Tuesday, October 26, 2004

One of the more bizarre measures of the state of the War on Terror is the one proposed in a New York Times op-ed by Daniel Benjamin and Gabriel Weimann: the enthusiasm level of jihadist propaganda. As Benjamin and Weimann put it:
One need only listen to the terrorists and observe their recent actions to understand that we face grave problems. After all, their analysis of the battle is a key determinant of the level of terrorism in the future.

To get a sense of the jihadist movement's state of mind, we must listen to its communications, and not just the operational "chatter" collected by the intelligence community. Today, the central forum for the terrorists' discourse is not covert phone communications but the Internet, where Islamist Web sites and chat rooms are filled with evaluations of current events, discussions of strategy and elaborations of jihadist ideology.

Yes, assessing this material requires a critical eye since there is plenty of bluster and some chat room participants may be teenagers in American suburbs rather than fighters in the field. Some things, however, are clear: There has been a drastic shift in mood in the last two years. Radicals who were downcast and perplexed in 2002 about the rapid defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan now feel exuberant about the global situation and, above all, the events in Iraq.
Benjamin and Weimann proceed to give numerous quotations from Islamist Websites to the effect that "that America has blundered in Iraq the same way the Soviet Union did in the 1980's in Afghanistan, and that it will soon be leaving in defeat." Oddly enough, they provide no quotations to support their contention that the rhetoric emanating from these Web sites was "downcast and perplexed in 2002." I wonder why?

As I pointed out some time ago, the rhetoric of totalitarian movements has nothing to do with reality, and everything to do with fear and violence. The goal of Islamist terrorism's propagandists is not to compile and communicate a clear-eyed, rational description of objective reality, but rather to intimidate opponents into believing--or at least into being afraid enough to pretend to believe--that radical Islamists are unstoppably on the march, and that resistance to them is futile. This purpose is utterly unaffected by facts on the ground, such as the success or failure of American-Iraqi efforts to crush the insurgency centered in the "Sunni Triangle". Any self-respecting Iraqi Jihadist propagandist will fervently proclaim the inevitability of Muslim victory right up to the moment when the Marines break down his door. After all, who knows? Perhaps some gullible American writers are listening....

Monday, October 11, 2004

Anyone who still believes the experts' claims that bureaucratic reform is the key to rejuvenating America's national security bureaucracy should read the recent Washington Post op-ed by Brookings scholar and "professor of public service" (whatever that means) Paul C. Light. This august gentleman has discerned two major flaws in his nation's intelligence apparatus:

1) It is bloated with a horrifying number of senior positions:
Between 1961 and 2004 the federal government added 41 new executive titles, including tongue twisters such as deputy associate deputy secretary, principal associate deputy undersecretary, deputy assistant secretary, deputy associate executive administrator, and assistant chief of staff to the assistant administrator.
2) A horrifying number of those positions are unfilled:
The current appointments process virtually ensures that the new intelligence agency will wait months, if not years, to fill its top jobs.

The process clearly failed the country on Sept. 11. Two months before the terrorist attacks, just a third of the 166 Senate-confirmed jobs through which the war on terrorism would be led were filled.
His solution? "[F]latten the bloated hierarchies the new agency will oversee and streamline the presidential appointments process that will fill its top jobs." That way, not only will it be easier to fill all the jobs that shouldn't exist, but it'll also be easier to cut back on unnecessary hiring for all the redundant positions that have already been filled.

Or something like that.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Two journalist-lawyers, Yonatan Lupu of The New Republic and Dahlia Lithwick of Slate, have come to remarkably similar conclusions about the recent non-trial of American Taliban-Guantanamo prisoner Yaser Hamdi. After the Supreme Court ruled that he must be allowed to stand trial, the government elected instead to make a deal with him, in which he agreed to give up his US citizenship and be deported in return for the charges against him being dropped. To Lupu and Lithwick, that's proof that Hamdi was obviously an innocent falsely imprisoned for three years for no legitimate reason. (What do they think the real-but-illegitimate reason could have been? Sadism? Racism? Propaganda? Incompetence? Neither writer deigns to speculate.) Here's Lithwick:
[T]hey let him go. Because Hamdi was, of course, never really the Taliban's Dr. Evil, or even its Mini-Me. He was slammed into solitary on some flimsy assertions contained in what's known as the two-page "Mobbs Declaration." That document was authored by the adviser to the undersecretary of defense policy—a bureaucrat who wasn't actually in Afghanistan when Hamdi was captured, yet felt confident swearing that Hamdi was an enemy combatant, because, according to his captors from the Northern Alliance, he was "affiliated with a Taliban military unit."
And Lupu:
The reality is that the government wanted to avoid a Hamdi trial because of the potential embarrassment of admitting that its evidence against him was inadequate. Not only that, but this precedent would undermine its credibility in future cases, such as those of the Guantanamo prisoners. So the administration did with Hamdi what it's been doing now for three years: avoid the courts, whatever the cost.
Now, it's possible, of course, that Yaser Hamdi really was, as his father claims--and Lithwick and Lupu apparently believe--in Afghanistan "for humanitarian reasons"; that he was somehow taken prisoner by the Northern Alliance and mistaken for a Taliban soldier; that he was then further identified as one of the few hundred high-level detainees worthy of being handed over to American custody and shipped to Guantanamo, based on no credible evidence; and that the US has been holding him for three years now for no good reason whatsoever. In that case, it certainly makes sense that the government would rather release him than risk an embarrassing trial.

