Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Monday, June 10, 2002

Thoughts on Terrorism, "Dirty" Bombs, and the efficacy of "Homeland Security"

I have been touring the blogosphere today (not a complete tour, obviously, but a reasonable one), and I noticed the commentary on today's announcement about the "Dirty" Bomb arrest of Juan Padilla, aka Abdullah Al Mujahir has been a bit thin, so I thought I would weigh in. Plus, this blog has gotten way too science oriented, and a good dose of reality can't hurt.

My first thought was, naturally, "Oh, shit, some idiot is really trying to do this. Well, I'm glad they caught him." Of course, when I heard the reports and found out that they had him since May 8, I wondered about the timing, but I will give Dubya and Ashcroft the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they kept it under wraps so they could catch more bad guys.

When I heard he was going to be tried in a military tribunal, but he is an American system, I was caught a bit off-guard. I think this is deeply troubling and wrong in many ways. There are really two possibilities here, one that is marginally ok, and the other that is very problematic. Either the case against him involves highly secret evidence, that needs to be protected for reasons of national security (which I am sure will be the given explanation), or the case against him is so weak that only under the more lenient evidentiary and "burden of proof" standards of a military tribunal do they have a chance of getting a conviction. I sincerely hope that the former is the real reason, but I am leaning toward thinking that the latter is more realistic.

A quick aside on that last thought; I don't like Ashcroft or Dubya, but I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt after 9/11, for a while. The secrecy, dissembling, and cover-up mentality that I have seen and heard over the past few weeks, and the slow drip, drip of information that suggests bigger problems than anyone might have thought to exist, make me less trusting of their methods and motivations. A brief diatribe on Ashcroft; if there was ever damning evidence of the danger of Christian fundamentalism, it's this guy. He, in his early acts as attorney general, reduced the funding for counterterrorism, and focused on drugs. After 9/11, he used his power and resources to go after Assisted Suicide in Oregon and Medical Marijuana in California. This administration has shown itself to be secretive and manipulative, and with little or no regard for the public's right and/or desire to know what is going on. In fact, the best example is the high volume, low specificity "terror warnings" that we predictably get whenever there is a question rising in the press about the job the administration is doing fighting terror. Not only are we having to deal with the predictable money, power, and religion scandals that will come with a GOP administration (to refresh your memory, that would be Enron, Energy Policy, and "National Prayer Day"), but we not even getting the benefits of having hawkish warmongers running the show!! Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with taking the fight to our opponents, and bombing them right out of their mudhuts and tents, and destroying any threat to the USA, but they aren't even doing that right! Instead, we are gearing up to attack a nation (Iraq), that is not clearly involved at all, while patting the backs of two nations (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia) that have been clearly and deeply involved in Al Qaeda terror. The hawks are starting to look a lot like chickenhawks to me.

Back to the events of today. Here is what really worries me. It sounds, from the reports, like this fella was just at the beginning of a plan to build and detonate a "dirty" bomb, and he was given up by Abu Zubaida (sp?), the high ranking Al Qaeda guy in custody in Cuba. Now, we have all learned that these terrorists are well trained, cunning, and dedicated foes. So the obvious question (to me) is, is this a setup? Is Mujahir a patsy? From what I understand, getting the materials for a "dirty" bomb would not be all that hard, and smuggling them into the US would also not be that hard (the Coast Guard isn't searching every ship, for example, and the INS and Customs agents at the borders are not equipped with Geiger counters, and even if they were, lead shielding is pretty easy to get). So maybe Zubaida gave up Mujahir to throw our agents off the real track? This seems like a pretty obvious point, and I am sure that the FBI and CIA wouldn't overlook such a possibility, right? right??

The most important thing to remember about a so-called "dirty" bomb, which is made of radioactive but not "fissile" material (ie it can't be used to start a nuclear chain reaction that would result in an atomic bomb type of detonation), is that it is truly a "terror" weapon, in that it would not be much more dangerous than a standard explosion, but would inspire a lot more panic. Interestingly, if Al Qaeda really wanted to scare people, they don't have to set off a dirty bomb, but they could make people think they were going to, and then set off a conventional bomb. Radiation is odorless and colorless, so no one would know whether the explosives were radioactive or not until someone got some geiger counters out there, by which time the panic might already have started. So all of this might be playing into their hands. That's a scary thought.