The Stupid Bomb

The Brits have a holiday they used to celebrate but they don’t much bother with now – Guy Fawkes Night. Few people now remember the Gunpowder Plot and why it’s important to hate the Pope – he seems harmless enough – but on November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught in the process of trying to blow up Parliament. He was in the basement with the gunpowder and ready to set it off – and they grabbed him.

He was a terrorist, you see. So this sort of thing has been going on for a long time. There’s not much point in rehashing the conflict between England and the Church of Rome from Henry VIII forward – it was a nasty business that compounded religion and politics and the struggle for international power and influence in an odd brew, and led to long wars and much death, and is still sputtering along in Belfast these days. But Fawkes was a jihadist of sorts, a suicide bomber – for the Catholic Church and for his religion. Such folks are always dangerous. They still are.

And the fading British holiday was always a matter of thanksgiving – a celebration of the day they grabbed the religious terrorist, and Parliament didn’t blow up. Yeah, yeah – Parliament doesn’t blow up any other day either, like clockwork. It’s still there, and this is a holiday celebrating what didn’t happen, celebrating just another ordinary day. That makes it a bit surreal. But dealing with religious terrorism is like that. You end up celebrating when something doesn’t happen.

It’s unlikely we will end up celebrating December 25, 2009 – the day the Christmas Bomber failed to blow up the airliner over Detroit. He came too close and he should have never been on the plane, and no heroes saved the day, just alert passengers taking care of a small fire. And while Guy Fawkes was dashing and dangerous, our guy is now known as the Underpants Bomber – a befuddled young Nigerian man who couldn’t do anything right and only managed to blow up his private parts, obviously disappointing seventy-two virgins. And a bit of quite unusable high explosives stuffed in your shorts just isn’t the same thing as barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the Houses of Parliament. This is not the stuff of national holidays. Yes, this could have been a tragedy, and no tragedy happened. Fine – but it’s also almost comic. And maybe there wasn’t much real danger. When the bad guys recruit incompetent goofballs, and supply them with magic exploding underwear that doesn’t really work, you know they’re getting desperate, and on the edge of becoming a joke themselves. This is al Qaeda at its most dangerous? They may now have an image problem in the Middle East.

But that’s okay. Maybe the bomb wasn’t supposed to explode, and their bomber was an expendable clown all along. Maybe it was just time to tweak us again, to see how stupid we could get, because we certainly would overreact, and in their eyes, show our true colors to the world. We’d come off as the foolish devils they always had claimed we were.

And on cue came the calls for war with Yemen, where the guy was trained, and for keeping anyone with a Muslim-sounding name off any airplane anywhere (rather silly, as one can change one’s name anyway) and of course the calls that this guy with the now-tender tenders be waterboarded so he would be forced to reveal all about the bad guys.

That waterboarding idea – from Dick Cheney and his daughter and most everyone on Fox News, and seeming like a good idea to fifty-eight percent of Americans, according to the Rasmussen polling – was interesting. Julian Sanchez examines the lively debate on that at the Corner, the blog at the National Review, and suggests the stupidity is bubbling up:

If it seems as though torture ever yields important and actionable intelligence more quickly than alternative methods, we’re supposed to take it for granted that this completes the necessary utilitarian analysis. And this is just absurd. How does torture affect the willingness of enemy combatants to surrender? How much does it complicate our relations with allies? How many people does it help to radicalize against the United States? How many non-radicals does it leave sufficiently disgusted that they’re less motivated to assist the US in fighting radicalism in their communities? You’ll notice that torture-fans never really attempt to deal remotely seriously with any of these questions; they just babble inanities about how Fanatics Will Hate Us No Matter What. Which, of course, some will – but that’s hardly to the point, is it?

It does seem odd. You admit that someone being tortured will tell you anything they think you want to hear, just to stop the pain, so, yes, you’ll get anything they think you want to hear – they’ll make up stuff, likely stuff, or unlikely stuff, or anything. Why do it, considering the other factors Sanchez lists? You end up being just what they said you were – sadistic inhuman devils, who just want to hurt people, for the fun of it.

