Creative Destruction

October 22, 2006

They Haven’t a Clue

Filed under: International Politics,Iraq,War — Daran @ 6:21 pm

If leading counterterrorist officials within the American Government don’t even know the difference between Shiite and Sunni, what hope do they have of being able to coordinate an effective response?

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18 Comments »

  1. If only the people responsible for security in the United States had the knowledge set that the New York Times believes they should have! Perhaps some of the hundreds of successful terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11 could have been averted.

    Comment by Robert — October 22, 2006 @ 9:33 pm | Reply

  2. Setting the bar a mite low there, aren’t you, Bob?

    Comment by Ampersand — October 23, 2006 @ 1:16 am | Reply

  3. Not sure how much higher we could set it. Zero attacks and zero casualties is about as good as we can expect from an internal security apparatus.

    Comment by Robert — October 23, 2006 @ 1:43 am | Reply

  4. Zero attacks and zero casualties

    What about the shoe bomber? That wasn’t an attack? The fact that it resulted in zero casualties is due to the quick actions of the passangers on the plane he attacked, not Homeland Security’s competence. Then there were the anthrax letters. Several casualties and the responsible party has never been found. And the occasional act of violence against clinics that do or do not provide abortions, but those don’t count because they are being perpetrated by Christian terrorists.

    Comment by Dianne — October 23, 2006 @ 3:26 pm | Reply

  5. OK, close to zero attacks and zero casualties, then. Zero successful attacks, at any rate.

    I’m not sure how anti-abortion attacks fall into this discussion. Are you opining that a knowledge of the intricacies of Islamic transference of power from the Prophet would somehow stop clinic bombings? Because if you aren’t, then your statement doesn’t contribute to the discussion.

    Comment by Robert — October 23, 2006 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

  6. I’m not sure how anti-abortion attacks fall into this discussion.

    Anti-abortion groups and individuals have been known to use bombing, shooting, arson, letters proporting to contain anthrax, and ramming cars into buildings in order to frighten people away from working in or utilizing abortion clinics. If that’s not terrorism, what is? It is a sign of the general competence of Homeland Security that these attacks continue under its auspices.

    Zero successful attacks, at any rate.\

    In what sense were the anthrax letters unsuccessful? (Although, to be fair, since the best guess* is that they were sent by a non-Islamic American I suppose your second criticism could be considered relevant.)

    *At least last I heard.

    Comment by Dianne — October 23, 2006 @ 3:50 pm | Reply

  7. Sometimes good results happen despite bad leadership, rather than because of it.

    There are absolutely smart people working for the U.S. government on counterterrorism. But, it never helps to have incompetent management.

    Comment by ohwilleke — October 23, 2006 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

  8. Yes, Dianne, but this isn’t a post saying that our counterterrorism agents are doing a bad job of stopping anti-abortion violence. It’s a post saying that our counterterrorism agents don’t know enough about the history of Islam – something with zero connection to our own homegrown terrorists.

    Ohwilleke, do you have any evidence that the management of our counterterrorist operations in the United States would have been more effective if everyone involved in them was an expert in the Sunni-Shia split?

    Comment by Robert — October 23, 2006 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

  9. Everyone realizes, I suppose, that neither bob nor I have a leg to stand on in our argument because we don’t know the, for lack of a better term, antiterrorism denominator. Consider only Islamic related acts of terrorism for the moment. There have been, as far as I can remember, two confirmed acts or attempts since 9/11/01. The first, the anthrax letters was successful or partly successful. The second, the attempted shoe bombing, was unsuccessful because the passangers on the plane stopped him. This doesn’t seem like a rousing success for homeland security (HSA).

    What we don’t know, however, is how many terrorists never got that far. One could imagine that HSA has stopped thousands of attacks before they got far enough to interest the media and hasn’t taken credit because they fear compromising their contacts or because they think it’s not newsworthy or whatever. On the other hand, al Qaeda (or some parts thereof, anyway) is clearly capable of long term projects. The 9/11 attacks were years in the planning. Perhaps there haven’t been any other attempts because they are planning a major attack which will only occur tomorrow or next week or next year and which HSA will completely fail to prevent because, not understanding the intricacies of various Islamic factions, they fail to realize that the Mosques discussed in the terrorist chatter are targets not recruiting grounds and waste time interrogating the wrong faction. The truth could be either or anywhere in between and there’s no way of knowing. At least none I can think of. Anyone?

