the Kool Aid has Become Psychotropic

I will leave to Democrats how best to resolve their heretofore hallucinatory interpretations of the Massachusetts special election to finish out Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat (e.g., “the same anger that swept [Obama] into office swept Brown into office” – really? anger at Bush the Younger invoked Massachusetts voters to put a Republican in the US Senate?!). Despite Scott Brown’s oft repeated promise to stop the repugnant conduct of Congressional Democrats by being the 41st vote against ObamaCare, administration spokesman Robert Gibbs assured all who would listen that Massachusetts had nothing to do with voters’ dissatisfaction with ObamaCare. Messrs Axelrod and Imanuel have spent the time since trying to convince us that Massachusetts voters in no way rejected administration style or substance. No wonder these guys have trouble connecting the national security dots.

I do, however, have some suggestions for professional Republicans going forward.

In the eyes of independents and centrist partisans (of both parties) – the voters that decide elections – the Republican brand is still damaged goods. Having said that, the Democrat brand has become a self-licking ice cream cone of despicable behavior, almost guaranteeing Republican gains in the mid-terms. This would allow Republicans to sit on the status quo, not risking rocking the boat during an election year. I would recommend against that tactic.

Michael Steele should forget refereeing the “big tent/purist” intramural food fight and articulate some specific principled stands on issues that span political boundaries. An argument can be made for the wisdom of saying “no” to the programs being offered by the administration, but in absentia of alternative proposals, the label of “Party of No” is hard to refute. He should work with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to arrive at the framework of a Republican agenda. Virtually every poll taken shows three items that finish ahead of healthcare for the majority of likely voters – jobs, the economy, and our deteriorating counterterror efforts – and that would be a great place to start.

Jobs: At any given point, the unemployment rate represents the metabolistic equilibrium between economic activity and the labor pool, and at any given point, economic activity represents the metabolistic equilibrium between the business environment and the disposable income of consumers. Unemployment, as an economic indicator, can be lowered only by permanently modifying one of those four parameters – increase economic activity, shrink the size of the labor pool, improve the business environment, or increase consumer disposable income. Shrinking the labor pool is, of course, unacceptable, but the other three can all be helped by cutting taxes – not a rebate or a one-year credit, but cutting the rate. This would be an excellent use of the unused “stimulus” money.

Economy: The Democrats seem to think they can wring $50 billion a year of waste, fraud and abuse out of Medicare, tell the president to instruct HHS to begin that process – without taking a dime out of legitimate services or doctors’ and hospitals’ reimbursements. The RNC should convene a standing Entitlements Commission to study ways to streamline the process – it’s a shameful fact that only 30 cents of each entitlement dollar reaches the recipient, 70% being absorbed by the bureaucracy. Monies recovered by these two projects should go to debt retirement. Republicans should take a public stand against earmarks – to include stopping the practice themselves.

Counterterror: The rallying cry – and this could be started now – should be to stop the civilian trials of terrorists and stop treating enemy fighters like shoplifters. This is the only issue that polls worse than ObamaCare among all likely voters. Every effort should be made to get Justice to reverse its policy on holding the KSM trials in New York City. It’s not too late to return the trials to military tribunals. Public pressure should be marshaled to get President Obama to rein-in Attorney General Holder and give interrogation back to the professionals who kept us safe for eight years.

These three areas could provide the foundation of a positive Republican message on an alternative agenda for the American people.

Much Ado about Not Much

Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, 558 US ____ (2010).

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Scalia and Alito joined, in which Justice Thomas joined as to all but Part IV, and in which Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined as to Part IV. Chief Justice Roberts filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Alito joined. Justice Scalia filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Alito joined, and in which Justice Thomas joined in part. Justice Stevens filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part[1].

McCain-Feingold, at 2 USC §441b, prohibits corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech defined as an “electioneering communication” or for speech expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate. Limits on electioneering communications were upheld in McConnell v Federal Election Commission, 540 US 93, 203-209 (2003). The holding of McConnell rested to a large extent on an earlier case, Austin v Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 US 652 (1990). Austin had held that political speech may be banned based on the speaker’s corporate identity. Unless, of course, your corporation is a newspaper with an editorial page – and herein lies the crux within the crux.

