Monday, June 04, 2007

Homeland Security: Thwarting the Aspirations of Idiots Everywhere

Another day, another “terrorist plot” thwarted—so glad we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here (more on that in a moment).

This past Saturday saw a US Attorney announce the indictments of four men with sketchy plans to blow up fuel tanks and/or pipelines that supply jet fuel to John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens.

Why JFK airport? Here’s what the plot’s “mastermind” Russell Defreitas had to say:

"Anytime you hit Kennedy, it is the most hurtful thing to the United States. To hit John F. Kennedy, wow ... they love JFK -- he's like the man," former JFK airport cargo worker Russell Defreitas allegedly said in a telephone conversation monitored by the FBI.

"If you hit that, this whole country will be in mourning. It's like you can kill the man twice," Defreitas allegedly added

OK, show of hands, when I say JFK airport, how many of you still get all sentimental over Camelot? Hell, I live in NYC, often fly in and out of JFK, and am old enough (well, let’s say, “almost old enough”) to remember when people actually did get all choked up about the late president, and I cannot remember the last time I made the mental connection between the airport and its namesake.

But, while illustrative of my point, this is possibly the least of it. Defreitas, 63, a naturalized US Citizen from Guyana, and his co-conspirators apparently had zero technical knowledge and zero military training—not to mention zero money and zero explosives. To say that this plot was disrupted in its “planning” stages is an insult to procrastinators everywhere.

Oh, but, wait, apparently, these guys were “persistent,” according to investigators, and. . . wait for it. . . they had satellite images of the airport obtained from the internet.

OH. . . MY. . . GOD! Look at me, ma! I’m a terrorist!

All kidding aside (OK, some kidding aside), if guys are going around trying to get it together to blow something up—anything, really—law enforcement should probably intervene. But, is what we have here a case of terrorism interrupted? Have the DoJ, DHS, the FBI, and the NYPD thwarted a group of Islamic terrorists, or have they done little more than publicly shame a loose collection of idiot dreamers?

And, pardon my skepticism, but I am yet to be convinced that these guys were even as pitifully far along—and that would be not that far along at all—as the government says. Being a New Yorker, I am all too familiar with the case of the alleged Brooklyn Bridge plotter—a poor schlub who was clearly led down the path to prison by a zealous informant who was himself egged on by investigators. This JFK “plot,” too, relies on the work of a government informant, one currently awaiting his sentence for drug trafficking.

Further, even if we are to believe that Defreitas and friends had a “plot,” as it is outlined in reports, it was far from feasible on many fronts. Beyond the fact that blowing a hole in a fuel tank at JFK would almost certainly NOT cause a chain reaction that would send explosions and fire through the pipelines that lead into the tanks and the supply lines to the airplane gates, the “plotters” had planned to blow up the tanks with dynamite, which experts say would not get the job done (the walls would require several pounds of plastique, they say).

All of which is to say, much like Michael Powell and William Rashbaum said in today’s New York Times:

In case after case, from what authorities said was a dirty bomber to the Lackawanna Six, federal prosecutors hail arrests of terrorists and disruptions of what they describe as sinister plots. But as these legal cases unfold, the true nature of the threats can come into question.

(And while I might have been a little less diplomatic than Powell and Rashbaum, I want to congratulate them for actually putting it out there. Contrast their tone with that of Jeanne Meserve on CNN. It was her report that first told me that the fuel tank plot was likely not a prescription for mass disaster, it was there that I learned that plastic explosives would be required to breach a tank, and it was there that two experts appeared on camera to debunk the notion that this was a well-conceived plan. But it was in the intro and in the conclusion to Meserve’s piece that she insisted on saying that “expert opinion” was “split” on whether the plot would have worked. The only evidence of a split? An unnamed government aviation spokesman. That really doesn’t tell me “experts” are divided—especially since two of the actual experts were just on camera agreeing this was an ill-conceived plot—but it does tell me that CNN still clings to the false notions that administration spokespeople are credible, and that unbiased reporting means always presenting a counterpoint, even when it is devoid of substance, and then claiming there are two sides to the story.)

