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Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

TSA Gets Bad Timing Award

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2009 at 3:33 pm

About five hours before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a plane in Nigeria that would eventually take him to Detroit where he would be arrested for blowing up that plane, Gale Rossides, the acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, sent out a congratulatory, year-end note to all employees..

“Your dedication is second to none, and your professionalism will be on display once again as you ensure that passengers get to their destinations safely,” she wrote. “Thank you for all you will do in the coming days to keep operations running smoothly.”

Now, of course, there was no way Rossides could have known what was headed her way — and the fact is most TSA employees are probably hard working people.

But, wow.

“We’ve come a long way in just the eight years since TSA was created,” she added. “Our stakeholder and Congressional relationships are strong, we are respected internationally for our security work, and we are on the cutting edge with out technological advancements. For this, we can all be proud.”

Of course, there is quite the list of things maybe they’re not so proud of.

For instance, the leak earlier this month of their standard operating procedures manual.

And then there’s the fact that yesterday, while maybe they should have been busy working on improving airport security, they were sending agents to the doors of two bloggers who had posted copies of the new security directives after the Christmas attack.

Chris Elliott and Steven Frischling both posted details about the visits they received. The Associated Press now has a story up on the visits.

Rossides closed her message by saying:

“Whether you’re on the front line, at headquarters or stationed throughout the world, I ask that you all remain vigilant this holiday season and in the year to come. The security of our transportation system depends on you.”

I would add that maybe employees spend a little less time harassing bloggers and more time focusing on actual security

In the meantime, maybe Jim DeMint could remove his hold on the nomination of Erroll Southers to be the permanent head of TSA so the agency could finally start moving ahead.

Court Rules the Government Don't Have to Tell Us Nothing

In Crime, Politics, World on December 31, 2009 at 9:28 am

Okay. It may not be quite that bad but…

It’s called the Glomar Doctrine and it gives the Government a pretty big out when it comes to responding to freedom of information requests.

It’s named for the Glomar Explorer, a giant salvage ship built by Howard Hughes to help the CIA recover a Soviet submarine lost at sea and stems from a Freedom of Information Act case when reporters sought details about the ship.

The government successfully argued that the “existence or nonexistence of the requested records was itself a classified fact exempt from disclosure.”

The doctrine’s back in the news because yesterday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the NSA can use it in refusing to disclose whether or not they had intercepted conversations between prisoners being held at Guanantamo Bay and their lawyers.

The Center for Constitutional Rights filed the suit after President Bush disclosed in December 2005, the existence of the Terrorist Surveillance Program. The center’s lawyers — several of which were and are representing detainees at Guantanamo — wanted to know if they had been targeted by the program.

The government then claimed Glomar exempted them from responding to the request “because doing so would compromise the United States Intelligence Communities’ sources and methods, including the manner in which the TSP operated, and the Nation’s intelligence capabilities.”

The lawyers responded that the possibility the government had been listening to their conversations “has had and continues to have a chilling effect” and that “Glomar functions to protect legitimate government interests, not to conceal illegal or unconstitutional activity.”

The lawyers also argued that since President Bush had acknowledged the existence of the program — and the Department of Justice had added several details — the government wasn’t entitled to claim Glomar since the program was no longer secret.

“Never before has Glomar been invoked to protect the secrecy of a program that has been officially acknowledged by the President, the Attorney General and the National Security Advisor,” the lawyers wrote.

The appellate court disagreed, writing that the government could claim Glomar because while “the general existence of the TSP has been officially acknowledged, the specific methods used, targets of surveillance, and information obtained through the program have not been disclosed.”

As for the lawyers having maintained that Glomar was being used to conceal illegal activity because any records relating to them “would have been obtained in violation of the US Constitution” — specifically that “the warrantless interception of plaintiff lawyers’ communications violates the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments” and violates the constitutional right of detainees and warrantless surveillance violates the separation of powers — the court ruled that there was “no evidence in the record” to back that up.

Regardless, the court ruled, the legality of the TSP didn’t come into play because it was “beyond the scope” of the freedom of information request action.

So, while the Center of Constitutional Rights lost this round, the battle to determine whether the TSP is illegal continues.

Glass Houses in the War on Terror

In Uncategorized on December 30, 2009 at 8:37 am

Let’s just be clear about a couple of things.

When Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane going from Paris to Miami, the first time President Bush mentioned it was FIVE DAYS after the incident when he was finally asked about it while he was on vacation at his ranch in Texas.

The first time John Ashcroft appears to have mentioned it was almost ONE MONTH after the incident when he had a press conference announcing that Reid had been indicted.

