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Taking Stock of WikiLeaks

Posted on 15 December 2010 by Editor

By George Friedman
December 14, 2010

Julian Assange has declared that geopolitics will be separated into pre-“Cablegate” and post-“Cablegate” eras. That was a bold claim. However, given the intense interest that the leaks produced, it is a claim that ought to be carefully considered. Several weeks have passed since the first of the diplomatic cables were released, and it is time now to address the following questions: First, how significant were the leaks? Second, how could they have happened? Third, was their release a crime? Fourth, what were their consequences? Finally, and most important, is the WikiLeaks premise that releasing government secrets is a healthy and appropriate act a tenable position?

Let’s begin by recalling that the U.S. State Department documents constituted the third wave of leaks. The first two consisted of battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. Looking back on those as a benchmark, it is difficult to argue that they revealed information that ran counter to informed opinion. I use the term “informed opinion” deliberately. For someone who was watching Iraq and Afghanistan with some care over the previous years, the leaks might have provided interesting details but they would not have provided any startling distinction between the reality that was known and what was revealed. If, on the other hand, you weren’t paying close attention, and WikiLeaks provided your first and only view of the battlefields in any detail, you might have been surprised.

Let’s consider the most controversial revelation, one of the tens of thousands of reports released on Iraq and Afghanistan and one in which a video indicated that civilians were deliberately targeted by U.S. troops. The first point, of course, is that the insurgents, in violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, did not go into combat wearing armbands or other distinctive clothing to distinguish themselves from non-combatants. The Geneva Conventions have always been adamant on this requirement because they regarded combatants operating under the cover of civilians as being responsible for putting those civilians in harm’s way, not the uniformed troops who were forced to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants when the combatants deliberately chose to act in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

It follows from this that such actions against civilians are inevitable in the kind of war Iraqi insurgents chose to wage. Obviously, this particular event has to be carefully analyzed, but in a war in which combatants blend with non-combatants, civilian casualties will occur, and so will criminal actions by uniformed troops. Hundreds of thousands of troops have fought in Iraq, and the idea that criminal acts would be absent is absurd. What is most startling is not the presence of potentially criminal actions but their scarcity. Anyone who has been close to combat or who has read histories of World War II would be struck not by the presence of war crimes but by the fact that in all the WikiLeaks files so few potential cases are found. War is controlled violence, and when controls fail — as they inevitably do — uncontrolled and potentially criminal violence occurs. However, the case cited by WikiLeaks with much fanfare did not clearly show criminal actions on the part of American troops as much as it did the consequences of the insurgents violating the Geneva Conventions.

Only those who were not paying attention to the fact that there was a war going on, or who had no understanding of war, or who wanted to pretend to be shocked for political reasons, missed two crucial points: It was the insurgents who would be held responsible for criminal acts under the Geneva Conventions for posing as non-combatants, and there were extraordinarily few cases of potential war crimes that were contained in the leaks.

The diplomatic leaks are similar. There is precious little that was revealed that was unknown to the informed observer. For example, anyone reading STRATFOR knows we have argued that it was not only the Israelis but also the Saudis that were most concerned about Iranian power and most insistent that the United States do something about it. While the media treated this as a significant revelation, it required a profound lack of understanding of the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf to regard U.S. diplomatic cables on the subject as surprising.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ statement in the leaks that the Saudis were always prepared to fight to the last American was embarrassing, in the sense that Gates would have to meet with Saudi leaders in the future and would do so with them knowing what he thinks of them. Of course, the Saudis are canny politicians and diplomats and they already knew how the American leadership regarded their demands.

There were other embarrassments also known by the informed observer. Almost anyone who worries about such things is aware that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is close to the Russians and likes to party with young women. The latest batch of leaks revealed that the American diplomatic service was also aware of this. And now Berlusconi is aware that they know of these things, which will make it hard for diplomats to pretend that they don’t know of these things. Of course, Berlusconi was aware that everyone knew of these things and clearly didn’t care, since the charges were all over Italian media.

I am not cherry-picking the Saudi or Italian memos. The consistent reality of the leaks is that they do not reveal anything new to the informed but do provide some amusement over certain comments, such as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev being called “Batman and Robin.” That’s amusing, but it isn’t significant. Amusing and interesting but almost never significant is what I come away with having read through all three waves of leaks.