And that’s where the Christmas Bomb that didn’t work turns out to have worked just fine. It was a Stupid Bomb. And you get folks saying things like, yes, waterboarding and all the other forms of torture we now use don’t give us anything useful, and they are counterproductive on so many different levels that they will always make things far, far worse – but gee, back in the Bush years it seemed like a good idea at the time. It felt right. So maybe we should do it more. It’s not that we’re extracting revenge – we say we want information – and it’s not like we’re just sadistic – we want to save lives. But we know we get no useful information and know we make things worse, endangering more lives. But it feels right. That’s the effect of the Stupid Bomb.

And now, because of this same Stupid Bomb, we cannot let anyone out of Guantanamo Bay, because we’re afraid of things they haven’t done yet. What?

That’s what Dahlia Lithwick explains in Slate, in The Sins of Guantanamo:

When it comes to being detained indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay, it’s not so much what you know as whom you know. Or whom you are alleged to know. Or whom you may know. Someday.

That was the case back in 2002 – when the government’s own best evidence showed that most of the detainees had been picked up for “associating” with the Taliban or al-Qaida (and that most were turned in for bounties rather than captured by U.S. forces). And it’s still the case this week, as the Obama administration announces that about 30 Yemeni prisoners – already cleared for release from the camp – will not be freed after all, merely because they’re from Yemen. The clearance they’ve received is now meaningless: Men poised to begin their ninth year of incarceration at the camp will remain there, not because of anything they have done, but in fear of whom they may meet on the streets back home in Yemen. The new twist, then, is that prisoners can now be held indefinitely not just because they once knew a terrorist, but because they may meet one someday in the future.

Yep, we know most of the detainees had been picked up kind of randomly – but now what? The Stupid Bomb backed us into a corner:

In light of America’s spontaneous discovery of the existence of Yemen on Christmas Day, it may make political sense to argue that Guantanamo detainees repatriated there will turn to terrorism. But it makes no more legal sense than their original incarceration did. The idea that we would hold onto these men based solely on a foiled terror plot connected to their country of origin shows how little factual accuracy matters when it comes to Guantanamo.

A reminder: Despite Donald Rumsfeld’s famous assertion that the folks at Guantanamo represented the “worst of the worst,” we know that the majority of the prisoners at the camp were largely just unlucky. As Lt. Col. Thomas S. Berg, who served on the original legal team for military prosecutions, once put it: “It became obvious to us as we reviewed the evidence that, in many cases, we had simply gotten the slowest guys on the battlefield. We literally found guys who had been shot in the butt.” Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit until 2004, similarly admitted: “We absolutely got the wrong people.”

Most of them were low-level nonentities, or not involved at all in anything against us, but we fixed that:

Yet all these years later, we’re struggling with what to do with these people because some of them may have morphed into potential hardened criminals – perhaps because we have radicalized them by holding them for years without trials. And it’s a problem that’s only compounded when we connect them to random terror incidents to which they have no discernible connection.

And now we’ve also made ourselves stupid about anything like the law as most people in most nations know it:

The whole concept of “future dangerousness” is a slippery one in criminal law. Most studies have shown that when juries attempt to guess at future dangerousness in sentencing capital defendants, they get it wrong. Predictions by psychiatrists about a specific prisoner’s future likelihood of dangerousness are often rooted in pure speculation. The whole notion of guessing at someone’s likelihood to return to crime (or in the case of the Yemenis at Gitmo, predictions that they may turn to it in the first place) is so speculative and fraught that some scholars have rejected as unconstitutional. As professor Joseph Kennedy of UNC recently put it: “Future dangerousness is too dangerous as a sole basis for incarceration because it appeals too directly to our deepest, strongest, and potentially most violent instinct – self preservation.”

