Posts Tagged “counterterrorism”

'Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.' -H.L. Mencken (PsiCop original graphic)I’d assumed I wouldn’t be addressing the NSA domestic-spying scandal (which, as the (UK) Guardian has reported, includes telephonic data-collection as well as direct Internet surveillance). As a critical thinker I know that anti-terror efforts are much more security theater than anything else; that hyperreactions are all too common; and that successes can be, and have been, vastly overstated.

It’s all an insane joke, from the idiotic dance of having to remove one’s shoes and belt in order to get on a plane, to courthouses being closed for a week at a time because someone spilled Coffeemate on the floor and didn’t clean it up. It would be funny, except for the fact that sometimes, these ridiculous exercises in purposeful futility don’t help at all.

At any rate, so much has been said about this, that I hardly thought my remarks could add to it. However, today I read something that I’d been thinking, right from the start, but hadn’t heard anyone mention until now. Hartford Courant columnist Kevin Rennie penned a piece today that hit the nail on the head (WebCite cached article). About the NSA’s data-mining operation, he said:

More than 800,000 people, including [whistleblower Edward] Snowden, have some type of top secret clearance. Many more are allowed to view other types of classified documents.

This is a large and expensive army of public and private employees dedicated to watching all of us in the pursuit of detecting, identifying and thwarting people who would set off bombs. We are learning that it routinely reaches into the details of all our lives. It looks for potential terrorists by scrutinizing patterns and obscure clues. We have to wonder how these huge organizations dedicated to thwarting attacks somehow missed Boston’s Tsarnaev brothers before they struck twice in April.

In 2011, Russian officials, according to U.S. Rep. William R. Keating, D-Mass., notified the FBI of a drift into radical Islam by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a political refugee from the Chechen region of Russia. This seems to have prompted at least one visit to Tsarnaev in his Cambridge apartment.

Rival law enforcement organizations dispute who else knew about Tsarnaev, but they cannot deny that in the world of potential terrorists, he stood out among millions of, say, Verizon cellphone customers. We know he visited al-Qaida-related websites, which was probably no surprise to the Muslim worshippers at a local mosque who threw him out after he ranted about his radical vision of Islam.

Law enforcement, however, seems to have lost track of him and his murderous brother.

Rennie is absolutely right. The U.S. government happily collected and sifted through vast amounts of data on hundreds of millions of people who had absolutely no connection whatever with terrorism. Their hope — presumably — was to use all this data to develop leads that might, somehow, magically, someday, some way, point them in the direction of terrorism. But at the same time, they’d been handed a specific lead on a potential terrorist — i.e. Tamerlan Tsarnaev — by the Russian government, but they never really pursued it (not beyond going to speak to him once).

Americans seriously need to ask what the fuck the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, Homeland Security, et al are doing, straining petabytes of non-terror-related data for mere-potential leads, while outright rejecting meaningful and investigatable leads that had been handed to them on a silver platter by another government which had already done some work on the matter. Clearly they’re all so enamored of their power to collect all that data, that they can no longer be bothered doing any serious investigation work. They had a chance to have derailed the Boston Marathon bombings before they happened … but chose not to do so.

Lastly, President Obama rather famously stated, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls” (cached). Well, as CNet reports, this turns out to have been a lie, too (cached). The NSA was, in fact, listening in on phone calls — routinely, without warrants, using a system that had been set up to grant them live access to phone calls at all times, and even to archive those calls.

Lest anyone think I’m singling out Obama, his administration, Democrats, or the Left for criticism over this, I’m not. I’ve been on the record as opposing these measures ever since they became part of American life, with the Patriot Act, passed by a split Congress and signed by President G.W. Bush. The bipartisan and bi-ideological nature of this scandal is only one of hundreds of reasons why I’m a Cynicalist and an anti-ideologue.

Photo credit: PsiCop original graphic based on H.L. Mencken.

