Feb 17 2010
One of the issues that has come to the forefront since the Christmas Day Bombing attempt, which barely failed to murder 300 people in the skies over Detroit, MI and untold numbers on the ground, is what has changed between the Bush administration’s hair trigger concerns over potential threats and the Obama administration’s efforts to balance freedom of speech with the threat of terrorists.
In a previous post on the matter I detected indications that President Obama, Attorney General Holder and Terrorism advisor John Brennan had fulfilled their long held desires to dial back this nation’s response to potential threats. Each has a long record of opposing the Bush administration changes to the FIS Court and NSA relationship post 9-11. Changes which finally allowed the NSA to communicate (and other intelligence entities) to communicate to the FBI and Department of Justice leads on possible threats detected outside of FIS Court authorized surveillance.
While unable to roll back most active investigations, the last two successful attack on the US may indicate that these changes lowered our guard or reactions sufficiently to allow the threats to achieve their targets. These two examples are the Ft Hood Massacre (which succeeded with tragic consequences) and the Christmas Day Bombing attempt, which failed only due to a faulty trigger mechanism on the bomb.
Washington DC has responded in a very unique and interesting manner to these incidents, and I am still trying to unravel what is happening behind the security screen of National Security from the hints we see here in the public domain. It seems there is concerted pressure on these three key players in the Obama administration to re-calibrate their policies and tighten back up our responses to potential threats. This has become all the more important in light of all the perishable intelligence lost when the DoJ decided to mirandize and lawyer up Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, thus allowing his fellow attackers time to run to ground and change their paths to their targets.
This brings us to a little reported Senate Committee Report which I find very intriguing. This report seems to be a message to the administration on what course corrections to consider as imperative. It is interesting in how it tries to acknowledge the administration’s goals of doing more than reacting to leads (investment in areas prone to extremism to break the strangle hold), but it has some very pointed conclusions.
For American counter-terrorism experts in the region, the Christmas Day plot was a nearly catastrophic illustration of a significant new threat from a network previously regarded as a regional danger, rather than an international one.
Law enforcement and intelligence officials told the Committee staff in interviews in December in Yemen and other countries in the region that as many as 36 American ex-convicts arrived in Yemen in the past year, ostensibly to study Arabic. The officials said there are legitimate reasons for Americans and others to study and live in Yemen, but they said some of the Americans had disappeared and are suspected of having gone to Al Qaeda training camps in ungoverned portions of the impoverished country. Similar concerns were expressed about a smaller group of Americans who moved to Yemen, adopted a radical form of Islam, and married local women. So far, the officials said they have no evidence that any of these Americans have undergone training. But they said they are on heightened alert because of the potential threat from extremists carrying American passports and the related challenges involved in detecting and stopping homegrown operatives.
There is a clear concern about American terrorists throughout this report. One of the biggest exaggerations from the liberal left was how the FISA-NSA changes made after 9-11 opened the door to monitoring Americans. The fact is, those changes require significant evidence of probable cause, primarily by linking contacts to ‘known’ terrorists. What this new threat does is show how the NY Times and others exposed a weakness in our post 9-11 adjustments which they could exploit.
By recruiting Americans they have they ability to plot and attack behind a constitutional wall of protections provided Americans. It is no coincidence, in my mind, that the person at the nexus of the Ft Hood Massacre and Major Nidal Hasan and the Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day Bomber, is American born radical cleric al-Aulaqi. It is my opinion that the Ft Hood Massacre was missed because the new administration shutdown the ongoing Joint Terrorism Task Force investigations which emanated from communications between al-Aulaqi and Major Hasan (two Americans). See here for one of my posts on this matter.
It is completely in line with opinions held and expressed by both Holder and Brennan that this kind of investigation would be taking the Bush doctrine too far. Evidence abounds that the investigations were closed up in May 2009, around the time a 3rd FIS Court authorization would be required since these began under Bush in December of 2008.
So why is this Senate Committee highlighting American threats over another Abdulmutallab (a Nigerian and not covered under US protections). Is it because al Aulaqi was American and was therefore required to demonstrate a much higher level of threat before leads from his activities would trigger investigations? Let’s see how that plays against other comments in the report.
The staff interviews were conducted just before the failed Christmas Day plot. The ability of Al Qaeda to expand beyond its core members by recruiting non-traditional adherents was one of the lessons drawn by counter-terrorism experts from the failed attempt to blow up the aircraft.
The Yemeni origins of the bomb plot, the Nigerian homeland of the accused bomber, and the flight path from the Netherlands underscored the fact that American counter-terrorism efforts cannot focus exclusively on a single country or region and that an attack could come from anywhere.
