Archive for the ‘Alejandro’s blog’ Category

State Department-Sponsored Digital Video Conference with Ghanian Muslim Youth Leaders

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

On April 19 I was invited by the State Department to represent MFI at a 90-minute Digital Video Conference (DVC) with a group of Ghanian Muslim youth leaders at the US Embassy in Accra, Ghana. I was joined by Aly R. Abuzaakuk, Washington DC Office Director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and MFI Vice-President.

The format of the program was as follows: 1) A question submitted in advance by the Ghanian participants on a particular topic would be asked to us; 2) Aly and I would give our responses and; 3) our Ghanian colleagues would briefly provide us with their perspectives on the prepared question and our responses to that question.

The ‘meat and potatoes’ of the DVC began with the first question asking what American Muslims’ overall educational performance was. Aly first responded, noting that excellence in education is important to the Islamic ethos and that most American Muslim youth attend public schools. I added to his observations by noting that the average media household income for Muslims tends to be higher than the national average and college enrollment rates for Muslims are close to double the national average.

Our Ghanian colleagues responded by noting their problem was exactly the opposite: they had too many programs supporting local religious education, but not enough people enrolling in non-religious education schools and subjects like science, medicine and law. Those who do seek this education many times are forced to go to Christian schools where they become indoctrinated by Christian teachings and leave Islam.

Other questions about American Muslims youths’ interest in global politics, competitiveness in the national job market and connection of local civil society development to Muslims’ communal welfare were also asked.

Both Aly and I felt that there was a higher interest of global affairs among American Muslim youth, compared to other youth largely because higher education levels, the extremely diverse ethnic composition of the American Muslim community (at least 80 different countries), youths’ connection to fast means of communication technology (i.e. internet and television) and the negative political spotlight cast on Muslims at home and around the world.

Some Ghanian representatives responded by noting that while there is a keen interest in global affairs of Muslims, they are also extremely concerned about local issues and global poverty issues which tend to affect their communities the most.

Concerning the job market, one Ghanian Muslim woman noted that there were some cultural/spiritual problems with Muslims entering into the job market. In her personal observations she saw that many Muslims were getting jobs but would hide their identities when they became successful. Another individual felt differently, citing the lack of Muslim entry in Ghanian job market by citing the University of Ghana as an example, where there are 45,000 students, but only 5,000 are Muslim in a country that is 40% Muslim.

On our end, we responded by noting that while American Muslims are successful in the job market, according to our offhand observations, this is limited to certain career paths because of cultural reasons. Many immigrant parents, particularly those of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin encourage (or force) their children to become private physicians, engineers, information technology specialists, or businessmen and women. As a result there is an alarming lack of Muslims in humanities and social science majors who head into public policy careers.

Our time, like the space in this blog, was limited and could not allow further exploration of other questions, comments and general ideas exchanged. This and the occasional technical communication glitch were main drawbacks to the program. In particular I was extremely disappointed by the small amount of time with which we had to talk about local civil society growth and its connection to the welfare of Muslim communities in our respective nations.

Nevertheless I was able to exchange ideas with my fellow sisters and brothers in Islam from Ghana, contributing to our intellectual and spiritual growth. The experience was an incredibly enlightening and motivating event and I sincerely hope to contact and stay in touch with many of those brothers and sisters with whom I conversed with that day.

Alejandro J. Beutel

Minaret of Freedom Institute

Breach of Law, Breach of Security – Interview with Michael German

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Michael German is a former 16-year special agent at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. During his time at the FBI, he worked as an undercover agent who successfully unraveled two terrorism plots by two domestic extremist groups. He left the agency in protest to the mismanagement and later, deliberate cover up of a counterterrorism investigation in Tampa, Florida. He is currently a Senior Fellow at Global and a National Security Legal Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
MFI recently had a chance to sit down with Mr. German to talk about his latest book “Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent” and his views on the relationship between the rule of law and national security.

By Alejandro J. Beutel
Minaret of Freedom Institute

1. Can you start off with a brief overview of the book and what exactly inspired it?
Sure. First thing I should say that the book is my personal opinion and is not endorsed by the ACLU. I wrote it before I joined the ACLU. Basically the book started when I was assigned to work undercover [for the FBI] with a domestic terrorist organization. What I found when I first got involved [in the case] was that what I was taught by these terrorists was much different from what I read in any textbook or what I learned in the FBI. I learned that the government had very little knowledge about what these terrorists were like. So I started teaching within the FBI to make the agency recognize that this was a very different threat than was assumed.
2. In the book you speak of taking a law enforcement approach as opposed to a counterintelligence approach. Can you explain the differences between these two approaches and what the ramifications are for our civil liberties in America, particularly on issues directly impacting the American Muslim community? Which one would be more beneficial in your view?

The way I worked counterterrorism was as a criminal investigator using law enforcement techniques to gather evidence used to prosecute terrorists. The failure came on 9/11. One of the mistakes everyone made was when the administration said there was not enough actionable intelligence to prevent the attacks. There was this idea that ‘only if we had been able to collect more intelligence we would have been able to stop the attacks’ but in fact that’s false. The 9/11 Commission in fact proves that [notion is false] because if there had not been enough intelligence, the report would have only five pages long, but it is five hundred pages long. There was quite a bit of intelligence gathered. They simply did not manage it properly and put it to work.
A big problem with intelligence work as opposed to law enforcement is the term ‘intelligence.’ Intelligence is information and that information can be true or false. James Pavitt who was the CIA’s [Deputy] Director for Operations once said, “Intelligence can be right only fifty percent of the time” which means you can flip a coin and be right only as often as your intelligence is right. Evidence on the other hand is what is used in court and it is defined as ‘something that proves the truth or falsity of any factual proposition.’ There is some truth to evidence which is much more valuable to investigators and intelligence agents because they rely on something that has some factual validity.
The problem with intelligence collection from a civil liberties standpoint, affecting the Muslim community, is it gathers information with very intrusive tools. Whether or not that information is relevant to anybody’s misconduct is questionable. With a law enforcement purpose you have to rely on actual evidence, which is the purpose of the “probable cause” standard
within the Bill of Rights. This standard requires the government to have reason to believe somebody is doing something wrong before it can act and it is designed to protect peoples’ rights.
3. Shortly after the attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft immediately profiled 5,000 people of Muslim and Middle Eastern background and later instituted the NSEERS program. Is this an example of what would be an attempt at a counterintelligence approach that has had a massive impact on civil liberties?