Tom Ridge, who was in charge of Homeland Security at the time and Vice President Cheney also appear to have waited until after Reid had been indicted.

And no one criticized them for not responding sooner or having missed an apparently huge gap in aviation security.

So, keep that in mind when you hear people like Congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York, open his mouth and say things like:

“I’m disappointed it’s taken the president 72 hours to even address this issue. Basically nobody, the president, the vice president, the attorney general, nobody except Secretary Napolitano has come out.”

And when King says things like it was a “terrible mistake” for the Obama Administration to charge Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab criminally instead of turning him over to the military, asking him how come he never criticized the Bush Administration for how they handled the Reid case, which was virtually identical.

And when Ridge — who, again, was IN CHARGE of Homeland Security when Reid was arrested, tried and convicted — goes on Larry King and is critical of the decision to charge Abdulmutallab criminally saying, “I take a look at this individual who has been charged criminally, does that mean he gets his Miranda warnings? The only information we get is if he volunteers it? He’s not a citizen of this country. He’s a terrorist, and I don’t think he deserves the full range of protections of our criminal justice system embodied in the Constitution of the United States”

Maybe ask him and Peter King what they think about how when Ashcroft announced Reid’s indictment, he talked about how — thanks to Congress — the criminal justice system had “the necessary tools that we need to protect the safety and security of American citizens.”

It couldn’t possibly be that they’re criticizing President Obama and his Administration because they are Republicans and he is a Democrat whereas President Bush was a Republican just like them?

They wouldn’t play politics with something like national security?

Certainly not Peter Hoekstra, the Republican Representative from Michigan who is running for governor? Oh, wait. He just used the Christmas Day incident in a fundraising letter?

This is not in anyway to defend anyone’s handling — except for the passengers who disarmed Abdulmutallab — of the incident. As President Obama said, there were clearly “systemic failures” all over the place.

After all, the Obama Administration has been in office for just over 11 months and while they’ve gotten some things right — and some things wrong — they can’t be expected to fix everything right away. I mean, the Bush Administration had seven years after September 11th to improve the way the country’s intelligence community talks with each other.

Another thing worth pointing out, it’s been nearly six years since the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States — aka The September 11th Commission — pointed out that:

“Since 9/11, significant improvements have been made to create an integrated watchlist that makes terrorist name information available to border and law enforcement authorities…new insights into terrorist travel have not yet been integrated into the front lines of border security”

and

“Targeting travel is at least as powerful a weapon against terrorists as targeting their money. The United States should combine terrorist travel intelligence, operations, and law enforcement in a strategy to intercept terrorists, find terrorist travel facilitators, and constrain terrorist mobility.”

So, maybe we can all agree that the system isn’t working now — things did not work the way they were supposed to. At the same time, it wasn’t working under the previous Administration and maybe instead of name-calling and blame-placing, maybe we can all work together the get the thing fixed?

Senator's Hold Not So DeMinty Fresh

In Uncategorized on December 29, 2009 at 3:14 pm

He’s a former detective with the Santa Monica Police Department who went on to become an FBI agent, spending three years with the Bureau’s SWAT team, participating in some 41 missions around the country.

He was the deputy director of the California Office of Homeland Security.

He’s the associate director of the Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events at the University of Southern California.

He’s currently the assistant chief in charge of the Office of Intelligence and Emergency Operations at Los Angeles World Airports.

Despite that, Erroll Southers, whom President Obama nominated in September to head up the Transportation Security Administration, doesn’t deserve a vote.

At least that seems to be the message that Jim DeMint, senator from South Carolina, seems to be sending.

DeMint, who is apparently concerned that TSA workers might be allowed to join a union, has had a hold on Southers’s nomination.

The union issue didn’t seem to be as much of a concern when President Bush’s nominees for various parts of the Department of Homeland Security were up for confirmation votes since many of those agencies have worked who are union members.

The American Federation of Government Employees, for instance, represents nearly 40,000 DHS employees in collective bargaining.

Meanwhile, Republican John Mica of Florida, who helped create the TSA as a member of the House of Representatives and helped get it placed in the Department of Homeland Security, now calls the agency lost and bloated and that Congress “must change the process by which TSA administrators serve. There has been no TSA administrator for nearly a year and the next one will be the fifth in eight years. Running a security agency with a revolving door is a recipe for failure.”

A couple of interesting things there. First, Mica neglects to mention that those first four TSA administrators all served under President Bush and each one left there wasn’t a word from him about the “revolving door” at the agency.

