evaluate frequently as the war continues.  He also says that politics is like war, except that there is no (or at least little) violence in the passion-emotion element.  That is why he pens the famous statement: “war is an extension of politics by other means.”

I hope to use this multi-dimensional trinity imagery to think more deeply about politics in the future.  For now, I will use Mr. Clausewitz in some future posts about Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe he can help us understand the disasters that occurred in those countries.

Drone Wars U.S.A.

We know a lot more about the Obama drone warfare program after a month of revelations and the whole discussion is making me a little nervous.

Unbelievably, the drone wars are coming home.

My uneasy month began in early February, when the Department of Justice released a white paper that provides the legal rationale for using drones to kill U.S. citizens overseas who are suspected of aiding terrorists. Contrary to the general impression that President Obama reviews important targets for drone strikes, the white paper says that an “informed, high level official” of the U.S. government can determine if an individual may, at some time in the future, plan and/or carry out a terrorist attack. That official can, acting alone, authorize a drone strike on that individual. The white paper claims this power does not violate the Fifth Amendment, which says U.S. citizens cannot be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

This is yet another step in the growing threat to our civil liberties.

Then, in response to a question by Republican Senator Ted Cruz at a March 6 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. tried to avoid saying whether he thought it would be unconstitutional for the U.S. military to use a drone to kill an American citizen “sitting in a café” in the United States. When Holder finally stopped talking in circles and admitted it would not be constitutional, Cruz said he was glad to finally get a clear answer and added that he would introduce a bill barring the use of drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil. Holder responded that the bill might be an unconstitutional intrusion on presidential power.

How has it come to pass that Senators and the Attorney General are publically debating the constitutionality of using drone strikes against Americans who have offended the government?

Once again, wars of empire in far-off lands are generating dangerous consequences back home. It is a theme repeated throughout history. In my book, I show how, when the Roman Republic conquered other nations, the strains of governing hostile peoples and the unintended consequences of ill-gotten new wealth eventually created turmoil and then civil war.

Now, as if following the lead of the federal government, local and state police departments are starting to use drones to keep an eye out for crime and other subversive activities.

At the core of this threat is our lazy willingness to let the U.S. government become more and more dependent on drone strikes as its primary foreign policy tool. We pretend to believe that these strikes are precise attacks on dangerous terrorists and ignore mounting evidence that large numbers of innocent civilians are being randomly killed by these not so surgical explosions. We turn our back on questions about justice and war and suddenly the debate is over whether to shoot at us.

The question of who is the enemy is a slippery slope when you are stuck in a never-ending war against “enemies of the state.” Once you begin the slide, you never know where you might end up.