Absolutely. The mass arrests of immigrants after 9/11, NSA warrantless wiretapping program, all of these civil liberties issues regarding the Patriot Act, again come from the idea that the more information we have the more likely we will get the bad guys when in fact it’s the opposite. When make the haystack bigger it’s only harder to find those needles. Whereas if you start from known bad guys it will be much easier to find the other ones by limiting it to people who really you are reasonably suspicious about. Think about the costs and manpower that’s put into these collection programs, and what’s come out of them? Very little. A recent report by Syracuse University
says that 87% of FBI international terrorism cases referred for prosecution are declined by the Department of Justice. That number has gone up since 9/11 while the number of prosecutions has gone down since then.
There are 40,000 people on the “No-Fly List” and at the National Counter Terrorism Center there are 400,000 on its “Watch List.” Yet how many people are arrested? There are only a few hundred prosecutions in the United States for terrorism and a few hundred prisoners at Guantanamo. On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, CIA director Michael Hayden boasted that 5,000 terrorists were captured or killed since the beginning of the ‘War on Terrorism.’ This shows that something is wrong. Either the watch lists are bloated with people that haven’t done anything wrong or we haven’t done a good job of finding the terrorists.
4. You describe different types of terrorists in the book, essentially dividing them between ‘legitimately motivated’ and ‘extremist’ terrorists. Where does Al-Qaida fit in?

It’s a difficult question. When I talk about ‘legitimately motivated’ terrorists, I don’t suggest that terrorism, itself is legitimate, but simply that there is some political justification for the political conflict taking place. By maintaining the word terrorist I seek to imply that their activities are criminal and improper. Terrorism is always illegitimate and Al-Qaida never had significant popular support for its mission. There certainly were legitimate political conflicts in the Middle East and Al-Qaida exploited those conflicts. Some of the extra legal actions that US government has taken in the global war on terrorism have created some political legitimacy which moves them up the scale toward a more legitimately motivated position and that is what is troubling to me.
When you do things like extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention at Guantanamo and secret prisons, those things are real political problems and real legal problems. When the government is engaging in extralegal conduct it creates a political issue. By creating those political issues, we have moved Al-Qaida up the scale of legitimacy, which is really dangerous because that enables them to recruit. If a reasonable person can say that something Al-Qaida is saying is, in fact, reasonable, it is much easier to fall under their sway. That’s what I try to get at in that book – that the government should respond in a lawful manner because otherwise you give the terrorist a hand in his recruiting.
5. Another concept you speak about in book in the last chapter entitled ‘Our Constitutional Shield Against Terrorism’ is the idea of an ‘efficient response to terrorism’. You say that the Constitution is an efficient response. As legal counsel to the ACLU on national security affairs, what is your opinion of the PATRIOT Act, the NSA wiretapping and racial profiling?  I would like to go a step further and ask you if you believe the invasion of Iraq was also an inefficient response to terrorism.

In the last chapter of the book, I try to explain that our Constitution is not our weakness, but our source of strength. One of the important things to remember is that the Constitution was written by revolutionaries, people who overthrew what was then the superpower of the time and established their own country. When they were building this new country, they wanted to make it revolution-proof. By providing that the government could not act against people for speaking out, unless they were actually doing something illegal by using violence to get their the way for instance, this forces the government to be efficient.

The government would not be able to waste time with people who’s political views it didn’t like, but instead could focus on people whose behavior was inappropriate. This is the same with the Fourth Amendment, it is not something that is handcuffing law enforcement officers, it helps them do their job more efficiently and effectively by making them focus on people they have probable cause to believe have done something wrong. That kind of efficiency is necessary in an ideological war – that is what the war on terrorism really is. It is more about winning hearts and minds than winning militarily on a battlefield.
I’m no fan of Saddam Hussein and I shed no tears when he was deposed, but if we’re looking at Iraq as a part of the War on Terrorism, it was a terribly inefficient response. There was a terrible lack of substantial justification that has inevitably played into the terrorists’ hands. The amount of lives lost in Iraq is something aiding the terrorists’ recruiting. When your counterterrorism measures are creating more terrorists than they’re stopping, that’s a problem.
6. What is your basic outline of a strategy against Al-Qaida and other global terrorist networks?

Treat them as criminals. We shouldn’t be worrying about someone who is completely on board with their extreme political and religious beliefs, so long as they are not engaging in violence. Treating terrorists as criminals is extremely important. What I found working inside terrorist groups is that is very hard for a terrorist leader to convince somebody to commit violence. They will do so, only when they are painted into a corner and they feel they have no alternative. As long as the government recognizes the number of people committing these terrorist acts is very small and focuses on punishing only those [violent] people, everybody will be better off.
If you read what the terrorists write, you will see that the thing they fear most is being called a criminal. They realize that if they are prosecuted as criminals it will be very hard for them to maintain any legitimacy in their community, even among the people who believe in their ideology. We can do that internationally – including Muslim countries – by building international institutions that allow police officers from different countries can work together in a transparent, open system and everyone can be satisfied that justice is being done. In my experience I have found that even the most ideologically convinced supporters of these terrorist groups are turned off once they see the criminal activity being committed. Once you convince your ideological enemies that terrorism is illegitimate, then you can build international support to stop terrorism.

