Feeding Our Fear of Flying
Is a terrorist attack on an American city imminent? First the US Department of Homeland Security upped its color-coded terror warning from yellow to orange, claiming there had been a worrisome rise in chatter between terrorists; then six flights from Paris to Los Angeles were cancelled after US officials told French officials that al-Qaeda types might hijack one of the planes to use as a missile against America; then US officials insisted that selected foreign airlines should post armed marshals on flights to America; now British Airways has become embroiled, with BA flights to Washington and Riyadh cancelled on the basis of 'security advice."
Of course terrorists might be plotting to hijack planes -- but for all the cancelled flights, armed guards and endless column inches about the return of terror, it remains uncertain whether or when an attack will occur. The investigations into the Air France and BA flights have turned up little, except that a five-year-old child on one of the French planes had a similar-sounding name to a Tunisian terrorist. The British Air Line Pilots Association believes that the cancellation of BA flight 223 to Washington last week was a 'shot across the bows" by America, an attempt to get skeptical BA pilots to accept having armed air marshals on their planes.
Whatever the prospect of an attack might be, the recent security scares highlight some big problems with the "war on terror." America and Britain's approach to the alleged terror threat appears less as a measured reaction to specific information, than a panicky response to often indecipherable "chatter;" not so much an attempt to deal with specific threats, as a very public fretting about a potential attack occurring somewhere, somehow, some time. By going public with all sorts of intelligence -- reliable or otherwise -- the US and UK elites appear effectively to be projecting their own uncertainty on to the rest of us, and fostering a climate of paranoia in the process.
The US Department of Homeland Security kick-started the current terror alert when it raised its threat warning to orange, in response to an "unprecedented increase in "chatter"" -- the term used by intelligence officials to describe communication levels between suspected terror groups and individuals. But how reliable is "chatter," as an indicator of terrorists' intentions or imminent action? Unlike human intelligence -- which collects information through human contact with a terror group or enemy state, usually through infiltration -- "chatter," or signal intelligence, is collected by technical means, by using satellites to eavesdrop on phone conversations and email correspondence between suspected terrorists. Not surprisingly, such chatter often proves inadequate for those involved in counter-terrorism.
"Chatter is a descriptive term," says John Hamre, President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "Much like when you walk into a room and there are many conversations underway, you can not clearly hear any complete conversation, only random pieces." Hamre, who served as deputy secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, tells me that "chatter" also refers to background noise. So as it relates to intelligence, chatter reflects a larger, though not necessarily a large, number of messages that have suspicious references, which appear related but with inadequate specific details.... Often the capacity to analyze these references is quite limited, so they are aggregated into general categories."
Hamre doesn't believe that the French or British flights were cancelled on the basis of chatter alone. "I don't think they would have cancelled specific flights based on non-specific information. I suspect there were specific references to flight numbers or take-off times." This may be so -- though some security experts reportedly suspect that BA flight 223 may have been cancelled because intelligence officials "heard" terrorist chatter about United Nations Resolution 223, which criticizes Israeli treatment of Palestinians and is often cited by Arab leaders and activists, or that terrorists allegedly picked on this flight because of its numerical symbolism.
However, Hamre points out that even responses to specific leads can later become bound up in non-specific "chatter." "Once a flight is cancelled, this can become the subject of subsequent "conversations" which could be collected and might become the basis for subsequent groundings." So chatter provokes a response, the response becomes part of the chatter, which might cause another response....
According to Adam Dolnik of the Terrorism and Political Violence Programme at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, human intelligence is always preferable in counter-terrorist situations. "Signal intelligence can be, and historically has been, a reliable source of intelligence," he says. "But its utility is limited when it comes to fighting terrorism, since terrorist groups make decisions in a small circle of people who communicate personally in unknown locations. That is why human intelligence is the most valuable tool in fighting terrorism, as getting a person into this closed circle can provide you with information that you could not attain otherwise."
John Hamre is concerned that responding to non-specific threats could have the unintentional effect of helping out the terrorists. He describes a simulated war game, "Silent Vector," conducted by CSIS in late 2002, to test how the US National Security Council might cope with a credible but non-specific warning. "One of the key findings of our exercise was the need to avoid responding to non-specific threats," he says. "It is quite easy for would-be terrorists to create ambiguous but credible warnings in general terms. If we respond every time we have a general warning we would fall prey to cheap terrorism -- doing the work for the terrorists by disrupting our economy and society only at the pointing of rumors."
Instead of responding to everything, Hamre argues that "it would be better to announce that there are general threats, but that they lack the specificity to act in a sensible way." Yet isn't this penchant for going public with all manner of intelligence, whether chat-related, specific or non-specific, also part of the problem? The recent terror alerts are not only the result of listening too keenly to "chatter" or misreading and overplaying apparently specific threats -- they are also a consequence of US and UK officials increasingly making public their concerns about the potential for attack. This conflation of private intelligence and public information has contributed to today's climate of fear and suspicion.
Of course, the authorities ought to disseminate and analyze the intelligence they receive, whether that intelligence is recorded "chatter" or information gathered by humans in the field. And there also ought to be public information, specific, targeted information when the need arises, that might assist the public in dealing with an event or crisis. Yet these are two distinct things -- intelligence should be analyzed privately and discreetly, behind closed doors, by experts; and information should become public when it is potentially useful. In the current war on terror, these two things have been thrown together in a dangerous concoction, resulting in the publication of both general and specific intelligence in the name of permanent vigilance.
This "going public" with intelligence plays an important role for the authorities in the war on terror: Government officials and institutions are keen to demonstrate concern for the public, to show that they are actively considering our welfare and safety; and it also becomes a means of avoiding blame -- when, if anything does go wrong, the authorities can say: "We did issue warnings beforehand...." Yet this conflation is detrimental to public trust. Indeed, it seems that we now have the worst of both worlds -- private intelligence that is often inadequate or misjudged, which is made public in the name of blame-avoidance and reassuring the public. The end result is that the authorities continually project their anxiety on to us -- just in case.
Writing in the UK Independent, Kim Sengupta argues that "in the current security climate, overreaction is preferable to under-reaction. The IRA message to Margaret Thatcher after the Brighton bombing -- 'You have got to be lucky all the time, we have got to be lucky just once' -- has never been so relevant, even if the threat comes from another quarter."
Yet the notion that we should organize the skies, or any other part of society, around guarding against one potential (and unpredictable) instance of "luck" on the part of terrorists is highly problematic. The price of this kind of permanent vigilance and suspicion is a disabling state of anxiety -- the like of which any cynical terrorist, whose aim is to spread fear and loathing in the West, could be proud.