Friday, February 06, 2004

Ricin attack: What homeland security?

Can anyone tell me, exactly, why the nation is not now at Code Red? Or at least Code Orange?

After all, the nation's capital -- indeed, the United States Senate -- was just a few days ago the victim of a terrorist attack. Problem is, no one in charge of securing the nation from terrorist threats seems even to recognize it yet.

If you visit the Department of Homeland Security's Web page devoted to the Homeland Security Advisory System, you'll find that under the conditions it outlines, we should be seeing some kind of significant alert right now:
4. High Condition (Orange). A High Condition is declared when there is a high risk of terrorist attacks. ...

5. Severe Condition (Red). A Severe Condition reflects a severe risk of terrorist attacks.

I'm not sure you can get much higher a risk than actually suffering a terrorist attack. But then, maybe that's the problem. Do we need a Code Flaming Magenta or something?

Then, if you visit the Department of Homeland Security's main Web site, you'll have to look long and hard for any reference to the recent ricin attacks. In fact, you'll find none at all. Though if you check out their press releases, you can find info about such imminent threats agricultural terrorism (not to be confused, of course, with Mad Cow Disease, the gross neglect of which just seems to be the USDA's way of terrorizing consumers).

The real problem, of course, is that for the Bush administration, it isn't real terrorism unless it's committed by brown-skinned foreigners. This isn't simply a blind spot. It goes beyond even the underlying silliness of the whole "Code Alert" system. Ultimately, it is a problem directly related to the basic hollowness of our so-called "war on terror" -- which is not a serious attempt to combat terrorism, but is instead, simply, a political marketing campaign at its core. A very, very costly one.

As I pointed out earlier, there was a high likelihood that the ricin attack was actually an act of domestic terrorism. It turns out that was a sound assessment; officials now link the attack to someone from a trucking firm who is objecting to changes in trucking regulations.

Now, because of that, the people in charge of investigating the ricin case are insisting it is a "criminal matter." This elides the point, of course, that terrorism is also a crime; moreover, it minimizes the reality that domestic terrorists are every bit as capable of inflicting extreme harm on the American homeland as international terrorists. Or does anyone in this administration remember Oklahoma City?

Warbaby at World in Conflict has been doing outstanding ongoing analysis of the bizarre language being used both by officials and the media in the ricin case. As he points out:
The early news reports were all aflutter with mention of Al Qaida, ricin and terrorism. Then there was a quick shuffle of language and the attack became not terrorism, but a "criminal incident." Evidently, the trigger was the belated realization that an American, very likely a participant in the violent right wing that produced 95 percent of the terrorist incidents of the previous decade like the Oklahoma City and Olympics bombings. So if the actor is domestic, it's ipso facto NOT terrorism?

Just so we get this straight: if somebody sends a potent biological toxin through the mail, attempts to kill people in the office of the Senate majority leader, shuts down the Senate offices for testing and decontamination and causes about twenty Senate staffers to go through decontamination, whether or not it is terrorism depends on the racial or ideological identity of the perpetrator? That's nuts.

Interestingly, at least a few Democrats have gotten it mostly right. Among them is Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, whose office was one of the victims of the 2001 anthrax attacks. Though he mixed the "terrorism" and "crime" language, he still managed to make the main point:
Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said: "I believe that it is an act of terrorism. The question is, who is responsible? How widespread is this act? And to what extent will be the repercussions, the implications of another act such as this?"

But he added: "Terrorist acts, criminal acts of this kind will not stop the work of the Senate."

Even more rigorous in questioning the behavior of top national-security officials in this was Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, who pressed the Terrorist Threat Integration Center folks for answers two days ago:
During a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., questioned whether TTIC officials knew the White House was the target of a ricin attack last fall and failed to inform other government agencies and Congress before the deadly poison was found in a Senate building this week. Markey noted that TTIC was specifically created last year to integrate and share intelligence information across federal agencies.

"As the Senate office building remains closed for a second day due to ricin contamination, we have learned that three months ago the White House also was the target of a ricin attack," Markey said. "However, the information reportedly was not shared with congressional leaders until after the discovery of ricin in the Senate."

The TTIC's response was especially noteworthy:
TTIC Director John Brennan testified at the hearing that he could not recall when he learned about the ricin attack on the White House. He said he would look into the matter and get back to the committee with an answer. Brennan said, however, that he did not think the hearing was the proper forum to discuss terrorist threats.

