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Misoverestimating Intelligence
Al-Qaeda’s Bogus Threat to the “Homeland”

Anybody there? [Photo courtesy of Bruno Free]

The latest National Intelligence Estimate on “The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland” is muddled, contradictory, and far less alarming than it wants to sound—or than the press will make it sound.

A National Intelligence Report is “the intelligence community’s most authoritative judgments on national security issues,” the latest report itself states, “designed to help US and civilian military leaders develop policies to protect national security interests.” It’s not just the CIA talking. It’s the sum total of the so-called intelligence community’s nineteen-odd agencies’ conclusions.

The reports are not always accurate, of course. Remember this one, from 2002: “We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.”

From its failure to detect the disintegration of the Soviet Union to its failure to detect 9/11 to its failure to know its WMDs from its M&Ms in Iraq to its continuing competitions and turf battles, the “intelligence community” has been acting more like a bingo convention than a collection of true intelligence agencies, working for the good of the nation rather than their own parochial, ego-driven interests. Keep that in mind when reading any National Intelligence Estimate. So what does this latest one say under its “Key Judgments” heading?

That “greatly increased worldwide counterterrorism efforts over the past five years have constrained the ability of al-Qaida to attack the US homeland again and have led terrorist groups to perceive the homeland as a harder target to strike than on 9/11.” Forgive me here, but I am not replicating the original’s capital H for “homeland.” That’s a little too much Nazification for my taste. At any rate: al-Qaida doesn’t think it can hit the United States as easily as it did on 9/11—and on 9/11, remember, it wasn’t “easy” so much as it was a matter of taking advantage to an astounding dereliction of duty on the part of the FBI, the CIA and the NSA, who had all the means, and the evidence, to stop the attack even in pre-Patriot Act days. They just didn’t have the patience, the skills, or the ability to see the big picture, beyond their obnoxious turfs, in order to do so. What’s the “intelligence community” worried about today? It’s concerned “that this level of international cooperation may wane as 9/11 becomes a more distant memory and perceptions of the threat diverge.” In other words: keep the populace in fear, keep them on the alert, keep them worried of an impending attack, always and at any cost. It’s the only way to legitimize the national-security-industrial complex. And that’s why “the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment.”

Here’s the report’s biggest contradiction, slipped in there in the thick of a paragraph about Iraq: al-Qaeda wants to attack the United States again, but to do so it will try to leverage its capabilities with “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” “its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the homeland.”

The italics are mine. But that line bears repeating. Al-Qaeda’s little annex in Iraq is the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the homeland. In other words, all those alleged al-Qaeda cells all over the world, in the Philippines, Indonesia, the Middle East, in Europe, in North and East Africa (whose cells, incidentally, the United States Air Force just bombed a few times), its sleeper cells in the United States: they have expressed no desire to attack the United States. Why haven’t we read that in big front-page headlines? Why is that staggering bit of news lost in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of the NIE’s two pages of key judgments? Because, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, highlighting that bit of revelation would recede al-Qaeda’s threat to where it should have been all along: a threat, to be sure, but a minor one, and more to the point, an eminently manageable one. It would not only out al-Qaeda in its proper context. It would put it in its place.

Instead, the NIE moves on to the same old regurgitations, in a style not dissimilar from the NIE’s 2002 bits about Iraq: “We assess that al-Qaeda will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.” Book blurbs on Harlequin paperbacks are more original than that. The estimate loses more credibility when it claims that Lebanon’s Hezbollah will launch attacks on the United States if it feels threatened in Lebanon. Hebollah’s men are fanatics, but they’re not crazy. And when even Hezbollah’s leadership admits to have been taken by surprise by Israel’s carpet-bombing response to Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers last summer, that leadership isn’t about to waste what credibility it’s gained in the eyes of too many Lebanese, not to mention the rest of the Arab world, by following in al-Qaeda’s footsteps on the American “homeland.” What the NIE doesn’t mention is that al-Qaeda has next to zero popular support in the Middle East. Hezbollah knows it. Revealing it, however, would once again undermine the NIE’s already muddled findings.

The NIE reverts to standard-issue warnings. The threat of Muslim extremism in the United States is growing, because it has access to terrible, terrible web sites, but “this internal Muslim terrorist threat is not likely to be as severe as it is in Europe.” Other non-Muslim terrorist groups are lurking out there, too, and they’ll conduct attacks over the next three years (motives not given), “but we assess this violence is likely to be on a small scale.” The estimate concludes on its murkiest note yet: “The ability to detect broader and more diverse terrorist plotting in this environment will challenge current US defensive efforts and the tools we use to detect and disrupt plots. It will also require greater understanding of how suspect activities at the local level relate to strategic threat information and how best to identify indicators of terrorist activity in the midst of legitimate interactions.”

Someone has been reading too much Harry Potter: the writing is that bad. In other words, the intelligence community wants more spying and policing authority. Never underestimate the ability of a police state to justify itself and self-perpetuate. Then again, if NIEs were anything to hang one’s trust on, this has to be, between the lines anyway, one of the most encouraging signs in the so-called war on terror. Al-Qaeda is mulling about in Iraq and in Pakistan, but it’s having trouble finding idiots willing enough to kill themselves for nothing, not even those proverbial virgins, in the United States. The problem is that the intelligence community usually gets its wrong. That’s the only thing to worry about this report—the part of the story the NIE is missing.

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