There was a quote yesterday in the Washington Post from that ever-talkative "unnamed official" who is responsible for much of the news that comes out of the White House. It was regarding the national security personnel shuffle. Mr. Chatty Facelessness referred to the new picks as "The strongest possible team to exercise our strategies and polices. I stress the word team."
You can see why he wanted to be on background on that. He was really sticking his neck out.
Of course, even an anodyne self-serving observation can be a bit of a minefield when the terms it uses and the ideas it references are so full of unintended meaning and consequence.
First, there is the reference to "the strongest possible team." While the uninitiated might think the operative word there was "strongest" it is clearly "possible." Because by no means is this the strongest group of appointees on which the president could have settled. While I think the choices are very solid ones, neither Panetta nor Petraeus has any appreciable experience in the agencies they are being asked to run, nor even in the fields associated with those agencies. Suggesting that somehow military affairs and intelligence matters are substantively the same because they are both associated with national security is like suggesting the culture within the Pentagon is the same as or compatible with that inside CIA headquarters because they both happen to be on the opposite side of the Potomac River from the rest of the Washington bureaucracy. There are clearly other choices who would have brought more directly relevant experience to the jobs in question.
But the president wanted continuity, he didn't want battles with the Congress, he didn't want to risk bringing in a complete outsider, he doesn't have a huge network of acquaintances with much experience in either area, his close advisors were distrustful of being too adventurous with the choices and so among the available, vetted, and capable within the Obama-verse, these were "the strongest possible." Of course that suggests that Hillary Clinton either would not have been a "stronger" choice at Defense or that she was not a "possible" choice and I will leave it to you to ponder why that might be so.
In fact, for those following the machinations of the Obama national security team closely, that last point brings us directly to the rhetorical flourish that lies at the heart of the bland but nonetheless unattributed observation: "I stress the word team." It is clearly intended to emphasize the high premium the president places on effective "no drama" collaboration within his administration. On this, it can be taken at face value as this is a real priority for Obama who is notoriously uncomfortable with discord in meetings in which he participates. But the subtext for observers of this team and this smooth process is that for all the merits of such a well-managed approach to problem solving is that process alone is not enough.
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The news that Osama bin Laden is -- according to a NATO official -- in hiding in Northwest Pakistan hardly qualifies as a shock. That said, the resurfacing of rumors about the location of the greatest villain of our age reminds us just what a massive story the resurfacing of the man would be. In some respects, the fact that bin Laden is still alive, while a black eye for U.S. intelligence, provides President Obama with what has to be the greatest "Get Out of Jail Free" card in the world. Find and capture or kill Osama at any time during the next two years and Obama sails into a second term.
Oversimplification? Perhaps. But the emotional impact of writing the final chapter on the bin Laden story would be so great, and the coverage of that final chapter would be so over the top, that it's hard to imagine another single development on the positive side of the ledger that could provide greater political lift for the president.
Of course, if catching the elusive al Qaeda mastermind were so easy, it would have been done during the past 10 years. Indeed, the U.S. government has been trying to dispatch him for considerably longer than that -- since the Clinton years. That a guy the size of an NBA guard, one with supposedly complex medical needs, who happens to be the most wanted man on the planet earth, has managed to go to ground in a way that makes Saddam's trip down the spider hole seem poignantly amateurish, is really quite a remarkable achievement. Even more amazing is that despite the fact that he has been out there on the lam for a decade, virtually no one on either side in fractious, no-holds-barred world of U.S. politics is willing to suggest that not finding him is a failure. (With the exception of perhaps Joan Rivers who, as chronicled in the recent documentary about her life, A Piece of Work, suggests that as a dialysis patient he ought to have been fairly easy to find in a country like Afghanistan which, she suggested, had only one electric outlet. Just follow the cord is her recommendation.)
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Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters. They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan. What I intended to write (and had actually written in the draft that I mistakenly did not submit) was not "It is odious..." but instead "It may seem odious to some, but if our freedoms..." I appreciate those who noted the incongruity of the remark given that I was early and strongly on the record supporting the right of those supporting the Islamic Cultural Center to build it wherever they wanted to. As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I find the objections and efforts to block the cultural center to be what is really odious and that is the point that I would have made here were it not for my typo. Apologies.