From a practical standpoint, I don’t think corporations and unions are spending less than they would like to now; they all have their PACs and non-profits that do their bidding for them. Not much will change except the legal fiction that they can’t do what they’re doing. PACs are, after all, a reaction to McCain-Feingold. Any time you outlaw something, you create a black market for that activity, and PACs are that black market.

Citizens United asked the Court to reconsider Austin and, in effect, McConnell. It has been noted that “Austin was a significant departure from ancient First Amendment principles,” Federal Election Commission v Wisconsin Right to Life, 551 US 449, 490 (2007). The Court agrees with that conclusion and holds that stare decisis does not compel the continued acceptance of Austin. The government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether[2]. Stare decisis, as historically viewed by the Court, is the principle that precedence is the default position, and must be overturned by the power of arguments against it. This was such a case.

Part I simply restates the case, summarizes the arguments by Citizens United (a $12 million non-profit) to the FEC requesting a favorable ruling on allowing their movie, Hillary: the Movie, to be available by video-on-demand just before a primary election in which Senator Clinton was participating, and the DC District Court’s rejection of that argument.

Part II narrowly examines whether McCain-Feingold applies to Hillary. Petitioner parses the definition of what constitutes distribution in violation of McCain-Feingold, and the Court disagreed, parsing the definition in a way that Hillary does violate McCain-Feingold. Since neither definition is prima facie superior, petitioner’s argument, which depends on their parsing, is rejected. The Justices then addressed an amici which asked the Court to construe the definition as meaning a likelihood of viewership rather than the possibility of viewership, but the Court reminded petitioner that that’s not how the law reads. Citizens United then argued that Hillary wasn’t an advocacy piece but a documentary, and thus transparent to McCain-Feingold. The Court rejected this argument, saying that the two categories were not mutually exclusive, and that no reasonable person could view Hillary [which the Court, en banc, did] without assessing the message of the film as encouraging one to vote against Senator Clinton. Petitioner then asked the Court to exempt non-profits who are overwhelmingly funded by private, rather than corporate, donations, and respondent [government] agreed in principle to accept this condition. If the Court were to carve out a de minimis exemption, Mr Justice Kennedy writes, the result would to allow for-profit corporations to expend general treasury in support or rejection of a candidate, and in light of McCain-Feingold, there is no principled basis for doing so. There is then a discussion of some arcane issues relating to how various aspects of petitioner’s complaint relate to one another, and whether ruling on some obviate considering others, and so on. Citizens United, on these counts, cannot be decided by narrowly considering only McCain-Feingold.

Part III examines how the First Amendment relates to corporations and unions, and how PACs are different legal persons from the corporations that formed them. Austin created new ground by stating a government interest in preventing distortion and corruption, and in upholding shareholder interests, all of which rest on the principle that a for-profit corporation would have no innate yearning for veracity; that support or resistance could result in political quid pro quo; and that whatever the corporation’s political views, and veracity of those views aside, they would only randomly align with those of shareholders. However, the Court finds little evidence that government has expended much effort in enforcing Austin. For example, the FEC has never applied Austin to a book, and if it tried, there would result a vigorous as-applied challenge. The same applies to newspapers (virtually all of which are incorporated) that have editorial pages proffering support or resistance to a particular candidate. Now the Court is confronted with a movie. The Austin majority undertook to distinguish wealthy individuals from corporations[3] on the ground that “[s]tate law grants corporations special advantages – such as limited liability, perpetual life, and favorable treatment of the accumulation and distribution of assets[4].” This does not suffice, however, to allow laws prohibiting speech. “It is rudimentary that the State cannot exact as the price of those special advantages the forfeiture of First Amendment rights[5].”

The Court finds that it is irrelevant for purposes of the First Amendment that corporate funds may have little or no correlation to the public’s support for the corporation’s political ideas. That is, in fact, the intention of First Amendment protections. Austin’s antidistortion rationale, if properly enforced, would inevitably produce the dangerous, and unacceptable, consequence that Congress could ban political speech of media corporations. There is then a discussion of distinguishing between media and non-media corporations for the purposes of exempting media corporations from McCain-Feingold. Without considering the constitutionality of the ban itself, the Court finds this distinction between corporations unconstitutional.