Recalling the Historic Adversarial Relations Between Islamic Scholars and the State

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Last week one of the world’s pre-eminent religious freedom organizations, Forum18, came out with an article on the latest whereabouts of Turkmenistan’s former Grand Mufti, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah. As the article pointed out, Nasrullah is an Islamic religious scholar who used to be a loyalist of the brutal regime of the now-deceased Saparmurat Niyazov (also known as “Turkmenbashi”). His case and that of Rafiq Qori Kamoluddin in Uzbekistan, point to a pattern of control and persecution of Muslim scholars and educational institutions by the central authority of the state. This pattern is not recent, nor is it geographically limited to Central Asia, but has persisted throughout most of the Muslim world since the early history of Islam.

The state, although run by fellow Muslims, has always feared the existence of financially, politically and intellectually independent religious scholars. Rather respecting the freedom scholars, the central authority either tried to co-opt, intimidate and/or eliminate them. Since their emergence as an integral part of a pre-modern faith-based civil society, religious scholars have always – at least in theory – acted as a barrier to tyranny and as arbiters of justice. All four founders of the major Sunni legal schools of thought, Abu Hanifa, Malik bin Anas, Muhammad Idris bin Al-Shafi and Ahmad bin Hanbal (may God have mercy on them) were all threatened with violence, tortured and or killed on the authority of the Caliphs in power at the time. Arguably, the origins and early development of the Sunni-Shi’a split are also due to statist interference in the lives of religious scholars – the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (may God have mercy on him) and the sustained persecution of the early Shi’a community were also on the orders of Sunni Caliphs.

In spite of attempts to limit the political and intellectual influence of religious scholars, they were able to flourish under a decentralized political system. They also established financial endowments (awqaf) that maintained monetary independence from the state. It was not until roughly two historical “waves” of foreign invasion and colonialism hit the Muslim world that the state gained the upper hand against religious scholars. The first wave came in the early 1200s to early 1300s when invasions (PDF) by the Mongols, the Crusaders and Timur destroyed Muslim traditional structures of civil society and scholastic learning. Although Muslim societies rebuilt themselves, the recovery was never complete.

The second wave began in the late 1700s with the beginning of European colonization (i.e. the British colonial administration of South Asia and Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt) and continues today with the existence of the modern Muslim authoritarian nation-state. These religious scholars and their supporting institutions were hotbeds of resistance to the military encroachment of the European powers and domestic tyranny. However all of their armed movements were put down and as a result they were treated very harshly by the victorious powers. The era of European colonialism bore witness to the dissolution and/or marginalization of Islamic institutions and scholars. The pattern of destruction and co-optation established by their colonial and Caliphate/Sultanate predecessors was merely perpetuated by post-colonial authoritarian dictatorships (which the United States and other Western nations continue to support). Today it is not uncommon to see scholars and their supporting institutions (Al-Azhar University being one of the more famous cases) in a Muslim nation directly under government control, turning independently funded and independent-thinking religious scholars into paid employees of the state.

The results, of course, have been absolutely disastrous. These institutions, which were once guardians of Islamic orthodoxy, and the driving force behind successfully marginalizing extremist messages, have been dismantled. Now that the modern Muslim nation-state has centralized itself to an unprecedented degree and controls these scholarly individuals and institutions, they no longer have credibility. With the loss of their independence, they are now seen as puppets of the government. As a result, a vacuum of religious authority has emerged, which Islamist movements – moderate and radical, violent and non-violent – are attempting to fill. Violent organizations that claim religious legitimacy and declare opposition to the tyranny of the state (like Al-Qaeda) have the religious and political space to flourish.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, is a stark contrast to these results because it values the independence of its religious scholars and institutions. Not only do Indonesia’s independent scholars play an important role in preventing and reversing religious extremism, they have also played an extremely important role in its civil society development by acting as one of the main forces for establishing and maintaining its democratic political system. It is no surprise that civil society organizations such as the International Crisis Group and United States Institute of Peace advocate for the political independence of Muslim religious scholars. However, political independence is not enough. Muslim civil society organizations should also assist in the financial independence of these institutions and individuals.

I would conclude by noting that Libertarian ideas of government and foreign policy would apply well in the Muslim world. Centuries of foreign military intervention and support for dictatorships, as well as the emergence of extremely powerful central governments have been absolutely detrimental to Muslims. Muslims flourish when their state is not pervasively interfering in their public and private lives, other nations are not occupying their lands, and their religion can freely and creatively play an active role in civil society.

Breach of Law, Breach of Security – Racial Profiling

Monday, February 12th, 2007

Prior to 9/11 a national consensus outlawing the use of racial profiling was emerging. After the attacks occurred, “…this consensus evaporated… The federal government immediately focused massive investigative resources and law enforcement attention on Arabs, Arab Americans, Muslims, and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim, such as Sikhs and other South Asians” [The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Racial Profiling: Wrong Then, Wrong Now, Feb. 27, 2003]. Since then, public calls for racial profiling of Muslims – and others who “look Muslim” – by various pundits has now become common fare in public discourse. The logic of racial profiling supporters – both pundits and some public officials – rests on the faulty premise that it is “a matter of survival” against terrorists. To the contrary, I argue that, like the warrantless NSA wiretapping, racial profiling is not only unethical, it also compromises America’s legal foundations and its national security.