A week ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled "What America Has Lost." It was subtitled "It's clear we overreacted to 9/11." As is typical for Zakaria, it is exceptionally thoughtful and well-argued. Its timely focus is on the enormous costs associated with building up the massive U.S. security apparatus that targeted a terrorist threat that was and is clearly overstated. Zakaria makes reference to the landmark Washington Post "Top Secret America" series that outlined how, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has "created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent to $75 billion (and that's the public number, which is a gross underestimate.) That's more than the rest of the world spends put together."
Even today, nine years after 9/11, it took considerable courage for Zakaria to argue that we overreacted to the horrific events of that day. Given their scope and visceral impact on every American, it seemed in the days after the blows were struck that overreaction was impossible. But in the years that followed, the feelings seem hardly to have ebbed at all, and critiques of our national reaction are, with the exception of the near consensus that invading Iraq was wrong, considered almost unpatriotic -- nearly sacrilegious, in fact.
Yet I believe that Zakaria's column understates the problem. I attribute this to its appropriately limited focus rather than any narrowness of his perspective. It was, after all, just a single column in which he focused on making an important point about America's security priorities and the opportunity costs associated with our strategic overreaction. That said, the damage done by letting emotion and adrenaline get the best of us in the months and years after the attacks extends far beyond the distortion of foreign policy priorities or the impact on the U.S. federal budget.
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The Washington Post, like many Beltway watchers, took President Obama's statement that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel would make a "great mayor of Chicago" as an acknowledgement that Emanuel is as good as gone from his administration -- and that the typical midterm game of musical chairs that enlivens the West Wing has begun.
I take the statement as something different. I take it as a personal request from the President to me to let him know what changes he needs to make after the November elections.
So, let's begin with replacing Rahm. Rumor has it that Emanuel himself has been mentioning Valerie Jarrett, among the president's closest confidantes, for the job. While being as simpatico with the president as Jarrett clearly is would be a big plus, the chief of staff job has a massively tough management component to it that would undercut Jarrett's ability to remain the vital sounding board for the President she has become. Better suited to the job would be two of the other names mentioned: Ron Klain, the vice president's chief of staff, and Tom Donilon, the deputy national security advisor. Both are excellent, smart and proven administrative masters. Tom Daschle, former Democratic majority leader in the Senate, has also been mentioned. He played a vital role in the president's campaign and would add an important capacity for Hill outreach to the mix.
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U.S. national security is too important to be left to foreign policy specialists, the media or politicians. These are the clear lessons of the Post-Underpants Bomber Era.
Before Christmas and the disturbing revelations of a man setting his balls on fire on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit (rendering himself only slightly more uncomfortable than those flying economy class), there was at least a feeling that America was regaining her senses following the 8 hysterical years of the so-called War on Terror.
But within hours of the bungled terror attempt, we saw once again America's true vulnerabilities. And while they are linked to intelligence failures, it is not the ones on which the media and the president's political opponents have focused that are most salient.
Obama's reaction to the junkbomber incident was precisely right and just what you want from a leader: Dispassionate, thoughtful, and calculated. He gave his team the time to assess the threat, the breaches and the right next steps to take. At least one person in the United States, Barack Obama, seemed to recognize that the objective of terrorism is to promote terror and sought to defuse that effort by handling the threat with the proportionality and common sense that has long been missing from U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
But almost immediately, the foreign policy establishment -- acting with the acuity and purity of motives of Tila Tequila squeezing a few extra minutes of undeserved fame out of the untimely death of her "fiancé" Casey Johnson -- whipped itself up into a critical lather. Why? Because it was good for America or because it was in their own self-interest?
I'll leave you to work that out on your own, but here are a few clues:
First, we have seen very few such attempted attacks carried to the stage of that of the underpants bomber in the last decade. Second, we have been successful in foiling many such attacks -- successes for which those responsible get little credit. Third, the attempt revealed as much about the genuine and enduring weaknesses of even terrorists affiliated with major league terror operations like al Qaeda as it did about our own counter-terror efforts. Fourth, terrorism by definition is only successful if it produces "terror" -- the kind of hysterical over-reaction we are once again seeing -- yet this fact does not seem to have resulted in very many critics toning down their hysteria or shrillness. (The Republican Party has the collective cool on these matters of Prissy helping to birth Melanie's baby in Gone With the Wind. As for the media, given that the "news" networks probably devoted more live news coverage to the balloon boy hoax than were devoted to say, the invasion of Normandy, you recognize that they are actually in the business of emotional over-reaction. In fact, their constant refrain that every event is an earth-shattering pinnacle of human experience that could well be the biggest thing they have ever seen suggests they have more in common with folks in say, Ashley Dupre's line of work than that of, say, a journalist.)