Part IV, the controversial segment of the majority’s ruling, discusses the disclaimer and disclosure portions of the law[6]. Justice Stevens, with whom Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor concur, more generally sees the real issue of Citizens United as being how, not if, petitioner may finance its electioneering[7]. He then focuses on the ability of government to regulate speech on the basis of identity, citing that it routinely restricts the speech of students, prisoners, members of the Armed Forces, and its own employees. Why not non-media corporations[8]? There then begins (at p. 114) a rather lengthy and interesting discussion of the “original understandings” of the Founders regarding the First Amendment. I find this a refreshing approach to constitutional law – actually regarding the rich archives of the Founders’ intent – but, again, a rigorous enforcement of such thinking on the part of the Court would fill its docket for decades to come. While I would welcome it, I find to be highly unlikely that the Court will undertake it.

Justice Thomas writes in concurrence with an exception to Part IV. He holds that the disclaimer, disclosure and reporting requirements of McCain-Feingold are also unconstitutional[9]. Here, I disagree. It is this very “Chinese Wall” of regulation, reporting and disclosure that separates PACs and political 501.3(c)’s from their corporate and union benefactors, and that serves the public good. By striking down Austin, McConnell and §203 of McCain-Feingold, the Court is allowing corporations and unions to forego the burdensome aspects of establishing a PAC or 501.3(c), but it is also allowing corporations and unions to forego the timely and complete foreclosure of political spending. I see no principled basis for limiting public knowledge as to who is presenting what message as they relate to elections.

I apologize for the length, but many legally interesting points were discussed in reaching this ruling, and I’m sure that Citizens United will be revisited, in whole or in part, in future cases. To me, the profundity of Citizens United isn’t in the specific issues raised, but rather the introspection of the Court on just how far it allowed to wander from the Founders’ intent. I personally feel the Constitution to be one of the greatest documents penned by man, and the cavalier abandonment of its embedded message by the courts for political expediency to be distasteful and historically regrettable. Those who know me have heard this before, but I restate it here. The Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederation, The Constitution of the United States of America, The Federalist Papers, and The Northwest Ordnance, along with volumes of personal correspondence between the Founders, constitute perhaps history’s most complete explanation of intent behind a body of legal works. That the courts have continually bemoaned having to “intuit” the Founders’ intent behind the language of the Constitution is pathetic, or, more probably, an evasion enabling their [the courts’] abandonment of those very principles.

[1] 558 US ____ (2010), p. vii. Available as pdf-file; G:-Drive/Law/Supreme Court/Cases/Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission.

[2] See ibid, pp. 1-2.

[3] See 558 US ____ (2010), pp. 34-35.

[4] Davis v Federal Election Commission.

[5] Ibid., at 680.

[6] See 558 US ____ (2010), beginning at p. 51.

[7] Ibid, p. 81.

[8] Ibid, p. 109.

[9] Ibid, p. 171.

Shangri Lost

Hopeychange died at 8PM [Boston time] on January 19 2010, one day short of one year old, and we’ve been spared a trillion-dollar energy fiasco and a trillion-dollar healthcare fiasco. So the questions now are, what do the Democrats do?, and what do the Republicans do?

This same sort of rude awakening greeted Bill Clinton in ’94, and he surveyed the landscape, adjusted to the new reality by moving toward the center, governing all of the people (instead of just the Democrats), and was re-elected (in spite of serial sex scandals – or “Bimbo Eruptions” as Hillary called them). Actual healthcare reform is still salvageable during Mr Obama’s first term if he goes about it piecemeal rather than throwing away the car because he didn’t like the hub caps. The more civil the Democrats are, the better for their case.

For the Republicans’ part, they, too, can learn from ’94. Newt Gingrich had a carefully researched list of legislative items (the “Contract for America”) that all polled above 60% approval ratings among likely voters of both parties. In other words, the loyal opposition has to have a clear idea of what alternative agenda it would like to pursue, or they will be correctly perceived as merely obstructionist. Congressional Republicans do have alternative proposals for healthcare – over forty bills were introduced but never allowed out of committee. Maybe now they will be, at least as a basis for discussion. The more civil the Republicans are, the better for their case.