Before presenting my arguments over “racial profiling,” it is important to define the term. I have slightly modified Congressional Research Service’s description of the term to define it as: the practice of targeting individuals for police or security interdiction, detention or other disparate treatment based primarily on their race, religion or ethnicity in the belief that certain racial, religious and/or ethnic groups are more likely to engage in unlawful behavior.

In spite of racial profiling’s unethical nature, there are very few domestic laws that specifically prohibit racial profiling. In June 2003, the Department of Justice (DoJ) released a document entitled, ‘Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies’ which gives outlines to Federal officials on the use of race in law enforcement and national security matters. In the section under national security, race is only to be used as factor when there is intelligence indicating that terrorists or criminals of a particular ethnicity will imminently attack a target and/or suspects must exhibit “suspicious behavior.” Profiling someone simply because of stereotype and not based on intelligence and/or suspicious behavior is to be considered prohibited.

Unfortunately, there are several problems with the document: 1) Its guidance is just advice and thus is not legally enforceable among any federal law enforcement agencies, in spite of recognizing that the 14th Amendment and subsequent legal precedent bans subjective law enforcement based on race; 2) it does not discuss profiling based on religion or religious appearance, in spite of the Equal Protection Clause within 14th Amendment and later legal precedent; 3) it does not give provisions for oversight or redress against discriminatory practices inconsistent with the document’s advice; 4) it fails to define what is an issue of “national security”, leave it up to wide discretion; 5) it does not define “suspicious behavior” – in spite of specific guidelines used by the FBI and local law enforcement agencies; and 6) it does not pertain to state and local levels where most racial profiling takes place, where there is very little legal protection and where terrorist plots are very likely to be prevented.

There are also practical reasons why racial profiling should be banned for policing/counterterrorism purposes, particularly when this relates to Muslims. If counterterrorism could be compared to finding needle in a haystack, then racial profiling simply adds more hay to the stack. The American Muslim community is extremely racially and ethnically diverse, reflecting the cultural pluralism of the larger global community. This includes groups such as South Asians, Southeast Asians (Indonesians and Malays), Arabs, Sub-Saharan Africans, Caucasians and large groups of Caucasian, African-American and Latino converts. (In fact the second largest group of American Muslims are African-American converts, making up approximately 30% of the community.) So how can one tell who is a Muslim and who is not? The only possible way to discern someone who is Muslim is by their possible “religious” clothing.

However not all Muslims may dress “religiously”, whatever that may mean. Integral to a terrorist’s ability to strike and survive is secrecy and the element of surprise. If Al-Qaeda operatives dressed “religiously” they would fit into stereotypes that make them stick out like a sore thumb. Unsurprisingly, the 9/11 attackers dressed like Westerners and some had shaved beards. That is why they have consistently sought after elite operatives who would best blend into their target societies. Their recruits are secular, western educated people (with little religious education) who easily become indoctrinated by an ideologically-tainted version of Islam. Furthermore, they are not just from “traditional” Muslim groups like Arabs and South Asians, but include others like Caucasian converts. Even operatives from a “traditional” group may try to manipulate their ethnic features in order to look like a “non-Islamic ethnicity” – like Latinos – in order to avoid suspicion, such as one foiled terror plot in New York City. The use of East Africans on 7/21, as opposed to majority-Pakistanis on 7/7, is another example of race-switching tactics to avoid being ensnared by the clumsy trap of racial profiling.

In addition, racial profiling of Muslims can undermine critical sources of intelligence needed to prevent an attack. The best people who understand and truly know the difference between peaceful law-abiding citizens and the tiny minority of bloodthirsty fanatics are Muslims themselves, whether as intelligence officers or anonymous informants. By profiling against individuals or groups from a specific racial, religious and/or ethnic background, it not only has a huge negative impact on civil liberties, it fails to smash terrorist networks and alienates the community law agencies need most to obtain the necessary intelligence to prevent an attack. Furthermore, at best it will make people hesitant to constructively cooperate with law agencies and at worst become disillusioned with American society and become more receptive to extremist messages. A good relationship between law enforcement and Muslim communities is not just a great photo-op for politically correct purposes; it has extremely important strategic implications that enhance national security.

Also, racial profiling is ineffective because terrorists may not directly attack a target with their own operatives. Terrorist organizations, as well as common criminals, have been known to use women and children to unknowingly transport a weapon to its intended destination. Just ask Anne-Marie Murphy or the two-year old child whose teddy bear was stuffed with a gun. Moreover, Muslim terrorist networks are not the only threat facing America. While not receiving as much attention as international Muslim terrorists have, domestic terrorism primarily from Neo-Nazis/White Supremacists and Christian extremists is still a major threat to American security. According to statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 60 terrorism plots by domestic extremists have been foiled between July 1995 and May 2005. Of these 60 plots, 19 have been thwarted since September 11, and of these 19, 2 have involved possession of, or conspiracy to possess chemical weapons.

In sum, racial profiling is not only violates legal-ethical norms set within America’s constitution and laws; it is ineffective and counterproductive to national security. Focusing on certain people’s racial, ethnic and/or religious appearances instead of their suspicious behavior, overlook other methods and threats at great risk to public security and civil liberties. The terrorists score a major victory by letting the government commit a double sin by unraveling the nation’s civil liberties and compromising its national security.

Wa Allahu ‘Alim

Alejandro Beutel

Minaret of Freedom Institute

Breach of Law, Breach of Security – NSA Wiretapping

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Note: This entry is the first in a Minaret of Freedom Institute mini-series called, ‘Breach of Law, Breach of Security’, highlighting the necessity of fighting terrorist networks through the use of the rule of law.

