SO LONG, FAREWELL, AUF WIEDERSEHEN, GOODBYE

Well, thanks once more to Andrew, both for his kind words and for subjecting all of you to my rambling for these past weeks. And, of course, to Ross, with whom I never did get to fight about his natalist impulses—which is probably just as well, as it likely spared me the embarassment of having my clock cleaned. Combining a Catholic conservative and a libertine libertarian was, in retrospect, probably a rough approximation of Andrew’s own Herman’s Head–style internal dialogue, but it’s time to let the elevator door close on the Muzak version and restore the Andrew Philharmonic. It’s been a blast folk; feel free to come visit here or here next time your boss isn’t looking over your shoulder.

—posted by Julian

WHISPERS FROM THE NSA

I’ve got an interview with NSA whistleblower Russell Tice just up at Reason. He’s got to speak in pretty general terms or hypotheticals for most of the conversation, but I did want to flag this bit:

That would lead one to ask the question: “Why did they omit the FISA court?”

I would think one reason that is possible is that perhaps a system already existed that you could do this with, and all you had to do is change the venue. And if that’s the case, and this system was a broad brush system, a vacuum cleaner that just sucks things up, this huge systematic approach to monitoring these calls, processing them, and filtering them–then ultimately a machine does 98.8 percent of your work.

A huge, computerized “vacuum cleaner” system that already existed, but that needed its “venue” changed for domestic surveillance, huh? That sounds a hell of a lot like the Echelon program to me. It seems like it would’ve been very tempting—and, I imagine, relatively easy—to just turn a system developed for mass analysis of foreign communications inward.

—posted by Julian

STRIP POKERS

One of the more frustrating things about the many questions asked about Judge Alito’s dissent in Doe v. Groody [PDF], which concerned whether law enforcement officers were liable for searching for drugs persons not explicitly included in a warrant, is that they kept hammering, for rhetorical purposes, that the officers had strip-searched a 10-year-old girl. A ten year-old-girl. Strip searched. Strip searched! A ten. Year. Old. Girl! (I eventually started hearing the sing-songy refrain of Walter from The Big Lebowski in the back of my head: “Yeah, yeah… they’re going to kill that poor woman“)

Again, rhetorically, I suppose that emphasis made sense. But focusing on that aspect allowed Alito to respond, perfectly correctly, that there’s no special Fourth Amendment for ten-year-old girls, and that it’s a damn good thing, since if there were criminals would have even more incentive to stash all their contraband on young children. There’s no question that, had the warrant explicitly granted officers permission to search anyone they found on the premises, as well as their suspected drug dealer, that it would have been perfectly proper.

But, of course, that’s not the point—or ought not to be. The point is that Alito bent over backwards to squish in some kind of tacit approval for a broader search than the explicit text of the warrant sanctioned. And that’s troubling whether the subect was a 25 year old man or a nonagenerian hermaphrodite. I’d have liked to have seen less senatorial fixation on nude prepubescents and more on whether Alito takes a fast and loose, “so long as they meant well” approach to the Fourth Amendment.

—posted by Julian

THE HAMZA PRINCIPLE

Andrew quotes the loathesome Abu Hamza below. What I’ve read about his case persuades me, first, that I would not be terribly upset if this man were slowly gnawed to death by rabid hamsters tomorrow, and second, that his prosecution is nonetheless pretty troubling. The most serious charges against him involve “soliciting” murder—which seems to involve saying a lot of appalling things about, well, everyone but adherents of his necrotic brand of Islam, and talking about the duty to “fight” and “bleed” the “enemy,” declaring at one point that “killing the kafir for any reason is OK.” There are an additional four counts of “using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with the intention of stirring up racial hatred”. And he had a book regarded as “useful to terrorists.”

None of the accounts I’ve read have suggested that they’ve got, to put it crudely, a body—someone who was killed or some act of violence committed at Hamza’s prompting—or that there was any kind of direct involvement with any particular plan or target. And it seems to me that there’s a big difference between a narrow command, with an expectation that it will be obeyed, to harm some particular persons, or a direct incitement to riot (“They’re over there, get ’em!”) and this kind of general advocacy, which seems to be (if only barely) within the ambit of speech a free society ought to countenance. The new British policy is to go after those who seek to “justify” or “glorify” terrorism. And it’s hard to see how you draw a bright line that stops you short of putting in that category, for instance, Pat Robertson’s implication that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was divinely inspired.

ISLAMO-FASCISM This isn’t directly related, but since Andrew defends the term “Islamo-fascism” in passing, I’ll chip in that I’ve been persuaded by Olivier Roy’s excellent Globalized Islam that this is not a terribly helpful term. That’s not to say it’s never apt—it might be well suited for Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini—but that using it in a blanket way for any radical Islamism of an authoritarian stripe elides more than it illuminates. (And I know that as an Orwell fan, Andrew will be acutely sensistive to the problem alluded to in “Politics and the English Language” of watering down terms until “[t]he word Fascism has…no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.'”)

One of Roy’s key points (one of many in an insight-rich book) is that the modern terrorists he dubs neo-fundamentalists represent an important break from state-focused Islamism as we previously understood it. One central trend he identifies among these newer groups, for example, is de-territorialization: What is in many ways radical and dangerous about these new doctrines is that they reject the local and national accretions that different forms of Muslim practice have picked up over the years in favor of an ostensibly purer, trans-national, trans-racial Islam. The driving force here is a desire for a practice not embedded in any local or national culture. In a perverse way, it is more individualist than traditional Islamism, and, argues Roy, the neo-fundamentalists’ “quest for a strict implementation of sharia with no concession to man-made law pushes them to reject the modern state in favour of a kind of ‘libertarian’ view of the state: the state is a lesser evil but is not the tool for implementing Islam.”

Of course, this description too is a broad one that won’t accurately capture every sort of violent fundamentalist—and probably some will regard all this as picking nits. But as Sun Tzu advised, if you “know the enemy and know yourself, in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” And however rhetorically satisfying it is, “Islamo-fascism” as an umbrella term doesn’t seem like a helpful tool for knowing the enemy.

—posted by Julian

I HAVE IN MY HANDS THE NAMES OF 57 TERRORISTS

Here’s a question I found myself batting around with Yglesias last week: How many committed al Qaeda operatives, people willing to kill and perhaps die for the cause, do we think there are in the U.S. right now? The initial New York Times piece on the NSA wiretap story suggested that about 500 people were being tapped at any given time. How many do we think were full-blown al Qaeda terrorists? One in ten? One in twenty?

I wonder, because if you’ve ever engaged in the rather morbid thought experiment of contemplating what it would take to stage some catastrophic and deadly attack, it actually seems terrifyingly easy. It would take a fair amount of work and planning, of course, but 9/11 was pulled off by a relatively small team on a relatively small budget, and it certainly seems like you could do a sub-9/11 scale but still highly destructive attack with a lot less—a couple guys, a rented truck, and some explosives, say. And if you were an al Qaeda member in the U.S. in the years following 9/11, mightn’t it seem as though the newly aggressive efforts to track folk like you down meant it was advisable to get anything you were planning executed as quickly as possible?

Maybe we’ve just been that effective at catching these folk—or maybe we managed to deport a big chunk on visa violations—and I’m certainly not implying there aren’t any U.S.-based al Qaeda. But if they’ve got even a fraction of 500 people here involved in their plots, why hasn’t one of them managed to pull anything off?

—posted by Julian