It will be interesting to see if the West Wing is really listening to what the people are telling Washington, or if they are just going to try to shift the focus to something (anything) else. The major problems with healthcare are two – a complete overhaul of 1/6 of the American economy is simply too much government interference into the private sector (the same reason HillaryCare failed); and, this shouldn’t be done before the economy is stabilized.

The nullification of healthcare reform takes an enormous amount of pressure off of the dollar – nobody really believed that this monstrosity was going to be deficit-neutral – so the next thing to address should be an honest attempt to energize job-creation – as opposed to just more political payoffs. There are two keys to job-creation that will alert us to Mr Obama’s seriousness about the subject – government doesn’t create (real) jobs, it allows them to be created; and, small business creates over 70% of net new jobs.

The thing to remember is that job-creation follows wealth-creation (those dreaded profits). We’ll see what happens.

Et Tu Brute?

It’s times like this that makes politics so interesting. The irony of the Coakley/Brown race in Massachusetts for Ted Kennedy’s senate seat has its roots in a panicky rush to legislate special elections to fill vacant senate seats lest John Kerry be elected president and Governor Romney appoint a (gasp) Republican to fill out his term. Well, here we are – a Democrat seat up for grabs and a Democrat governor, powerless at the hands of the unwashed masses.

The bluest of blue states joins Virginia and New Jersey in a vote of no confidence in the current aspirations of the Democrat Party. How did this happen? Scott Brown successfully nationalized the campaign by promising to be “the 41st vote” against ObamaCare in the Senate. This won-over a majority of the Independents and energized the Republicans. It must also be noted that Martha Coakley is a remarkably poor candidate (claiming Red Sox icon Curt Schilling to be a Yankee fan, that the terrorists are all out of Afghanistan, and so forth), turning off many voters who consider more than just party affiliation. But consider the magnitude of what happened Tuesday. Democrats enjoy a 3:1 majority in voters registered by party, meaning that a partyline vote would yield a 50-point Democrat victory (75% – 25%). But half of Massachusetts’ voters are Independents, meaning that a partyline vote resolves to a 25% victory (a 3:1 spread of 50% of the voters, or 37.5% – 12.5%), with the 50% Independent-vote up for grabs. In a state that went to Obama by 26 points, Ms Coakley has managed to lose the largest share of voters (Independents) and alienate Mr Obama’s “special” constituents (the youth vote, who don’t tend to vote in off-year elections in any event). In his acceptance speech, Mr Brown obliquely reminded David Gergan that he’s not filling “the Kennedy Seat”, he’s filling, if anything, the John Quincy Adams Seat. A nice touch, I thought.

While three states may not a tidal wave make, the Democrats had better see the beach draining. Ms Coakley had a 31-point lead at the start of the campaign, but couldn’t sustain the buffeting her campaign continually took from Washington – the Nebraska and organized labor bribes infuriated the people, and the last week has been full of Democrats talking about how to smash through healthcare anyway – reconciliation, straight vote on the Senate bill, delaying the seating of Mr Brown, etc – disregarding Massachusetts’ vox populii, enraged the people of the commonwealth further. Professional Democrats are increasingly out of touch with the people, and Tuesday’s election demonstrates that. Independents began falling away as early as this past spring, and now they are losing some Democrats (as late as Monday evening, one in five Massachusetts Democrats were polling for Brown).

When Massachusetts is found holding a bloody knife, the Democrats can only say, “et tu Brute?” There’s a loud message in that … anyone listening?

Counterterror Kabuki

Let’s start with an age-old problem – connecting the dots. Take a handful of Cheerios and spread them out on the kitchen table. Know that five (three?, six?, any?) of them, if “connected” and placed in a different context, lead to an actionable conclusion. That’s the job of intelligence analysts. Now, have someone else spread another handful of Cheerios out on the coffee table in the living room, a third person spread another on your night stand, and yet someone else spread out another in the garage, and repeat the exercise. Remember that intelligence is, by its very nature, extremely time-sensitive. Making sure that all of the Cheerios can be considered as a whole is the responsibility of the top of the intelligence pyramid. This is why adding layers of bureaucracy to the intelligence process is, by its very nature, self-defeating.

