Tuesday, August 15, 2006

We're In Good Hands?

From the sublime to the ridiculous, details concerning the denoument of the recent terrorist plot foiled in Great Britain (and the subsequent homeland security reaction) offer little in the way of comfort.

First, we learn that there was substantial disagreement over the timing of the arrests made of the suspects in the British plot:

NBC News has learned that U.S. and British authorities had a significant disagreement over when to move in on the suspects in the alleged plot to bring down trans-Atlantic airliners bound for the United States.

British officials knowledgeable about the case said British police were planning to continue to run surveillance for at least another week to try to obtain more evidence, while American officials pressured them to arrest the suspects sooner. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.

In contrast to previous reports, one senior British official suggested an attack was not imminent, saying the suspects had not yet purchased any airline tickets. In fact, some did not even have passports.

Anyone witnessing the media circus - initially primed by the GOP (with ominous warnings about aid and comfort to al-Qaeda as seen through the Connecticut Senatorial primary) - that followed close on the heels of Lamont's victory with the breaking story of the British arrests, must be at least a little suspicious of the serendipitous timing.

I'm not saying that there were not legitimate reasons that American officials wanted to move at the time chosen, and that decisions were not made purely on honest, tactical assessments, but the Bush administration's history of dubiously timed "breakthroughs" has created a credibility gap and engendered suspicions were none should exist.

Recall, that almost immediately after the Democratic convention in 2004, there was news of a major arrest of an al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan. After the dust settled, it was revealed that the manner and timing of that arrest/disclosure (irresistible, apparently, from a political perspective for its ability to overshadow any media focus on Democratic hopeful John Kerry), may have compromised the value of intelligence gleaned from the subject's interrogation/materials-seized and undermined efforts to conduct sting operations using various persons involved.

Also, recall, the curiously beneficial timing, and remarkable frequency, of those utterly useless color-coded terror alerts, discussed by Josh Marshall here:

The 18 months prior to the 2004 presidential election witnessed a barrage of those ridiculous color-coded terror alerts, quashed-plot headlines and breathless press conferences from Administration officials. Warnings of terror attacks over the Christmas 2003 holidays, warnings over summer terror attacks at the 2004 political conventions, then a whole slew of warnings of terror attacks to disrupt the election itself. Even the timing of the alerts seemed to fall with odd regularity right on the heels of major political events. One of Department of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge's terror warnings came two days after John Kerry picked John Edwards as his running mate; another came three days after the end of the Democratic convention.

So it went right through the 2004 election. And then not long after the champagne corks stopped popping at Bush campaign headquarters, terror alerts seemed to go out of style. The color codes became yesterday's news. With the exception of one warning about mass-transit facilities in response to the London bombing on July 7, 2005, that was pretty much it until this summer.

Former head of the Deparment of Homeland Security didn't exactly rush to pour cold water on this speculation in an interview last year:

[Ridge said] he often disagreed with administration officials who wanted to elevate the threat level to orange, or "high" risk of terrorist attack, but was overruled.

Ridge said he wanted to "debunk the myth" that his agency was responsible for repeatedly raising the alert under a color-coded system he unveiled in 2002.

"More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge told reporters. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?' "

After the recent British incident, we were treated to a parade of GOP notables, and a depressingly cooperative and compliant press, touting the mantra that the GOP is tough on terrorism, the foiled attacks should remind Americans we're still at war and, relatedly, the GOP are the ones to trust in such perilous times. There are, however, more than a few problems with that narrative.

For one, the frightening new method of attack "uncovered" (liquid explosives) wasn't really so new after all. Larry Johnson had this to say about these "revelations":

And we're supposed to believe that George Bush, Tony Blair, and Michael Chertoff have just awakened to this fact? At a minimum, this is a further indictment of the incompetence of Bush and his cronies. They have done NOTHING, I repeat, NOTHING to deal with this threat even though security professionals have known and fretted about this for years.

I commented specifically on this two years ago on the Joe Scarborough show:

(Referring to Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993) He got aboard the plane and built that device in the lavatory, took it back, put it under the seat, got off the plane, someone else got on board. The plane took off and it exploded in flight. So one of the gaps still in place is that we haven‘t come up with effective detector at screening checkpoint for liquid explosives.

Speaking of "doing nothing," the oh-so serious, to-be-trusted, terror busting Bush administration was once again letting its slavish devotion to Paris Hilton's many rounds of tax cuts (and penchant for big, pork-filled giveaways to political allies) get the better of its obligations to spend money in the right places:

As the British terror plot was unfolding, the Bush administration quietly tried to take away $6 million that was supposed to be spent this year developing new explosives detection technology.

Congressional leaders rejected the diversion of funds, the latest in a series of Homeland Security Department steps that have left lawmakers and some of the department’s own experts questioning the commitment to create better antiterror technologies.

Well, nobody knew about the threat of liquid explosives so you can't really blame them for cutting those funds. With all the wasteful spending emanating from the DHS, you'd think they could at least squeeze in a few million for this type of R & D.

Finally, we get an appropriate cherry on top of this keystone-kops baked pie. Via Jim Henley, we see the Department of Homeland Security implementing measures at airports intended to safeguard passengers from the threat of this new bomb making capacity: the mixing together of various liquid agents so that they become dangerous explosives.

But get this: the means to protect the public from these potentially volatile liquids (whose destructive powers only accrue when mixed) is to either force all travelers to dump their liquid containers into trash cans (were the potential for mixing is, ahem, somewhat increased) or, alternatively, actually empty the contents into giant receptacles.

Let me repeat that: Passengers pour the contents of their liquid containers into one giant mixing bowl of potential explosive agents that only become dangerous...when mixed!

Feeling safer?

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