Earlier this week, the government’s top officials responsible for managing America’s foreign intelligence and counter-terrorism operations, testified on Capitol Hill. While much of the information CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, and FBI Director Robert Mueller provided the Senate in the public portion of their testimony was valuable and informative, it was not all thus.
In a transparent display of theatrics, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, asked the three administration officials if another “attempted attack” on the US was likely in the near future. If the witnesses answered that such an “attempt” was unlikely, they would be accused of offering a false sense of security to the country. A vague answer would land them in hot water for not appearing to know that which they are paid to find out. A definitive “yes” would add to the oft-times irrational fear that many of those in the Congress stoke that Osama bin Laden and his henchmen are lurking on every airplane with a “dirty bomb.”
The appropriate answer for intelligence professionals would be, “Madam Chairman, the possibility of attempts to commit further terrorist acts against our country and its people is always present, but trying to assign a definite percentage or liklihood to such an occurrence would add nothing to the public’s or the Senate’s understanding of the problems we face and of our abilities to detect and deter such efforts.” Instead, all three officials succumbed to the theatrics of the moment and dutifully opined that “an attempted attack . . . is certain.”
This answer tells us nothing — an “attempt” to do us harm is always present; there are always those who wish to and will try to hurt us. But, stating the obvious in this manner does everything — it justifies expanded budgets and powers (read, “Patriot Act”), keeps the country on edge, and boosts poll numbers. The cheap answers provided by Messrs. Blair, Panetta and Mueller do not reflect one of our finer moments of professional, purposeful and reasoned debate on a very serious matter.
DNI Director Blair also took advantage of the opportunity presented by testifying in open hearing to play the domestic “radicalization” card and put in a veiled plug for regulation of the Internet. He again stated the obvious — that bad guys use the Internet to communicate. Well, yes they do, just the same as everyone else does. But Blair went on to worry aloud that the Internet is fueling “homegrown radicalization.” The disturbing implication of this notion is that in order to protect against domestic “radicalization” (whatever that is) the government must be able to access, surveil, monitor and use information gleaned from individuals’ Internet use, as part of its arsenal of weapons with which to fight terrorism. Not surprisingly, this point flew right over the heads of the Senators.