How fear of al Qaeda hurts U.S. more than al Qaeda

October 25, 2013

Three disclosures this week show that the United States is losing its way in the struggle against terrorism. Sweeping government efforts to stop attacks are backfiring abroad and infringing on basic rights at home.

CIA drone strikes are killing scores of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen.  The National Security Agency is eavesdropping on tens of millions of phone calls worldwide — including those of 35 foreign leaders — in the name of U.S. security.

And the Department of Homeland Security is using algorithms to “prescreen” travelers before they board domestic flights, reviewing government and private databases that include Americans’ tax identification numbers, car registrations and property records.

Will we create a Minority Report-style Department of Precrime next?

Obama administration officials have a duty to protect Americans from terrorism. But out-of-control NSA surveillance, an ever-expanding culture of secrecy and still-classified rules for how and when foreigners and even Americans can be killed by drone strikes are excessive, unnecessary and destructive.

Twelve years after September 11, 2001, the United States’ obsession with al Qaeda is doing more damage to the nation than the terrorist group itself.

Two new reports issued this week by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch detailed dozens of civilian deaths caused by drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Classified documents obtained by the Washington Post suggest that CIA officials who carry out the strikes make little effort to track civilian deaths.

“There is a lot more pressure building” on President Barack Obama, Sarah Holewinski, head of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, a group pushing for greater transparency in drone strikes, told me this week. “He’s going to have to look at these legal questions.”

Documents leaked by whistleblower Edward J. Snowden emerged this week, revealing NSA phone monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, 35 unidentified heads of state, and 70 million calls in France.

The extent of the surveillance is sparking widespread indignation and endangering joint counter-terrorism operations among Germany, France and the United States.

“The perception here is of a United States where security has trumped liberty,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote from Berlin on Thursday, “intelligence agencies run amok (vacuuming up data of friend and foe alike), and the once-admired ‘checks and balances’ built into American governance and studied by European schoolchildren have become, at best, secret reviews of secret activities where opposing arguments get no hearing.”

There is a serious terrorist threat to the United States. The administration is under enormous pressure to prevent attacks. But there are ways to safeguard the United States without sparking such a serious backlash abroad and at home.

Holewinski called on the Obama administration to implement its promise to move command of drone operations from the CIA to the American military. She said the shift, which Obama announced this spring, is going “very, very slowly.”

Military control is one step toward a key goal: greater transparency in countries where drone strikes are enormously unpopular. Keeping the drone strikes as a covert CIA-run program makes accountability and determining the true number of civilian deaths impossible, she said.

If strikes are commanded by the military and disclosed publicly, reports of civilian casualties could be investigated under military law and compensation paid to victims — as now happens in Afghanistan.

Holewinski also urged the administration to disclose targeting rules that it has refused to make public. How are civilians defined? And how are civilian casualties assessed? What is the legal definition of an individual who can be targeted?

She credited the administration for a decrease in drone strikes since Obama promised one in May. But, she insisted, the targeting process needs to be far more transparent.

Inside the United States, meanwhile, press reports emerged on Monday that the Transportation Security Administration is expanding its prescreening of airline passengers to include government and private databases that contain employment information, property records and physical characteristics.

Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which opposes this prescreening, said many Americans do not grasp the current scale of domestic government data mining.

“The average person doesn’t understand how much intelligence-driven matching is going on and how this could be accessed for other purposes,” she said. “There’s no meaningful oversight, transparency or accountability.”

One critic called the new TSA program “a ‘pre-crime’ assessment every time you fly.”

A bipartisan proposal to rein in government surveillance unveiled last month by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is a good start. The measure would end the bulk collection of American’s communications records; limit Washington’s ability to obtain information from Google and other online providers, and make the secret court that oversees U.S. surveillance operations far more transparent.

After months of promising change, Obama should back the senators’ proposal. He should also enact Holewinski’s recommendations for making drone strikes more transparent.

Terrorists already know that the United States monitors phone calls and emails worldwide. They already masquerade as civilians in areas where drones operate. Making drone strikes, NSA surveillance and TSA screening more transparent will build trust at home and solidify counter-terrorism cooperation abroad.

If there is one ideal that Obama needs to embrace, it’s transparency. It is a strength, not a weakness.


PHOTO (Top): Tom Cruise in Minority Report (2002). Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/DreamWorks Pictures.

PHOTO: An illustration picture shows the logo of the National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone in Berlin, June 7, 2013. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

PHOTO: Fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s photograph on his new refugee documents granted by Russia is seen during a news conference in Moscow, August 1, 2013. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

PHOTO: An X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft comes to a stop after landing on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, July 10, 2013. REUTERS/Rich-Joseph Facun


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Unrational fear has always been the driving force of American politics. It carried you through the Cold War and now it is the driving force behind the War on/of Terror.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

My feelings exactly.

Posted by markcwells | Report as abusive

what’s this? plea for sanity? :)

ditto, on freedom from fear

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

The only thing we’re missing from the usual panoply of responses in a counter terror/insurgency situation is the right wing death squads.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

USA must fight islamic terrorism against all odds. The problem is some muslims interpret the fight against terrorism as a fight against islam. Islamic terrorism is modern day Nazism. The main aim of islamic terrorism through its ideologues such as al qaida & taliban is that every one in this world must bow down to islam and be governed by sharia law. Anyone who does not bow down to this must be eliminated. The fight against this idea must be ruthless & they must be defeated as Hitler was a generation ago.

