Thursday, February 03, 2005

Richard Clarke in The Atlantic

The cover story in the January/February Atlantic Monthly is piece of "future history" by Richard Clarke that sketches the next five years of the War on Terror. He does not paint a pretty picture. His worst-case scenario has a series of devastating attacks on America- suicide bombers, mass shootings, strikes with biological and nuclear weapons. After each assault, the economy sinks a little lower and we sacrifice a few more civil liberties.

There is a surface plausibility to Clarke's nightmare-he served, after all, on the NSC and his article is amply documented (49 footnotes.) Upon a close reading, however, the surface plausibility morphs into superficiality and worse. Clarke means to scare us, but his tale is hardly an "alternative future history" or a rigorous exercise in scenario analysis. It is not even a fairy tale. It is just a story about a modern bogeyman.

The greatest weakness of his scenario is that it is one-sided. He lays out our vulnerability in great detail but he never discusses the terrorist capabilities required to pull off such a stunning sequence of victories. Derek Reveron made just that point here.
Given Clarke's credentials and former access to intelligence, his fiction should be critically examined. But we should take heart that Clarke has no specific information and his latest prognostication of impending doom is simply the result of his nightmares. Every scenario he presents is just that - a hypothetical driven by existing vulnerabilities, not terrorist capabilities.

While it is important to reduce vulnerabilities to America's critical infrastructure, we should not conflate vulnerability and threat. Just because we can imagine an attack does not mean an attack will occur.

Aggressive U.S. counterterrorism efforts have resulted in significant accomplishments - al Qaeda is on the ropes. Thousands have been captured or killed and its top leadership has been relegated to producing propaganda for the Internet. FDR's wisdom about fear should guide us, but fear is a hard thing to control.

Clarke's terrorism hypothetical seems to be governed more by his worst nightmares than by the real capabilities of any terrorists
These two points by Reveron are particularly telling:
If a biological attack were as easy as Clarke pretends, surely Tel Aviv or another Israeli city would have been the victim of such an attack. Palestinian militants could simply launch Katyusha rockets from territory they control or infiltrate infected individuals to unleash a plague upon Israel. The militants would not face any of the logistical challenges al Qaeda would face - infiltrating a terrorist cell into the United States, creating a support network, and executing a biological attack.

Likewise, Russian nuclear weapons must be more secure than we fantasize because there is no doubt a Chechen group would have been the first customer
Not only does Clarke overstate the threat by ignoring terrorist capabilities (or lack thereof), he also grossly overstates our vulnerabilities. Here is his description of an early, low-tech attack.
On December 2, 2005, the Mall of the States became a victim of a low-tech terrorist attack. In the preceding years malls in Israel, Finland, and the Philippines had been attacked; so far, American malls had been spared. As security professionals knew, this was partly luck; such targets are difficult to protect.16 In June of 2004, after learning of intelligence reports indicating that the Madrid train bombers had originally planned to strike a suburban shopping area, Charles Schumer, a Democratic senator from New York, called for increased funding to secure U.S. shopping centers and malls.17 Congress chose instead to focus on defending other targets against more-sophisticated terrorist acts.

The 4.2-million-square-foot mall, located in Minnesota, was globally recognized as the largest entertainment and retail complex in America, welcoming more than 42 million visitors each year, or 117,000 a day. On this day neither the 160 security cameras surveying the mall nor the 150 safety officers guarding it were able to detect, deter, or defend against the terrorists.18 Four men, disguised as private mall-security officers and armed with TEC-9 submachine guns, street-sweeper 12-gauge shotguns, and dynamite, entered the mall at two points and began executing shoppers at will.

It had not been hard for the terrorists to buy all their guns legally, in six different states across the Midwest. A year earlier Congress had failed to reauthorize the assault-weapons ban. Attorney General John Ashcroft had announced a proposal, on July 6, 2001, to have the FBI destroy records of weapons sales and background checks the day after the gun dealer had the sale approved. This meant that if a gun buyer subsequently turned up on the new Integrated Watch List, or was discovered by law-enforcement officials to be a felon or a suspected terrorist, when government authorities tried to investigate the sale, the record of the purchase would already be on the way to the shredder.19

The panic and confusion brought on by the terrorists' opening volleys led many shoppers to run away from one pair of murderers and into the path of the other, leading to more carnage. Two off-duty police officers were cited for bravery after they took down one pair of terrorists with their personal weapons, before the local SWAT team could get to the scene. Meanwhile, one of the other terrorists used his cell phone to remotely detonate the rental van he had driven to the mall; this resulted in even more chaos in the parking garages. Once the SWAT team arrived, it made short work of the two remaining terrorists. By the time the smoke had cleared, more than 300 people were dead and 400 lay wounded. In the confusion of the firefight the SWAT team had killed six mall guards and wounded two police officers.20

At the same moment, at the Tower Place, in Chicago; the Crystal Place, in Dallas; the Rappamassis Mall, in Virginia; and the Beverly Forest Mall, in Los Angeles, the scene was much the same: four shooters and hundreds of dead shoppers. America's holiday mall shopping effectively ended that day, as customers retreated to the safety of online retail.

The December attacks were achieved with a relatively small amount of ammonium nitrate, some Semtex plastic explosive, and a few assault weapons in the hands of twenty people who were willing to die
The first thing that stands out is the high body count: four men manage to kill 300 and wound 400 more. Even allowing for the car bomb, this is extreme. It dwarfs anything we have every seen before in America.

Note as well how Clarke has his victims stampeding like cattle right into the sights of the gunmen. No one apparently fights backs except two off-duty cops. This stretches credulity and ignores very inconvenient facts.

Clarke consciously echoes the Columbine murders (the TEC-9 and street-sweepers). It gives his "scenario" verisimilitude. Moreover, because at Columbine the students were trapped and slaughtered like lambs, it fits his "theory". But Columbine was merely the worst school shooting, not the only one. That means it is seared into our memory while we have forgotten the details of most of the others. Little details like how in several cases, armed citizens put an end to the killing before the police arrived.

Maybe there would be no armed citizens in Minnisota or LA. But Texas and Virginia are shall issue CCW states. A non-trivial number of people there carry firearms for personal protection. But Clarke's scenario says nothing about their potential to limit the killing: "the scene was much the same: four shooters and hundreds of dead shoppers."

I am not saying that armed citizens can replace SWAT teams or that a grandmother with a .32 automatic would take down a couple of terrorists like Wild Bill in Abilene. But a realistic scenario has to account for the potential effect of armed citizens in states where many citizens are armed. Any civilian response means that the terrorists can no longer "execute shoppers at will" and that, in turn, will reduce the fatalities. Clarke does not account for this factor; he simply ignores it.

Clarke cannot deal honestly with this factor because it runs counter to the liberal pieties at the Kennedy School where he hangs his hat. Clarke is careful to pay obeisance to those pieties throughout his article. He may challenge the Bush administration or the NRA, but he says nothing that will ruffle feathers in Cambridge or Georgetown.

How else can one explain his discussion of the end to Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) in the quoted passage? Does Clarke really think that terrorists who can get Russian nukes and Semtex were incapable of getting firearms when the AWB was in effect?

We see the same mindset at work when he discusses the aftermath of the first wave of bombings. Over a thousand people are dead and thousands more will die in the near future. But what really concerns Clarke is the reaction of his non-Muslim fellow citizens:
The social effect of the attacks was widespread. In Detroit, northern New Jersey, northern Virginia, and southern California armed gangs of local youths attacked mosques and Islamic centers. At the request of local clerics, the governor of Michigan ordered National Guard units into the city of Dearborn and parts of Detroit to stop the vigilante violence against Islamic residents.
This fear has been a recurrent theme since 9/12/01. After three years, we have very little evidence that it is real. Just as few Muslims in America are terrorists, let's finally admit that most Americans are not prone to mob violence even in the wake of horrendous atrocities.

At times as I read the article I wondered if Clarke was really as bright and knowledgeable as everyone insists. The mall attacks are one example where my personal knowledge and experience made me question his scenarios. Another was this quote from an interview with the Atlantic Monthly:
Q: How did you come up with the idea to write an imaginary account of the first ten years of the war on terror?

