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.


  1. I would say we were very lucky in this case. I have to admit, I wasn't aware of the public safety ruling passed in 1984. I'm all in favor of it, though. I'm hoping that we learn from these failures and continue to upgrade our security. As for Joe Lieberman's suggestion, taking away a suspect's citizenship makes no sense at all, especially in light of this public safety exception.

  2. My favorite political writer is back! You bring up some good points here.

  3. we can't rely on the stupidity of the terrorists...the odds are that there will be some smarter terrorists out there, and we have to be ready.

    for some reason in this country, we don't act until something happens...these recent lucky breaks are keeping us on top of the terrorist threat, so that we don't let down our guard

    these small, uncoordinted attacks, when added up, are helping us become better at dealing with terrorism.

    it's unfortunate that we wait until something happens before we change policies and look into laws, the miranda rights, for instance

    luckily, we are updating our defenses without any major attack on our soil.

    obama is lucky.

  4. I'm not sure it's possible to stop every "lone wolf" who is bent on blowing people up. As they say (and they say a lot), we have to be successful 100 percent of the time, but a terrorist only has to be successful once. I hate to be pessimistic, but...we're doomed.

  5. Nick Perumov, famous Russian fantasy-writer, who lives in the USA, in a recent interview described his impressions of how the American media had covered the terrorist attacks in Moscow subway on March 29, which took more than fifty lives.

    According to Perumov, The New York Times with no hesitation wrote about terrorists, who killed Russian citizens, as "the Chechen freedom fighters". "They are not called "terrorists" – but only "rebels", "insurgents", "guerrillas", "partisans" and thus enter the noble context" – noted the writer.

    You can watch Perumov's interview here, but it's in Russian. So, if anyone speaks Russian, you're welcome.

    "The New York Times" correspondent Clifford J. Levy (the author of the article) who has caused anger and bewilderment of the famous writer, is not alone in his sympathy to the terrorists.

    "The Washington Post's" Moscow bureau Chief Philip P. Pan has also successfully found allegoric names for terrorists. He calls them "suicide bombers" and, again, "Islamist insurgents".

    Different attitude of these "independent media" to terrorist activity causes at least bewilderment.

    These media definitely qualify the explosions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Spain, India, the victims of which are innocent people, as terrorism, but similar bombings in Moscow is nothing but a struggle for freedom of "Islamist insurgents", "rebels" and "separatists". And measures to resist terrorism in such an ambiguous, confusing and far Russia are served by these media as "brutal suppression of the insurgency of the North Caucasus."

    The spread of the information justifying the terrorists or assisting the terrorists is equal to supporting terrorism in every civilized state.

    Are C. Levy and P. Pan's actions just the result of their incompetence or not knowing Russian reality? It is hard to believe. Both of them hold high ranks in the journalism hierarchy. Both of them had held offices in other countries before going to Moscow bureau of their newspapers. Both of them realize for sure that if they wrote like that about Muslim, Christian or Jewish terrorism in the US, it would certainly have a negative impact on their journalist careers.

    It's really strange that inspite of the sympathy expressed by President Barack Obama for with terrorist attacks in Moscow subway and calling for Russia to take part in the war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the U.S. newspapers keep on publishing their own opininon, that smells like assisting terrorism? And in this case who is the customer of these materials published in the media?

  6. The media these days is doing everything to drum up controversy in order to sell their product. Newspapers are becoming extinct due to the internet, so the blogosphere is taking up the slack.

    These days the loud minority makes the most noise. For instance, the Tea Party movement is getting more attention than they warrant. And the Republican tirade against Obama's policies makes it seem like he has no support, while the truth is that his ratings are still close to a majority.

    Now the Republicans are blaming Obama for lax security in fighting terrorism. They are using the Times Square incident as an example. How could a car bomb be left in such an area? Obama was "lucky". His luck is running out.

    Luck does play a part. But as Pelosi says, hard work makes luck happen. We make our own luck.

    Next time we may not be as lucky. The attacker may be more sophisticated. But I don't think there will ever be a coordinated effort like the one on 9/11. We can thank Obama for that.

  7. I don't much care about Russia. If Iran gets nukes, it's all over. That would make the cold war seem like child's play.

