Friday, March 15, 2002

Six Months

Has it really been six months since 9/11? Seems like a lot less. Well, time to stick our heads up and do a quick status report. Some items, in no particular order.

  • No bin Laden. My hunch is that he left Afghanistan shortly before the fall of Khandahar and is in Pakistan under the protection of ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency. He may be dead of kidney failure by now.
  • Al Qaeda's main training area in Afghanistan has been disrupted, hopefully permanently. As a side effect, the Taliban are gone and Afghanistan has a semblance of a working government. Good luck, guys, you're gonna need it.

    Note to the Powers that Be: Don't just walk off and leave the Afghan government twisting in the breeze, like you did last time.

  • Airport security is very little better than it was, but it's a lot more inconvenient. The new security procedures do essentially nothing for security; the idea is to make people "security conscious". The Powers the Be have to be seen as doing something, whether they are or not. Main improvement in security is one of attitude -- from now on, anybody trying to hijack a plane is going to have to deal with a bunch of extremely irritated passengers. The old "book" of "cooperate" is out.
  • We have a bunch of new laws of dubious effect and constitutionality. Depending on whose numbers you believe, between 1200 and 2000 people have been "disappeared". Scary. Nothing in the US press, of course. Here's an item from Britain.
  • On the bioterror front, basically, zip. The Government doesn't like to admit that whoever did it was connected with the US biowarfare program, either stealing Army-manufactured anthrax (manufactured in violation of international treaties, BTW) or able to make "weaponized" anthrax himself. Best estimate that I've seen (unclassified, of course) is 200 people. See Analysis of the Anthrax Attacks, by Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, of the Federation of American Scientists.
  • Internationally, folks seem to be getting a little fed up with us. The Bush administration has made it perfectly clear from Day One that they have no interest in international cooperation. Their trashing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty are just the tip of the iceberg. They've even managed to get the Canadians riled at us. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech was particularly poorly received.

    Colin Powell is working very hard to keep the anti-terror coalition together, but he's not getting much support from the rest of the Administration.

  • Some of the vast amount of money collected for the "victims of 9/11" is actually starting to get to the victims. Took some doing. The International Red Cross got an enormous black eye and the United Fund didn't get half the toasting they deserved. Coupla things to note, guys:
    1. When people donate money for cause "X", they get real ticked when you divert it to things that you think are more important.
    2. After a disaster, people need help now. Folks can't sit on the sidewalk and stop eating for four or five months until some bureaucrat decides to hand out money. United Fund took months to get around to handing out anything at all.
  • The US's visa system is coming under scrutiny. About time. It's a nightmare of inefficiency, bureaucracy, selective enforcement, and special interests.

    Perhaps we can start by enforcing the laws on all of the lawn/landscape workers, child care providers, house cleaners and so forth that people can't live without?

  • The US is still more "unified" than at any time I can remember. Everybody except a few isolated bigots has always known that we're really all Americans. Now, a lot more people know it at the gut level, where it counts. We'll see how long it lasts.

    There are still flags everywhere. The fundamental respect that we all have for America and American institutions has spent a long time being overshadowed by what we see now are relatively trivial differences.

  • We have a "Director of Homeland Security". No authority and little budget, but he's there. Presumably, he's in charge of coordinating other agencies who will actually do the work. I've seen no evidence that anybody within the Government actually listens to him.

Can It Happen Again?

In a word, yes. The terrorists who did the 9/11 attacks were saying "We'll follow all your rules and we'll still win". If they try again, all our protections will be just as effective as they were on 9/11. It won't involve hijacking airplanes -- we've closed that route.

The biggest Government failure was in intelligence. We simply have nobody in place who can report what is going on in most places. The 9/11 terrorists communicated by e-mail. No encryption or anything -- they simply wrote in Arabic. Effectively, it was as secure as if the NSA had encrypted it. I have the horrible feeling that, even now, we're getting most of our "intelligence" from the ISI, who, to put it mildly, have their own agenda.

As to the guys with the anthrax, near as anybody can tell, we don't have a clue. Officially. All he/she/they have to do is drop some more envelopes in the mail. Mail to Congress is supposedly disinfected with something strong enough to kill anthrax spores. I wouldn't bet on any other mail.

Naturally, every fearmonger in the country has jumped on the terrorism bandwagon. There has been an amazing amount of blather about "infrastructure protection", with every village waterworks coming up with a "contingency plan". While all this nonsense has the useful effect of making us all more aware about the incredibly complex set of interrelationships that are a modern society, it basically just scares people.

The key to "infrastructure protection" is redundancy. Basically, any time you have a critical resource, make sure that you have enough of it to survive at least one failure. Perhaps we need a Department of Redundancy Department?

Have We Had Our Reichstag Fire?

I hope not. I really, really hope not.

But it's too early to tell. On one hand, everybody is bending over backward to be "fair". On the other, we now have a bunch of very harsh laws that bypass most of our Constitutional protections, with no oversight and no accountability. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been quite free with his use of the word "treason" for people criticizing Administration policies (Note -- politics in the USA is conducted at a high volume. Get used to it.)

Even if the current Administration is careful to keep the "anti terror" measures for cases where nothing else will work, and where "terrorism" is defined sensibly, we can't guarantee the behavior of future administrations. Unless we make some serious changes (basically, making sure our definitions are as restrictive as possible and any use of these laws is subject to detailed judicial oversight and a lot of record-keeping), we could be getting ourselves into Real Trouble some time in the future.

Were Hoover, Nixon, Mitchell, and Meese the worst we'll ever see in the US? It would be foolish to assume so.

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