Terrorist Threats and Political Gain

by BRUCE SCHNEIER

Posturing, pontifications, and partisan politics aside, the one clear generalization that emerges from the 9/11 hearings is that information–timely, accurate, and free-flowing–is critical in our nation’s fight against terrorism. Our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies need this information to better defend our nation, and our citizens need this information to better debate massive financial expenditures for anti-terrorist measures, changes in law that aid law enforcement and diminish civil liberties, and the upcoming Presidential election

The problem is that the current administration has consistently used terrorism information for political gain. Again and again, the Bush administration has exaggerated the terrorist threat for political purposes. They’re embarked on a re-election strategy that involves a scared electorate voting for the party that is perceived to be better able to protect them. And they’re not above manipulating the national mood for political gain.

Back in January, the Bush administration released information designed to convince people that the Christmastime Code Orange alert, with its associated airplane flight cancellations, increased police presences, and broad privacy invasions, were motivated by credible information about a real terrorist threat. There was a new intelligence source, we were told.

The trouble is, the intelligence this source produced turned out to be nothing at all. And all the potential terrorists aboard those cancelled international flights turned out to be false alarms. One "terrorist" was a Welsh insurance agent, another an elderly Chinese woman who once ran a Paris restaurant. Yet another was a child. And the man who failed to show up for his ParisLos Angeles flight, the man whose name matched that of a senior Al-Qaeda operative, turned out to be a Indian businessman with no links to terrorism at all.

On 10 June 2003, days before Minnesota FBI agent Coleen Rowley blew the whistle on a badly botched pre-9/11 investigation into some of the terrorists, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest of a terrorist planning on detonating a "dirty" nuclear bomb in the U.S. Jose Padilla was "disappeared": he was denied any access to an attorney, or any right to have the evidence against him put before a judge. The evidence against him was so flimsy that, even today, it has never been presented in public. (Currently the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments on Padilla’s behalf, as well as two other cases challenging the government’s claim that it can detain anyone indefinitely, without allowing them the ability to defend themselves.)

Fourteen months later, the government announced another "victory," the arrest of an arms smuggler who arranged to sell a surface-to-air missile and planned to smuggle 50 more–missiles that could be used to shoot down commercial airplanes. Never mind that he seemed more like an innocent dupe entrapped by the intelligence services of Russia, Britain, and the U.S. The case against him has never been brought to trial, so we’ll never know.

Even during World War II, German spies captured in the U.S. were given attorneys and tried in public court.

Another well-touted victory was the arrest of six men in Lackawanna, New York, on 13 September 2002. Any evidence against them was never presented in court, because their guilty plea was induced by threats of removing them from the criminal justice system and designating them "enemy combatants"–who could be held indefinitely without access to an attorney.

What does it say about the fairness of our justice system when prosecutors can use the threat of denying an accused access to that system?

Finally, in February, a federal prosecutor in Detroit actually sued Attorney General John Ashcroft, alleging the Justice Department interfered with the case, compromised a confidential informant and exaggerated results in the war on terrorism. Again, making political hay trumped national security concerns.

Security is always a trade-off, and making smart security trade-offs requires us to be able to realistically evaluate the risks. By continually skewing the available information, the Bush administration is ensuring that Americans don’t have a clear picture of the terrorism risk. Through stern warnings of imminent danger, the administration is keeping Americans in fear. Fearful Americans are more likely to give away their freedoms and civil rights. Fearful Americans are more likely to sit docilely as the administration guts environmental laws, shields businesses from liability, rewrites foreign policy, and revamps the military–all in the name of counter-terrorism.

There are two basic ways to terrorize people. The first is to do something spectacularly horrible, like flying airplanes into skyscrapers and killing thousands. The second is to keep people living in fear through constant threat warnings, security checks, rhetoric, and stories of terrorist plots foiled by the diligent work of the increasingly intrusive Department of Homeland Security.

The Republicans have spent decades running for office on "the Democrats are soft on Communism." Since 9/11, they’ve discovered "the Democrats are soft on terrorism." The effectiveness of this strategy depends on convincing Americans that there is a major terrorism threat, and that we need to give the government free reign to do whatever it sees fit.

Security is complicated, and countermeasures we put in place to defend against one threat may leave us more vulnerable to another. The truth is that the risk of terrorism in this country is as small as it has been since before 9/11. The risk of governance by a corrupt government is much greater. And it’s becoming greater still with every policy decision made in the name of "the war on terrorism" that gives more power to the government and less to the people.

BRUCE SCHNEIER is the CTO of Counterpane Internet Security, Inc., and the author of "Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World."


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