And finally, the critical point of “A Critical Mistake”

April 18, 2004

Amidst all this strictly amateur* strategizing in my last two posts (first post, second post), I fear I forgot to emphasize my key reason for focusing them so much on this January 2000 meeting of Al Qaeda militants in Kuala Lumpur. Again, this was a meeting where, in retrospect, it is likely significant planning for both the October 12, 2000 attack on the USS Cole and the September 11, 2001 attacks was done. Moreover, it was a meeting of whose time and location (but not content) the CIA was aware and of which the CIA even managed significant surveillance (e..g, photographs, copies of passports and customs forms, etc., though no audio surveillence)—though this latter task apparently was done only through our Malaysian friends.

My main reason for focusing on this meeting in my past two posts is this: In many ways, our information gathering capabilities are as good as they’re ever going to get. Fortunately, much can be done with such information if one realizes this and adopts strategies and tactics accordingly. Unfortunately, it seems as if this realization isn’t coming anytime soon (at least to those in charge… it likely has already come to those for whom, as Tennyson wrote, “Their’s not to make reply, / Their’s not to reason why, / Their’s but to do and die…”)

To elaborate: No matter how much money we spend, no many how many operatives we finally train to be fluent in the foreign languages spoken where they operate, no many how many agents we recruit within the organizations against which we fight, it is highly unlikely that our intelligence will ever get better than the intelligence the CIA before this January 2000 meeting—that is, a mere heads-up as to the time and location of some meeting of unknown content that seems unusual enough to portend that something big is being planned for some unknown later date. This is the most I feel that we can ever realistically expect for our money (though if we spend more of it, we might rightly expect that such breaks—such as they are—will come somewhat more frequently). If we realize this, then there is much in such ostensibly paltry information upon which we could capitalize. If we don’t, then I fear condemn ourselves to months—if not years—more of arguing about distractions including such perennials as:

1) Arguing about what the appropriate 5 year plan is for “getting the clandestine service we need” (see DCI Tenet’s April 14th testimony before the 9/11 Commission) when it still seems we haven’t figured out the many small things we could be profitably doing today that we’re still not doing today (though, granted, most of those things aren’t ones you talk about in open session).

2) Easy accusations followed by defensive whining about why haven’t we gotten Bin Laden yet, all while being blissfully ignorant of the fact there’s 20 others on the FBI’s list of “22 Most Wanted Terrorists” who are still at large. (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is the only “Most Wanted Terrorist” that has been caught to date. The popular claim that “2/3’s of Al Qaeda’s leadership has been captured or killed” elides the fact that these casualties are almost entirely from the lowest echelons.) All of these “Most Wanted Terrorists” still at large are believed to be more directly involved in operations than Bin Laden is. (One could also argue they’re being blissfully ignorant of the fact that Israel has now managed to kill two successive supreme leaders of Hamas in a mere 3 weeks with no expectation that this has solved their terrorism troubles… or even that killing the supreme leader of Hamas every 3 weeks could solve their troubles.)

(Et cetera…)

*A quantitatively rigorous education and no small amount of natural proclivities toward pessimism and paranoia are the only prerequisites that I could plausibly claim to have even possibly fulfilled for proposing counterterrorism plans that are robust toward contingencies. 🙂

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