    Comment by Dianne — October 24, 2006 @ 10:16 am | Reply

  10. Robert, would you also argue that there is no point in British intelligence officers specializing in North Ireland violence understanding the difference between Catholics and Protestants? The Pope’s infallibility rarely matters to plans to bomb police stations. I’m not concerned and I don’t think anyone is really concerned with whether HSA people understand the exact theological arguments between Sunnis and Shias. But if they don’t understand which ones various groups are they won’t be able to predict who is likely to ally with whom versus who considers the other his worst enemy (heretics are always worse than infidels.)

    Comment by Dianne — October 24, 2006 @ 10:22 am | Reply

  11. Robert:

    Yes, Dianne, but this isn’t a post saying that our counterterrorism agents are doing a bad job of stopping anti-abortion violence. It’s a post saying that our counterterrorism agents don’t know enough about the history of Islam – something with zero connection to our own homegrown terrorists.

    Ohwilleke, do you have any evidence that the management of our counterterrorist operations in the United States would have been more effective if everyone involved in them was an expert in the Sunni-Shia split?

    Nobody has suggested that they need to know the history of Islam, nor that they needed to be experts in the subject. The questions they couldn’t answer – about the current disposition of various groups within Islam – weren’t expert-level questions. They weren’t even 101-level questions. They were remedial level questions.

    Comment by Daran — October 24, 2006 @ 12:40 pm | Reply

  12. Robert, the question is not being “expert” in the Sunni-Shiite split. The question is being about to state in any way the difference.

    This lack of knowledge shows that this person has no clue about what should comprise the lion’s share of what his subordinates are working onin hte foreign counterterrorism area. And, lack of even rudimentary understanding of the work being done seriously impairs his ability to supervise them meaningfully and effectively.

    There are lots of types of terrorism out there. One is Islamic religiously oriented terrorism. Indeed, Islamic religiously oriented terrorism happens to be the single most important foreign terrorism threat in places where the U.S. is actively involved right now.

    It was behind the first World Trade Center bombing, a case where a man sprayed gunfire in the Los Angeles airport, the U.S.S. Cole attack, attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, 9-11, the Madrid 3-11 attack, and two separate attacks on the London tube system.

    It was behind a thwarted millenium bombing attack, a case when a man sprayed gunfire in the Los Angeles airport, every post 9-11 foreign terrorism related criminal case in the United States (except the Earth Liberation Front cases), post-9-11 terrorism link cases in Germany, every case that has resulted in someone in the United States being declared an enemy combatant, every case of someone being extraordinarily rendered by the Homeland Security Department, every terrorist attack in Afghanistan, every terrorist attack in Iraq, many ongoing terrorism incidents in Pakistan which is believed to be the new headquarters of al-Queda, every terrorist attack on Western interests in Indonesia, and terrorist attacks on Western interests in Saudi Arabia.

    Islamic religious terrorism is also the focus on U.S. efforts to crack down on counterterrorism efforts aimed at international money laundering (often through the Islamic banking system), and U.S. efforts to gain intelligence from people detained by the C.I.A. and U.S. military. Another key counter-terrorism effort is the need to decipher often cryptic warnings on Arabic language TV stations like al-Jazzera, and statements made on the internet made by terrorist groups holding Western hostages or issuing threats.

    In many of the countries with whom we cooperate with or try to cooperate with or are concerned about an effort to gather intelligence about possible Islamic religious terrorist attacks on U.S. interests, such as Pakistan, Morocco, Syria, Iran, Lybia, Lebanon, Indonesia, Tanzania, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Islam is the predominant religion and the intelligence received will not make sense without understanding the intra-Islamic religious context in which these terrorist actors are operating.

    You simply cannot come even close to understanding what motivates terrorists, what terrorist groups are likely to coordinate, when terrorists will feel it is appropriate to strike, what possible warning signs to take seriously, how terrorist networks are likely to be organized, who funds terrorist groups, where it is likely to be fruitful to look for intelligence about terrorist groups, or how public statements will be received by potential allies in the war against Islamic religious terrorism (the only kind of terrorism that the first AUMF covers), without having a working understanding of Islam that goes far beyond understanding the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite.

    In the same way, one ought to be alarmed if the head of nuclear programs at the Department of Energy, didn’t know the difference between a fusion reaction and a fission reaction.

    Comment by ohwilleke — October 24, 2006 @ 12:54 pm | Reply

  13. But none of the things you’re talking about are the province of the people who are being criticized. If I am a liaison between the Texas National Guard and the HSA and will be running communications in the event of a terror bombing in Dallas, it doesn’t matter whether or not I understand who planted the bomb or what grievance it was connected to or what the relation of the bombers is to the rest of Islamic religious terrorism.

    It matters whether I know how to coordinate the communications and who to talk to in each agency and where the bomb squad trucks are located.