Emphasis mine. It seems here we have a hint of what went wrong, one which dovetails well with my concern the bar for new leads under the new administration had been raised, thus missing threats and exposing Americans to deadly attacks. As I postulated in my previous posts, I get the impression Holder, Obama and Brennan instituted new rules for triggering concern and couched these are relating to ‘individual extremist’ – a term used repeatedly by the administration when discussing Ft Hood and Flight 253. It was only after a lot of prodding that administration officials decided to use the term ‘terrorist’ with these incidents.
After reviewing our successes in well established terrorist hotbeds in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the report moves onto different regions of the world:
Despite these changes, there are common elements that serve as warning signals to U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials. For example, Yemen and Somalia have a core of trained militants who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both Yemen and Somalia have weak central governments that exercise little or no control over vast swaths of their own territory and forbidding, harsh terrains that would make it virtually impossible for U.S. forces to operate freely. They have abundant weapons and experience using them on the battlefield. Government cooperation with American counter-terrorism efforts has historically been spotty and portions of both populations are hostile to the United States.
This section seems to be laying out the obvious case that we cannot focus on regions, but need to adapt to the movement of threats. Why make such a statement? Is it needed to redirect the current administration to reset its sights? Is it needed to adjust some restrictive thinking that made us blind to these regions? It seems so:
While most of our counter-terrorism resources are rightly focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the potential threats from Yemen and Somalia pose new challenges for the United States and other countries fighting extremism worldwide. The prospect that U.S. citizens are being trained at Al Qaeda camps in both countries deepens our concern and emphasizes the need to understand the nature of the evolving dangers.
U.S. diplomats and law enforcement officials say that a significant threat to U.S. interests could come from American citizens based in Yemen.
Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born imam who reportedly was the spiritual advisor of Major Nidal Hassan, a U.S. Army officer accused of murdering 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas in November 2009, currently resides in Yemen. U.S. law enforcement officials told Committee staff that Awlaki counsels young Muslim fundamentalists to â€˜â€˜continue jihadâ€™â€™ and to â€˜â€˜fight the Crusaders.â€™â€™ Although Awlaki has not yet been accused of a crime, U.S. intelligence and military officials consider him to be a direct threat to U.S. interests.
This statement about al Aulaqi not yet being accused of a crime is very interesting. Again I note that Holder, Obama and Brennan all felt the US was too reactionary in using statements (free speech) or circumstantial concerns to invoke investigation and surveillance. The fact the monitoring of al Aulaqi and Hasan was suspended before their communications ended (which may have been the final alarms of what was to come) is worrisome. It seems there is an embedded alibi here, one requested by liberal members more aligned with protecting rights versus protecting lives.
As anyone can see there is an internal struggle in this report to raise an alarm and yet rationalize putting civil rights over national security (which any decent constitutional lawyer will tell you is not the right or legal priority).
Here is a snippet from the conclusion which I find most disturbing:
First, U.S. law enforcement, intelligence, and diplomatic officials must cooperate closely to discern the terrorist threat, including that posed by Americans, and to address that threat. Information sharing is the most important component of this cooperation. The failed Christmas Day bomb plot demonstrated what can happen when U.S. government agencies fail to act on or disseminate information quickly and efficiently.
I think there is concern beyond the obvious threat Americans pose due to their accessibility to the US. I think we are seeing a Senate Committee send a message to the Obama administration that it better not let the fact someone is a US citizen direct them to ignore the possibility of a threat. Under Bush when enough dots showed up they investigated. Yes, most of those resulted in being harmless, but many did not.
We can all understand what happens when you lower the sensitivity on reacting, you will miss more threats. I don’t think it is a coincidence the Obama administration keeps trying to claim they made no dangerous mistakes when dealing with Hasan and Abdulmutallab (before and after the incidents) and the fact this Senate Committee is telling them to get their act together and look outside Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and to not let American citizenship dull their concerns.
As we now know, there are many more Abdulmutallab’s heading our way. And thanks to the NY Times for exposing the NSA-FISA changes al Qaeda knows that using Americans will up their chance of going undetected. And as al Qaeda should know by now, allowing Abdulmutallab the right to remain silent for 5 weeks allowed them time to run for cover and go to back up attack plans.
I’ll say it again, if one more attack gets through that is linked to Yemen or al Aulaqi there should be an investigation into what the Obama administration changed from the Bush approach that allowed these attacks to get through our defenses.
I suggest people also read this article by General Hayden, who led the NSA prior to 9-11 and the CIA afterwards. It provides even more insider context.
Update: Meant to add this link on the pending threats to the nation thanks to the delays in interrogating Abdulmutallab. And even Vice President Biden is worried about the pending threats, but he noticeably couches it in the vein of a ‘individual extremists’.
We have made more progress in dismantling the hierarchy of Al-Qaeda central. â€¦ and evidence of that is, now they’re going to lone bombers as the means to get there. â€¦ I’m more worried about, and harder to detect, and I’m very concerned about a terrorist attack in the United States along the lines of the ‘Christmas Day bomber.’
Is this preparing for the future alibi if al Qaeda succeeds?