Markey continued to point out the flaws in the whole TTIC approach:
Markey also questioned the process that TTIC follows when distributing information about potential threats, especially since Brennan could not recall how he handled information concerning the ricin attack on the White House.

"You can understand that two days after this attack unfolds the fact that you don't know the answer to that question as you sit here is something that in and of itself causes some concern for those of us who are in charge of overseeing the department," Markey told Brennan.

What we have here is a failure to communicate -- and not just in this case. As I pointed out previously, the same problem -- the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing -- cropped up recently in the Texas cyanide-bomb case as well.

As Warbaby says:
This is a big problem. Terrorism is political or social violence with effects that extend far beyond the immediate target. Crime is limited in its effects and directed towards limited personal gain. The two are fundamentally different and must be addressed by different methods and policies. The recent ricin incidents are terrorism. Period.

And until that sinks into the numb skulls at Homeland Security, the FBI, the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and the other denizens of government, law enforcement and the military, we're not facing up to the problem.

Then again, there is a tradition on the Republican side of resisting the notion that right-wing extremists are real terrorists. Recall, if you will, the remarks of Porter Goss, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, denying that anti-abortion bombers like Eric Rudolph were terrorists during hearings on the Sept. 11 attacks:
"The trouble is, 'terrorism' is a very broad word, and it lends itself to a lot of mischief for people who would abuse common sense," Goss said. He then cited bombings of abortion clinics. "To me, that's not the kind of terrorism I'm talking about."

"That's criminal law enforcement," Goss said. "But it would fit most broad definitions of terrorism because the purpose [of those attacks] is to scare people."

Of course, that happens to fit exactly the legal definition of terrorism, as provided by the FBI:
"[A] violent act or an act dangerous to human life, in violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state, to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social goals.

Even though Oklahoma City blew a big hole in this kind of pan-Gossian thinking, in succeeding years it has been glossed over increasingly by the spread of the meme that somehow, Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols were just a couple of "lone wolf" lunatics acting on their own. This is, of course, a view directly at odds with the reality of that case.

But its success has allowed the Bush admininstration to refuse to confront terrorism as the broad phenomenon that the nation must confront if we are going to have anything approaching a genuine "homeland security." What we have been treated to instead is a "war on terror" that is in fact a marketing campaign, not a serious anti-terrorism campaign. To reiterate:
Think, if you will, about the different kinds of terror at work here. The war against international terror plays out on a global stage, and as it's been waged so far by this administration, in remote and exotic locales. When Bush invokes the "war on terror," it revolves around images of Arab fanatics and desert combat. It's far removed from our daily realities -- except, of course, for the coffins coming home on military transports, images of which are forbidden to the press.

This is a peculiar, amorphous terror to which we as individuals feel only remotely or vaguely connected. The attacks of Sept. 11 are raised to remind us it can strike here, but the source of the terror is something that seems distant and disattached to us. The less concrete it is, the more vague the potential response. Thus Saddam Hussein can be conflated with Osama bin Laden as a threat to America and an entire war campaign constructed around his role in "the war on terror," though it is becoming increasingly clear he had little if any role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

This is a highly marketable kind of terrorism, in the sense that its potential threat can be invoked at any time to justify an entire panoply of political moves, as well as to impugn the patriotism of your opponents. This sort of "war on terror" doesn't require any real sacrifices on the part of the public -- unless, of course, you happen to draw the unlucky Gold Star -- but being on the Right Side is easy, since the Enemy is The Other. He isn't The Guy Next Door.

Domestic terrorism, however, has none of these advantages. It plays out in our back yards, in our heartland, and many of its actors either dwell in or hail from rural America; they could be the rancher or the Gulf War vet next door. We all have known or encountered intense ideological believers, kooks if you will, who seem just half-steps removed from William Krar or Tim McVeigh. They are familiar. Mostly we like to ignore them as simple aberrations, unlikely to cause much harm.

In reality, a Code Red probably wouldn't have been appropriate for the ricin attack -- but that's only because the alert system itself has proven such a demonstrable sham. Its main purpose has been more to invoke the "terrorist threat" at politically opportune moments, spreading fear as a way of aligning the public behind the administration's agenda.

Does anyone think all this is actually making any of us safer?

No comments: