The Pavlovian Politics Of Terror

dronetoy2220px-Red_Light_CameraBelow is today’s column on the calls for expanding security and surveillance powers in the aftermath of the Boston bombing. (An Internet version ran last week but was updated for print) [I untangled one line that was changed in editing]. My greatest concern is that the Boston response will become the accepted or standard procedure in shutting down cities and ordering warrantless searches. No politicians wants to be seen questioning the necessity or efficacy of such measures out of fear of appearing “soft” on terror.

For civil libertarians, all terrorist attacks come in two equally predictable parts. First, comes the terrorist attack, followed by an explosion of politicians calling for new security measures and surveillance.

It is the Pavlovian politics of terror. Before we even understood the facts about the Boston attack, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he would add even more cameras around the city even though Chicago already is one of the most surveilled cities in the United States.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed to move from Big Gulp to Big Brother in seeking to reduce constitutional rights as if they are no more vital than the oversized sodas he famously tried to ban. Bloomberg simply proclaimed, “Our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.”

Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., demanded more surveillance of Muslims in general. Meanwhile, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., wants more drones in the United States.

The terror bell rings, and politicians start to salivate over new security measures — protecting citizens from their own freedoms.

Appearance of safety

None of these proposals would have likely stopped the Boston bombings. Of course, the outcome might have been altered using already existing government authority better, following up on warnings from Russia, for instance.

Likewise, no one is seriously discussing the necessity of shutting down an entire city to look for the suspect and conducting warrantless raids on countless homes (forcing some families into the streets with hands in the air) on the mere chance that one of the bombers might be inside.

‘Containment zone’

Indeed, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was ultimately found outside the “containment zone” once authorities abandoned near martial law. With people allowed out of their homes and with millions of new eyes on the street, Tsarnaev was quickly spotted hiding in a boat.

Regardless of those facts, politicians need to be seen as actively protecting public safety rather than simply allowing our already strong security measures to do their job. The easiest way to be seen doing something is by demanding more surveillance, reduced privacy and an expanded security state.

The suggestion is that more security measures necessarily mean more public safety. They don’t. Even the most repressive nations face terrorism.

Does more security work?

We need to keep this attack in perspective:

Two brothers built homemade bombs with common pressure cookers. They placed the devices in one of the most surveilled areas of Boston with an abundance of police present and just walked away.

No one is seriously questioning the value of having increased surveillance and police at major events. That was already the case with the Boston Marathon.

However, as a thousand papercuts from countless new laws and surveillance systems slowly kill our privacy, we might want to ask whether a fishbowl society will actually make us safer or just make us feel that way.

Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

April 29, 2013

65 thoughts on “The Pavlovian Politics Of Terror”

  1. Pingback: Whatever Works
  2. Clap on, clap off… the “Clapper”:

    Spy Chief Apparently Knows How Boston Intel Probe Will End

    By Spencer Ackerman

    “An inquiry into whether U.S. intelligence agencies could have done more to help prevent the Boston Marathon bombing is just getting started. But America’s top spy is already convinced that the deadly April 15 attacks do not represent an intelligence failure.

    As Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe first reported, the inspector general overseeing the 16 U.S. spy agencies will conduct a “broad review” of how the intelligence community handled whatever information it had about the bombings.

    That review did not come at the behest of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, the nominal boss of those spy agencies. Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Clapper, says it’s an independent initiative of the Intelligence Community Inspector General along with the internal watchdogs for the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

    Yet before the inquiry has concluded, Clapper is satisfied — as he first said last week, before any review even got started — that the intelligence agencies didn’t drop the ball on Boston.””

    “Well done” then? Jesus.

