Terror Tactics

Photobyap_17 Did the Bush Administration manipulate the British into making last week's terror-plot arrests prematurely because of politics back home?

A trio of Philadelphia progressive blogs are asking that question on the heels of an NBC News report that quotes British officials as saying U.S. officials forced the arrests one week early.

All-Spin Zone, The Tattered Coat and Suburban Guerrilla wrote separate posts over the weekend that wonder whether the threat was pumped up and the time accelerated for base political expediency.

Twenty-four persons have been detained, suspected of plotting to sneak liquid explosives onto carry-on luggage in London and blow up as many as 10 airliners headed for the United States. The NBC report contradicts some reports about just how ripe the plot was. Some have reported that there was to be a trial run this Wednesday. There have been articles about the recovery of a "martyrdom video."

But NBC quoted a senior British official as saying some plotters didn't even have passports yet, let alone plane tickets. One British suspect was ready to conduct a dry run, NBC reported. The British were prepared to let him. The Americans wanted to move on the group earlier.

All Spin Zone's Dick Cranium asks whether the Americans wanted the busts to occur prior to last Tuesday's primaries, but were rebuffed by the British, who wanted to collect more evidence.

The way All Spin sees it, the Americans had their allies in terror, the Pakistanis, grab alleged main plotter Rashid Rauf, which forced the British to move - lest word leak and the rest of the plotters go underground.

ASZ: As the story of this plot starts to unravel over the coming days and weeks (or at least morphs into something much less threatening), the media really needs to step back and take a look at how they were once again played. We're already seeing the initial rumblings of a 2004 replay in terms of terror alerts and proclamations. The GOP is making it clear that their only gambit to retain control of the House and Senate this fall is to once again go for the reptilian brain stem - fear. It's the only issue they have absolutely any control over, because they can pull the "red alert" string on the Charley McCarthy media anytime they want.

When BushCo whips out the terror card, it drowns out conversation about anything else - the war in Iraq, the economy, the culture of corruption, the decimation of the middle class, healthcare, etc.

Matt at the Tattered Coat calls the NBC report, itself, "explosive." He sees a scenario where the Bush Administration toyed with the timing to divert attention from the primary defeat of Bush ally U.S. Sen Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut and "the developing sense that America had fully turned against the Iraq war."

As Susie Madrak at Suburban Guerrilla introduces the NBC report:

Sounds like those terror suspects, as I suspected, are merely big old props in the desperate GOP attempts to shore up their poll numbers before the midterm elections.... You see why I just ignore these sort of "breaking news"? Because both the U.S. and British leaders lie and spin so much, I’d rather wait until people start leaking the details of the real story.

No argument from me how politicians on all sides have invoked the threat of terror to justify a range of ill-considered foreign and domestic programs. But I'm not ready to buy this conspiracy theory. First, this NBC piece is based on an unspecified number of anonymous British officials' comments. It makes it hard to evaluate.

As Jim S. a commenter on the Donklephant blog notes, the report conflicts with several media outlets that have said the arrests came after authorities feared one of the plotters was about to travel to a part of Pakistan where he would be difficult to track.

The Washington Post, for instance, reported this Sunday:

The arrests on Thursday occurred at least two days earlier than planned, according to several U.S. officials. Among other things, sources have said, the suspects stepped up their Internet searches for possible U.S.-bound flights, made plans for an imminent "dry run" to test security, and moved to purchase global-positioning satellite devices and other materials. British authorities were also concerned because they had lost contact with one or two of the suspects who had traveled to Pakistan, some officials said.

Given a schedule from London, senior U.S. and British government officials consulted Wednesday between 6 p.m. and midnight Washington time. It soon became clear that all the suspects could not be located immediately, raising concerns about a potential attack.

Is that the Post getting spun by its government sources? The reporters say they talked with a dozen sources in  preparing its report.

The New York Times on Sunday wrote a front page article contrasting U.S. and British approaches to terror investigating, and gave a good reason why the Brits tend to wait and watch while the Americans move in:

A new British anti-terror law allows police to swoop in and detain suspects without charges. This is a fail safe, the piece reported, that lets British authorities let plots run longer, then immediately round-up suspects. (It also said the British have many more agents with language skills that allow them to penetrate extremist groups, where the U.S. still has only "a handful" of FBI agents who are Muslim or who speak Arabic,  Irdu or other languages of the Islamic world.)

There is another scenario here, and ASZ touches on it.

Americans are more hair-triggered than Brits when it responding to terror threats because we are not as experienced in prosecuting these groups, and we are not as used to being attacked. The Europeans, in comparison, have faced decades of domestic attacks from nationalist or extremist groups (IRA, ETA, Algerians, Baader-Meinhof Group, etc...)