Posted by my_take_on_this | Report as abusive

The terrorists have been winning this War on Terrorism by a wide margin for a very long time.
● The purpose of terrorist acts is to garner media attention. We have given them what they wanted and more.
● Another purpose of terrorism is to encourage their targets to waste resources and create confusion in response to their out-of-proportion fears. Again, the terrorists have won beyond their wildest expectations.
● Terrorists also need to grow their ranks to succeed and again they’ve won. The number of terrorists as a direct and indirect result of military adventurism has been growing like crazy.

BTW, the Plutocracy profits mightily from confusion and conflict, so the substantial increase in terrorism has enlarged their tax-free foreign bank accounts. Of course, the bailing out of their gambling “losses” at the Wall Street Casinos with taxpayer funds has helped the cause of expanding foreign bank vaults.

Expect the War on Terrorism to continue for many years and Congress will get its cut.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Agree with ptiffany!
Having given up hope that the USA will stop shooting itself in the foot to the detriment of its citizens, I am working extra hard to avoid bathtub falls, lightning strikes, dog bites and any of the other dozens of things that are statistically more likely to kill me than terrorism. Seriously, what is Plan B for citizens who keep choosing “other” and keep getting more of the same?

Posted by JBookly | Report as abusive

There is a much, much higher likelihood that some guy will shoot his American wife, friend or neighbor than any act of foreign “terrorism”. In fact, if we were to list causes of death and serious injury, terrorism wouldn’t even be in the top twenty.

If the United States had invested half of the funds it has wasted on military adventurism in health care, we’d be #1 in the world instead of #62.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive


Posted by awabnavi | Report as abusive

Can someone inside the US, PLEASE explain to that numptie Obama that when “fighting” al qaeda he’s fighting an idea….something that was clearly lost on his predecessor Warmonger Bush.

Obama may as well fight ghosts…AQ recruits from the poor, religious fruitcakes who have no hope, no direction & nothing to lose – and there are MILLIONS of them!

By slaughtering children & grandparents in some far-flung dust bowl “Idontgiveadamnstan” he’s putting up a recruiting poster for AQ..or is Obama so divorced from reality that he can’t grasp that?

But the last 70 years have shown that the US ‘administration’ is so sheltered from the real world, I don’t expect things to change …except that matters will continue to deteriorate & eventually it will all blow up in our faces – so, to Obama & the US administration …”Thanks for screwing it up for everyone – and that includes those living in those strange countries that exist outside the US…yes there ARE other countries….weird as it may seem ..the US is NOT THE WORLD!

Posted by umkomazi | Report as abusive

Ike warned us what would happen.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

This is the real threat to our freedom, but it’s a moneymaker. Instead, the GOP trumpets Obamacare as freedom’s boogyman. Selfishness and fear combined with stubbornness and stupidity ensure our doom.

Posted by PCScipio | Report as abusive

Arab turmoil is helping al-Qaeda. Islamist terrorists have been able to take advantage of tumultuous events in the Arab world, from Libya to now Syria (al-Nusra linked al-Qaeda). al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQIM) have suffered blows, but tumultuous events in the Arab world since 2011 have complicated counterterrorism.

Posted by RiffakLedifni | Report as abusive

Good article. But David could you share your definition of a “terrorist?” Most of the names we heard about were created using US dollar, like Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or even Timothy McVeigh. Could you share your thoughts?

Posted by Whatsgoingon | Report as abusive

Agreed. Since 9/11 the American motto has been “BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID!” and most Americans will put up with anything

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

“the once-admired ‘checks and balances’ built into American governance and studied by European schoolchildren”

No one in Europe studies your “checks and balances”, take a look at your broken two party political system that you call a “democracy”, and then take a look at the EU.

The EU is a true democracy, what happens in the EU when a “fiscal cliff” cant be agreed upon? INSTANT ELECTIONS AND THE PEOPLE DECIDE.

The US? Political elite shutdown the government…

How I envy your superior American political system, your above par intelligence, your open mindedness, your levels of fitness and of course how can we forget the “freedom” you Americans hold so dear…

That was all sarcasm btw, you have none of those things.

Posted by FabianC | Report as abusive

Does anyone put any value any more on things like “interesting”, “fulfilling” as, at least partly, opposed to “controllable”?
Can one live a truly interesting life in fully controlled society? I think we were very keen on asking, although not too keen on researching in depth these questions. That was back in the 60′ and 70′. It’s just that the answers used to suit us back then… It is not true that “interesting” and “fulfilling” can not be defined as neatly as “controllable” can be. One looses some poetry as a cost of gaining some insight. Let us call interesting anything that has enough levels of freedom (a point on a straight line has one). A statistic mechanical system can be reduced to a simpler one, at least approximately, when we are able to devise it into ensembles in a right way. This can cut an effort in measurement, assessment and prediction. The cost is that, by typifying “allowable” parameters of individuals we reduce a scope of freedom; we create an ultimate Procrustes bed (or rather a set of them) for the soul. 5 social classes, 9 types of occupation, 4 types of allowable cultural activity for a subclass (or whatever it is – a soul supermarket, if you wish)and nudge, nudge and nudge until the pips squeak or the soul fits.
Ones with more poetic imagination can indulge in seeing Scheherazade like beauty contest, where contestants go through the frame of bells while Masrur is resting on his sword in the shadow… (a bit hermetic, this one, but I mentally tested it on imagination of some Muslim, that I know (knew))
How “evolutionarily stable”, how “uninvadable” i.e. robust the system should be? This depends, not in the least, how much we all decide to abstain from invading each other. Or are we to sacrifice our individual intelligence on the altar of an all powerful AI with IQ above 500?

Posted by Suav58 | Report as abusive