Case in point: the eighteen eMails that Fort Hood’s Major Hasan exchanged with radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki that were being monitored via [FISA] wiretap [on Awlaki], were never seen by the terrorism task force that was determining whether he [Hasan] posed a threat. Neither inquiry knew of the other, and apparently no one noticed that Awlaki’s and Hasan’s names appeared in both[1]. As Director of National Intelligence (DNI), this is the raison d’être of Admiral Blair’s job[2]. Here, bureaucratization and compartmentalization combined to frustrate the end-purpose of the intelligence process – to make timely sense out of the Cheerios.

That Michael E Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), went skiing the day after the crotch-bomber incident can only be interpreted as an administration of government overly casual about counterterrorism. That the Justice Department has openly stated its interest in criminalizing field agents for their last eight years of service speaks to a politicization of intelligence. These two – a high-level indifference to, and a mid-level misuse of, the intelligence process – serves to harden, rather than relax, the effects of bureaucratization and compartmentalization, incentivizing all agents, teams, stations and agencies – those isolated out there on the pointy end of the spear – to cover their own ass as a first instinct (keep their Cheerios hidden for self-use), rather than seek to enhance the overall intelligence product (warned you this might get into the weeds).

Israel has one bureaucracy responsible for intelligence – Mossad; Britain, two – MI5 (domestic) and MI6 (foreign); we have the FBI, NSA, CIA, ONR, DIA (which itself contains ONI, Army intelligence and USAFIC), DEA, ATF, Secret Service, ICE, plus the departments of state, justice and treasury each have intelligence arms … on and on … eighteen in all. Dennis Blair, as DNI, is responsible for distilling the output from all those bureaucracies into an intelligible information stream from which the executive can guide the efforts of the various departments of government. A daunting job under the best of circumstances, and present circumstances are anything but ideal. The people on the ground have to trust the politicians that put them into lethal danger, and today’s operatives don’t trust today’s politicians. Small unit operators exercise, as my cousin puts it, simplified problem-solving skills. Their prime concern becomes to survive the experience rather than serve an untrustworthy master – don’t feed the hand that bites you.

This all results in disjointed lines of communication, shortened chains of trust, and self-imposed compartmentalization of methods and results. In short, sloppy tradecraft and improvised operational hierarchies. Should CIA-Khost allowed the Jordanians to run their own double agent? Yes. Should DoD’s inquiry into Major Hasan been made privy to NSA’s wiretap of Alwaki? Yes. Should State Department’s visa people been made aware of State Department’s Nigerian Embassy’s concerns? Yes. But understand that plugging those holes will be only of cosmetic value until the people doing the job trust the people directing the job.

[1] See Muhammad ud-Deen, Intel Failure in Ft Hood Case Preceded Airline Attack, Associated Press, January 8 2010.

[2] See Thomas H Kean, Lee H Hamilton, et al, Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, July 22 2004, pp. 407-409.

When You Lay Down with Dogs …

The killing of seven intelligence officers in Khost [Afghanistan] by a double agent brings to the fore the problems we are having with intelligence, in general, and human intelligence (HUMINT), in particular. Intelligence, general or HUMINT, is a mucky undertaking that, by necessity, cannot be officially openly examined. A national intelligence program is, in fact, the riskiest and most “voodoo-driven” undertaking of government. More so within a region and culture where the majority of our assets do not tend to blend. It’s the government’s anti-organized crime campaign writ large – there are no choir boys in a position to help you.

Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian physician, under the alias Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani, served as an administrator for Al-Hesbah, a popular internet discussion forum for jihadists. The Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID) arrested him for his efforts, and while in prison, approached him with an eye to turning him. Upon his release less than a year ago, Dr Al-Balawi was sent to Pakistan as part of a joint GID/CIA mission. Under the cover of going to school to receive advanced medical training, al-Balawi established himself in Pakistan and began to reach out to jihadis in the region. Under his al-Khurasani pseudonym, Dr al-Balawai announced in September 2009 in an interview on a jihadist website that he had officially joined the Afghan Taliban. Subsequently, he provided CIA with very accurate BDA (battle damage assessment) – e.g., identities of those killed – after Predator strikes on Taliban bases in Pakistan, which authenticated his access to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Pakistani Taliban group and the only source for such quick, accurate information.

