Terrorism: September 22, 2001


The Missing Men on the Street- The first line of defense against terrorism is information. And the best source of information is found in the places the terrorists come from. America has been losing the capability to go to those places over the last three decades. A combination of two developments brought this on. First, there was the growing capabilities of space satellites. These high flying birds could take pictures, use radar and scoop up electronic transmissions. All this seemed pretty neat. But not neat enough when you wanted hear what people were saying on the street you had overhead pictures of. Second, sending your people into enemy streets could get messy. Agents get caught, and often killed in unpleasant ways. Over the last two decades, we have increasingly seen the errors of our ways. But the forces of agents we had in the 1970s has faded away and will take time to rebuild. You can't fight a war on terrorism unless you have agents who can talk the talk, and walk the walk, of the foe they are seeking. And yes, Americans do walk differently, as do people from every culture. If you want to really know what is going on in, say, Egypt, you need people there who can talk and walk like an Egyptian.

On September 17th, the director of the FBI put the word out in Arab-American community that the FBI needed several hundred bilingual (Arabic-English) translators and linguists. The response was overwhelming (see www.fbijobs.com for current needs). A few days later, a similar call was put out for people who could handle Pushto (what 40 percent of Afghans speak) and Farsi (the language of Iran and western Afghanistan.) Again, the response was far more than the FBI could handle. This points out two things. As always, immigrant Americans tend to be more patriotic than those whose families have been here for generations. And, as always, immigrant Americans are suspected of still harboring some (or a lot of) loyalty to their former country. While that is sometimes the case, it is also true that most American traitors in the last few decades have come from old families. Yes, there are often divided loyalties in migrant communities, but the majority of migrants are very loyal. The Bin Laden organization learned this the hard way during the 1990s and now recommends that it's people in America stay away from Arab-American communities. Another Arab is more likely to pick up what the Bin Laden people are really up to, and turn them in. Or at least pass their suspicions on to the police. 

While having someone on the street can be dangerous for the agents, it can be embarrassing for the government that sent him. The American media, in particular, has a hard time dealing with all the twists and turns of foreign cultures. The view of these foreigners that gets presented to the American people (and political leaders) is usually a combination of what is true, and what we wish were true. As long as you are just depending on space satellites, news reporters and a few diplomats who like to take long walks in the countryside to meet people, you can think pretty much think what you like. But having a lot of agents on the street, and you suddenly start getting contrary reports. The affairs of foreign nations are rarely as simple as we would like them to be. Many senior officials accuse the agents of having their own agenda (which is sometimes true) and are not happy about having to shift their thinking just because those damn foreigners have shifted theirs. There has long been a distaste for some of the people our foreign agents have to deal with. If we are trying to shut down drug gangs, we have to deal with people in the drugs business. Same with terrorism or government corruption. When the media gets wind of the unsavory people "on the US payroll," politicians back home get upset, as America is not supposed to be in cahoots with that sort. Laws were passed in the 1990s, forbidding US intelligence agents from working with people "with blood on their hands." If that sort of rule were imposed inside the United States, many criminals would never be convicted. Police know that the closer you get the crooks, the more criminals you have to deal with (informants, witnesses and the like.) Overseas it gets even more murky as what might be considered criminal here is not over there. 

Getting agents into action takes years. The CIA, DEA and FBI (which now has over 40 foreign offices) know it. The people with an aptitude for this work have to be found, trained and then serve an apprenticeship with a more experienced hand in the field before being turned lose. The thousands of agents needed to support a "War on Terrorism" and it will take at least five years to develop that many useful agents. In the meantime, some of these new recruits may be thrown into action prematurely and lost. That will be the temptation. There will be a tremendous demand for "action" in the war on terrorism and this will be dependent on getting information at the street level in a lot of foreign countries. Although the 1990s "don't work with dirty people" laws are being repealed, so is the realization that you can't fix the missing Man in the Street problem in only a few years. This is going to get ugly, and stay ugly for a long time.


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