    Don’t let anyone kid you. The U.S. is tracking some people like dogs. There is an apparatus in place that, truly, is not to be believed. That this guy and his brother were missed? Well, let’s just say that it’s difficult to comprehend…

  3. Citing security concerns, the Saudi government also denied an entry visa to the elder Tsarnaev brother in December 2011, when he hoped to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the source said. Tsarnaev’s plans to visit Saudi Arabia have not been previously disclosed. -from the following emptywheel piece

    The Saudi Intelligence without a Name
    Posted on May 1, 2013 by emptywheel

    I had been wondering why John Kerry closed his meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal the day after the Boston Marathon bombing, followed by Chuck Hagel’s unscheduled meetings in Saudi Arabia later that week.

    The Daily Mail claims this is why:

    The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sent a written warning about accused Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2012, long before pressure-cooker blasts killed three and injured hundreds, according to a senior Saudi government official with direct knowledge of the document.

    Citing security concerns, the Saudi government also denied an entry visa to the elder Tsarnaev brother in December 2011, when he hoped to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the source said. Tsarnaev’s plans to visit Saudi Arabia have not been previously disclosed.

    It even reports Prince Saud had an unscheduled meeting with President Obama the day after meeting with Kerry.

    Now, the article implicates the Saudi Interior Ministry, though perhaps Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef is not the senior Saudi official with direct knowledge of a report handed from the Saudi Interior Ministry to (the article says) top people at the Department of Homeland Security. (Keep in mind that MbN rarely gives or at least gave anything to the US without going through his old buddy John Brennan, though also note the DM included his picture in the article.)

    But there are other things about this I find interesting. First, the publication in the DM, which feels more like an info op than a report to, say, the WaPo. Then there’s the DM’s inclusion of people like House Homeland Security Chair Michael McCaul in its article (and, apparently, confirmation of a “Homeland Security Official” that the letter exists, which sounds like the same person as the HHSC aide quoted anonymously), heightening the partisan nature of this scoop.

    Then there are apparent logical contradictions in the story, such as the detail that the Saudis apparently didn’t share Tamerlan’s name, but nevertheless expected the US to sort through his mail to get bomb components he could have gotten (and appears to have gotten) in a store.

    It ‘did name Tamerlan specifically,’ he added. The ‘government-to-government’ letter, which he said was sent to the Department of Homeland Security at the highest level, did not name Boston or suggest a date for his planned attack.


    The Saudi government, he added, alerted the U.S. in part because it believed American authorities should be inspecting packages that came to Tsarnaev in the mail in order to search for bomb-making components.

    There’s the suggestion this intelligence came from Yemen.

    He dismissed the idea that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was likely trained by al Qaeda while he was outside the United States last year.

    The Saudis’ Yemen-based sources, he explained, said militants referred to Tamerlan dismissively as ‘the volunteer.’

    ‘He was a gung-ho, self motivated jihadi who wasn’t tasked by a larger group,’ he said.

    Then, finally, there’s this: the brag about the four plots the Saudis tipped us off to.

    ‘This is the fourth time the Saudi Arabian government has given the U.S. specific intel’ about a possible terror plot, the official said, citing prior warnings about Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber who repeatedly tried to light a fuse in his shoe to bring down American Airlines flight 63 bound for Miami in December 2001.

    He also cited the 300-gram ‘ink-cartridge bombs’ planted on two cargo planes headed for the United States from Yemen in October 2010. Those explosives were intercepted in Dubai, and at an East Midlands airport in Great Britain.

    The DM names two plots: Richard Reid and the toner cartridge plot.

    It doesn’t name another obvious one of the four: the Saudi double agent UndieBomb plot last year, which appears to have been designed to provide the justification to allow signature strikes in Yemen.

    And the fourth?

  4. Excerpt from Coll’s article, “Remote Control”:

    “…as the Boston Marathon bombing reminded us, terrorist plots can be hatched and carried out by individuals acting independently of any chain of command.

    America’s drone campaign is also creating an ominous global precedent. Ten years or less from now, China will likely be able to field armed drones. How might its Politburo apply Obama’s doctrines to Tibetan activists holding meetings in Nepal?