Leaks about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic wiretapping program – also known as signals intelligence operations, or “SIGINT”– first appeared on December 16, 2005 in the New York Times. The article revealed that since 2002 President Bush authorized the monitoring of “…international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants…” Almost six months later, the USA Today further revealed the same program was not limited to foreign communications, but “‘to create a database of every call ever made’ within the nation’s borders…” and so far has had “access to records of billions of domestic calls…”

The NSA’s domestic wiretapping activities without judicial or congressional oversight are a clear example of the Bush administration’s incompetent counter-terrorism strategy, both legally and security-wise. On the legal front, the administration has severely restricted individuals’ right to privacy by violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 (regulating wiretapping of a foreign power through a special court), Title III (governing domestic criminal wiretapping), a series of communications privacy laws and possibly the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Initially, supporters of the NSA’s program urged Congressional leaders to legalize the domestic SIGINT operations and “‘encourage’–but not require–Bush or a future president to present any future surveillance program to the secret FISA court for approval.” On January 17, 2007 this policy was voluntarily reversed by the administration (even though it continues to block Congressional oversight of the NSA’s activities).

From a purely security standpoint, the NSA program also give us a chance to analyze the effectiveness of SIGINT and the agency itself in counter-terrorism operations. After information about the domestic SIGINT operations went public, administration officials attempted to defend the program against criticism by claiming it could have prevented 9/11 and was instrumental in preventing several other alleged terrorist plots. Others have debunked all of these baseless contentions, so I will focus on two claims.

First, the extent to which wiretapping SIGINT contributes to these operations, may be overblown. As early as October 2002 the USA Today reported the NSA had trouble penetrating and tracking Al-Qaeda cells because they “learned to evade U.S. interception technology––chiefly by using disposable cell phones or by avoiding phones altogether and substituting human messengers and face-to-face meetings to convey orders.” As the article illustrates, a heavy emphasis on SIGINT can be counterproductive to counter-terrorism efforts. Al-Qaeda members deliberately attempt to trigger false alerts by openly feeding disinformation. They can then plug up any internal communications leaks by observing when counter-terrorism forces act on the false intelligence. Determining the validity of information from SIGINT operations has been difficult even for the most experienced analysts because what are collected are vague statements that can be easily misinterpreted.

Second, according to the 2006 USA Today article, NSA officials claimed domestic SIGINT operations help fight terrorism by using the data produced for “social network analysis.” However the current social network analysis methods used to guide SIGINT operations called “snowball sampling,” (a type of electronic dragnet) are not well suited for the type of counter-terrorism operations traditionally done by FBI criminal investigators. Research conducted by two social network experts, Maksim Tsvetovat and Kathleen Carley [PDF], finds that the snowball method is better suited for highly connected groups, as opposed to small, loosely connected cellular networks [PDF] which define Al-Qaeda. The NSA’s snowball sampling methods gathered a massive volume of useless information that led FBI officials nowhere, wasting limited resources and time. Furthermore, the domestic SIGINT operations are put an enormous technical strain on the NSA’s resources, forcing the agency to consume voracious amounts of electricity–on top of dealing with its current computer problems–to sustain its current operational capacity. This jeopardizes our national security by running the risk of another electrical overload, similar to the one that paralyzed the agency seven years ago and left our nation vulnerable for nearly three days.

Both of these examples illustrate that the NSA, with its SIGINT focus, is not well suited for the type of work effectively conducted FBI criminal investigators. They show that electronic (or human) dragnets are not only ineffective, but also sometimes counterproductive to fighting terrorism. Getting the proper information is necessary, but analyzing it, investigating it and disseminating it to the right people are also imperative. Failing to do these other three steps were major factors that led to the 9/11 [PDF] and 7/7 attacks.

Finally, I will end by examining the broader implications in the fight against terrorist networks. Although the NSA now works within the FISA framework, one must ask whether or not that is best legal approach to fighting terrorism. Assuming that administration’s highly questionable justification for bypassing the FISA warrants–allegedly too difficult and slow to be approved–is true, one should consider that, there are 94 federal judicial districts, but only one FISA court. By the time any security agency manages to get through the “cumbersome” FISA process, it could have obtained permission for a criminal wiretap based on the Title III from any of the many other federal courts. But beyond time and logistics issues of FISA versus criminal courts, there is a larger conceptual conflict within policy circles. It is between using counter-intelligence versus law enforcement approaches to counterterrorism–which have enormous ramifications for both the legal and tactical directions in the fight against terrorist networks.

Former 16-year FBI veteran Michael German finds that instead of the current counter-intelligence approach that drives counter-terrorism policy, the FBI and broader US government should be taking a more law-enforcement based approach instead. The common thread problem of a counter-intelligence approach is its strong need for secrecy. Tactically “on the ground”, secrecy hinders the necessary intelligence sharing to combat terrorists out of a need to protect sources and methods, nor exposes good and bad practices which give less incentive for agencies to review and reform themselves when mistakes are made. Secrecy also allows more room for abusive practices–such as torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib–that are quadruply disastrous for America by undermining its human rights and civil liberties foundations, by diverting limited intelligence resources from other areas to these torture centers, by failing to get credible intelligence, and by convincing Muslims that Bin Laden’s assertions of a US-led war against Islam are correct.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” My main thesis is that civil liberties and the rule of law are not a convenience that needs to be short-changed in an era when all people – non-Muslim and Muslim alike – are threatened by terrorism. They are guiding principles that will help successfully ensure America uses legal and effective tactics in the short-term and achieve strategic success in the long term by proving to the world that America’s principles of liberty and justice for all are not a farce, but a living reality, even in times of combat.

