Saturday, April 18, 2009

Homeland Security memo twisted out of shape by the right

This week the Homeland Security Department released a memo outlining ongoing terror threats and new ones that are developing.

Within hours the right was all over the document, and distorting it in misleading and terrible ways.

Well, let me defend the memo and the department and its chief, former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano.

First, let's address the whole issue of domestic versus foreign terrorism. Despite what you may have heard, nowhere does the memo suggest that we should be any less vigilant on the issue of foreign terrorists. We still live in a world containing people outside the United States who want to kill Americans and the memorandum says nothing to downplay that fact.

It does however highlight domestic terrorism as the fastest growing terror threat at this time. If anything, I'd think the right would be taking plaudits and repeating their oft-repeated assertion that this shows that the Bush administration's policy against foreign terrorists worked, at least inside the United States. And while I may feel that some of the tactics employed by the Bush administration may have been unnecessarily intrusive and a violation of civil rights (such as the right to search your home when you are not present and without presenting a warrant) I'm willing to give them credit in that attacks by foreign terrorists since 9/11 have all occurred outside rather than inside the United States.

But the right chooses to go after the whole 'domestic terrorist' argument as an attack on them. Where does it say that? The memo is about growing terrorist threats, and nowhere does it suggest that anyone who speaks out peacefully against the administration is a threat.

It does go into some detail about the profile of people that domestic terror groups are looking to recruit. One sentence states that returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are more likely to be recruited by these groups because they value their weapons training and combat experience. Unfortunately the right has turned this on its ear and said that the memo claims that veterans are now being called terrorists. House Republican Leader John Boehner called the language 'offensive' and demanded an apology. The commander of the American Legion demanded that that section of the document be retracted. Napolitano has contacted him to set up a meeting to discuss the issue. However the interpretation that the memorandum calls veterans domestic terrorsts is a gross distortion. For one thing, the memo says that these groups are looking to recruit returning veterans. Obviously if you are recruiting someone they are not yet a member of your organization. Further, it is a fact that all terrorist organizations (foreign or domestic) need to recruit people and if you know who they want to recruit then you can take advantage of that knowledge (for example if the FBI wants to infiltrate a domestic terror group then they would probably start by looking for agents that fit the profile of who the group is recruiting.) Saying that domestic terror groups look to recruit veterans is no more an indictment of veterans than for example the statement that al-Qaeda likes to recruit young unemployed muslims is an indictment of all young unemployed muslims (at least not to any rational person-- maybe the right does read it that way since some of them actually do believe that all young unemployed muslims are therefore terrorists.)

The memo goes on to discuss a number of specific issue-indentified terror threats, most notably militant anti-abortion groups or individuals. From this, the right has twisted it to claim that anyone who expresses a pro-life opinion on abortion is therefore being tarred as a terrorist. Which is of course ridiculous. Nothing in the memo says any such thing, but it is a fact that we live in a nation in which several doctors have been murdered and numerous abortion clinics have been bombed. This is terrorism, plain and simple, and if the right can't figure out the difference between a pastor who uses his First Amendment right to speak out against abortion and Eric Robert Rudolf, then they are either stupid or are being wilfully ignorant. The Homeland Security Department is concerned with preventing acts of violence, and if there is an increased potential for violence from anti-abortion extremists then it is the responsibility of the deparment to recognize that and take action to prevent it. The memo isn't about shutting anybody up, it's about stopping terrorists before they strike.

And that is the crux of the problem. If this memorandum was never issued and a terrorist attack occurred then the department would be attacked for never delving into the groups that carried it out (just as the right used the occasion of the Oklahoma City Bombing to jump all over the Clinton administration for supposedly weakening domestic surveillance and not looking closer at those kinds of groups after Waco.)

Incidentally the same memorandum suggests that left-wing extremists are more likely to be involved with cyberterrorism. I'm not sure how come computer literate people on the left are more likely to engage in malicious hacking than computer literate people on the right, but I am throwing that in to show the contrast-- for the most part the righties are assuming this memo targets them and are ignoring that section of the document, except for a couple of talk radio heads who have instead jumped on it as what they claim is 'the only thing in it that is true.' You can't win with this paranoid, xenophobic crowd.

I would like to conclude that I believe that it was a mistake to put FEMA under the auspices of the Homeland Security Department. DHS is tasked with stopping terrorism before it happens, not picking up the pieces afterward. That is what FEMA does, but if DHS does its job well then FEMA will be able to concentrate on natural disasters.

But instead of 'you're doing a great job, Brownie' apparently the reaction of the right to the memo put out by DHS is that they are baking something into the brownies.


Anonymous said...

On the one hand, I have some resentment about how the Oklahoma City bombing so serendipitously benefitted the Clinton administration and the left. There was no evidence that Mcveigh, in particular, was "right wing" or "conservative," while there was evidence that he was a typically confused Perot voter. Nonetheless, this became an anchor around the neck of the 104th Congress and certainly was helpful in stopping hard its momentum.

On the other hand, the right has become totally pre-occupied with its own version of political correctness (which I would loosely define as politics dominated by symbolic issues where there's no real intent to resolve conflicts, but which is highly useful for discrediting and destroying rivals and opponents, a highly effective at producing increasingly inflexible figure-head leadership). Pretty good definition, no?

So yes, the right twisted this memo out of shape. Congratulations for demonstrating that. Go Dems! Do you think this really matters?

Instead, it might help to discuss how the US government has often [always] politicized how it determines unmanifested internal security threats, from Eugene Debs, MLK and countless others. In this sense, maybe something could move forward, and political people might come to some kind of consensus that:

1) Profiling is inherently dangerous, and will be perceived as targeting. Can it still be useful as a neutral technique?

2) Government surveillance has a shameful past. Are there examples where this power was ever used for its stated/intended purpose, or is it always used for low purposes? (this seems the entire serious FISA/Wiretapping issue).

It seems to me that overly partisan and/or overly ideological political people have evolved to the point where they have answers to precisely zero important problems*. The consequence is that we get this pointless "Spy vs. Spy" politics imposed on us as punishment for their sins.

* Either the group/party/faction doesn't see the situation as a "problem," or its solution has zero chance of actually being adopted. I'm trying to think of examples of political red meat for which this doesn't apply. Finding none, have a nice day.

sandyh said...

Republicans react in panic off of what they always fail to perceive as a problem..."Who could have guessed?" They don't plan for the future just live irresponsibly till fate catches up with them.

They are still operating under the assumption that most Americans are not wise to their failures and continued incompetent way of living.

sandyh said...

which I would loosely define as politics dominated by symbolic issues where there's no real intent to resolve conflicts....


The only problem they see is that there is opposition. Bush best explained the conservative position when he said that a dictatorship would best suit his purposes.

I don't care if the lunatic fringe wants to protest. But you'd think they would at least know what that was...or at least Faux News would have known what it was.

I hear the abortion folks are re-grouping. We need to make sure our health care program is not blindsided by this group. Let them protest abortion and stem cell research all they want. But don't like them frame the debate in such a way that let's them tie these issues to health care reform.

Anonymous said...

"The only problem they see is that there is opposition."

Ok, in a sense this is true. In the more important sense (where there is actually some grasp on power), though, I gotta say: "Are you f'in kidding me?"

The style of politics that is stangling us (IMO) is entirely dependent on demonizing well-know opponents. Don't you get direct mail? I wish I could figure out the right way to make this bet: Take hyper-partisans of either party, and see if they know more of their own than the other party's. There are two aspects of this which are important. Assuming target demographic groups who respond to the straightforward messages of their respective parties, I would bet: 1) that these folks are more familiar with who is standing in the way (Jesse Helms - in the old days, Barney Frank, Norm Coleman, Al Franken, etc.) and 2) that these folks are far more familiar with the most inflexible advocates on their side, than those who have actually legislated and/or governed effectly concerning these issues.

There are those who believe that only the intense partisans have the answers. I disagree and think that partisans are uniquely answer-less these days.

As I said, we have "Spy vs. Spy" politics where the "opponent" is the sine non qua, not any positive platform for "change." (I'm not singling Obama out here, btw).

Eli Blake said...


You're right about how both parties have successively increased federal spy powers. In fact, in this post written by a co-blogger of mine she takes the Obama administation to task on this issue and in the comments (available by popup) I agree with her.

It's always 'give us a little of your freedom so we can protect you from the bogeyman.'

The bogeyman has morphed between nazis, communists, gangsters, drug users, drug dealers, spies, child pornographers, domestic terrorists, foreign terrorists, or whoever else is a convenient whipping boy against whom they can whip public resentment up to a boil, but the bottom line is that the laws then enacted affect everyone and the freedoms surrendered will never be given back.

That's a separate issue from the (legitimate) need to figure out who constitutes a real threat and monitor them (using existing laws, which should be more than enough) but your concerns are more than well placed.

sandyh said...


If you are talking about the continued petty jabs at the character or motives of public officials, I'm in full agreement. It doesn't solve problems.

However, I'm going to be damned partisan when I see public servants acting like tyrants the way Cheney/Bush operated. These sorts of unconstitutional abuses of power just continue and grow worse if unchallenged.

If there is no opposition within the Republican Party for such activities, it has to come from outside. I don't consider it demonizing to question the motives of those who don't stand up to their own when they know they are wrong.

We Democrats have a big tent and never march in lock step. However, we better find a way to agree on something. The chance to develop alternative fuels and an affordable, reliable health care system will end next fall when the midterm campaigns begin.

It will be a nice day for all Americans when the Patriot Act goes the way of the Sedition Act. And when Rush Limbaugh and Bill Mahr both get real jobs.