  8. President Obama's job has been to rebuild America's image around the world. He's reaching to people of Muslim faith, acknowledging that the terrorists are just a small percentage of radicals and religion is not the issue. Of course, Timothy McVeigh would have been impossible to have predicted, but many people say the Times Square bombing suspect should have been on somebody's radar. The problem is that America has many cultures and nationalities, and people fly around the world to different locations. The lone wolf like the Fahzad would be hard to spot ahead of time. Let's just hope that our luck continues.

  9. good info! I look forward your blog.

  10. These people are seeking publicity. I hear Faizal Shahzad will be a guest on Jay Leno.

  11. Obama can be credited with beginning the process of restoring the image of America across the world.

    Bush allowed Cheney to give him some pretty bad advice and the two of them were responsible for making a lot of people around the world hate Americans, mostly in the Muslim communities.

    It isn't easy putting the genie back in the bottle, but slowly, much of the world sees us now in a different light. Americans were tired of the same old politics and voted Obama in at the right time.

    Obama is the right man for the job. His ratings will go up accordingly, as people see that we are a much safer nation. The economy has been a diversion. It's the safety of our country that worries most of us. Especially after the Times Square incident.

    We have to feel safe in our own country. Keeping the war in a far and safe distance is how Americans are used to it. When a character like Sharad Fahzad comes along, we realize how vulnerable we are.

    There are no wars in history quite like this one.

  12. Aren't those Predator drones killing inocent civilians?

  13. Obama has been lucky so far... but he can't rely on the incompetence of these types of terrorists, because, unless we figure out a way to stop every car and listen in on every phone conversation, there's no way to keep us completely safe. Because we are a democratic society, our Constitution affords us certain rights. These are the same rights that make us vulnerable.

  14. It seems like the terrorists are getting dumber and dumber. Or maybe we're getting smarter. I wouldn't call it luck.

  15. I'd say we're lucky.

  16. Faisal Shahzad was given his Miranda rights within hours and is still talking, almost two weeks later. As a result, more connections to Pakistan are coming out.

    In this case, the system seems to be working. The fact that the Attorney General is taking another look at the Miranda laws shows that we are trying to change with the new type of threat. Hopefully it won't be at the expense of our rights as American citizens.

  17. In the 1980's, Islamic groups were set up in Pakistan to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, these groups did not disband, but stuck around to fight Pakistan's old enemy India. They fought over Kashmir, the territory claimed by both Pakistan and India. These groups are now focusing on the U.S. as their enemy.

  18. The vigilance of the vendors in Times Square is an example of the new way of combating terrorism. We can't leave it to government agencies to keep us safe. Even though the bomb was ineffective, the quick thinking in Times Square was showed an incredibly efficient line of defense. We all need to keep our eyes open.

  19. they just released his mugshot. the guy looks normal to me.

  20. Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, was just forced to resign today.
    You don't criticize the president if you are in an appointed position.

  21. We will never be completely safe. But this shows that the terrorists are not as organized and therefore unable to do anything close to 9/11. Obama must be doing something right. Unfortunately, even an unsophisticated lone wolf terrorist could cause damage. Look at Fort Hood for instance.

  22. We're only doomed to the degree that there are people out there that hate us enough to want to kill themselves blowing us up.

  23. The more time goes by, the more info keeps coming out about Shahzad. His links to terrorist organizations make the situation more troubling. One of these lone wolf madmen will certainly strike again. How long will our luck continue? The Fort Hood shooter is an example of what can happen, so we haven't been 100% lucky.

  24. Obama's had a rough year.

  25. Now Obama has the worst environmental disaster in history to deal with. Not only did 11 people die when the Gulf oil spill disaster, but millions more are affected. I don't think any terrorist or even a coordinated group of terrorists could cause this much damage. That puts things in perspective.

  26. things have gone from bad to worse for Obama

  27. ...and now the oil spill. Obama can't catch a break. "Drill, baby, drill."

  28. What's worse? A natural disaster or a few inept terrorists!?

  29. Obama's popularity ratings are declining, but we're safer now than we were with Bush. No major terrorist attacks have happened since this incident, so now we're going after Russian spies. I thought the cold war was over.

    History will be the best judge of Obama's presidency, and he will win in 2012. The Republican's best bet is Sarah Palin?