Wa Allahu ‘Alim. (And God knows best.)

Alejandro Beutel

Face to Face with an ex-Guantanamo Detainee

Friday, January 19th, 2007

By Alejandro Beutel

On January 17, 2007, the fifth anniversary of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, I attended an event by the University of Georgetown’s Law School entitled, “Face to Face with an ex-Guantanamo Detainee.” The event featured former detainee Moazzam Begg and Gitanjali Gutierrez, a habeas lawyer working at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, as the main speakers. Begg spoke from his home in the United Kingdom via Internet video teleconference.

Former detainee Moazzam Begg opened by remarking that the whole system of American detention facilities abroad housing enemy combatants has been, “five years of tears, fears, sorrows” and people being “excommunicated from their families,” while not one person has been convicted of anything. He echoed the sentiments of a senior British judge, who decried such facilities and their treatment of detainees as a “mockery of justice.”

In comparison to Bagram and Kandahar, Guantanamo was the best of facilities, not the worst. At Bagram he experienced and saw physical torture, including the death of two detainees. When interrogated, he was threatened with being transported to Egypt where he knew he would be torture by security forces there.

The entire torture interrogation apparatus had consequences reaching far beyond him and the other detainees. At Bagram Begg personally witnessed the torture of Ibn Shaykh al Libi, allegedly a high ranking member of Al-Qaeda. Libi then gave false information to interrogators claiming that Al-Qaeda had an alliance with Saddam Hussein and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This information deemed “reliable and credible” by the Bush administration, was used by Colin Powell to argue for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 at the UN Security Council. This was one frightening example of how what he said under torture “could be used to kill, capture and torture others.”

Begg criticized the term “extraordinary rendition,” deeming it to be a euphemism for “abduction, kidnap, torture and in the most extreme cases, murder.”

In spite of his horrific experiences, he knew that not all Americans are the same, including the guards. Some were kind to him and he even managed to befriend a few of them, who realized that not all of the people being detained were terrorists.

Begg analyzed the relationship between the rule of law and the fight against global terrorist networks. He opined that the phrase “defending freedom” is misleading. In his analysis, invasions of Afghanistan and (arguably) Iraq were not about defending freedom, but people’s security. Al-Qaeda can threaten people’s security, but only governments have the power to curtail civil liberties and destroy people’s freedom. The Taliban could only threaten the freedom of the Afghani people when they held political power.

He also stated that the US and UK are not the only culprits in indefinite detentions and extraordinary renditions, but took note of the various “proxy” states involved, most from Muslim-majority states. Most of these proxy states do not respect the due process and human rights. Sadly, these countries now have little incentive to change their legal and human rights practices because the United States employs the same methods as these other countries. He came to this conclusion by sadly recalling when he first entered detainment camp, being told by a guard with an M-16 rifle pointed at his head saying, “‘you have no rights.’”

Rather than following its current path of secrecy, rendition, indefinite detention and torture, it is in the “interests of the United States” to have trials for the detainees. Instead of stopping terrorism, it is “proliferating in a way not possible before.” In spite of the words of the guard, it seemed at first the United States was going to follow the rules of the Geneva Convention and had issued prisoner of war cards. However, a few weeks later, officials at the detention facility realized their “mistake” and took away these cards, replacing them with white identification cards that only had a number.

Begg then analyzed what he saw as “the dehumanization process” that has occurred throughout the “war on terror” and how that contributed to his detention and torture at Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar. He sees a “common denominator” in the US that tends to lump people (Arabs and Muslims) together and make the dehumanization process easy. This is allowed torture and the detention of innocents – some as old as ninety-five and others as young as eleven – to occur. He vividly remembered how one guard at Guantanamo remarked to him that in order for him to do his job, he had to regard the detainees as sub-human because he was not used to treating people like that where he came from.

He ended his remarks by asserting that Guantanamo and the other detention sites are “simply wrong” and that “if the world remains silent it will only be a worse place.”

Gitanjali Gutierrez of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) followed Moazzam Begg and began with an overview of the mission of CCR. Following the 9/11 attacks, CCR made the institutional decision to choose to represent people being detained on suspicion of terrorism because of the ramifications for the country of practices they understood to be illegal. In 2004 Ms. Gutierrez became the first habeas lawyer to visit Guantanamo and was shocked by the isolation of the detainees at the facility and how other governments were complicit with the isolation and degradation that was taking place. Thus far, there has still not been a single habeas hearing for any of the detainees at Guantanamo.

Gutierrez predicted that within five to ten years Guantanamo will be seen as a “moral failing,” not just a “policy failing.” However, currently the Department of Defense is in an aggressive PR campaign to “whitewash” Guantanamo and “show the media how it has improved.” Although the military personnel are rotated out of the facility every ten to twelve months, the prisoners remain the same. According to her account, camps five and six consist of small prefabricated cells with no windows. Camp five strictly consists of isolation units with a thin two inch bed pad that “is considered a privilege [by the guards], meaning that it can be lost or gained anytime”, depending on the “cooperation” of the prisoners.

She then detailed how the prisoners experienced sleep disruption from guards banging loudly on their cells and waking them up to at midnight “for ‘recreational’ time.” In addition, according to what she was told by the detainees, there was interference with prayers and other provocations by guards to justify the use of the Extreme Reaction Force. Furthermore, she described the detainees’ isolation as “mind-numbing” leaving them with little opportunity to divert their mind. The only thing they have to read is the Qur’an and the “occasional Harry Potter book.” As a result many of the detainees have begun to lose their grip on reality and are put on psychiatric medicine.