Obviously, the leaks are being used by foreign politicians to their own advantage. For example, the Russians feigned shock that NATO would be reassuring the Balts about defense against a potential Russian invasion or the Poles using the leaks to claim that solid U.S.-Polish relations are an illusion. The Russians know well of NATO plans for defending the Baltic states against a hypothetical Russian invasion, and the Poles know equally well that U.S.-Polish relations are complex but far from illusory. The leaks provide an opportunity for feigning shock and anger and extracting possible minor concessions or controlling atmospherics. They do not, however, change the structure of geopolitics.

Indeed, U.S. diplomats come away looking sharp, insightful and decent. While their public statements after a conference may be vacuous, it is encouraging to see that their read of the situation and of foreign leaders is unsentimental and astute. Everything from memos on senior leaders to anonymous snippets from apparently junior diplomats not only are on target (in the sense that STRATFOR agrees with them) but are also well-written and clear. I would argue that the leaks paint a flattering picture overall of the intellect of U.S. officials without revealing, for the most part, anything particularly embarrassing.

At the same time, there were snarky and foolish remarks in some of the leaks, particularly personal comments about leaders and sometimes their families that were unnecessarily offensive. Some of these will damage diplomatic careers, most generated a good deal of personal tension and none of their authors will likely return to the countries in which they served. Much was indeed unprofessional, but the task of a diplomat is to provide a sense of place in its smallest details, and none expect their observations ever to be seen by the wrong people. Nor do nations ever shift geopolitical course over such insults, not in the long run. These personal insults were by far the most significant embarrassments to be found in the latest release. Personal tension is not, however, international tension.

This raises the question of why diplomats can’t always simply state their minds rather than publicly mouth preposterous platitudes. It could be as simple as this: My son was a terrible pianist. He completely lacked talent. After his recitals at age 10, I would pretend to be enthralled. He knew he was awful and he knew I knew he was awful, but it was appropriate that I not admit what I knew. It is called politeness and sometimes affection. There is rarely affection among nations, but politeness calls for behaving differently when a person is in the company of certain other people than when that person is with colleagues talking about those people. This is the simplest of human rules. Not admitting what you know about others is the foundation of civilization. The same is true among diplomats and nations.

And in the end, this is all I found in the latest WikiLeaks release: a great deal of information about people who aren’t American that others certainly knew and were aware that the Americans knew, and now they have all seen it in writing. It would take someone who truly doesn’t understand how geopolitics really works to think that this would make a difference. Some diplomats may wind up in other postings, and perhaps some careers will be ended. But the idea that this would somehow change the geopolitics of our time is really hard to fathom. I have yet to see Assange point to something so significant that it would justify his claim. It may well be that the United States is hiding secrets that would reveal it to be monstrous. If so, it is not to be found in what has been released so far.

There is, of course, the question of whether states should hold secrets, which is at the root of the WikiLeaks issue. Assange claims that by revealing these secrets WikiLeaks is doing a service. His ultimate maxim, as he has said on several occasions, is that if money and resources are being spent on keeping something secret, then the reasons must be insidious. Nations have secrets for many reasons, from protecting a military or intelligence advantage to seeking some advantage in negotiations to, at times, hiding nefarious plans. But it is difficult to imagine a state — or a business or a church — acting without confidentiality. Imagine that everything you wrote and said in an attempt to figure out a problem was made public? Every stupid idea that you discarded or clueless comment you expressed would now be pinned on you. But more than that, when you argue that nations should engage in diplomacy rather than war, taking away privacy makes diplomacy impossible. If what you really think of the guy on the other side of the table is made public, how can diplomacy work?

This is the contradiction at the heart of the WikiLeaks project. Given what I have read Assange saying, he seems to me to be an opponent of war and a supporter of peace. Yet what he did in leaking these documents, if the leaking did anything at all, is make diplomacy more difficult. It is not that it will lead to war by any means; it is simply that one cannot advocate negotiations and then demand that negotiators be denied confidentiality in which to conduct their negotiations. No business could do that, nor could any other institution. Note how vigorously WikiLeaks hides the inner workings of its own organization, from how it is funded to the people it employs.