    The information you guys are concerned with is indeed important information, and someone needs to know it, and be thinking about it, and letting it inform policy. But it doesn’t matter much, if at all, to the people on the ground. Firemen need to know how their trucks work; the physics of flame may be interesting or helpful, but it isn’t critical.

    In the same way, one ought to be alarmed if the head of nuclear programs at the Department of Energy, didn’t know the difference between a fusion reaction and a fission reaction.

    Why? Is s/he going to be asked to build one? Or is s/he going to spend 90% of the job dealing with administrative details which are the same whether at DoE, DoD, or DoI? Admittedly, the head of the DoE probably ought to be someone familiar with the nuclear industry itself, in which case your test is a good barometer of that; nobody familiar with the nuclear industry wouldn’t know this specific detail.

    But the specific detail itself is almost completely irrelevant to the job.

    I run a small writing and editing contracting business. Should my subcontractors be alarmed that I don’t know the differences between the 2006 tax code and the 2005 tax code? Or should they be OK with the fact that I have experts who do have that information should it be needed, while I get on with the job of running the company?

    Comment by Robert — October 24, 2006 @ 1:40 pm | Reply

  14. But none of the things you’re talking about are the province of the people who are being criticized. If I am a liaison between the Texas National Guard and the HSA and will be running communications in the event of a terror bombing in Dallas, it doesn’t matter whether or not I understand who planted the bomb or what grievance it was connected to or what the relation of the bombers is to the rest of Islamic religious terrorism.

    We’re not talking about the liaison between the Texas National Guard, and the HSA. We’re talking about the “chief of the [FBI]’s new national security branch”, the “vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence”, and the “head[ of] a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.’s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information”. How the hell can a person in the last position not know whether Al Quaeda is Shiite or Sunni?

    Comment by Daran — October 24, 2006 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

  15. Because knowing whether Al Qaeda is Shiite or Sunni doesn’t help you run a political committee.

    Comment by Robert — October 24, 2006 @ 2:16 pm | Reply

  16. I don’t mean to be rude, but I am getting the distinct impression that y’all really don’t understand the concept of the economy of knowledge.

    It doesn’t matter that the FBI national security branch chief knows these details; it matters whether or not he has analysts who do.

    It doesn’t matter that the Congressional committee chair overseeing spy operations knows these details; it matters whether or not he has staff people who do.

    Pretty much everyone in government is a knowledge worker. Effective knowledge workers don’t just glom onto every piece of data that has some connection to their field of expertise; they can’t. If they did, they would spend all of their time learning, because the quantity of data that has some connection to their field of expertise is infinite. Instead, they learn the things that they need to know personally in order to do their job, and they develop supporting networks that provide additional information when it’s relevant.

    The image of the executive or administrator with an encyclopedic command of the facts and the ability to attain and maintain a gigantic store of information while still having time to actually do a job is an appealing one, but it’s unrealistic. The supply of polymaths of that sort is starkly limited, and they (cough, we) can do a lot better than government work, by and large.

    The important skills for these workers, by and large, are people skills – maintaining that support network, knowing how to poll it, keeping up good relationships with peers in other agencies, facilitating the flow of information where it’s needed, and so forth.

    Comment by Robert — October 24, 2006 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

  17. Part of people skills is understanding what your people are doing. People hate working for idiots. Hence, the popularity of Dilbert.

    One of the key jobs in running a political committee is for someone with subject matter knowledge to prioritize the agenda and summarize what the people below are coming up with.

    One of the key jobs for an FBI national security director is to prioritize and organize resources.

    There are details and there are details. Knowing the name of the CIA agent in the Islamibad office is one kind of detail. The guy at the top doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t know that. But, other details are more important to the guy at the top of the food chain. Those involve being aware of what’s going on in the big picture. Idiots like this guy can’t do that.

    Sunni v. Shiite is just as basic as fission v. fusion in this area. Or, imagine a deputy secretary of defense for procurement who doesn’t know the difference between the Army and the Marines. Brain dead idiots shouldn’t be in charge of large government agencies or hold key roles in political committees.

    The unstated, but obvious conclusion is that this man’s qualifications involve ties to influential people in the Republican party, rather than an ability to do his job. It is called patronage. When patronage makes its way into critical national security positions, it means our nation is in deep shit.

    It also means that a President who has defined himself as committed to fighting terrorism notwithstanding his other shortcomings, has broken the promise that has defined him politically. No wonder Bush’s approval ratings are just a little better than Nixon’s.

    Comment by ohwilleke — October 25, 2006 @ 12:34 am | Reply

  18. For my part, I’d think that this information would be part of the background briefing for the region, as Shi’ite v Sunni squabbling has been a major factor behind a majority of the political functions over the years.

    Comment by Off Colfax — October 25, 2006 @ 3:29 am | Reply


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