According to Gutierrez:

·     As many as 790 men have been detained at one time at Guantanamo Bay, with another 400 still remaining

·     A survey of 512 Guantanamo detainees by the Department of Defense showed that a shocking 92% were not classified as Al-Qaeda operatives or fighters

·     Many of these detainees have said they were fleeing from the conflict, not fighting, thus making of them little to no intelligence value and little to no threat to American national security.

The habeas lawyer concludes that Guantanamo needs to be closed. In her view the war on terror need not violate existing laws. Any captive guilty of a crime on the battlefield should be court martialled where captured and any captive guilty of terrorism should be punished according to the civilian laws and locked away in a civilian detention facility.

After the program, I managed to catch up to Ms. Gutierrez and I asked where she envisioned how the fight against Al-Qaeda would be had the United States and other nations decided not to engage in indefinite detention and torture of suspected terrorists. She responded immediately that had the Bush administration decided to fight terrorism within a rule of law framework, America would be much safer. She told me that there were men detained at Guantanamo who were willing to help us, but were instead tortured. Now, intelligence organizations are finding it “very hard to find people willing to cooperate with us because Guantanamo is seen as a violation of the human rights of all Muslims.” Furthermore the administration has misallocated its intelligence resources by bringing knowledgeable and experienced personnel over to Guantanamo to torture and interrogate people who mostly have little to no intelligence value, when they could be put to better use elsewhere. She reiterated that we currently have the adequate military and civilian legal systems in place to prosecute suspected terrorists. In her view, “Making up kangaroo processes are devastating to our country.”

Frank Talk from Shirin Ebadi on U.S. – Iranian Relations

Monday, January 15th, 2007

On January 8, 2007 I attended an event hosted by the University of California Washington Center entitled, ” Hope for a New Course in US-Iranian Relations.” The event featured Nobel Peace Prize winners Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams as the keynote speakers.

Ms. Ebadi, a lawyer and human rights activist in working in Iran, was the first speaker. She began her presentation with a brief historical background of US-Iranian relations, noting that Iranians have constantly decried American interference in Iran’s domestic affairs since Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was deposed from power in 1953 with the help of the CIA. In reaction to this interference, when the American-supported Shah was deposed in 1979, the Islamic Republic “acted in unlawful reaction” by taking American diplomats hostage. In turn, the United States responded by implementing stringent sanctions and embargoes, including academic boycotts of Iranian students from attending American universities. In particular, Iranian students were barred from studying the energy sciences.

Ebadi then turned to what she observed as the American government’s current three main negative perceptions of Iran:

1. Iran claims they will use nuclear energy for peace, however decisions are “made behind closed doors” and the government is not transparent, therefore it cannot be trusted.
2. For seventeen years the Islamic Republic conducted nuclear research and development activities without IAEA oversight.
3. President Ahmadinejad’s decision to hold the holocaust conference and his public wish to destroy Israel.
4. Iran lacks a transparent democratic system that fully upholds international human rights standards.

Her comments on these observations begin with a statement that the lack of transparency of human rights and democracy cannot be a real reason for a negative perception of Iran because it deals with Arab states that are less transparent and have worse human rights records. Ebadi felt that in spite of Tehran’s attempt to skirt the IAEA, Washington’s opposition to the spread of peaceful uses of energy is also completely “inappropriate,” noting that non-military uses are allowed under international law.

Ebadi then proceeded to give an in-depth analysis of the Israel and its Arab neighbors. She noted that the issue of the Israelis and Palestinians has not been resolved. She also expressed her dismay at the Holocaust conference, took note of Iran’s support for Hizbullah and Hamas, and understood why the Israelis felt extremely threatened. Equally critical of the Israelis, however, she condemned the wars with the Palestinians and in south Lebanon and opined that in the US, “the Israeli lobby won’t allow normal relations between Israel its neighbors.” She concluded her analysis of this point by noting that supporting Hizbullah and highlighting the Palestinian issue is in Iranian national interests, helping become “the forerunner in the Islamic world, making it more powerful and popular.”

Ebadi then discussed the possible aftermath of an attack on Iran. In her view, the entire Middle East would be thrown into chaos. While Arab governments do not support Iran, she believes that the people do. If an attack were to occur there would be massive unrest all of the Arab countries and governments would be thrown into disarray. Rather than military force, the first thing the United States should do is broker a fair and honest deal between the Palestinians and Israelis. Without peace between these two sides “there will be no peace in the Middle East.”

The Iranian Nobel Prize winner felt increased dialogue, rather than confrontation is needed between Iran and the United States. The discussions between both nations must take place at three levels:

1. Executive
2. Parliamentary
3. Civil Society

While the 2006 Vienna dialog was a promising start, it is not enough. More meetings need to take place and more ideas need to be exchanged.

After Ebadi concluded her remarks, Professor Jody Williams gave her frank opinions of the prospects of US-Iranian confrontation. The focus of her remarks was on criticizing Bush administration policy, but her critique was bi-partisan: “Voting in democrats is not enough. We must hold them accountable to their promises.”

Due to severe time constraints the question and answer session was extremely brief and did not allow us to formally ask a question during the program. However after the event I did have the opportunity to probe Ms. Ebadi on the contributions a Muslim-American civil society organization and think-tank like MFI could provide in a US-Iranian civil society dialog. She responded saying that it was critical to show the real situation of Islam and Iran. Ebadi also suggested media presentations such as documentaries on Palestine because American media outlets “do not properly convey and transfer the news.”
Alejandro Beutel

Minaret of Freedom Institute

Strategic Redeployment vs. “Surge” and (Not) Engaging Iran and Syria

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

Earlier this evening President Bush made a publicly televised speech to reveal his anticipated new Iraq strategy. In his address to the American people, the President, using a central theme of “sacrifice,” argued in favor of sending a short-term “surge” of more than 20,000 extra American troops.
However this choice, which is reflective of a lack of creativity on the Bush administration’s part, is also dangerous because it will break the back of the American army while failing to quell rampaging violence that has killed at least 23,000 Iraqis last year and over 3,000 Americans since the invasion began. These deaths are for what Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen calls “maybe.”

