A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005 :::
Newcomers, please check August 10, 2003, for a handy selection of A Mind That Suits. For the entire text of the Litany on the GWOT, please scroll down to November 17.

For today:

The Global War on Terror: coming soon to a power grid near you. (1)

In the torrent of words surrounding W’s re-election last fall, two statements set off alarm bells, but few heard them. One was an essay in the Wall Street Journal. One was by an outgoing Cabinet member.

The essay was called, “Our Hair Is On Fire.” In it, the authors, including two former senators and a legendary New York Times correspondent, outlined in the starkest possible terms our vulnerability to attack by terrorists and the inattention that vulnerability is receiving from our leaders. It repays rereading.

The other, far more worrying, was a comment by outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson. In his final press conference, he wondered aloud why our food supply had not been attacked because “it would be so easy to do.” Jay Leno had a field day with that one, but our supposedly more serious thinkers more or less let it fly by.

A little background is in order. Tommy Thompson is one of the finest public servants of the last 50 years. It is to him that we owe the destruction of a welfare system that was destroying poor families—although Republicans have so far been too weak-kneed to extend welfare reform, so his legacy may be short-lived in that area. Much of the content of W’s “compassionate conservatism” was tried out in the testing laboratory known as Wisconsin under the steady hands of then Gov. Thompson, so it made sense that W. put him in charge of social policy.

And he did a superb job, as always. This became clear during the anthrax attack. Sec.Thompson quickly acquired a crack team to handle the attack and personally ensured that bureaucratic roadblocks would be blown aside. A close friend help set up the office. He was a Kennedy era liberal about to retire, and he was awed and amazed at Thompson’s performance. At various times during the day, the Secretary would wander in, sit down next to someone, and ask what they needed. And they got it.

It is therefore highly unlikely that he would idly point out an area where we are unprotected, which is why his statement was so worrying. It is unthinkable that he would not have told the President.

Which may mean that there is at work in the Administration a serious misconception in the War on Terror. As discussed here and by others far more able, the whole concept of a War on Terror is the problem, but we will return to that later.

Two things to think about.

In the stunned aftermath of 9/11, many an expert pontificated about how much support the terrorists needed, with numbers reaching into the hundreds. Those hundreds have never been found—because they were never there, and were never needed.

Osama bin-Laden did indeed use his network to get his people in place and get them the training they needed, and that network is (or was) impressively arrayed. There was also a “general” who commanded that group of terrorists.

But assuming that bin-Laden was willing to die himself and actually had as much cash as people then thought (he doesn’t, we know now), how many people would he have needed to pull off the attacks?


The “support” he needed came from services provided happily by diligent entrepreneurs, about as much support as you need to plan a vacation or get a professional certificate.

The second consideration is this, mentioned directly in “Our Hair Is On Fire.” Since 9/11, al-Qaeda has pulled off two major attacks. The Madrid attack was, relative to population, as devastating as 9/11, and the Bali attack wreaked considerable economic havoc on a very vulnerable population. The US itself, however, has not been attacked.


Supporters of the war say that it was the war, or, as a skeptical George Will quoted one officer of the Southern Command, “we are so much in their shorts over there.”

This is not true. We have not been attacked because the British did a good job making sure we wouldn’t be. The British police and intelligence services thwarted an attack on our major financial institutions, not the British army, despite the admirable job it is doing in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And this is the major misconception that seems to be at play, that military operations alone will keep us safe. The war has not made us safe, or perhaps even safer. It eliminated Saddam Hussein. If a stable government is established, we will have someone we can work with, although our poor planning has already ensured that a vast array of military supplies has been stolen and distributed who knows where. And a message has been sent—if we can make it stick—that governments that support terrorists may get what they deserve.

But the 9/11 plot was hatched here in the good old U.S. of A., so will we really be safe even if every government on earth is on our side?

No, we won’t be.

You may remember the massive blackout in the summer of 2003 caused by some seemingly small technical glitches in an Ohio power system. One important point to remember about it is that many Arabs believe Osama bin-Laden pulled it off.

But far more importantly, following that debacle, a joint Canadian-American investigative commission published a report. A snooze-inducing analysis on the Journal op-ed page noted blandly that the best thing about the first half of it was that we finally had a thorough explanation of how the power grid worked.

All this writer could think of was 100 really creepy guys flipping through it going, “uh-huh…check...interesting…worth looking into…” We have to read the newspapers in a different way.

And that friend who helped Tommy Thompson worried, on his own, about our phone switching system, put together haphazardly and lying utterly unprotected.

And Tommy Thompson felt he had to mention the food supply to someone who would listen.

It is worrying, indeed, that he did not feel he had been heard, and worrying indeed that the authors of “Our Hair is On Fire” sensed that no one was much doing what needed to be done.

A final sobering thought. The second largest terrorist attack in the US was carried out by two loners who were part of, but hardly needed, a larger network. They were largely uneducated, and they killed 167 people with fertilizer. What can 20 really smart guys pull off? Are we worrying about that?

For a superb summary of the problems, by a group of people who really know a lot more, please look at the National Intelligence Council's recent Mapping the Global Future .

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 6:54 PM



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