Monday, May 10, 2010

Fighting terrorism is hard work - Times Square bomber makes it look easy

“The harder we work, the luckier we get,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week, objecting to Republican criticism that the Obama administration is relying too much on luck in confronting terrorism. In response to the failed Times Square car bombing attempt on May 1, she admitted that “the vigilance of the American people” is an important element in the fight against terrorism.

Shortly after the failed bombing attempt, President Obama telephoned Times Square vendor Duane Jackson to commend him for alerting authorities to the illegally parked SUV that was left with its engine on, keys in the ignition, and smoke mysteriously seeping out of it. The 58-year-old handbag vendor alerted a passing New York City mounted police officer.

If you want to do damage with a well-rigged car bomb, Times Square, one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet, is just the place. But luck did come into play. The bomb attempt allegedly carried out by 30-year-old naturalized citizen Faisal Shahzad was about as amateurish as you can get. A clock used as a timer in the car looked like it was purchased at Toys“R”Us. The fertilizer which was supposed to enable the bomb to detonate was incapable of exploding. It turned out the car was less harmless than a late-model Toyota. Because of the inept nature of the attempt, it was originally thought that Shahzad was a “lone wolf”, the phrase which has come into frequent use to describe any nut job who is acting alone because of some misguided political ideology fueled by mental illness. This type of terrorist is scarier, in some ways, because he lives among us.

Obama administration officials said Sunday that the Pakistani Taliban, the group that had originally claimed credit for the failed bombing attempt, did in fact mastermind the plot. Obama's critics can't admit that our success in dismantling these terrorist groups overseas has caused them to attempt unsophisticated attacks such as the one in Times Square. “We haven't bent their determination one bit, but these are smaller, lower-quality efforts,” said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corporation.

The new breed of terrorist, which includes U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan in Fort Hood, Texas, and Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who failed in his attempt to blow up an airliner as it approached Detroit last December, present a difficult challenge for law enforcement agencies. “These are primarily one-offs,” said Jenkins. “That means there's no warning.”

Since we can't have a bomb squad on every corner, what can we do to fight the enemy from within? We can add more cameras, but that does not necessarily deter crime, although it can help find the perpetrators, as demonstrated in London, which has one security camera for every 14 people. We can't stop every car, and we can't have bomb-sniffing dogs in every parking lot. Aside from the fact that the Times Square bomber was so incredibly inept, it was a good example of how things should be done. The street vendors were keeping a vigilant eye on their territory. The authorities were notified. The area was cleared in an orderly fashion. The bomb squad investigated. The mayor congratulated the “best police department in the world” for doing its job.

Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, publicly criticized the Obama administration for its handling of Shahzad, who is a naturalized American citizen, giving him more rights than a foreign suspect. Shahzad should have been treated as an enemy combatant, according to Blair, and many Republicans agree.

After defending the Obama administration's decision to read the Times Square bombing suspect his rights, Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration wants to give interrogators more flexibility when questioning suspected terrorists. Holder said in an interview Sunday on NBC's “Meet the Press” that the administration would shift its approach to Miranda rights in light of evidence that Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad was trained by the Taliban in Pakistan.

Under the Supreme Court's 1966 ruling that established the Miranda rights, statements made during a police interrogation are not admissible in court unless a suspect has first been informed of his rights to remain silent and to consult a lawyer.

A little-known exception to the Miranda rights already exists. First crafted by a 1984 Supreme Court ruling, it allows law enforcement to delay reading someone their rights if there is a public safety concern involved. Federal agents reportedly used the Miranda exception for Times Square suspect Shahzad, who was questioned for several hours before being read his rights. Reportedly, after he was read his rights, Shahzad waived them and continued talking.

Attorney General Holder said he is giving “serious consideration to at least modifying” the public-safety exception. “We want the public safety exception to be consistent with the public safety concerns that we now have in the 21st century as opposed to the public safety concerns that we had in the 1980s,” Holder said.

Under Holder's proposal, terror suspects could have statements made during interrogations used against them in court even if they had not been informed of their Miranda rights. “We want to work with the Congress to come up with a way in which we make our public safety exception more flexible and, again, more consistent with the threat we face,” Holder said.

In Shahzad's case, he continued to talk even after he was read his Miranda rights. “He has talked to us and he continues to talk to us,” said Holder.

With the public safety provision being updated, we are basically throwing out the Miranda rights of suspected terrorists. If it makes us safer, most Americans would be willing to go along with this. Evidently, it didn't make any difference in the current situation, as Shahzad continues to talk. On the other hand, Sen. Joseph Lieberman has proposed that suspected terrorists, if they are American citizens, be stripped of their citizenship. This is where most of us have drawn the line. Lieberman has evidently backed down after the public backlash that followed his proposal.

Along with more leeway in the questioning of citizens accused of terrorism, the public needs to continue to be vigilant. The Republicans' criticism that the Obama administration is relying too much on luck in confronting terrorism has some merit. In this case, he was lucky. But Obama has to be credited with dismantling the terrorists capability to conduct large-scale, centrally-directed operations. By using the so-called “lone wolves”, terrorist groups have made the news recently by being dramatically unsuccessful, whether by wearing inoperative exploding underwear, or by putting together a car bomb without proper explosive material. As terrorism expert Jenkins said: “Clearly, there's a quality-control problem.”

In the interest of public safety, President Obama has employed a highly efficient military force overseas, which has the use of modern and efficient equipment such as unmanned Predator drones. But with all the high-tech equipment we're using and billions of dollars we're spending in the fight against terrorism, it was ultimately a handbag vendor and an NYPD cop on horseback who were the first line of defense in Times Square. But if the bomber had been a little more efficient, all hell would have broken out.