Among Cohen’s list of maybes, which the President also strongly hinted at or directly addressed, include:

  • Sectarian-based implosion of Iraq
  • Al-Qaeda would have a base to flourish
  • Iran would extend and enhance its influence and Syria would “gloat”
  • Israel would be even more threatened
  • American withdrawal would further encouraging extremists to attack it
  • (Skyrocketing oil prices causing a global economic meltdown can be added to this list.)

Would 20,000 more troops help stabilize through Bush’s military-centric approach? Not at all. In a 2005 op-ed, British strategic analyst and military historian Niall Ferguson concluded based on historical precedent, the United States would need at least one million troops to counter the popular Sunni-based insurgency. He determined that figure before a suicide bomber blew up a large section of the holy Shi’a Askariya mosque in 2006, setting off Iraq’s ongoing sectarian bloodbath. Given the current situation, it would be logical for the Bush administration to think that if it seeks a fresh military-centric option–of which it is neither intellectually, nor logistically, capable–it will require a lot more than an extra 20,000 troops.

Rather than “staying the course” and opting for a military surge, the administration should very seriously consider a different strategy: strategic redeployment and a diplomatic surge.

Naysayers of a diplomatic surge, such as the President himself, highlight Syria and Iran sponsorship of groups the United States lists as terrorists. They would also argue that any sort of a withdrawal, including a strategic redeployment, would be disastrous based on the list of “maybes” mentioned above.

I would first respond by arguing that engaging Syria and Iran can mitigate many of the disastrous “maybes” surrounding any type of withdrawal. In the global fight against Al-Qaeda and its like-minded militant supporters, the United States had working fairly well working relations with Iran and Syria, until recently. Those who support maintaining a large diplomatic distance between Washington and Damascus and Tehran are either dismissive or ignorant of the facts.

In addition, all three countries have strong interests in engaging each other in at least some limited fashion in order to achieve a more stable Iraq. The influx of Iraqi refugees is a destabilizing factor that harms all three parties. (See this map [PDF] of where Iraqi refugees flee to.) Both Syria and Iran are directly affected while America is indirectly affected by threats to friendly oil-producing states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Furthermore, Iran and Syria would be directly impacted should the Kurds decide to form their own state, as would NATO ally Turkey.

Also, engaging Syria can important to Israel’s security, especially in light of its recent peace overtures towards the Jewish state. As one Israeli commentator noted, “If the headquarters of these organizations [HAMAS and Islamic Jihad] are fated to live outside the territories, would it not be better for them to operate from a country that has a peace agreement with Israel, instead of being expelled to a hostile country from which they can operate as they please?” Ditto for Hezbollah, which uses Syria as a transit hub to receive its men and materiel in Lebanon.

Engaging with Iran would also be helpful for Israel. Iran does not possess nuclear weaponry, but Israel is widely believed to have at least 100 nukes, a nuclear armed sub fleet able to strike any target in the Middle East, and a successfully tested anti-ballistic missile system capable of shooting down anything Iran can launch. Notwithstanding the intense media focus on Ahmedinejad’s rhetoric, Tehran has consistently behaved as a rational state actor with a defensive military posture–including its nuclear program (largely mimicking Israel’s strategy). Even with the military balance tipped heavily in its favor, Israeli security only stands to benefit further from a revived US-Iranian engagement by soothing dangerous tensions that could lead toward conflict.

Some fear that if American troops withdraw, Iraq will descend into a civil war. However if a commonly accepted and scholarly definition is used, then the Iraq has already been in a civil war since 2004. With current American military presence doing little to stem the ongoing sectarian bloodshed, it is high time to seek help from the international community, push the Iraqi government to make political compromises among its various political factions, and begin removing American troops.

Withdrawal from Iraq and ensuing sabotage of Iraqi production may significantly impact oil prices of neighbors like Turkey and Syria, but the global market has been accustomed to a lack output from the country for a while. The bigger threats to regional and global oil output are 1) the influx of sectarian violence-scarred Shi’a refugees whose demography and experiences may radicalize local Shi’a populations in oil-rich states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; 2) the possibility of Al-Qaeda cells attacking oil facilities such as Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia and; 3) Iran imposing a blockade on the Strait of Hormuz if attacked by the United States or Israel.

The personal experiences of a Middle East expert, a comprehensive assessment by the consensus of the American intelligence community, global public opinion polling and even opinions of former jihadis all make clear that the invasion was a propaganda victory for extremists, generating enmity toward America among Muslims. This does not mean that the majority of Muslims in Iraq or elsewhere like Al-Qaeda. They do not. However, once American forces depart, Al-Qaeda will have a very hard time maintaining its presence. The Iraqi and global Muslim community will soon turn on the radical organization, absent a rationale for its violent tactics that have unnecessarily claimed the lives of thousands of Muslim and non-Muslim civilians.

It is sad that President Bush used “sacrifice” as a theme to couch his arguments for escalating the Iraq war. If he does go ahead with his proposed plan, American and Iraqi lives will continue to be sacrificed to fruitlessly pursue a chimera of “victory” which ultimately harm everyone’s interests – whether it is America’s, Iraq’s or its neighbors.