Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Terror Alerts

Okay, if you read the news at all, you already know that big terror alerts came out over the week-end, with specific buildings mentioned as potential targets. Make sure you read the Commissar's posts - he works in one of the targeted buildings, and actually took some flack from Spoons for not being sufficiently freaked out. That's an interesting topic for conversation right there - if you know that your building has been targeted by terrorists, what is the proper reaction? I'm leaning towards the Commissar's approach, but I am very happy that for me, it's a purely academic inquiry.

The terror alert story took on another dimension when it was revealed that the underlying intelligence is as much as four years old. The liberal reaction was therefore "You're fear-mongering to kill Kerry's [putative] bounce!" And the conservative response has been two-pronged: first, although some of the intelligence is very old, some of it is new, and represents an updating of the old. Moreover, al-Qaeda takes years to plan attacks, so four-year-old intelligence may still be frighteningly current. Second, even if the intelligence is no longer reliable, the liberal reaction to certain memoranda hinting at pre-9/11 tip-offs about 9/11 was unequivocal - "YOU DIDN'T REACT AND THEREFORE THERE'S BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS! (AND BUSH=HITLER!)." Therefore the only possible response to terror indicators is full and immediate disclosure, lest an attack happen, followed by the revelation that we had intelligence about that attack, in which case the administration would be roasted alive.

I don't know that intelligent debate is to be had on this issue. It really seems to me that those critical of this latest move by the administration are not interested in logical consistency or protecting lives so much as they are interested in attacking the President on whatever grounds become available. As many bloggers have noted, see e.g. the frequent occurrence of "timing" jokes on Ace of Spades, if we were to catch Osama bin Laden, with no casualties, in a multinational effort, and he were to confess to everything we've accused him of, all on film, the nay-sayers would still snipe at the Bush administration because of something, most likely "He just captured OBL for political gain." So it seems like at least one half of the aisle has excused itself from anything resembling a real discussion.

That doesn't mean good questions can't be asked. Let's see if I can come up with some.

Hugh Hewitt says (Aug. 2, 11:30 pm) that "When Hillary stood on the Senate floor, New York Post in hand with the headline 'Bush Knew,' the standard was laid out and cannot be denied: Every serious bit of intel warning of an attack has to be revealed."

Is that really the standard? Hugh seems to assume that there is some sort of standard that can be used to forestall criticism of intelligence disclosures - but if that is true, then he wouldn't have had to write his post at all. So I ask, Standard for what? I hope he doesn't mean it's the standard for the most effective way to use domestic terror-related intelligence, because Sen. Clinton's howling doesn't even come close to establishing a rational standard.

Consider this: suppose we get some intelligence, very reliable stuff, but too vague to act on. By revealing the intel, we do not make any American discernably safer. But we do tell our enemies what we know, and the intelligence is such that we also give away how we know it. By following the de facto Hillary standard, we put ourselves in a much worse position, terror-wise, than we were in before we revealed the intel.

In other words, Hewitt's "standard," borrowed from Sen. Clinton, is no standard at all for foreclosing anti-administration criticism, and it is no standard at all for effectively preventing future attacks.

Indeed, by claiming that's a standard, Hewitt (and others who make a similar argument) is only tacitly approving of the criticism leveled at the administration that Bush should have acted on pre 9/11 intelligence - something I'm certain he would never do consciously, because the pre-9/11 intelligence was revealed by the Commission to be basically worthless, in terms of prevention.

In summary, I reject the absolutist approach that all intel concerning attacks must be revealed, uncritically. I also reject as manifestly ignorant the charge that the terror alerts are petty fear-mongering. I believe Americans should be informed of credible threats when the benefit of doing so outweighs the costs, if any, of other compromised interests. In any case, such a decision is inherently a judgment call, and we should keep the Monday morning quarterbacking to a minimum. But I think that the scales should more readily tip toward full disclosure, because when all Americans are on the alert, we are more likely to spot suspicious people than if only a small group of intelligence agents know what to look for.