Saturday, August 12, 2006

The long delay

Well, it's been a while. Our family made a few trips to the hospital this week. We are all exhausted, but ok or recovering. Feel free to email me for the details, but I won't be talking about it on the blog.

I finally finished The One Percent Doctrine. There is a lot of insight to take away from it. It picks up where The Price of Loyalty left off in one respect. The President continues to ignore the deliberative policy process in favor of gut feelings, with a tight circle around him and honest brokers treated as outsiders. But the shift from economic policy to foreign policy makes this book even more compelling than the first one.

Unlikely doomsday scenarios, one percent risks (Bruce Schneier has called them movie-plot threats) came to overwhelm our strategic thinking about terrorism and threats to our country, much as the possibility of liquid explosive detonations on aircraft is dominating the headlines this week. Because Cheney's one percent doctrine mandates that we consider threats not in terms of their likelihood, but that we consider threats as certainties and respond accordingly, analysts became inferior to operators as questions about why we should have a certain policy (such as the inevitable invasion of Iraq) yielded to questions about how we should implement the policy. In the war on terror, all our thinking is now tactical.

The President himself became tactical about our shadow war with al Qaeda. He got daily updates on CIA field work, about hunts for individual terrorists. He loved them; he wanted successes, results. You can see the attraction if you read the book. The story about the CIA setting up shop in an Arab bank is way cool. But I think the real reason he wanted these low-to-the-ground reports is that success stories are few and far between in this life-and-death game of Whack-a-Mole. If you lower your eyes to the 1 percent threats, pretty soon the ghosts start to crowd out the victories. One particularly grisly episode concerned a terrorist's head in a tin box. So you become hungry for victory.

And then, when we began to capture terrorists (or approximations to the term) and stuff them down our oubliettes, again the President wanted results. The FBI's proposed method, using unexpected acts of kindness and grants of privilege to prisoners, was seen as too slow for the new kind of war. One also suspects the process lacked a certain machismo. The CIA provided Plan B.

At one point, we captured a schizophrenic with multiple personalities. When we tortured him, he told us about all kinds of threats al Qaeda was making. Ghosts. But we believed him. Then there was Khalid Sheik Mohammed, an important figure in al Qaeda, who was ready to die, as in V for Vendetta. He wouldn't give anything up. Frustrated, the CIA captured his family and threatened to hurt his children. This is what Dostoyevsky was getting at when he said, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." Postscript: Khalid Sheik Mohammed still didn't break.

One ghost-hunting expedition in particular makes me cringe. The CIA had some people studying steganography, which I'm doing some research in right now. Steganography is the study of altering a cover medium, like a picture, or a movie, in a principled way to conceal the existence of a message. It's not exactly a code, like the Enigma machine in World War II or the encryption that keeps your credit card information secret when you send it over the internet to buy something on Amazon. Instead, steganography is how you make your secret messages look innocent, say by hiding them in an 800 by 600 graphic. Someone trying to read your secret messages then has two problems: first, knowing whether your messages even exist, and second, decoding your strongly encrypted messages, which look like nothing but random noise, once they're found.

And here's the thing: the state of the art of steganography for practical applications is undetectable, at least in the published literature. There is no analysis algorithm that can detect the use of steganography, used judiciously, with a low enough false-positive rate to effectively separate JPEG pictures with secret embedded data from JPEG pictures that are innocent. If you embed a low enough amount of data, say 1 KB in a 43 KB picture, no one will ever know it was there. 1 KB is 1000 characters, maybe 150 words. And that's just one picture. Then all you have to do is put the picture on the internet.

Remember in A Beautiful Mind, where mathematician Nash believes he can use his genius to discover hidden messages in random letters from popular magazines, and save the country from Soviet suitcase nukes? How it turns out to be the delusions of a lunatic? In late 2003, the CIA steganography team believed it was reading messages for an impending terrorist attack in the al Jazeera news ticker.