Most important, however, is that within days of what may go down on record as the world's first and last attempt at plastic explosive-assisted self-circumcision, news stories kept popping up that underscored the fact that the terror attack paled in significance for those concerned with America's future to other concurrent global developments. To begin with, the intelligence failures involved were not even the biggest problem of the week for the intelligence community given the devastating blow to some of our most senior field operatives in Afghanistan.
But the biggest threats to U.S. leadership and security ... to our very ability to protect ourselves at home and abroad ... manifested themselves in other stories that have simply not gotten sufficient attention among the accusations and inflammations of the holiday season terror frenzy. Like unemployment staying at 10 percent. Or, over the weekend, like China passing Germany as the world's largest exporter. Or like the fact that our impending health care bill will still not actually fix the financial threats to our system posed by grotesquely under-funded health care liabilities. Or like the fact that the world is far away from solving the biggest security problems it faces from stabilizing Pakistan to stopping Iran's nuclear program (and thus the WMD proliferation that poses the one great terror threat) to reversing climate change or addressing resource disparities that will trigger many of the wars of the century ahead. (It is worth noting that for America today ... the greatest threats to the nation's future well-being don't involve things that explode ... always the favored topic of foreign policy elites ... but rather things that are imploding ... like our economy, about which most big time foreign policy specialists haven't a clue.)
If one terrorist can in one failed attempt distract America from addressing priorities and will almost certainly lead to further billions and billions being misdirected to the global whackamole game of trying to snuff out the geopolitical pipsqueaks who lead international terror networks it explains more about why terrorists will keep trying than any in-depth analysis of the conditions on the ground in terror-prone regions.
Thus, what this incident really reminds us is, terrorists only have the power we give them. And that the emotional, the shrill, the over-the-top, the self-promoters, the hyper-political, and the other tummlers responsible for the inside-the-beltway mob mentality are as complicit in the spread of terror as those who are too soft on it. If the president's rhetoric was slightly too weak for some tastes, he erred in the direction that also weakens our enemies rather than, as did his most vocal critics, the direction that turns operational failures like the one on Christmas Day into strategic successes for the bad guys.
P.S. I'd like to add that not only is the over-the-top nature of the terrorism debate of late done damage to U.S. interests, the appropriate response is not only not more spending, more programs, more rules ... but that complimenting the moderate response would actually be improvements to our anti-terror efforts all of which would actually be in the direction of narrowing, focusing and spending less. For example, want to improve Intel sharing? Let's start with getting rid of the Directorate of National Intelligence, a legacy of Bush's big government response to 9/11, that amounts to precisely the opposite of what we need: an additional layer of thousands of bureaucrats who actually do not enhance (apparently) our analytical capacity and undoubtedly reduce communications efficiency. The Central Intelligence Agency was created to do all the coordinating the DNI does and easily could do it again if sufficiently empowered? Want another step to improve our intel sharing? How about reducing and eliminating many of the unnecessary levels of information classification that make it impossible for policy makers to actually have access to all the information they need to make decisions? Want another? Heed the advice of former advisor to Dwight Eisenhower General Andrew Goodpaster, who laughed to me during our last intel "crisis" after 9/11 that Eisenhower would have had no patience with it because he knew -- from bitter experience during World War II -- that intelligence can be useful but expectations must be set at the right level. It was always an imperfect tool and one that could not be perfected. Want another? Let's get out of the unwinnable mess in Afghanistan and focus some of those resources on directly targeting terrorists, some on better tools for early warning and the rest on the domestic needs that are actually essential to maintaining long-term U.S. strength. I could go on. But it is clear ... when it comes to responding to terror, the lesson of the past decade is that we need to think a lot harder about proportionality and the unintended consequences of our understandable horror and outrage.
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Reports late today that Attorney General Eric Holder is appointing career Justice Department prosecutor John Durham to investigate whether CIA interrogators may have tortured detainees in violation of the law have stirred the predictable outcries.
From Capitol Hill, a collection of Republican Senators produced a letter saying, "The intelligence community will be left to wonder whether actions taken today in the interest of national security will be subject to legal recriminations when the political winds shift." Rumors even swirled that renewed scrutiny of the agency's activities had CIA Director Leon Panetta threatening to resign, though the White House rejected them as unfounded.