Second, if there are problems with TSA being lost in the bureaucracy of DHS why has he waited until now to say anything about it? It couldn’t be because there’s a Democrat in the White House and he’s a Republican (the same could be said of DeMint’s criticisms, by the way).

Lastly, in December 2001, right after the Richard Reid attempted shoe-bombing incident, Mica “said it was a “sign that we need to bring immediate focus to our new transportation security agency” and asked that Presdeint Bush immediately appoint an aviation security czar.”

He didn’t want President Bush to even wait for Congress to come back into session.

I wonder how he would react if President Obama were to do the same.

It’s not about security, apparently. It’s about politics.

Al Qaeda Group Claims Responsibility

In Uncategorized on December 29, 2009 at 9:17 am

The Saudi arm of Al Qaeda — also known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — has apparently taken responsibility for the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Eve.

First reported on the website of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks militant groups (unfortunately their site is by subscription so I’m including The New York Times story about what SITE is reporting), the group calls Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a “wealthy youth of Nigerian decent” reacting to “unjust aggression on the Arabian Peninsula.”

The group also states the plan would have worked if not for a “technical fault.”

The threat of Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and the importance of the area to Al Qaeda is nothing new..

In 2006, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a report, “Al Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat” that pointed out the numerous times Osama bin Laden had spoken of the peninsula.

When he first delcared jihad against the United States, bin Laden titled it, “Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques: Expel Heretics from the Arabian Peninsula.”

According to a report by the Virginia-based GlobalSecurity.org, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would like to overthrow the Saudi government, eventually “liberate” Jerusalem and unite the world’s Muslims. The report states that the Saudi government often downplayed the threat posed by the group until a series of deadly attacks in 2003, forced them to come to terms with the danger.

Over the summer, The New York Times reported that US officials were seeing dozens of Al Qaeda fighters and leaders leaving Pakistan and relocating to Yemen and Somalia, both of which were considered safe havens.

Then, in August, AQAP was believed to be behind an attempted suicide attack on the Saudi head of security, a member of the royal family. The powerful explosive, PETN, was a key component in both that attack and the one on the Detroit bound flight, leading analysts to draw connections between them.

And in October, CNN’s terrorism expert, Peter Bergen, warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that: “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,’ which has taken a punishing beating from the Saudi government in the past several years, remains capable of pulling off significant attacks.”

Clearly, that is the case.

Napolitano Shows Every Administration Needs a "Brownie"

In Crime, Politics, World on December 28, 2009 at 9:03 am

For the past four years, I’ve been a firm believer that it was probably close to impossible for any government official to say anything dumber than President Bush telling FEMA director Michael Brown after Hurricane Katrina that he was doing “a heck of a job.”

It was just mind boggling on so  many levels that every now and then I need to watch it again to remind myself that it really happened.

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It was hard to imagine anyone saying anything dumber.

But then, yesterday, Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano arrives on CNN to give Bush a run for his money.

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Really? The system worked? She really said that? Now, admittedly she was trying to say that after the incident occurred, everything went according to plan… the passengers subdued the would-be attacker and notifications went out to airports and other planes in the air.

First, we’re not even going to get into the thing about counting on passengers to get involved being a part of the system working.

Second, her response absolutely ignores the reality of the situation, which is that the Transportation Security Administration has got some serious problems.

It’s at the point where it’s actually hard to figure out where to begin.

How about the fact that almost one month before the incident Thursday where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to bring down a flight from Nigeria to Detroit, TSA inspectors had been in Nigeria making sure the airport was in compliance with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s standards for airline safety?

According to the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, the TSA certified that the airport complied with all 25 ICAO safety standards.

Well, maybe they missed something.

Then there was the screw-up that resulted in the TSA’s standard operating procedure manual for airport screeners getting published online — which resulted in a Congressional hearing asking “Has the TSA Breach Jeopardized National Security?”

At the hearing, the acting TSA administrator, Gale Rossides, told members of Congress that “our aviation security procedures remain strong.”

Well, maybe not strong enough.

Curiously, TSA seems to have been looking for a vendor to provide bottled liquid scanners for more than a year and a half.

Now some people are calling for Napolitano to be fired and, in the end, that may be what happens.

But, really… that’s not going to solve anything. What she said was clearly stupid and misguided. No one’s arguing that the White House wanted to try and take a different tack than the previous administration and instead of scaring everyone, has been trying to be reassuring.

What Napolitano did, though, was just dumb. Her attempt at being reassuring came across as being out of touch with reality.

Meanwhile, the investigation continues. A Michigan man who was on the flight says that Abdulmutallab may have had help getting on the flight and The New York Times is reporting that for more than a year, the United States has been waging a covert war against Al Qaeda in Yemen — which, as I wrote yesterday, has been a growing problem.

Airline Incident Highlights Yemeni Threat and What Does it Really Take to Get on the No Fly List

In Crime, World on December 27, 2009 at 10:39 am

It was November 13, 2008 and then-CIA director Michael Hayden was speaking before the Atlantic Council, a Washington DC think tank.

“Yemen is another country of concern, a place where al-Qa’ida is strengthening,” he said. “We’ve seen an unprecedented number of attacks this year, 2008, including two on our embassy. Plots are increasing not only in number, but in sophistication, and the range of targets is broadening. Al-Qa’ida cells are operating from remote tribal areas where the government has traditionally had very little authority, and they’re being led or reinforced by veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Well, yesterday, the government charged Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with trying to bring down a flight from Nigeria to Detroit by using explosives.

According to The New York Times and other publications, he told authorities he had picked up the explosive device in Yemen.

And while Nigeria provides authorities with enough reasons for concern, Yemen takes it up a notch.

In September, President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, travelled to Yemen where he delivered a letter from the President promising to help their “fight against terrorism.”

On Thursday, that help took the form of intelligence that allowed Yemeni forces to strike a gathering of Al Qaeda members, killing some 30 of them, possibly including an American citizen who supported their cause.

And in October 2000, the Yemeni port of Aden was the site of an Al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole, which claimed the life of 17 sailors.

As the Council of Foreign Relations pointed out in a 2005 report, Yemen “was second only to Saudi Arabia in being the source of soldiers for the international Islamist brigade that fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and that gave birth to Al Qaeda” and “dozens of Al Qaeda operatives, including senior officials, may be at large in Yemen.”

Meanwhile, investigators are trying to find out everything they can about Abdulmutallab and whether his associations with Al Qaeda were operational or merely aspirational.

What is known is that his father, a Nigerian banker, was so concerned about his son that last month he went to the US Embassy in Nigeria to warn them about him.

While Abdulmutallab made it into the government’s database as a result, there wasn’t enough information, apparently, to place him on the no-fly list, which is surprising given how many people who clearly are not terrorists or suspects, seem to have made the list over the years.

An interesting question, though, is how much information the US government shares back and forth with other countries because Britain apparently barred Abdulmutallab from the country last year after he tried to extend a visa by applying for a bogus visa.

I think it’s safe to presume these are among the things that will be looked at in January when Senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, holds promised hearings on the incident.

Nigeria Connection to Detroit Attack

In Crime, World on December 26, 2009 at 9:36 am

So, by now I think it’s safe to assume just about everyone has heard that a man tried to ignite an explosive device on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

And while there has been much talk about how this reminds everyone of Richard Reid, the man who brought us limitations on how much liquid you can bring on an airplane, it’s probably worth it to take a couple of minutes to look at where the would be attacker started his flight — Nigeria.

The would be attacker has been identified as Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, a Nigerian national.

It should be noted that while there clearly are concerns that he had Al Qaeda associations and may have been a member of Al Qaeda, there are also reports that, maybe he wasn’t. So, who knows…

If it does turn out that he is connected to Al Qaeda, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise, given the history of interest the group has shown in Nigeria.

As Lawrence Wright pointed out in The New Yorker, “Shortly before the invasion, in March 2003, bin Laden issued his own list of targets (for recruitment), which included Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria…”

In 2006, the House Committee on International Relations held a hearing on terrorism where the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified “there is no question that” Nigeria “is a breeding ground.”

Just a couple of months ago, the BBC ran a story, “Is al-Qaeda working in Nigeria” that stated “for tears diplomats have feared a Nigerian al-Qaeda sleeper cell might launch attacks on the country’s oil infrastructure, which is increasingly important to the US.”

Around the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Nigeria, warning that Al Qaeda could seek a “foothold” there.

A couple of weeks later, Douglas Farah, a former long-time Washington Post reporter who has written extensively on Al Qaeda,went even further and warned in his blog that “there is a large and radicalized Muslim population in norther Nigeria, where 12 of the states (out of 36 in all) have imposed Sharia law.”

He added that while some have dismissed this movement, “given bin Laden’s express interest in Nigeria, the growth of Al Qaeda and the ethnic tensions that play into the tensions, it is unlikely that the Nigerian Taliban is finished.”

Another possible area of concern is that the Telegraph is reporting that Abdul Mutallab supposedly picked up his device in Yemen, which is facing a “growing Al Qaeda threat” and was the scene of an attack Thursday that killed approximately 30 Al Qaeda members including — possibly — an American citizen linked to the Fort Hood shooter and other terrorists.