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US-FBI-ShadedSealI’ve complained before about pseudohistory in many venues. Most of the time it’s merely annoying, and rarely does it have any serious, direct consequences. But recently, Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog revealed that there’s more than a little pseudohistory lurking deep in the heart of the FBI’s counter-terrorism training program: (WebCite cached article):

The FBI is teaching its counterterrorism agents that “main stream” [sic] American Muslims are likely to be terrorist sympathizers; that the Prophet Mohammed was a “cult leader”; and that the Islamic practice of giving charity is no more than a “funding mechanism for combat.”

Note that all three of these notions are typical “talking points” which comprise part of the continuous mantra of the Religious Right’s Neocrusade against Islam. More specifically, though:

At the Bureau’s training ground in Quantico, Virginia, agents are shown a chart contending that the more “devout” a Muslim, the more likely he is to be “violent.” Those destructive tendencies cannot be reversed, an FBI instructional presentation adds: “Any war against non-believers is justified” under Muslim law; a “moderating process cannot happen if the Koran continues to be regarded as the unalterable word of Allah.”

These are, of course, completely unlike all those fundamentalist Christians here in the US who claim their Bible is the “unalterable word” of their own Christian God. Got it. Personally I don’t see any real difference between the two, but there must be one, because the FBI’s counter-terrorism trainer, William Gawthrop, says it, so it simply must be the case! Somehow. Some way.

Wired snagged a printed copy of some Powerpoint slides that purport to show that, from their birth to the present, both Christianity and Judaism have become steadily more peaceful and less militant, while Islam has never been peaceful and remains nearly as militant as it was in its first decades (cached). The whole thing contains a number of historical lies, nearly all of which are evident in this one slide:

Printed copy of slide 10 from Powerpoint presentation 'Militancy Considerations' / FBI training materials via Wired

Printed copy of slide 10 from Powerpoint presentation 'Militancy Considerations' / FBI training materials via Wired

Here are a few of the historical untruths contained in this slide:

  1. The Torah was not written in 1,400 BCE. Its sources were written during the period of the two kingdoms, and it was compiled into something near its present form, sometime around the middle of the last millennium BCE.
  2. The Christian Bible was not written in 3 BCE. Its Old Testament already existed, to be sure, but the earliest New Testament books — the 7 “genuine” Pauline epistles — weren’t written until the middle of the first century CE. The rest of the NT books weren’t written until decades later, starting with Mark in the early 70s CE.
  3. Neither Judaism nor Christianity began in states of “maximum militancy & violence.” In particular, the very first Christians were decidedly non-violent; violence didn’t really creep into that faith — as far as we know — until Christological conflicts arose in the late 2nd century.
  4. Neither Judaism nor Christianity went steadily from maximum militancy to non-militancy. Their levels of violence and extremism rose and fell along with their environments and as they progressed.
  5. The Christian graph line should instead look like a very large wave, with a long plateau at maximum violence, stretching from the late 11th century through the 16th.
  6. The Islam graph line should also be different; Islam did experience some periods of lower violence; it has not remained steadily violent as this graph suggests.

Lastly, I’ll point out something I’ve said before. Within all religious traditions — Judaism and Christianity included! — it is always the case that the militant extremists at the fringes of a faith are accommodated, to one degree or another, by more “mainstream” and less violent adherents. Militant adherents generally find it easy to intimidate and bully their co-believers. The reasons for this are myriad. Sometimes it’s because the militants will go after anyone who opposes them and “mainstreamers” are, basically, afraid of them. Other times it’s because the “mainstream” adherents have some sympathy for the extremists. Still other times it’s because even the “mainstreamers” would secretly like to see the extremists succeed. To assume this is only true of Islam and not of Judaism or Christianity, is foolish in the extreme. The political successes of the Christian Right in the US and ultraconservative Orthodox Jews in Israel, clearly demonstrate this is so.

At any rate, there are a number of demonstrable factual errors in this Powerpoint presentation, and there’s no reason the FBI should be relying on it. Yet apparently — to the country’s detriment — they are.

Hat tip: Unreasonable Faith.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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