Thursday, June 23, 2005

{Don't} Flaunt It If You've Got It

Tonight, Dad and I had the rare pleasure of foregathering for dinner all by ourselves, without such distractions as my wild-eyed radical of a brother or my charming and vivacious Mom. Hence, the conversation very quickly turned to the Middle East and a host of related things that make for unpleasant but animated discussion. Now, for those of you who care to remember, a few weeks ago I published a jeremiad of sorts concerning the Newsweek/Koran/Swirlie allegations, and the right of the press to make these sorts of things known to the general public. However, I felt I wouldn't be sufficiently balanced if I didn't acknowledge that sometimes, information needs to be kept secret for the sake of the war effort. The only problem is, that information, at least the kind that gets me madder than John Bolton sans moustache-wax, isn't being leaked by rogue and disaffected members of the press. Rather, it is being gleefully trumpeted by representatives of the U.S. government in their so-called War on Terror.

I am speaking, of course, about something we see every few months: some high-ranking al Qaeda operative, usually with a mean five o' clock shadow, is smoked out of a safe house in Karachi or Islamabad, and, after a protracted gun battle, is proudly taken to an undisclosed location and paraded around a fair amount beforehand. Some of the more high-visibility captures include Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian and bin laden's former Operations Chief; Ramzi Binalshibh, the "20th Hijacker", and 9/11 operational mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Great, you say. But believe me when I say that I would be happier not knowing any of this.

Al Qaeda operates on a principal of replaceable parts. Indeed, when running a martyrdom racket, you have to be able to replace people. Osama bin Laden himself has even issued statements to the effect that al Qaeda is not really about him - though his capture would certainly dim the morale of his followers, perhaps sufficiently enough to be worth publicizing (of course, I do not want to bring myself to think of the political ramifications of this, should G.W. Bush manage to take credit for it). The de-centralized nature of the organization means that no one, indeed no single cell, is irreplaceable. That being said, there do exist certain "stars" within the organization, and the abovementioned captives certainly fit the bill. These are the organizational and oeprational geniuses, the guys who recruit in tough territories and establish cells where others failed. They are also flashpoints for communication and intelligence between cells.

Now, let's say we catch one of these guys, and say nothing. Depending on the nature of the capture - how many are killed, how many escape - it is conceivable that the rest of al Qaeda won't know whether their missing comrade is dead, captured, or cut off. Plans that rested with him must be adjusted. And, most importantly, information known only to him and perhaps a few others might be squeezed out. In fact, the government could announce that he has been killed - especially in the event that he actually talks. (I will not get into the ethics of torture debate here, but we'd be fools to think it isn't happening). One intriguing possibility might be to provide a suspect who has cracked with the means of contacting members of an at-large cell, under close watch from his captors of course - in other words, to have a suspect actively lead intelligence to active and free members. I don't know how realistic this is, but the point in all of this is that it could proceed with greater ease and (duh) secrecy if we didn't feel the need to prop every capture for the world media.

Now, what is happening when we do announce captures? For one, it emboldens those left behind in the raid to prove that less is more - that al Qaeda can operate even more brazenly without its top brass. For another, it allows free operatives to plan around the loss of personnel, to scrap certain courses of action, and even to consider the possibility that the person might be talking - although, frankly, I have little idea how many of these guys have started to sing under prodding at their undisclosed locations. Looking over the pros and cons, I can't really find any good reason to announce the capture of top al Qaeda figures other than to glorify the War on Terror - and a very costly glorification it may prove to be.

So why is the government so quick to give away the element of mystery surrounding such missing persons when all it accomplishes is a slight morale boost? My theory is that they have precious little else to show for this expensive war, and the American people instinctually like to identify villains. Furthermore, it would require educational - and cerebral - efforts currently unthinkable in this country to disabuse citizens of their belief that these public captures mean we're any safer. Of course, the more al Qaeda members behind bars, the better - but not if we give away the game before anyone has had a chance to learn anything.

Of course, in the event that bin Laden himself is captured, the policy might merit reconsideration, because he is such a lionized figure among his followers, and because his continued freedom has been cause for many to thumb their noses at the U.S. Of course, there is also the question of how involved he is in al Qaeda's day to day operations - and if he has the ability to continue to issue communiques across the globe, my hunch is that the answer is "very". Not that I'd expect to get much information out of him, though. We could try all we liked, but, given the build-up he has received as the evil to end all evils, it would almost be a disappointment to his mythology if bin Laden talked to the CIA. My belief remains that the best we could get from him would be his head on a stake. But don't strain yourself holding out for that contingency.


Anonymous Andy said...

Gabe, I agree in principle - we shouldn't flaunt all major captures. But we have no proof whatsoever that this is what's actually happening. It's entirely possible that considerably more key members are captured than are released to the press, and in that case, releasing the occasional capture has two benefits - (a) it generates publicity to indicate that the war on terror is meeting success, and (b) it could cause al Qaeda members to believe those leaders whose captures have not been published have not actually been captured.

Not that I really believe our administration is clever enough for this, but I don't think it needs to be such a cut-and-dried negative.

9:55 PM  

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