Assange’s claims are made even more interesting in terms of his “thermonuclear” threat. Apparently there are massive files that will be revealed if any harm comes to him. Implicit is the idea that they will not be revealed if he is unharmed — otherwise the threat makes no sense. So, Assange’s position is that he has secrets and will keep them secret if he is not harmed. I regard this as a perfectly reasonable and plausible position. One of the best uses for secrets is to control what the other side does to you. So Assange is absolutely committed to revealing the truth unless it serves his interests not to, in which case the public has no need to know.

It is difficult to see what harm the leaks have done, beyond embarrassment. It is also difficult to understand why WikiLeaks thinks it has changed history or why Assange lacks a sufficient sense of irony not to see the contradiction between his position on openness and his willingness to keep secrets when they benefit him. But there is also something important here, which is how this all was leaked in the first place.

To begin that explanation, we have to go back to 9/11 and the feeling in its aftermath that the failure of various government entities to share information contributed to the disaster. The answer was to share information so that intelligence analysts could draw intelligence from all sources in order to connect the dots. Intelligence organizations hate sharing information because it makes vast amounts of information vulnerable. Compartmentalization makes it hard to connect dots, but it also makes it harder to have a WikiLeaks release. The tension between intelligence and security is eternal, and there will never be a clear solution.

The real issue is who had access to this mass of files and what controls were put on them. Did the IT department track all external drives or e-mails? One of the reasons to be casual is that this was information that was classified secret and below, with the vast majority being at the confidential, no-foreign-distribution level. This information was not considered highly sensitive by the U.S. government. Based on the latest trove, it is hard to figure out how the U.S. government decides to classify material. But it has to be remembered that given their level of classification these files did not have the highest security around them because they were not seen as highly sensitive.

Still, a crime occurred. According to the case of Daniel Ellsberg, who gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam to a New York Times reporter, it is a crime for someone with a security clearance to provide classified material for publication but not a crime for a publisher to publish it, or so it has become practice since the Ellsberg case. Legal experts can debate the nuances, but this has been the practice for almost 40 years. The bright line is whether the publisher in any way encouraged or participated in either the theft of the information or in having it passed on to him. In the Ellsberg case, he handed it to reporters without them even knowing what it was. Assange has been insisting that he was the passive recipient of information that he had nothing to do with securing.

Now it is interesting whether the sheer existence of WikiLeaks constituted encouragement or conspiracy with anyone willing to pass on classified information to him. But more interesting by far is the sequence of events that led a U.S. Army private first class not only to secure the material but to know where to send it and how to get it there. If Pfc. Bradley Manning conceived and executed the theft by himself, and gave the information to WikiLeaks unprompted, Assange is clear. But anyone who assisted Manning or encouraged him is probably guilty of conspiracy, and if Assange knew what was being done, he is probably guilty, too. There was talk about some people at MIT helping Manning. Unscrambling the sequence is what the Justice Department is undoubtedly doing now. Assange cannot be guilty of treason, since he isn’t a U.S. citizen. But he could be guilty of espionage. His best defense will be that he can’t be guilty of espionage because the material that was stolen was so trivial.

I have no idea whether or when he got involved in the acquisition of the material. I do know — given the material leaked so far — that there is little beyond minor embarrassments contained within it. Therefore, Assange’s claim that geopolitics has changed is as false as it is bold. Whether he committed any crime, including rape, is something I have no idea about. What he is clearly guilty of is hyperbole. But contrary to what he intended, he did do a service to the United States. New controls will be placed on the kind of low-grade material he published. Secretary of Defense Gates made the following point on this:

“Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments — some governments — deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.

“Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

I don’t like to give anyone else the final word, but in this case Robert Gates’ view is definitive. One can pretend that WikiLeaks has redefined geopolitics, but it hasn’t come close.

Taking Stock of WikiLeaks is republished with permission of STRATFOR.”

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Airline Security: Gentle Solutions to a Vexing Problem

Posted on 13 January 2010 by Editor

WASHINGTON, D.C. - JANUARY 20:  Crowds look at...


By Fred Burton and Ben West
January 13, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama outlined a set of new policies Jan. 7 in response to the Dec. 25, 2009 Northwest Airlines bombing attempt, which came the closest to a successful attack on a U.S. flight since Richard Reid’s failed shoe-bombing in December 2001. As in the aftermath of that attempt, a flurry of accusations, excuses and policy prescriptions have emanated from Washington since Christmas Day concerning U.S. airline security. Whatever changes actually result from the most recent bombing attempt, they will likely be more successful at pacifying the public and politicians than preventing future attacks.