    Mazzetti closes his narrative with an interview with Richard Blee, a retired C.I.A. operations officer who worked aggressively against Al Qaeda at the Counterterrorist Center before and after September 11th, and who, like the Shin Bet directors in “The Gatekeepers,” has since developed doubts about tactics he once embraced. “In the early days, for our consciences we wanted to know who we were killing before anyone pulled the trigger,” Blee told the author. He continued:

    Now, we’re lighting these people up all over the place. Every drone strike is an execution. And if we are going to hand down death sentences, there ought to be some public accountability and some public discussion about the whole thing. . . . And it should be a debate that Americans can understand.

    That reckoning still seems a long way off.”


    Time to Renounce the “War on Terror”

    by Norman Soloman

    Sunday, 28 April 2013 11:07

    Now, on Capitol Hill, the most overt attempt to call a halt to the “war on terror” is coming from Rep. Barbara Lee, whose bill H.R. 198 would revoke the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress approved three days after 9/11. Several months since it was introduced, H.R. 198 only has a dozen co-sponsors. (To send your representative and senators a message of support for Lee’s bill, click here.)

    Evidently, in Congress, there is sparse support for repealing the September 2001 blanket authorization for war. Instead, there are growing calls for a larger blanket. Bipartisan Washington is warming to the idea that a new congressional resolution may be needed to give War on Terror 2.0 an expansive framework. Even for the law benders and breakers who manage the executive branch’s war machinery, the language of the September 2001 resolution doesn’t seem stretchable enough to cover the U.S. warfare of impunity that’s underway across the globe . . . with more on the drawing boards. …continues.


    The initial debate over the treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev focused on whether he should be advised of his Miranda rights or whether the “public safety exception” justified delaying it. In the wake of news reports that he had been Mirandized and would be charged in a federal court, I credited the Obama DOJ for handling the case reasonably well thus far. As it turns out, though, Tsarnaev wasn’t Mirandized because the DOJ decided he should be. Instead, that happened only because a federal magistrate, on her own, scheduled a hospital-room hearing, interrupted the FBI’s interrogation which had been proceeding at that point for a full 16 hours, and advised him of his right to remain silent and appointed him a lawyer. Since then, Tsarnaev ceased answering the FBI’s questions.

  7. Panel seeks to fine tech companies for noncompliance with wiretap orders

    “A government task force is preparing legislation that would pressure companies such as Face­book and Google to enable law enforcement officials to intercept online communications as they occur, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the effort.”

  8. theatre goon:

    Maybe we can get the privacy issue across by telling people that if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear from a national registry of firearms owners.

  9. From Bruce Schneier’s website:

    A tragedy: Sunil Tripathi, whom Reddit and other sites wrongly identified as one of the bombers, was found dead in the Providence River. I hope it’s not a suicide.

    And worst of all, New York Mayor Bloomberg scares me more than the terrorists ever could:

    In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday the country’s interpretation of the Constitution will “have to change” to allow for greater security to stave off future attacks.

    “The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry,” Mr. Bloomberg said during a press conference in Midtown. “But we live in a complex world where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.”

    There is more at the link.


  10. Thanks, AY, I missed this one: “Bloomberg: New Yorkers will ‘never know where our cameras are’.”
    Software and camouflage experts are already figuring out how to defeat facial recognition software. Never tell a true geek they can’t do something. They will prove you wrong.

    I first read the story of British counterintelligence officer and professional magician, Jasper Maskelyne, years ago. He would have had fun with Mayor Bloomberg’s plan.

  11. I once read an interview with a police official in Tel Aviv. He said, “In America you look for weapons. In Israel we look for terrorists.” Unfortunately, we are too afraid of offending people to look for terrorists. Surveillance cameras may make it easier to identify suspects after the crime, but they will do nothing to prevent it. I think that in 20 years, civil liberties in America will be a thing of the past, like walking around without an ID card in the pocket is now. Fortunately, I’ll probably not be around to see the end game, the rollup of the Bill of Rights.

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