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The Bush Administration’s Ongoing Intelligence Problem

The Bush Administration, unabashed mouthpiece of the world’s loudest democracy, has mandated that foreign flights coming to the United States carry armed air marshals to prevent their being commandeered by terrorists. In the same vein, it has been instrumental in the cancellation of flights into the United States from England, Fr**ce, and Mexico, based upon intelligence intercepts and the fact that passenger rosters included names appearing on government watch-lists.

These actions have produced grumbling in some quarters. A spokesman for Jane’s pointed out the liabilities of introducing fire arms into pressurized cabins, and that an overpowered sky marshal’s firearm could be put to diabolical purposes.

For some, the American edict was redolent of unilateralism. A spokesman for Mexican President Vicente Fox noted that “[the Americans] provided just generalities, and no details of names, groups or circumstances whatsoever . . . It is the moral responsibility of the United States Government to provide more information.”

In its own, inimitable, “tough shit” style, the U.S. offered the grumblers a simple choice: do it our way, or stay out of our air space. Reporters who had the temerity to ask about unilateralism at the press conference received short shrift and a steely-eyed gaze from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

But the hopelessly irreverent may well question this most recent round of huffing and puffing by Bush and the prevari-cons, not because the threat from terrorism is illusory, but because past efforts by these folks do not inspire the greatest confidence. “Trust us!” they say. “We can’t tell you why we’re doing this, but it’s based on credible and specific intelligence.” Haven’t we heard this story before?

I’m not even going to raise the whole issue of the WsMD beyond pointing out that this same crew gave us iron-clad assurances that they knew what they were doing on that one, too.

But what about the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who deplaned to make a connection in New York and was seized because his name appeared on a watch-list? Arar was turned over to the Syrians for a year of gratuitous torture on the basis of no actual evidence that he’d done anything wrong. He was released with no more explanation of his treatment than he received when he was detained. In this latest security dust up, when you hear reports of passengers questioned in their plane for hours after landing in the U.S., all based upon the information contained in watch lists, you have to wonder a little, don’t you?

The passengers with the watch-listed names on one of the recently cancelled flights were ultimately tracked down. The results indicate that the Department of Homeland Security has not yet shed its lovable, bumbling ways. According to the Washington Post:

Fr**ch officials confirmed a report in Friday’s Wall Street Journal that none of the six individuals whose names appeared suspicious to U.S. authorities on the flights canceled before Christmas turned out to be of interest. One turned out to be a 5-year-old boy with the same name as a suspected Tunisian terrorist, another was an elderly Chinese woman, and a third was a Welsh insurance agent.

The Post goes on to explain the difficulties that the homeland security folks face in policing the skies, including the fact that “U.S. officials must check manifests using a dozen separate watch lists because the planned consolidation of such data has yet to be completed.” (Here’s my advice for solving that knotty conundrum: read each list into a spreadsheet, then click “merge.”)

The same problem seems to beset just about every effort this administration makes in the war on terrorism ­ intelligence (no offense, President Bush). I use this term as a catch-all for the various situations in which the Bush Administration has been just awful at figuring out who the bad guys really are (though that almost never stops them from acting precipitously). They’ re pretty good at shock-and-awe, but they’re as likely to wipe out the firehouse cat as they are a terrorist.

For instance, do you remember a few weeks ago when an American convoy that was carrying bank notes to Samarra was attacked by Iraqi insurgents? The Americans claimed that they rebuffed the attack completely, suffering no fatalities while killing some fifty attackers. The attackers were supposedly Saddam Fedayeen, identifiable by their black uniforms. The whole thing was portrayed as a great victory in the struggle for democracy in Iraq: “the most [Iraqi deaths] reported in a single day since Bush declared the end of major combat in May,” according to the New York Times.

However, less than a dozen bodies could actually be found, and none were wearing the Saddam Fedayeen uniform. In fact, one was a child, one a woman who was leaving work at a pharmaceutical factory, and one was an old Iranian who was making a religious pilgrimage. Iraqi witnesses to the glorious victory said that the Americans responded to the attack by shooting at everything in sight, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral.

Of course, cynics might suggest that the Bush administration tendency to kidnap-or-incinerate first and ask questions later is explained by something other than faulty intelligence. The Samarra triumph, for instance, was announced during a period when the news from Iraq was mostly bad. Some might say that the desperate need of some good news explains the morphing of Iraqi civilian casualties into Saddam Fedayeen.

The incorrigibly suspicious might point out that Bush and the prevari-cons have a perverse incentive to hit the orange alert button every so often. People of this suspicious bent suggest that the administration’s grip on power depends on the perpetuation of fear of terrorism. No terrorist threat, no “George Bush, Warrior Bureaucrat!”

Remember jet-pilot George, posing on the deck of a nearly-beached aircraft carrier in front of that “Mission Accomplished” banner? Remember Thanksgiving-surprise George, parading through a Baghdad mess hall with a fake turkey? Is it possible that we’re now being presented with orange-alert George, guardian of the skyways?

What do you think the chances are that in late October or early November, the powers that be will find it necessary to call another orange alert?

GREG WEIHER is a political scientist and free-lance writer living in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at: gweiher@uh.edu