Following the inept and unsuccessful car bomb attempts in Britain last week the U.S. was back on a high state of alert, which of course meant it now took three hours instead of the normal two to get through airport security. Local police promised more cops on the beat and more random searches, while Homeland Security czar Michael Chertoff announced that the U.S. would book more air marshals on flights to Britain. In addition, his agency would mix up the deployment of the marshals, presumably to fool the bad guys. This, of course, assumes the bad guys had prior knowledge of which flights the incognito air marshals would be on. Unless I'm missing something, mixing up air marshals makes as much sense as betting on the blind man in a shell game.
The British have a name for this type of charade. It's called "gesture security," and it consists of a lot of conspicuous security measures following an attack.
We've known for a long time that the government's security measures are not actually meant to stop terrorist attacks, rather to protect the jobs of security personnel, to reassure jittery travelers and office workers, and to keep the economy steaming merrily along. It would be equally effective to hang crucifixes and wolfsbane round the airport terminals if not for the ostensible violation of the First Amendment. As last week's botched attacks proved there is nothing to stop the devout and committed terrorist once he is hellbent on his mission, except perhaps his own ineptness. Raising the color alert to orange simply gives him a satisfied sense that he has made an impact. Metaphorically speaking.
With each new attack or foiled plot new measures -- almost always useless and annoying -- are put in place to reassure the skittish public. Some measures, like increased police presence on the streets and augmented backpack checks on the subway -- fade away after a week or two as the public's memory of the attack fades, while others remain on the books as long as the war on terror continues. Here then is one of the unfortunate consequences of an endless war. If the War on Terror drags on for another decade or three -- which seems certain -- all of those security measures and new laws will begin to add up. There will be checkpoints on the boulevards manned by M16-carrying cops.
This doesn't mean the terrorist cannot be stopped before he goes on the attack; though it would require something of which the West is in desperately short supply, i.e., good intelligence. It would mean penetrating the Jihadi networks and cells. It would mean recruiting Muslim agents -- even unsavory ones -- in Islamic countries, in Europe and in the US. It means sending Arab Americans with pro-American sympathies back to the mosques of Saudi Arabia and Britons of Pakistani ancestry back to the madrasahs of Pakistan. In a word: espionage. Indeed it was largely the prohibition on espionage that led to 9/11, says former CIA agent Robert Baer. "We weren't allowed to spy in Saudi Arabia," he told the Hoover Institution's Peter Robinson. "It was too politically risky. It upset the State Department, upset the oil companies, it upset the Royal Family who've got houses in Aspen, Colo. and Washington, D.C....We didn't know what was going on in this whole Jihad movement." We still don't.
A LEISURELY SUMMER READING of The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB will give a good sense at how inept and ineffective CIA operations were during the Cold War, and how far more successful NKVD and KGB officials were in recruiting bright young American and British agents -- even at the highest levels of government. Greg Treverton, a senior policy analyst at Rand, maintains that espionage has long been the U.S.'s great weakness. Even during the Cold War, America's most valuable Soviet agent, Oleg Penkovsky, was a walk-in. Not only did the CIA not recruit him, he was ignored and put off for months. (Penkovsky's espionage career lasted little more than two years before he was arrested by the KGB and executed by being slowly fed alive into a furnace.)
The same dumb luck continues today. In 2005 the FBI arrested four Muslim men who planned to attack military installations and synagogues in Southern California. The terrorists were caught after one dropped a cell phone during a gas station robbery, and the phone numbers led local cops to an apartment and a computer that contained plans for the terrorism spree.
Meanwhile as Jihadi groups are busily recruiting new human bombs, today's FBI is dedicating valuable resources to "outreach," and inviting "Muslim leaders to join multicultural advisory boards and to teach classes in the basics of Islam to agents and police," a Washington Post article noted last February.
This past week's attacks again showed that the West is far from secure. Once again the authorities were caught with their trousers down. Britain lucked out this time. But the public should demand from their government something more than dumb luck.
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