The argument that there may be some people at Guantanamo who may, if released, take up arms against the United States is rooted in precisely the type of fear and paranoia Kennedy warns about. It disregards the fact that – as the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement yesterday – “the vast majority of the men at Guantánamo should never have been detained in the first place, and that over 550 have been released and are peacefully rebuilding their lives.”

We don’t as a rule punish dozens of innocent men because of fears about one or two. And how far can we take arguments about future dangerousness? As Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch has argued, under a broad “future dangerousness” theory, “the United States military could march through the streets of Kandahar, Riyadh, or Islamabad, arrest and detain any dangerous looking male between the ages of 20 and 35. After all, at least some portion of them might one day join forces with al Qaeda or the Taliban, or want to.”

And someone would say, gee, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Think of a police officer coming to your door any saying, sorry, I shot your young son, and he’s quite dead, but he might have grown up to be a bad guy, and one shouldn’t take any chances. It would be like that.

But this is real:

We have come so far from taking and holding prisoners, based on their own alleged bad acts, that we are justifying holding them forever based on imagined connections to the bad acts of others. Brian J. Foley, at the Boston University School of Law, recently called this process of creating terrorists by possible future proxy “national security state alchemy.”

Lithwick does concede that there is a slim but real possibility that some of the men released from Guantanamo will join the battle against us, but we seems to have done away with individual fact-finding for each detainee “in favor of sweeping geographic conclusions.” It must be that Stupid Bomb.

And then there’s what it actually means to rejoin “the battle” – and that gets all goofy:

After the events of Dec. 25, it’s clear that any connection between any former Gitmo detainee and any act of terror can be posited as causal. As a Gitmo detainee you can be said to have “returned to the battlefield” if you accidentally met the Christmas bomber or golfed with his dad.

Thus Thomas Joscelyn, at the Weekly Standard, argued Monday that former Gitmo detainee Moazzam Begg might well have been instrumental in radicalizing the crotch-bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. According to Joscelyn, Begg is connected to Abdulmutallab by a 2007 event hosted by the Islamic Society at the University College of London, of which Abdulmutallab was president. Begg didn’t participate. But a senior researcher at the organization he founded after his release from Guantanamo did. Joscelyn concedes that there is no direct proof Begg radicalized Abdulmutallab. But who needs proof? Looking for links between Abdulmutallab and released Guantanamo prisoners has become an elaborate game of Clue. Maybe Colonel Mustard radicalized him in the conservatory with a lead pipe! And since it’s not possible to disprove such conjecture, they all start to sound equally plausible in these panicky moments in which we are desperate for connections and clues.

Even more frightening than the attempt to connect the Christmas bomber with Begg is Joscelyn’s argument that Begg radicalized him by way of lectures and videos. If the United States now wants to take the position that those who depart Guantanamo are aiding and abetting terror simply by speaking out about their experiences at the camp, nobody can ever be released again. (Of course, we used to call such activities “speech.”) And yet the Pentagon counts among those who have “returned to terrorist activities” former prisoners who have publicly made anti-American statements.

So we are now so terrified of imagined connections between the detainees and future acts of terror, we can’t possibly let any of them go:

If one accepts the claim that Guantanamo itself, in the words of the president on Tuesday, “has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda,” every last prisoner at the camp becomes a walking argument against his own release. Not just because of what he may someday do to harm the United States, but because of what he may say to someone else who may in turn someday do something to harm the United States.

It’s a trap. The Stupid Bomb worked. And we now have to continue to do what we know is stupid.

We just got trapped into playing Terrorball, which Paul Campos explains this way:

The first two rules of Terrorball are 1) The game lasts until there are no longer any terrorists, and 2) If terrorists manage to ever kill or injure or seriously frighten any Americans, they win.

