Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, May 27, 2010 9:07 pm

And while we’re on defense issues …

Filed under: I want my country back. — Lex @ 9:07 pm
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Spencer Ackerman quotes John O. Brennan, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism:

… no nation, no matter how powerful, can prevent every attack from coming to fruition. …

This is the challenge we face. Even more than the attacks that al-Qaeda and its violent affiliates unleash or the blood they spill, they seek to strike at the very essence of who we are as Americans. By replacing our hard-won confidence with fear and by replacing our tolerance with suspicion. By turning our great diversity from a source of strength into a source of division. By causing us to undermine the laws and values that have been a source of our strength and our influence throughout the world. By turning a nation whose global leadership has meant greater security and prosperity for people in every corner of the globe into a nation that retreats from the world stage and abandons allies and partners.

That is what al-Qaeda and its allies want. To achieve their goals by turning us into something that we are not. But that is something they can never achieve. Because only the people of America can change who we are as a nation. al-Qaeda can sow explosives into their clothes or park an SUV filled with explosives on a busy street. But it is our choice to react with panic or resolve. They can seek to recruit people already living among us. But it is our choice to subject entire communities to suspicion or to support those communities in reaching the disaffected before they turn to violence. Terrorists may try to bring death to our cities. But it is our choice to either uphold the rule of law or chip away at it.

Spencer, who covers these issues for a living, notes that even as Brennan is saying these things, the administration for which he works is arguing in court for the right to hold detainees indefinitely without charge. So he asked Brennan how he reconciled what he was saying with that policy. Brennan’s response in its entirety:

When this administration came in, in January of last year, we dealt with a number of legacy situations that we wanted to make sure we were able to deal with appropriately without compromising the security of the American people. I think as everybody recognizes, on both sides of the political spectrum, the situation at Guantanamo is a very, very difficult and challenging one. I think that even as the president said he was determined to close Guantanamo within one year, it still remains open because the president is determined not to do anything that would compromise America’s security. It is something that we are working very closely with the Congress on. We are trying to do things in a very thoughtful manner. We have transfered about 50 of those detainees over the past year and a half, and we’re continuing to look at their situations there. But this is a challenge that we need to look at from a policy perspective, from a legal perspective as well as from a security perspective.

That’s not good enough for me because it sounds as if the administration is continuing to try to defend the very things Brennan has just said will hurt us and help al-Qaeda. Spencer took the same tack:

I go back to the quote that Marc Lynch gave me for my morning piece: “What I’m afraid of is that as soon as you get turbulence — like an actual terrorist attack — there’s going to be a big backlash and you can’t hold the overall structure in place. Right now, Obama’s got the rhetoric, but they’ve done precious little to institutionalize it and put on durable legal foundations.” I think it might be worse than that. The institutionalization that the administration is pursuing will codify indefinite detention without charge. Brennan today vowed fairness and checks and balances in such a system, and careful discretion in when it will apply. But opt-out clauses from the rule of law create an incentive to expand their applicability. And if Brennan’s critique really applies, then that’s an unalloyed strategic asset for al-Qaeda.

Lynch’s fear may not be hypothetical for very long. The attempted-attack level in the U.S. is high by historic standards, even if the sophistication of the attempts are low. Brennan deserves credit for not saying the administration requires more surveillance authorities to handle the domestic threat when he was asked. But how prepared is the Obama administration, really, to withstand the enormous political pressures that will exist for ever-more-draconian measures when another attack finally succeeds?

That, unfortunately, is a very good question. We lost our minds on 9/11, for perfectly understandable reasons. But I hope we also have learned some things, from our own experience and from the experience of other frequent targets of terrorism, such as Britain (dealing with the IRA), Spain (Basques) and Israel (name it).

First, although there are many things we can do to make ourselves safer, the fact is that sometime, somewhere, someone will succeed in a terrorist attack that takes lives, possibly many lives. That is inevitable.

Second, throwing fundamental rights out the window when terrorism happens always ends up being seen in the long run as the wrong thing to do. Not only does it not make us safer, it can alienate some people so much that they become terrorists themselves, and it plays right into the propaganda of our tormentors. It is both a tactical mistake and a strategic mistake.

Risk management is not a total mystery, even with respect to terrorism, so we need to manage our risk as effectively and efficiently as possible. That boils down to prioritizing on the basis of what scenarios would cause the most damage, irrespective of likelihood, and what scenarios are most likely, irrespective of damage, and finding the balance point. From what I’ve read and heard, the biggest risk by these standards is a small nuclear weapon hidden in a vessel in a U.S. port. Having a couple of hundred blood kin living within a couple of miles of Charleston’s harbor does not make me feel especially good about this, but it is what it is.

But risk elimination is a pipe dream, no matter how totalitarian a state we might become. Let’s be grownups, accept that, work systematically and logically to manage and reduce our risk, and remember who we are: a free people.

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