Dr al-Balawi alerted his Jordanian handler that he had intelligence pertaining to the location of al Qaeda Prime’s second-in-command Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the prospect of finally receiving such crucial and long-sought information likely explains the presence of the high-profile visitors from CIA-Langley and the CIA station in Kabul – and their exuberance over receiving such coveted intelligence probably explains their eager rush to meet the source before he had been properly screened.

A sophisticated disinformation campaign (by the Taliban) and lax tradecraft (by us) led to an ideal opportunity for TTP to strike back at CIA. The fact that Dr al-Balawi wasn’t actually turned, but kept working for the TTP, illustrates the hazards and intricacies of running double agents.

The first yellow flag was that Dr al-Balawi was someone else’s double agent – it’s like paying bills with somebody else’s check – if everything the third party tells you is true, it’s OK, otherwise, you’re better off eating the late fee. He gained his bona fides with CIA-Khost by providing highly accurate BDA in a time-frame that could only have come form the enemy. Yellow flag number two was that Dr al-Balawi’s information was all post-facto, nothing operational. His ability to repeatedly get Predator victims’ IDs back to us so quickly indicated that his ties were fairly high in TTP (who knew what operatives were at which bases), yet never gave us a clue as to upcoming activities or movements. The third yellow flag was that Dr al-Balawi’s first operational intelligence was probably above his pay-grade. Dr al-Zawahiri (and Osama bin Laden, for that matter) has survived this long by keeping his whereabouts and travels highly compartmentalized, and the chances of an operative as new to TTP as Dr al-Balawi would be made privy to such information should have been greeted with more skepticism than it apparently was. This all speaks to a sophistication in setting up and running a disinformation campaign that we thought beyond the Taliban’s capacity – which brings us to our lax tradecraft.

Khost Province is in Indian Country – it’s a Taliban stronghold, severely limiting our movements and associations. Indeed it offers no refuge from the watching eyes and gunmen of the Taliban and their jihadist allies, and this is why the CIA station in Khost is located on a military base, forward operating base (FOB) Chapman[1]. Normally, an outer ring of Afghan security around the base searches persons entering Chapman, who the US military then searches again at the outer perimeter of the US portion of the base. Al-Balawi, a high-value CIA asset, was allowed to skip these external layers of security to avoid exposing his identity to Afghan troops and US military personnel. Instead, the team of Xe (nee: Blackwater Worldwide) security contractors (who transported him, along with his Jordanian handler) were to search al-Balawi as he arrived at CIA’s facility. This was a tradecraft compromise, necessitated by the conditions described above.

With what should have been two-and-a-half yellow flags[2] and compromised standard operating procedures, Dr al-Balawi’s visit inside Chapman should have been strictly by the book. Instead, several CIA operatives and VIPs (including Langley’s top al Qaeda analyst) rushed out to meet the source who knew where Zawahiri was. One of the Xe contractors, not liking something about al-Balawi’s demeanor, shouted “Stop! Take your hands out of your pockets!”, at which point Dr al-Balawi detonated his bomb. Three of the contractors, four CIA officers (including the al Qaeda expert), al-Balawi and his Jordanian handler, killed. The presence of the HMMV shielded the rest of the “Gang-of-13” that had gathered around the vehicle. Complacency and sloppy tradecraft handed the Taliban a substantial victory.

[1] Named in honor of Army Special Forces Sergeant First Class Nathan Chapman, the first American KIA in Operation Enduring Freedom.

[2] He had finally produced actionable intel, but it was a bit too good to be true.