Here's the reality: the Senators who sent up the protest letter have a point. The law should not be allowed to be tossed and twisted with every new breeze of public opinion. The law is the law. And if one administration misinterprets public outrage at a crime like a terror attack as license to overlook the law or to bend it to suit the mood of the moment, it is not an option for the next administration to question that action ... it is an obligation. The whole point of having a legal system is to have objective standards by which to define acceptable parameters of behavior.
No employee of the CIA has anything to fear if they acted within those objective standards. If the investigation demonstrates that anyone in the government misinterpreted the law for whatever reason and acted in violation of those laws, their actions should be evaluated within the context of the justice system. If they had good legal advice and acted within a reasonable interpretation of the law, then they have nothing to fear.
Those who fear the investigation are revealing their lack of faith in our justice system ... a trait that happens to have been shared by those who went beyond the boundaries of that system in the name of justice. With some luck the investigation will remind them that by suggesting justice may lie outside those boundaries or by suggesting that fundamental rights may be waived due to circumstances they do more damage to the system than those they were interrogating were capable of.
My only concern: that by defining the investigation too narrowly, the rank and file of the CIA will be sacrificed while those who insisted the laws be bent, broken and ignored will be free to walk away, perhaps even complaining from the sidelines about the process. If this investigation finds violations of the law, we can only hope that the well-respected Durham will follow the actions in question through to their origins and not prosecute foot-soldiers for the violations of their most senior leaders.
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The U.S. Congress has their knickers in a twist because apparently the C.I.A. kept from them plans associated with a program designed to kill off al Qaeda leaders. While I think the Congress is right to be disturbed by this apparent cover-up -- and they should go after whomever may have violated the law by keeping the program from them -- it seems to me we're missing the point here.
Shouldn't we be at least equally concerned that in the eight years since the 9/11 attacks, the C.I.A. couldn't get its act together sufficiently to actually deploy the program to kill the al Qaeda leaders we intended to target? If there was ever an instance where the covert use of force was utterly justified it was in hunting down and killing this enemy.
In today's New York Times story "C.I.A. Had Plan to Assassinate Al Qaeda Leaders," the reasons the program got bogged down are laid out. Bureaucratic debates about whether it would be legal to employ such methods are perhaps inevitable and frankly, I'm all for having checks in our system that actually indicate a respect for the rule of law. But let's be serious, we find it is ok to violate national sovereignty with unmanned aircraft but not with people? It's ok to use those unmanned aircraft to fire missiles at bad guys that may or may not blow up dozens of innocent by-standers but it is not ok to undertake an approach where such collateral damage is even less likely? This is through-the-looking-glass legalism, so twisted and absurd that it must be about something else.
One hopes it is not about another reason the plan was difficult which is offered in the article -- the difficulty of figuring out where to base such operations. It is easy for anyone who has been in the U.S. government to imagine such a discussion ... but I wouldn't advise it. Because it makes your head want to explode.
Which brings us to the real problem. It's reflected in the quote: "It sounds great in the movies but when you do it, it's not that easy." Clearly, the concern was that the operation would fail and in failing it would be an embarrassment. But, who said these things were supposed to be easy? They are clearly as difficult as any operations the government can undertake. But when you are confronted by an enemy who uses foreign sovereignty and the presence of innocents for cover, such initiatives are essential.
Yes, it's hard, risky and will put U.S. lives and our national reputation on the line. So too is winning a land war in Afghanistan. So too is working with a divided, complex, unreliable ally like Pakistan. So too is trying to achieve anything on the shifting sands of the Middle East.
Also very difficult and very risky is coordinating an attack on the other side of the world that involves multiple hijackings and airborne attacks on major U.S. targets. So too will be the WMD attack that will inevitably change the nature of the war on terror. In other words, this is a different kind of enemy. It doesn't help matters that the Bush administration overstated the risks from this enemy, bungled the war against them and sought to use national panic over this real risk to justify extraneous and calamitous missions. But as President Obama has been clear, that doesn't mean the threat from al Qaeda and similar groups has abated. Drones have an important role to play, especially in areas in which the risks of collateral damage are more limited. More densely populated areas provide a different kind of cover that requires a different kind of solution.
The CIA needs to report as the law requires to the Congress. But the U.S. intelligence community needs the ability to do what this program reportedly intended to do. Killing the program wasn't the right response. Redoubling efforts to make it work would have been.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.