There seems little doubt that the original Al Qaeda” organization, based in Afghanistan and led by Osama Bin Laden, has been “decimated,” to use her term. Our enemy in Afghanistan and Pakistan appears to be the Taliban and the Haqanni Network. Yet reports often refer to one or both “Islamic militants” and “Al Qaeda” as if they are two different groups, the latter in some sense more dangerous to us than the former.
Yesterday in her Senate testimony Secretary Clinton referred to Al Qaeda as “a brand,” saying that some groups using that name included people who were trained in Afghanistan by the now decimated organization. She went on to refer to use of the name to recruit adherents and used the term “affiliated with Al Qaeda” to describe other groups of Islamic militants. She pointed to yet other groups that do not use that designation.
Is there any meaning left in the term Al Qaeda that distinguishes these people from Islamic militants from a public perspective? (I can see why intelligence agencies might make some distinctions particularly to understanding the biographies and training of those individuals who have migrated from Afghanistan.)
I raise this question because the term is still such a “hot button.” It seems to me that officials and the media use it to heighten the sense of threat, even as it seems to be losing its ability to be more of a threat than any other militant group.
In my quest to cool hot buttons, if they have no real heat, I raise the question, what is Al Qaeda? What does that term mean now?
Yesterday Secretary of Defense Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mullen appealed to the press and any others concerned, to stop discussing publicly the details of the mission to kill or capture* Osama Bin Laden. Their reason for this appeal was that revelations of the capabilities and characteristics of the people and equipment used, had reduced the potential for future raids of the same kind employing the same or similar resources.
This strikes me as an entirely in the public interest and one of the cases in which classification and government secrecy are fully justified. That members of the Seal Team are concerned for the safety of their families if their identities become known reinforces my sense that this secrecy is appropriate. There will ( or should anyway) come a day when this information will be unclassified, but this is not it.
This is a link to the Washington Post‘s coverage: http://wapo.st/kaXrmk
Of course I raised this matter to point to what appears to be a rampage of classification being employed by the government to hide legitimate secrets, wasteful management, outright corruption and pursue whistle blowers without addressing whether they meet the standard for whistle blowers set out laws.
In the category of illegitimately classified materials is a document from NSA that, at the time it was shared with a reporter was unclassified but is now classified and being used to against Tom Drake, whose story is covered at length in the New Yorker this week by Jane Mayer. That is, they are retroactively classifying it. I commend it to you.
Here is the link to the New Yorker coverage: http://nyr.kr/imc168
* “Kill or capture” may have been the order. I don’t know. I am aware of the debate, both moral and pragmatic about whether Bin Laden should have been killed if he could have been captured and by using this designation do not mean to take sides but simply to describe what I understand is the standard for such missions, whether of local police or presidentially directed units, to get on with addressing the topic of legitimate and illegitimate uses of government secrecy.
Obama was in Alabama last Friday. He was followed on Sunday by five cabinet members. FEMA workers and federal assistance were not yet there helping.
If an active combat operation of the kind that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden over the weekend can be monitored live in Washington at both the CIA and the White House and drones fired in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be actually launched and guided by people sitting in the United States, surely the Federal Government‘s activities in the wake of Katrina and last week’s tornadoes in the South can be monitored at a distance. The first and most important step is not for officials from Washington to go to the scene. This is pure political grandstanding and a distraction for the victims to deal with when they already have more than they can handle.
Yes, I’m saying that George W. Bush’s Air Force One flyover after Katrina was better than if he had found a place to land and then put the local officials through the elaborate operations required for a presidential visit.
I understand the need for politicians to be seen in important settings doing important things. But there is also some need for the public to see them exercising judgement consistent with the circumstances. Their first priority after Katrina and the tornadoes ought to have been getting help to the affected people. If visibility is desirable, they can go back after help is underway to see how things are going. This might actually serve some function rather than just being a voyeuristic publicity stunt.
Apt restraint is a virtue, even for politicians.
I can’t understand the changing narrative of the Bin Laden event itself, even as I applaud the White House for correcting parts of it as quickly as it could. It is as if they made no preparation for reporting this event, considered no strategies other than giving out information as fast as they could, had no awareness that an operation as complex as this, involving a team of people, will have to be a story pieced together from what each team member saw and did, as best those people can remember. Every contingency the SEALs prepared for probably deserved a corresponding strategy for how it would be reported.
The solution to the chaotic narrative development is not to say, as the WH is reported to have done, that it will report no more details as, if they were appropriate prior to this time when they were inaccurate, they are surely more important as more and more of the story emerges. At some future point they are probably going to want to release more facts.
SEAL Team Six, with some CIA personnel, carried out this operation after months of rigorous training for it and mindful of some previous disasters when we’ve tried operations of this type. They worked with a full-scale model of the compound, to the degree they had details necessary to construct one. They planned to be successful killing or capturing a “high value target” thought likely to be Bin Laden. I am also confident they had plans for other contingencies ranging from success to disaster.
The White House should take a lesson (maybe more than one) from the SEALs.