What CIA, using the technical services of a private company, served up to the President was astonishing in its specificity and its sweep. Some numbers indicated more than two dozen flights and flight times. Other hidden compressed numbers showed the coordinates for targeting--the unfortunate places where international flights, loaded with passengers, fuel, and, possibly, chemical or biological agents, would be bound once they entered U.S. airspace from less carefully controlled foreign airports. The targets ran from ocean to ocean, Los Angeles to New York. There were coordinates for the White House, the Space Needle in Seattle, and the tiny, rural Virginia town of Tappahannock.

We ended up grounding planes and issuing terror alerts because the CIA was using a dressed-up sciency version of The Bible Code.

Suskind concludes that chapter:

But the problem was much broader. It had to do with the wages of fear; a situation in which right-minded people, en masse, all deviate downward toward a state of panic.

"No one says, 'There's no proof!'" the CIA manager exhorted, his voice rising. "We've reached the point where no one is willing to not report something because they feel it's nuts. There is no threshold. Everything is reported, everywhere. There is no judgment in the system. No one is saying, 'Based on my experience, this person is a lying dog.' No one is saying, 'These reports are completely without any foundation.'"

But the most important point anyone can take away from The One Percent Doctrine is this: America is indefensible. The reason everyone assumes America will be attacked again (and was, by the anthrax scare, if you recall) is that defending America from any and all terrorist threats is impossible. Suskind writes about the mubtakkar, a chemical weapons delivery system as big as a bread box, that anyone could assemble with a trip to Home Depot. It is a box with two chambers which combine to form lethal gases when a fuse goes off. All a terrorist has to do to kill a hundred people at once is get into the country, then build one.

If you read in Schneier's movie-plot-threat contest thread, it will amaze you how simple some of these plots are. Ten two-man teams of terrorists sneak into the country, acquire sniper rifles, then terrorize the country for months. There's no reason it couldn't have happened, that it won't happen in the future.

If America is indeed indefensible, why have we spent so much effort and sacrificed so much civil liberty on fig-leaf defenses to keep the homeland secure? I now think the answer has more to do with domestic politics than credible threats. The One Percent Doctrine removes the veil of secrecy that surrounds our national defense, behind which you once had assumed that operations proceeded in good faith, and reveals the deception involved in this neverending war on terror.

These jokers no longer deserve any benefit of the doubt when it comes to terrorism. George W. Bush has hyped the terrorist threat out of proportion to its importance for our nation and our public life. He has played the demagogue, accusing the Democrats of being soft on terror and national defense. Here's the 2004 wolves ad in all its glory. Here's Cheney less than a week ago saying that the Connecticut Democrat Senator primary, where anti-Bush upstart Ned Lamont beat 18-year incumbent Joe Lieberman, was a victory for terrorists. The WMD handoff to terrorists, the presence of foreign fighters in Iraq, and the flypaper theory to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here were all used to justify the misbegotten invasion of Iraq the secular dictatorship. And now if we exit vicious religious civil war, stage left, we will give a victory to terror.

I was on the phone with my dad recently. He and my mom returned from France (and the vacation of a lifetime, it sounds like) just after the UK terror plot story broke. Leaving Paris was fine for them, Amsterdam was a bit more trouble. Mom had a bottle of anise extract and Dad had bottles of wine; I think they ended up putting it in their checked baggage. My sister comes back from Croatia via Heathrow though. Dad was explaining how they are dumping out liquids and checking every prescription bottle as people go through the checkpoint. I had just read this, so I was less than charitable about the paranoia of it all. Sorry, Dad.

Stop being afraid. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. And I'm not just telling you, Constant Reader, I'm telling the people who are holding our democracy hostage for the sake of trying to stop a lightning bolt. The terrorists beat you. They induced terror in you. And you are so afraid of dying that you are willing to sacrifice the things that are more important than life and death, the things that our soldiers die for.

Now it's your turn to brave. And the first brave thing you can do is start demanding some answers. Demand them from the people who have been terrorizing you.

And I'm not talking about the terrorists.

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