Year of the Peacock

This will be the year of Iran – either the Peacock Throne will acquire the bomb, or it will suffer military strike to prevent that, or it will be displaced from within. Whichever, the events will be pivotal on the international stage and Iran will be the focus of 2010. The first option will result in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and perhaps even Abu Dhabi initiating crash nuclear “engineering” programs – a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race will be off and running. The second will result in a spasm of violence in the Greater Middle East from Israel to Pakistan. The third option is the great unknown – all depends upon who replaces the mullahs at the controls, and if they will/can purge the military, intelligence and bureaucratic communities of jihadi loyalists. The desire in the street is a return to constitutional monarchy, and not necessarily away from an Islamic state – just a backing away from an Islamist one. A royal head of state with a prime ministerial head of government would be a vast improvement over a back room full of religious zealots running things through a puppet president. It would also take past players (e.g., Rafsanjani, etc) out of the picture, the so-called moderates who were also merely the public faces of the mullahs.

The healthcare debacle will be domestically pivotal in that it may well symbolically define the next two election cycles. If it passes in near-present form, it will further hobble an already weakened economy, precluding small business hiring and extending an air of uncertainty in the business community as a whole. Whereas 4% unemployment has been the “full employment” standard for decades, we will have to get used to prolonged 6, 7 or 8% unemployment as being “normal”. Adding to our economic woes will be a redux of the real estate contraction, but this time in commercial properties. Stores, office buildings, strip malls and shopping centers are finding themselves dwindling in their ability to service their debt due to weak or non-existent tenants. This, of course, will take a toll, again, on banks. Credit will, again, tighten. Also, the rest of the “stimulus” money will be released into the economy, designed to spark employment in time for the 2010 elections, but it will, instead, spark inflation, which will necessitate the raising of interest rates, which will further tighten credit.

Terrorism will continue apace worldwide in 2010. What George Friedman[1] calls al Qaeda Prime – Osama bin Laden and his small circle of close, trusted associates, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri – has been operationally marginalized by their displacement from state sponsorship and American-led operations keeping them small and on the run, but they maintain their profound abilities in propaganda and ideological leadership for the jihadist movement as a whole. Al Qaeda franchises, like al Qaeda-in-the-Islamic-Maghreb (AQIM – North Africa) or al Qaeda-in-the-Arabian-Peninsula (AQAP – Saudi Arabia, Yemen), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP – Pakistan), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT – Pakistan,, nee: Afghanistan) and Harkat-ul-Jihad e-Islami (HUJI – Pakistan, nee: Afghanistan), are regionally active, well organized and generally aligned with al Qaeda Prime’s strategies. Some (e.g., AQIM, AQAP) have shown the ability to operate transnationally.

Aside from continuing vigilance in intercepting and interdicting terrorist operations, our primary concern remains denying these groups another state sponsor and operating space. Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are still the main targets for al Qaeda-at-large to set up a nest. While Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism, they have so far limited Hizbollah and Hamas activity to anti-Israeli and narrow Iranian interests, rather than the wider jihad. We need to remember, however, that before 9/11, Hizbollah killed more Americans than all other terrorist groups combined.

And of course, we’ve got Oliver Stone’s upcoming Showtime documentary miniseries Secret History of America, in which he promises to put mass murderers such as Stalin, Mao and Hitler “in context.” Stone told reporters at the Television Critics Association’s semi-annual press tour in Pasadena, “I’ve been able to walk in Stalin’s shoes and Hitler’s shoes to understand their point of view. We’re going to educate our minds and liberalize them and broaden them.”

Sigh …

[1] Chairman, Strategic Forecasting Incorporated (STRATFOR), dubbed by Barron’s as “The Shadow CIA,” it’s one of the world’s leading global intelligence firms, providing clients with geopolitical analysis and industry and country forecasts to mitigate risk and identify opportunities. Stratfor’s clients include Fortune 500 companies and major governments.

Dot-Connecting 101

It would be interesting to know if Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who attempted to destroy NWA flight 253 Heavy, asked for seat 19A, or if that was just a happy accident. The reason it may be relevant is the fact that 19A is a window seat (i.e., next to the skin of the aircraft) and over the wing-box (a structural feature that doubles as the main fuel tank for the Airbus A330-323E[1]). If Mr Abdulmutallab asked for the seat, that would just be one more piece of information that can be used in thinking through actual counterterrorism instead of cosmetic reactions that will undoubtedly be installed (e.g., no blankets, pillows or bathroom breaks during the last hour of international flights). Whether or not the seat position was calculated, we do know enough to ask some serious questions about the ease with which Mr Abdulmutallab boarded the flight with explosives on his person.