In any event, for a factual account of who was seized and imprisoned at Gitmo, Andrew Worthington has compiled what may be the definitive list – not “the worst of the worst” by any means:

I also hope that it provides a compelling explanation of how that same government, under the leadership of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, established a prison in which the overwhelming majority of those held – at least 93 percent of the 779 men and boys imprisoned in total – were either completely innocent people, seized as a result of dubious intelligence or sold for bounty payments, or Taliban foot soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and that had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or international terrorism.

Or see the National Journal’s study, summarized by Stu Taylor here – of 132 cases examined more than half were not even accused of fighting the United States at all, in any way. But these are the people, still stuck down there, that the National Review’s Cliff May wanted assassinated en masse by a missile. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

That Stupid Bomb really worked.

And as for keeping an eye on things in the future, see Glenn Greenwald the backfiring of the surveillance state – “the more unrestricted spying power we give the government, the less likely they are to stop terrorist plots.”

It’s about information overload:

Government with more and more surveillance power every time we get scared again by Terrorists – in the name of keeping us safe – has exactly the opposite effect. Numerous pieces of evidence prove that.

Today in The Washington Post, that paper’s CIA spokesman, David Ignatius, explains that Abdulmutallab never made it onto a no-fly list because there are simply too many reports of suspicious individuals being submitted on a daily basis, which causes the system to be “clogged” – overloaded – with information having nothing to do with Terrorism. As a result, actually relevant information ends up obscured or ignored. Identically, Newsweek’s Mike Isikoff and Mark Hosenball report that U.S. intelligence agencies intercept, gather and store so many emails, recorded telephone calls, and other communications that it’s simply impossible to sort through or understand what they have, quite possibly causing them to have missed crucial evidence in their possession about both the Fort Hood and Abdulmutallab plots…

It’s fascinating stuff, and kind of depressing.

And Greenwald cites former FBI agent and 9/11 whistleblower Coleen Rowley reinforcing that:

Extraneous, irrelevant data clutter the system, making it even harder for analysts to make meaningful future connections. A needle is hard enough to find in the proverbial haystack, without adding still more hay. … Quantity cannot substitute for quality. Higher quality data collection depends not only on better guidance with respect to relevance, but also on judiciousness applied from the beginning and throughout the collection process. Unfortunately, case and statutory law has come to be regarded as some kind of nicety – or a barrier that needs to be overcome. Not so. That law sets standards of relevancy for collection that used to hold down data clutter.

But we dumped all those laws. It’s that damned Stupid Bomb.

So we won’t be celebrating our own kind of Guy Fawkes Day anytime soon, even if this bomb, and others, didn’t go off. It didn’t need to go off. That was never the point. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, no bombs had to go off – just in London, Bali, Madrid. The Stupid Bomb would do fine for Americans. It works every time.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Christmas Day Bomber, Guantanamo, Overreacting to Threats, Threat Assessment, Torture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Stupid Bomb

  1. tomdegan says:

    “As I watched the events of the last few days, it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think that if he has a low-key response to [the attempt to blow up an airliner] that we won’t be at war.”

    Richard B. Cheney

    GOOD NEWS! Someday Dick Cheney is going to go away, I promise you that. Is that the best argument du jour he can come up with regarding Obama – that he does not express sufficient emotion or anger? That he is too cerebral. Isn’t that what we want in a president? In this way he is much like Jack Kennedy. The angriest statement JFK ever made while president was when he lashed out at “the utter contempt” of the executives at U.S. Steel toward the American people. But even in this instance, Kennedy’s tone was measured and restrained. He was not a man given to freaking out. Seriously, would we like a repeat of the shoot-from-the-hip, cowboy idiocy of the Bush/Cheney years? Look at all the good that did us. Obama’s seeming, contemplative demeanor is one of the things about the man that reassures me. Call it a silly quirk in my psychological make up, but I like my presidents to think things through. What can I tell you, I’m kind of funny that way.

    Tom Degan
    Goshen, NY

  2. Redy says:

    A whistleblower is a person who raises a concern about wrong doing occurring in an organization or body of people

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