At the heart of President Obama’s policy outline were the following key tactics: pursue enhanced screening technology in the transportation sector, review the visa issuance and revocation process, enhance coordination among agencies for counterterrorism (CT) investigations and establish a process to prioritize such investigations. While such measures are certainly important, they will not go far enough, by themselves, to meaningfully address the aviation security challenges the United States still faces almost nine years after 9/11.

Holes in the System

For one thing, technology must not be seen as a panacea. It can be a very useful tool for finding explosive devices and weapons concealed on a person or in luggage, but it is predictable and reactive. In terms of aviation security, the federal government has consistently been fighting the last war and continues to do so. Certain practical and effective steps have been taken. Hardening the cockpit door, deploying air marshals and increasing crew and passenger awareness countered the airline hijacking threat after 9/11; requiring passengers to remove their shoes and scanning them prior to boarding followed Reid’s 2001 shoe-bombing attempt; and restrictions on liquids and gels followed the 2006 trans-Atlantic plot. Not enacting these measures would have meant not learning from past mistakes, and they do ensure that unsophisticated “copycat” attackers are not successful. But such measures — even those that are less technological — fail to take into account innovative militants, who are eager and able to exploit inevitable weaknesses in the process.

Even advanced body-imaging systems like the newer backscatter and millimeter-wave systems now being used to screen travelers cannot pick up explosives hidden inside a person’s body using condoms or tampons — a tactic that was initially thought to have been used in the Aug. 28 assassination attempt against Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. (It is now believed that the attacker in that case used an underwear bomb like the one used in the Christmas Day attempt.) Moreover, X-ray systems cannot detect explosives cleverly disguised in carry-on baggage or smuggled past security checkpoints — something that drug smugglers routinely do.

Preventing attacks against U.S. airliners would require unrealistically invasive and inconvenient measures that the airline industry and American society are simply not prepared to implement. El Al, Israel’s national airline, is one international carrier that conducts thorough searches of every passenger and every handbag, runs checked luggage through a decompression chamber and has two air marshals on each flight. The airline also refuses to let some people (including many Muslims) on board. While these practices have been successful in preventing terrorist attacks against the airline, they are not in line with American and European culture and President Obama’s insistence that measures remain consistent with privacy rights and civil liberties. It is also economically and politically unfeasible for major U.S. airlines operating hundreds of flights per day from hundreds of different cities to impose measures such as those followed by El Al, an airline with fewer planes and a smaller area of operation.

And as long as U.S. airport security relies on screening techniques that are only moderately invasive, there will be holes that innovative attackers will be able to exploit. While screening technology is advancing, there is nothing in the foreseeable future that would be able to do more screening with less invasiveness. The U.S. prison system grapples with the same problem, and even there, where inmates are searched far more invasively than air travelers, contraband is still able to flow into facilities.

Focusing on the visa issuance and revocation process also leaves holes in the system. The Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been given a multiple-entry U.S. visa, which allowed him to travel to the United States. When Abdulmutallab’s father expressed concerns to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov. 19, 2009, that his son might have been involved with Yemen-based Islamist militants, Abdulmutallab’s name and passport number were sent from the U.S. Embassy in Abuja to Washington and placed in the “Visa Viper” system, which specifically pertains to visas and terrorist suspects. His name and passport number were also logged into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, but not the “no-fly” list.

This standard operating procedure (which does not automatically result in a visa revocation) passed the responsibility from the CIA agents who spoke to Abdulmuttalab’s father on to the U.S. State Department, where agents unfamiliar with the specifics of the case did not, apparently, decide to act on it. In hindsight, the decision not to take the father’s warning more seriously appears to be a glaring mistake, but in context it seems less obvious. The father’s tip was vague, with little indication of what his son was up to or, more important to U.S. CT agents, that he was planning even to travel to the United States, much less attack a U.S. airliner.