First, in my mind, is why, after a distinguished (and trusted by us) source gave the State Department a name and a specific concern, Mr Abdulmutallab’s name was added to the “TIDE’s List[2]”, but his visa was not revoked. This simple (and easy) act would have stopped the attempt on foreign soil – in Amsterdam, when he tried to board an American flight into America. This first firewall has nothing to do with a lack of inter-agency cooperation, this is all intra-State Department – embassies and visas.

Second, we know that each country handles airport management differently, but after 9/11 and the foiled multiple airliner attack out of Britain, it seems nobody’s taking a demonstrated terrorist capability seriously. Nigerian airport security, OK … I have no idea what they do or don’t do in Lagos (save for explosives sniffers – they don’t), but one would think that Dutch sensitivities would have been slightly aroused by the near-decade of their film producers/newspaper editors/cartoonists being stalked, threatened and killed by jihadists. Apparently not. Both boarding gates knew that they were dealing with a cash-one-way with no check-through luggage. Yet no one thought to set young Mr Abdulmutallab aside for closer screening.

I am also concerned that our State Department and Britain’s Foreign Ministry don’t share information on visa cancellations and denials, both having common concerns about infiltration and air travel. That we failed to connect some rather obvious dots on this incident is troubling, but that we are actively refusing to connect them now is downright disturbing.

First and foremost, it is disappointing that this administration continues to see terrorism as a criminal justice problem. Here was a guy that trained in Yemen (tutored by a guy we let out of Guantánamo, and now heads one of the training camps in Yemen); had contacts to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); had an AQAP controller who equipped him and pointed him to an airplane; he told his captors about “many more ready to take my place”. In other words, here was a guy who has current intelligence about AQAP, and we lawyered him up. Just plain stupid. By the time we get around to plea bargaining him for information (the “advantage” the administration is fronting for putting him in the criminal justice system rather than the military tribunal – and immediate interrogation – route), his information will no longer be actionable.

One of the “fixes” that the media started clamoring for involves the millimeter-wave full-body scanner, which remain controversial aside from anything having to do with flight 253. Two things with scanners: first, mm-wave imagers would not have detected the PETN[3] powder, it being slightly less dense than clothing, which is transparent to mm-wave. Second, the very people we would want to screen (i.e., Muslims) have strongly modest cultural biases about the human body, and would find the scanners offensive on those grounds, further alienating non-jihadist Muslims. What would have revealed Mr Abdulmutallab’s little secret are sniffers (aka: puffers), which hit the confined (think: phone booth) candidate with a burst of air and sample the chamber atmosphere for molecular explosives chemistry. PETN (especially powdered) would have been detected. Dogs – had Mr Abdulmutallab been secondarily screened – would also have hit on PETN.

Credit where credit is due. The administration announced on Tuesday that it would not repatriate the 90+ Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo to Yemen. We learned the hard way that Mr Bush’s release of detainees to Yemen was a mistake – one of them is head of AQAP-Yemen, and another, as mentioned, is running a training camp there. Six were returned to Yemen in mid-December, and they’ve already lost one of them.

We could bring our domestic airports up to ElAl standards. The Israelis behaviorally profile waiting passengers with plain-clothes agents that circulate and observe people, talk to them, etc. They are experts in body language and behavioral analysis. There is also a uniformed IDF presence in the airports, although I don’t know if we need to go there.

There are probably hundreds of combinations of things we could do to actually improve security aboard American airliners, but the most important improvement would be to dump political correctness and admit we are at war with a very determined and patient enemy, and that that enemy is Islamist. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists (in this war) are Muslim. We need to stop kidding ourselves about that.

[1] This also figured in TWA flight 800, a Boeing 747-131 that shares the same design feature, exploding shortly after takeoff from JFK in July of 1996 – a worn electrical wire generated a spark inside the wing-box tank that detonated the fuel vapors, blowing the aircraft in half.

[2] Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a list of more than 550,000 people with suspected terrorist ties.

[3] Pentaerythritol tetranitrate.