FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.”

 

Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
Ulrich Heyden
Crimea as a Paradise for High-Class Tourism?
Ramzy Baroud
Did the Arabs Betray Palestine? – A Schism between the Ruling Classes and the Wider Society
Halyna Mokrushyna
The War on Ukrainian Scientists
Joseph Natoli
Who’s the Better Neoliberal?
Ron Jacobs
The Battle at Big Brown: Joe Allen’s The Package King
Wahid Azal
Class Struggle and Westoxication in Pahlavi Iran: a Review of the Iranian Series ‘Shahrzad’
David Crisp
After All These Years, Newspapers Still Needed
Graham Peebles
Hungry and Frightened: Famine in Ethiopia 2016
Robert Koehler
Opening the Closed Political Culture
Missy Comley Beattie
Waves of Nostalgia
Thomas Knapp
The Problem with Donald Trump’s Version of “America First”
Georgina Downs
Hillsborough and Beyond: Establishment Cover Ups, Lies & Corruption
Jeffrey St. Clair
Groove on the Tracks: the Magic Left Hand of Red Garland
Ben Debney
Kush Zombies: QELD’s Hat Tip to Old School Hip Hop
Charles R. Larson
Moby Dick on Steroids?
David Yearsley
Miles Davis: Ace of Baseness
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail