Sunday, May 14, 2006

Here are two news stories from the end of last week. The first one you may have heard about. As Matt Lauer of “The Today Show” put it: “Does the government have your number? This morning a shocking new report that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans.”

The second story comes from the United Kingdom and what with Matt Lauer’s hyperventilating you may have missed it. It was the official report on the July 7, 2005, bus and Tube bombings.

As The Times of London summarized the conclusions: “Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the bomb cell, had come to the attention of MI5 [Britain’s domestic intelligence agency] on five occasions but had never been pursued as a serious suspect. …

“A lack of communication between police Special Branch units, MI5 and other agencies had hampered the intelligence-gathering operation;

“There was a lack of co-operation with foreign intelligence services and inadequate intelligence coverage in … .” Etc., etc., ad nauseam.

So there are now two basic templates in terrorism media coverage:

Template A (note to editors: to be used after every terrorist atrocity): “Angry family members, experts and opposition politicians demand to know why complacent government didn’t connect the dots.” Template B (note to editors: to be used in the run-up to the next terrorist atrocity): “Shocking new report leaked to New York Times for Pulitzer Prize Leak Of The Year Award nomination reveals that paranoid government officials are trying to connect the dots. See pages 3,4,6,7,8, 13-37.”

How do you connect the dots? To take one example of what we’re up against, two days before the September 11, 2001, attacks on America, a very brave man, the anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, was assassinated in Afghanistan by killers posing as journalists. His murderers were Algerians traveling on Belgian passports who arrived in that part of the world on visas issued by the Pakistani High Commission in the United Kingdom. That’s three more countries than many Americans have visited.

The jihadists are not “primitives.” They’re part of a sophisticated network: They travel the world, see interesting places, meet interesting people — and kill them. They’re as globalized as McDonald’s. But, on the whole, they fill in less paperwork. They’re very good at compartmentalizing operations: They don’t leave footprints, just a toeprint in Country A in Time Zone B and another toe in Country E in Time Zone K. You have to sift through millions of dots to discern two that might be worth connecting.

I’m a strong believer in privacy rights. I don’t see why Americans are obligated to give the government their bank account details and the holdings therein. Other revenue agencies in other free societies don’t require that level of disclosure. But, given that the people of the United States are apparently entirely cool with that, it’s hard to see why lists of phone numbers (i.e., your monthly statement) with no identifying information attached is of such a vastly different order of magnitude. By definition, “connecting the dots” involves getting to see the dots.

Sen. Pat Leahy feels differently. “Look at this headline,” huffed the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat. “The secret collection of phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. Now, are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al Qaeda?” No. But next time he flies from DC to Burlington, Vt., on a Friday, he might look at the security line: Tens of millions of Americans have to remove their coats and shoes. Are you telling me tens of millions of ordinary shoe-wearing Americans are involved with al Qaeda?

Of course not. Fifteen out of 19 of the September 11 killers were citizens of Saudi Arabia. So let’s scrap the tens of millions of law-abiding phone records, and say we only want to examine the long-distance phone bills of, say, young men of Saudi origin living in the United States. Can you imagine what Mr. Leahy and Matt Lauer would say to that? Oh, no. Racial profiling. The government’s snooping on people whose only crime is “dialing while Arab.”

In a country whose Transport Security Administration personnel recently pulled Daniel Brown off the plane as a security threat because he had traces of gunpowder on his boots — he was a uniformed U.S. Marine on his way home from Iraq — in such a culture, any security measure will involve “tens of millions of Americans”: again by definition, if one can’t profile on the basis of religion or national origin or any other identifying mark with identity-group grievance potential, every program must at least be nominally universal.

Last week, on the Moussaoui case, I remarked on the absurdity of London Blitz victims demanding the German perpetrators be brought before a British court. Melanie Phillips, a columnist with the Daily Mail and author of the alarming new book “Londonistan,” responded dryly, “Ah, but if we were fighting World War II now, we’d lose.”

She may be right. It’s certainly hard to imagine Pat Leahy as Franklin D. Roosevelt or Harry Truman or any other warmongering Democrat of yore. To be sure, most of Pat’s Vermont voters would say there is no war; it’s just a lot of fearmongering got up by George Bush and Dick Cheney to distract from the chads they stole in Florida or whatever.

And they’re right — if, by “war,” you mean tank battles in the North African desert and air forces bombing English cities night after night. But today no country in the world can fight that kind of war with America. If that’s all “war” is, then (once more by definition) there can be no war. If you seek to weaken, demoralize and bleed to death the United States and its allies, you can only do it asymmetrically — by killing thousands of people and then demanding a criminal trial, by having liaisons with terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan and then demanding the government stop inspecting your phone records.

I yield to no one in my antipathy to government, but not everyone on the federal payroll is a boob, a time-server, a politically motivated malcontent, or principal leak supplier to the New York Times.

Suppose you’re a savvy midlevel guy in Washington: You’ve just noticed a pattern and you think there might be something in it. But it requires enormous will to talk your bosses into agreeing to investigate further, and everyone up the chain is thinking, gee, if this gets out, will Pat Leahy haul me before the Senate and kill my promotion prospects? There was a lot of that before September 11, and thousands died.

And five years on?

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Mark Steyn, 2005

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