Intelligence Limitations

The possibility of yet another jihadist suspect emerging in the Middle East does not pose an existential threat to the United States, so this raises the third challenge: prioritizing CT investigations. Vague warnings such as the tip from Abdulmuttalab’s father spring up constantly throughout the world and CT investigators have to prioritize them. Only the most serious cases get assigned to an investigator to follow up on while the rest are filed away for future reference. If the same name pops up again with more information on the threat, then more action is taken. U.S. CT agents are most concerned about specific threats to the United States, and with no actionable intelligence that Abdulmutallab was plotting an attack against the United States, his case was given a lower priority.

Nevertheless, not acting immediately on the father’s vague threat proved to be a near-fatal move. This highlights the danger of the unsophisticated, ill-trained militant, referred to in U.S. CT circles as a “Kramer jihadist” (after the bumbling character in the sitcom “Seinfeld”). By himself, a Kramer jihadist poses a minimal threat, but when combined with a trained operative or group, he can become a formidable weapon. Abdulmutallab had been radicalized, but there is nothing to suggest that he had extensive jihadist training or any tactical expertise. He was simply a willing agent with a visa to the United States. When put in the hands of a competent, well-trained operator (such as those involved with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), a Kramer jihadist can be outfitted with a device and given a support network that could supply him with transportation and direction to carry out an effective attack. There are simply too many radical Islamists in the world to investigate each one, but immediately revoking visas to keep suspects off U.S. airliners until they can be investigated further is a fairly simple process and would be an effective deterrent.

Finally, the lack of coordination among agencies in CT investigations is an old problem that dates back well before 9/11. This challenge lies in the fact that the U.S. intelligence community is broken up into specific agencies — each with its own specific jurisdiction and incentive to leverage its power in Washington by controlling the flow of information. This system ensures that no single agency becomes too powerful and self-interested, but it also fractures the intelligence community and bureaucratizes intelligence sharing.

National Counterterrorism Center

In order to investigate a case like Abdulmutallab’s, agents from the CIA must work with agents from the FBI, and the State Department is tasked with coordinating the requests for information from various foreign governments (whose information is not always reliable). For foreign threats specifically aimed at airlines, agents from the Transportation Security Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, Office of Director of National Intelligence, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement must be notified. Rallying and coordinating all the appropriate actors and agencies to respond to a threat requires careful bureaucratic maneuvering and presents numerous opportunities to be bogged down at every step. Certainly, the more overt the threat, the easier it is to move the bureaucracy, but a case as opaque as Abdulmutallab’s would not likely inspire a quick and decisive follow-up.

The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was created to aggregate threats from various local, state and federal agencies all over the world in order to streamline the threat-identification and investigation process. However, the additional bureaucracy that was generated with the formation of the NCTC has essentially canceled out any benefit that the center might have contributed.

When it comes down to it, modern airliners — full of people and fuel — are extremely vulnerable targets that can produce highly dramatic carnage, characteristics that attract militants and militant groups seeking global notoriety. And Abdulmutallab’s efforts on Christmas Day certainly will not be the last militant attempt to bring an airliner down. As security measures are changed in response to this most recent attempt, terrorist planners will be watching closely and are sure to adapt their tactics accordingly.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

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The Christmas Day Airliner Attack and the Intelligence Process

Posted on 08 January 2010 by Editor

by George Friedman
January 4, 2010

As is well known, a Nigerian national named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to destroy a passenger aircraft traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009. Metal detectors cannot pinpoint the chemical in the device he sought to detonate, PETN. The PETN was strapped to his groin. Since a detonator could have been detected, the attacker chose — or had chosen for him — a syringe filled with acid for use as an improvised alternative means to initiate the detonation. In the event, the device failed to detonate, but it did cause a fire in a highly sensitive area of the attacker’s body. An alert passenger put out the fire. The plane landed safely. It later emerged that the attacker’s father, a prominent banker in Nigeria, had gone to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to warn embassy officials of his concerns that his son might be involved with jihadists.

The incident drove home a number of points. First, while al Qaeda prime — the organization that had planned and executed 9/11 — might be in shambles, other groups in other countries using the al Qaeda brand name and following al Qaeda prime’s ideology remain operational and capable of mounting attacks. Second, like other recent attacks, this attack was relatively feeble: It involved a single aircraft, and the explosive device was not well-conceived. Third, it remained and still remains possible for a terrorist to bring explosives on board an aircraft. Fourth, intelligence available in Nigeria, London and elsewhere had not moved through the system with sufficient speed to block the terrorist from boarding the flight.