Now, let’s look at some of that true nature: None of the suspects in this current terrorist-like plot have connections to al-Qaeda. In fact, Defreitas and his family are Shiites. A couple of his children have spent time studying in Iran, but there is nothing out there right now to can dissuade me—or, in fact, the government—from calling this plot “homegrown.” If there are out-of-country links here (and I feel funny even putting it this way since this is such a half-baked affair), they are to Guyana and Trinidad. Iraq is not in the picture.

What is in the picture is another part of the Middle East, one that the Bush Administration has steadfastly refused to consider might be important to their “Global War on Terror.”

In one conversation taped by the FBI, Defreitas allegedly discusses an incident he says motivated him to strike JFK. He claimed he saw military parts being shipped to Israel, including missiles, that he felt would be used to kill Muslims.

He allegedly says he "wanted to do something to get those bastards."

As many have noted, one of the greatest failings of Bush’s foreign policy has been his unwillingness to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with any kind of seriousness or political will. The administration’s rhetorical and logistical embrace of Ehud Olmert’s Lebanese fiasco only exacerbated the problem. If Bush & Co. really wanted to do something about growing anti-American feelings in the Muslim diaspora, they would de-emphasize making war in Iraq and Iran, and re-emphasize making peace in Israel and Palestine. Russell Defreitas and his “coconspirators” only serve to reinforce that point.

And, while we’re talking about terrorists and their plots here in the US, what’s the latest on that whole anthrax thing? Anyone got a handle on that one? How about all the plots to bomb abortion clinics? What’s new there?

Yeah, thought so. . . .

But, rather than get serious about what’s real, or about what really might be the roots of our problems, administration apparatchiks would rather get all “lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!” over the weekend warriors from jihadi fantasy camp (and even that gives Defreitas, or the guys in Miami, or the “Fort Dix Six” too much credit). And that doesn’t serve the prosecution of these small time hoods any more than it does the so-called GWOT.

Raising the stakes on what should be low-level cases only makes convicting them on what they actually did do much harder, and makes it much more difficult to investigate future plots. As former federal prosecutor and once head of the criminal division in the US attorney’s office in Miami, Neal R. Sonnett notes:

There unfortunately has been a tendency to shout too loudly about such cases.

It has a bit of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight to it. It would have served the federal government well to say that.

. . . .

To the extent that you over-hype a case, you create fear and paranoia. It’s very difficult for prosecutors and investigative agencies to remain calm.

As Sonnett and the Times article imply, the drumbeating creates a climate of fear that drives public policy. I would add that such is no doubt the intention of the Bush Administration. Rather than looking for ways to effectively fight so-called terrorists here and “there” to help make Americans everywhere safer, idiots and ideologues in the Department of Homeland Security, or the Justice Department, or in many other US government agencies are looking for a steady stream of public relations victories to fuel the fear-based economy.

I believe it was a retired general who said this (and forgive me for not being able to find the exact quote): While it is understandable that Americans would be fearful following the attacks of 9/11/01, it is the job of our president to lead us away from fear, and not to constantly reinforce it.

Update: NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston is quoting an FBI source that calls this JFK plot “Fort Dix lite.” Yes, that’s right, this plot was less well put together than the hysterically unimpressive plan to attack Fort Dix planned by the Circuit City Six.

Update #2: A clarification—early reports were confusing, and so I was confused. I conflated two of the suspects in this “plot.” When I wrote in my post about a Shiite with family members that have studied in Iran, I realize now, thanks to another good Times piece by Manny Fernandez, that I was referring to Abdul Kadir, and not Russell Defreitas. Defreitas, it seems, was a sometimes homeless, often down-on-his luck, barely literate, former JFK employee who is divorced, and estranged from most of his family. Kadir is the practicing Shiite with a degree in civil engineering. It is Kadir that was once a Mayor and Member of Parliament in Guyana, and it is he that has the large family, some members of which traveled to Iran. I apologize for the error.

I recommend the entire Fernandez piece—it makes this so-called terror plot seem even more improbable.

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