But there's another, entirely plausible--indeed, far more likely--and highly disturbing possibility: that Hamdi really is an important Taliban captive; that he really was captured by the Northern Alliance while fighting for the Taliban; and that he was quite correctly included among the prisoners significant enough to be sent to Guantanamo for further detention and interrogation, rather than being released.

Let us suppose, for a moment, that this not-so-wild scenario is correct--that is, that the US military isn't engaged in a massive cock-up and/or cover-up, and that what it's claiming about Hamdi is essentially true. How, then, would Hamdi's captors likely handle the Supreme Court's order to either try him or release him? Recall that being a member of the Taliban wasn't a criminal offense at the time Hamdi was captured. (The USA Patriot Act may plug that gaping hole in the future--if it survives the withering attacks of Lithwick and her ilk--but it cannot be used retroactively.) He would thus have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have been actively engaged in combat against US soldiers at some point. Of course, the details of his capture are no doubt somewhat fuzzy, and even finding the witnesses who could corroborate the incriminating circumstances of his detention--let alone shipping said Northern Alliance irregulars-cum-witnesses to the US to testify at a trial, and then withstand cross-examination--is not likely to be a feasible proposition. Meanwhile, Hamdi's lawyer would be free to subpoena testimony from all manner of Al Qaida and Taliban captives, just as Zacarias Moussaoui did. Pursuing a trial would therefore most likely result not only in a prosecutorial failure and a public relations nightmare, but also a disastrous disruption of the isolation and interrogation regime imposed on top Al Qaida captives.

But would the government really simply release a real, honest-to-goodness high-ranking Taliban fighter, setting him free to rejoin his comrades in battle against American troops--just to allay the concerns of meddling civil libertarians? Indeed they would. After all, among feared enemies threatening to destroy America's armed forces, the Taliban have nothing on the US Supreme Court.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Does anyone want to starve Terri Schiavo to death?
Many people claim her husband does. The poor woman is in a state that may or not be "persistent vegetative" according to which doctor you believe, and I have no idea if there is any consensus on whether or not she will ever be able to express a wish to live, or to die. And I therefore don't know if I would support killing her or not.

Dan has responded (in the comments) to my post on enforced euthanasia, and I plan on responding to his remarks. For the moment, I wish to address one aspect of his remarks that is relevant to the Schiavo case, namely the distinction between the government wrongly causing someone to die or suffer through some action it takes, versus the government wrongly causing someone to die or suffer through inaction. Dan points out that the first is worse, and I agree. Except ...

For one thing, the relative numbers matter, but I'll discuss that later. For another thing, I think Dan's position here is at least somewhat inconsistent with his disrespect for the "precautionary principle".

For now, I wish to make the point that in the Schiavo case, as in all cases where one discusses enforced euthanasia, the distinction between action and inaction becomes very vague. The "inaction" of not killing Terri involves a huge amount of very expensive, constant action to keep her alive, all without her explicit consent. The proposed "action" of ceasing to feed her -- also without her explicit consent -- can also be viewed as inaction. In fact, this is how killing through starvation or nonresuscitation is generally presented to the anti-euthanasia crowd: we're not doing anything, we're merely ceasing to do something. In other words, the proposed starvation is an attempt to make people such as Dan happier with euthanasia.

I don't think this attempt is very successful, at least not with Dan. I believe that if we are going to do euthanasia, we should do it right, even if it means admitting that we are truly performing the action of killing. I think we should treat our loved ones with at least as much decency as we treat (in most states where there is capital punishment) our worst criminals: those that we kill should be killed with lethal injection, that is, with lethal IV. We should allow them a quick, painless death. I would like to think that those people who want Terri Schiavo to die, want her to die this way. Unfortunately, such positive action is generally viewed as being out of the question in our society.