The Curious Case of the Possibly Assassinated American

In Uncategorized on December 25, 2009 at 1:19 pm

There is little question that Anwar al-Awlaki, the cleric linked to the Fort Hood shooter and other terror suspects including three of the September 11th hijackers, had a radical streak.

In an interview earlier this week with Al Jazeera, Awlaki praised the actions of Major Nidal Hasan as  “a heroic act” that was legitimate because his “target was a military target inside American and there is no dispute over it. Also, these soldiers weren’t normal ones but they were prepared and getting ready to take off to fight and kill weakened Muslims and commit crimes in Afghanistan.”

On Thursday, according to The New York Times, Awlaki was presumed to be among 30 supposed Al Qaeda members killed during an air strike in Yemen carried out with the help of United States intelligence.

One of the other people was Said al Shihri, who had spent five years as a Guantanamo prisoner

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before being released and supposedly becoming the head of Al Qaeda’s operations in Yemen.

So, based on his support of terror attacks and the crowd he was hanging out with, I think it’s safe to say that maybe his allegiances lay elsewhere.

Here’s the thing, though, about Awlaki, he’s from New Mexico and graduated from Colorado State University.

So, while he moved to Yemen and was associated with Al Qaeda, he was also an American citizen who may or may not have been targeted for death with the assistance of American intelligence.

I am in no way saying this guy was guilty, innocent or whatever or that he didn’t support some hateful people. At the same time, if he was targeted was it because of what he said and, if that’s the case, isn’t there something wrong with killing an American citizen — even one who is supporting the enemy during wartime — without a trial or even charges?

And while Awlaki was in communication with Hasan and some of the September 11th hijackers and was hanging out Al Qaeda, he’s never actually been charged with a crime.

Obviously, there have been cases of Americans being executed under questionable — at best — situations from the Rosenbergs to Fred Hampton.

But other than Ahmed Hijazi, who was killed in 2002, even in times of war, there is usually, at least, the pretense of a trial.

Again, I’m not saying he was targeted and, even if he was, maybe he did get what was coming.

Or maybe he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Or maybe an American-born, American citizen was marked for death because of what he said.

No easy answers; just lots of questions.

Still Plenty of Questions on Guantanamo Deaths

In Crime, Politics, World on December 24, 2009 at 7:56 am

Yesterday, The New York Times reported that plans to close the prison by Guantanamo Bay are being hampered by “skeptical lawmakers” who are — let’s be charitable here — less than eager to provide funds  to buy the Illinois prison where the Obama Administration would like to move the prisoners.

As a result, according to the paper, “officials now believe that they are unlikely to close the prison” until 2011 at the earliest.

And while the Administration continues to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo — as demonstrated by last week’s sending of 12 people to Afghanistan, Yemen and the Somaliland region — and there continues to be much blustering about whether the prisoners should be moved to Illinois at all, there’s still a couple of issues that need to be dealt with.

Most notably, did three prisoners at Guantanamo — one Yemeni and two Saudis — really kill themselves the morning of June 10, 2006, as the Pentagon said.

A new report by Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Policy & Research alleged “dramatic flaws in the government’s investigation” of the deaths.

The report points out that, if the government’s probe is to be taken at face value, in order for three — in separate cells — to have committed suicide, they would have had to:

“braid a noose by tearing up their sheets and/or clothing;

“make mannequins of themselves so it would appear to the guards they were asleep in their cells;

“hang sheets to block the view into the cells, in violation of standard operating procedures;

“stuff rags down their own throats;

“tie their own feet together;

“tie their own hands together;

“hang the noose from the metal mesh of the cell wall and/or ceiling;

“climb up on the sink, put the noose around their necks and release their weight, resulting in death by strangulation;

“hang dead for at least two hours completely unnoticed by guards.”

“An investigation was promised,” said Professor Mark Denbeaux, the director of the Center for Policy & Research. “The promised investigation was a cover up. Worse still, given the gross inadequacy of the investigation the more compelling questions are: who knew of the cover up? Who approved the cover up, any why? The government’s investigation is slipshod, and its conclusion leaves the most important questions about this tragedy unanswered.”

The Seton Hall report said the government’s report — a heavily redacted version of which was released in August 2008 — also questions how the three — who had been on the same cell block for less than 72 hours — were able to coordinate what the government called an act of “asymmetrical warfare.”

While it’s important to figure out what next for the Guantanamo detainees, it’s also important to figure out what happened to those who never left the island alive.