An Enduring Threat

From this three things emerge. First, although the capabilities of jihadist terrorists have declined, their organizations remain functional, and there is no guarantee that these organizations won’t increase in sophistication and effectiveness. Second, the militants remain focused on the global air transport system. Third, the defensive mechanisms devised since 2001 remain ineffective to some degree.

The purpose of terrorism in its purest form is to create a sense of insecurity among a public. It succeeds when fear moves a system to the point where it can no longer function. This magnifies the strength of the terrorist by causing the public to see the failure of the system as the result of the power of the terrorist. Terror networks are necessarily sparse. The greater the number of persons involved, the more likely a security breach becomes. Thus, there are necessarily few people in a terror network. An ideal terror network is global, able to strike anywhere and in multiple places at once. The extent of the terror network is unknown, partly because of its security systems and partly because it is so sparse that finding a terrorist is like finding a needle in a haystack. It is the fact that the size and intentions of the terror network are unknown that generates the sense of terror and empowers the terrorist.

The global aspect is also important. That attacks can originate in many places and that attackers can belong to many ethnic groups increases the desired sense of insecurity. All Muslims are not members of al Qaeda, but all members of al Qaeda are Muslims, and any Muslim might be a member of al Qaeda. This logic is beneficial to radical Islamists, who want to increase the sense of confrontation between Islam and the rest of the world. This not only increases the sense of insecurity and vulnerability in the rest of the world, it also increases hostility toward Muslims, strengthening al Qaeda’s argument to Muslims that they are in an unavoidable state of war with the rest of the world. Equally important is the transmission of the idea that if al Qaeda is destroyed in one place, it will spring up elsewhere.

This terror attack made another point, intended or not. U.S. President Barack Obama recently decided to increase forces in Afghanistan. A large part of his reasoning was that Afghanistan was the origin of 9/11, and the Taliban hosted al Qaeda. Therefore, he reasoned the United States should focus its military operations in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, since that was the origin of al Qaeda. But the Christmas Day terror attempt originated in Yemen, a place where the United States has been fighting a covert war with limited military resources. It therefore raises the question of why Obama is focusing on Afghanistan when the threat from al Qaeda spinoffs can originate anywhere.

From the terrorist perspective, the Yemen attack was a low-cost, low-risk operation. If it succeeded in bringing down a U.S. airliner over Detroit, the psychological impact would be massive. If it failed to do so, it would certainly increase a sense of anxiety, cause the U.S. and other governments to institute new and expensive security measures, and potentially force the United States into expensive deployments of forces insufficient to dominate a given country but sufficient to generate an insurgency. If just some of these things happened, the attack would have been well worth the effort.

The Strategic Challenge

The West’s problem can be identified this way: There is no strategic solution to low-level terrorism, i.e., terrorism carried out by a sparse, global network at unpredictable times and places. Strategy involves identifying and destroying the center of gravity of an enemy force. By nature, jihadist terrorism fails to present a single center of gravity, or a strong point or enabler that if destroyed would destroy the organization. There is no organization properly understood, and the destruction of one organization does not preclude the generation of another organization.

There are possible solutions. One is to accept that Islamist terrorism cannot be defeated permanently but can be kept below a certain threshold. As it operates now, it can inflict occasional painful blows on the United States and other countries — including Muslim countries — but it cannot threaten the survival of the nation (though it might force regime change in some Muslim countries).

In this strategy, there are two goals. The first is preventing the creation of a jihadist regime in any part of the Muslim world. As we saw when the Taliban provided al Qaeda with sanctuary, access to a state apparatus increases the level of threat to the United States and other countries; displacing the Taliban government reduced the level of threat. The second goal is preventing terrorists from accessing weapons of mass destruction that, while they might not threaten the survival of a country, would certainly raise the pain level to an unacceptable point. In other words, the United States and other countries should focus on reducing the level of terrorist capabilities, not on trying to eliminate the terrorist threat as a whole.

To a great extent, this is the American strategy. The United States has created a system for screening airline passengers. No one expects it to block a serious attempt to commit terrorism on an airliner, nor does this effort have any effect on other forms of terrorism. Instead, it is there to reassure the public that something is being done, to catch some careless attackers and to deter others. But in general, it is a system whose inconvenience is meant to reassure.