A: I remembered how influential the 1970s book The Third World War was in stimulating debate over what we should do about the NATO-Soviet Union confrontation that was building in Europe. In that book, a British general named Sir John Hackett jumped ahead about ten years and portrayed what would happen in a war in Europe between these two very modern militaries. It did so in such graphic detail and with such credibility that it really stimulated a great debate and gave us a big impetus towards creating the arms-control measures that largely demilitarized Europe. I thought, What better way to stimulate debate about homeland security than to do the same kind of thing: jump ahead about ten years and show what will happen if we don't improve our homeland-security posture before attacks occur?
Clarke completely misreads the purpose and consequences of The Third World War. The book was a flat-out plea for Nato modernization and rearmament, not a tract proposing that Europe be demilitarized.

This is how the authors put it in 1978:
It must here be strongly emphasized again, however-and it cannot be too often repeated-that the forces of the Western Allies were only in a position to survive onslaught of the Warsaw Pact because, though heavily outnumbered from the outset, they were able to remain in being. Without the sort of improvement effected in the years between 1978 and 1984 this would have been impossible.
The key point of the book was that a strengthened NATO could win a conventional defensive war in Europe. Arms control had nothing to do with it.

In some respects, the article is deeply dishonest. Clarke posits so many threats and warns of so many attacks, that he is bound to be right about something, sometime. When that happens, his new friends will proclaim, "Richard Clarke tried to warn us." And if the attack happens before January 2009 they will conclude with "but Bush wouldn't listen." In that respect, Clarke has crafted a "sleeper indictment" ready to be activated when some attack somewhere takes place on American soil. Clarke and his allies want to reverse the moral of "the boy who cried wolf."

Make no mistake-Clarke is deeply in the anti-Bush camp. This is from the foreword to the paperback edition of his book:
It pains me that so much of what I wrote in this book is coming to pass. I would rather have been wrong, but the truth is that by the blindly ideological, arrogant, irresponsible way in which the Bush administration responded to 9/11, by enraging the vast majority of the Islamic world and failing to reduce our vulnerabilities to al Qaeda, they have actually managed, incredibly enough, to make us less safe than we were before the attacks.
"Less safe" than we were in the months before 3,000 Americans died? To make this anti-Bush case, Clarke has to craft his scenarios toward the worst conceivable case--more attacks, more bodies, more economic disruption. At some point, the whole exercise becomes a polemic rather than an objective analysis.

Perhaps, Clarke believes all this. If so, that makes him more akin to Chicken Little than to Cassandra. If this is how he went about his government job, I sympathize with the people in the Clinton administration who had to work with him. An undifferentiated mass of warnings is just white noise-it is not intelligence in any real sense nor is it a basis for a winning strategy. It is just pure CYA.

That factor, too, has to be considered. Clarke, after all, was the point man against bin Laden at the time of UBL's greatest victories. It gives him an incentive to overstate the sophistication of al Qaeda and its capabilities. If UBL is the "Napoleon of terrorism" then Clarke's failure to stop him becomes more understandable. Similarly, if winning the WoT is a matter for the 101st Airborne and street-level cops like Diana Dean then Richard Clarke is not very important. Clarke can only be seen as important and competent if we also emphasize AQ's near-limitless capabilities.

Being important is very important to Richard Clarke. One of the most revealing quotes in the interview is this:
if people wanted to use the ID for other purposes on a voluntary basis, what's wrong with that? I would love to be able to move more rapidly through an airport and not have to wait in long security lines. It's ridiculous that I and other people who have top-secret security clearance and are well known not to be security risks have to wait in these long lines and take off our shoes and belts and all of that.
No shared burdens for Mr. Clarke. Why should he have to stand in line like the peons, don't you know who he is?

UPDATE: Check out the posts at Hell in a Handbasket and Chicagoboyz and the comments.

UPDATE: Tom Maguire thinks that Clarke understates the risks. I have further thoughts here.

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