The Challenge of Identifying Potential Terrorists

To the extent to which there is a center of gravity to the problem, it is in identifying potential terrorists. In both the Fort Hood attack and the Detroit incident, information was in the system that could have allowed authorities to identify and stop the attackers, but in both cases, this information didn’t flow to the places where action could have been taken. There is thus a chasm between the acquisition of information and the person who has the authority to do something about it. The system “knew” about both attackers, but systems don’t actually think or know anything. The person with authority to stop a Nigerian from boarding the plane or who could relieve the Fort Hood killer from duty lacked one or more of the following: intelligence, real authority and motivation.

The information gathered in Nigeria had to be widely distributed to be useful. It was unknown where Abdulmutallab was going to go or what he was going to do. The number of people who needed to know about him was enormous, from British security to Amsterdam ticket agents checking passports. Without distributing the intelligence widely, it became useless. A net can’t have holes that are too big, and the failure to distribute intelligence to all points creates holes.

Of course, the number of pieces of intelligence that come into U.S. intelligence collection is enormous. How does the person interviewing the father know whether the father has other reasons to put his son on a list? Novels have been written about father-son relations. The collector must decide whether the report is both reliable and significant, and the vast majority of information coming into the system is neither. The intelligence community has been searching for a deus ex machina in the form of computers able not only to distribute intelligence to the necessary places but also to distinguish reliable from unreliable, significant from insignificant.

Forgetting the interagency rivalries and the tendency to give contracts to corporate behemoths with last-generation technology, no matter how widely and efficiently intelligence is distributed, at each step in the process someone must be given real authority to make decisions. When Janet Napolitano or George Tenet say that the system worked after an incident, they mean not that the outcome was satisfactory, but that the process operated as the process was intended to operate. Of course, being faithful to a process is not the same as being successful, but the U.S. intelligence community’s obsession with process frequently elevates process above success. Certainly, process is needed to operate a vast system, but process also is being used to deny people authority to do what is necessary outside the process, or, just as bad, it allows people to evade responsibility by adhering to the process.

Not only does the process relieve individuals in the system from real authority; it also strips them of motivation. In a system driven by process, the individual motivated to abort the process and improvise is weeded out early. There is no room for “cowboys,” the intelligence community term for people who hope to be successful at the mission rather than faithful to the process. Obviously, we are overstating matters somewhat, but not by as much as one might think. Within the U.S. intelligence and security process, one daily sees good people struggling to do their jobs in the face of processes that can’t possibly anticipate all circumstances.

The distribution of intelligence to the people who need to see it is, of course, indispensable, along with whatever other decision supports can be contrived. But, in the end, unless individuals are expected and motivated to make good decisions, the process is merely the preface to failure. No system can operate without process. At the same time, no process can replace authority, motivation and, ultimately, common sense.

The fear of violating procedures cripples Western efforts to shut down low-level terrorism. But the procedures are themselves flawed. A process that says that in a war against radical Islamists, an elderly visitor from Iceland is as big of a potential threat as a twentysomething from Yemen might satisfy some ideological imperative, but it violates the principle of common sense and blocks the authority and the motivation to act decisively.

It is significant that this is one of the things the Obama administration has changed in response to the attempted bombing.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced Jan. 4 that anyone traveling from or through nations regarded as state sponsors of terrorism as well as “other countries of interest” will be required to go through enhanced screening. The TSA said those techniques would include full-body pat downs, carry-on luggage searches, full-body scanning and explosive detection technology. The U.S. State Department lists Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism. The other countries whose passengers will face enhanced screening include Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen. A rational system of profiling thus appears to be developing.

In all likelihood, no system can eliminate events such as what happened on Christmas, and in all likelihood, the republic would survive an intermittent pattern of such events — even successful ones. Focusing on the strategic level makes sense. But given the level of effort and cost involved in terrorist protection throughout the world, successful systems for distributing intelligence and helping identify potentially significant threats are long overdue. The U.S. government has been tackling this since 2001, and it still isn’t working.

But, in the end, creating a process that precludes initiative by penalizing those who do not follow procedures under all circumstances and intimidating those responsible for making quick decisions from risking a mistake is bound to fail.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

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