Maybe the British authorities were mindful how difficult it is to win a court victory over the Islamic extremists - unless they've gathered a wealth of evidence. The Germans have learned this.

The danger of the quick move, is that it could weaken the legal case against the plotters, as the Tattered Coat notes: "It will be much harder to convict them without passports or airline tickets." Maybe. Of course, there are many other ways of making a case -- phone and computer records, wire transfers, surveillance tapes, etc.... And there are reports the British used undercover agents. But every piece helps.

The Tattered Coat writes:

The Republicans, in other words, once again played politics with national security, and hurt anti-terrorism efforts as they did so.

Hope he's wrong.

Susie from Philly
Posted 08/14/2006 10:26:55 AM

Dan, I think you're missing the point. No one's saying there was no real threat; it's simply that the Bush administration's reaction to these things is always to figure out to best play it for political advantage. Always. And so, I continue to wait it out until more of the real story emerges. Remember, after the British subway bombing, those "experienced" London police shot one of the bomb-carrying perpetrators down in the subway - and he turned out to be an electrician on his way to work. (Oops.) Little details like that tend to stick in my mind. If the truth wasn't so consistently spun, I wouldn't be so consistently skeptical. I don't know if you, as a reporter, ever covered the police beat, or the court system. I have, and even at the federal level, I've seen the tendency of prosecutors to assume guilt. You can miss a lot of facts that way.

Posted 08/14/2006 10:58:00 AM

The little detail that this entire story comes from one single anonymous, British "senior government official" source seems to have escaped your Beautiful-Mind-esque P.I. vision, Suse. Out of practice? If Chimpy wanted to play this for the upcoming election, they should have let it go a week. If they really wanted to play this for political purposes they should have let the plot go on to its end. Of course the entire investigation was probably under the auspices of long-time nonpartisan officials... but don't let that stop you from imagining that the entire thing was stage-managed from Cheney's undisclosed location.

Posted 08/14/2006 11:12:05 AM

"First, this NBC piece is based on one anonymous British official's comments." Since this seems to be the cause of your skepticism, I think it's important to look again at the NBC report. Here are a few quotes: "British officials knowledgeable about the case said British police were planning to continue to run surveillance for at least another week to try to obtain more evidence, while American officials pressured them to arrest the suspects sooner. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case." That's "officials," plural. "Another U.S. official, however, acknowledges there was disagreement over timing." Confirmation from a separate American source. So what came from the single source? The claim that the attacks were not imminent, and that some of the suspects had neither passports nor airliner tickets. In other words, the most important fact in the article -- that the Americans rushed the investigation, *has* been confirmed by multiple sources. Upon learning that, one has to ask why.

Daniel Rubin
Posted 08/14/2006 11:53:11 AM

susie - yes, i have been a police reporter, a state courts reporter, a federal courts reporter - all on metropolitan newspapers. matt - you're right that it says 'officials' - and i've rewritten the post to reflect that, thanks. the problem with anonymous sources is that we don't know how many they are or how much they know vs how much they would want to embarrass tony blair, bush, etc... i understand this isn't the sort of allegation someone would make for attribution. but let's say they're right - that the americans wanted to speed this up. i can't for the life of me conclude why based on this info. but i do know that politicians spin events for political gain. on all sides of the spectrum and all sides of the ocean.

B. Flint
Posted 08/14/2006 12:05:57 PM

Republicans are not playing national security for political gain. It is the Dems who are stating this, which in my mind raises the question "Why don't any of the Democrats have national security plans?" In fact, it is easy to be critical of the Bush administration but why has the media given a pass on the Democrats who no plans or vision for any of the top issues facing the United States today.

Posted 08/14/2006 12:13:55 PM

"let's say they're right - that the americans wanted to speed this up. i can't for the life of me conclude why based on this info." Well, I think I've presented a pretty convincing motive -- that the Bush administration saw the news cycle filled to the brim with stories about how the Connecticut primary showed that the American public had turned against the Iraq war, and that Republicans were likely to lose big in November. You don't seem to buy that, and I guess that my question is why: do you think that the Bush administration is not capable of playing politics with a terror investigation? And not just of spinning an investigation after the fact, but of altering it in media res to suit their purposes? If so, I have to say that seems like a pre-Nigerian tubes mindset to me.

Richard Cranium
Posted 08/14/2006 06:13:49 PM

Dan, there's one more piece as well, that your generally excellent analysis omits (beyond what Matt pointed out). Again, from NBC: "WASHINGTON - U.S. and British officials say this group was under such close surveillance that the police virtually held the on/off switch, able to shut it down at will.... British investigators were monitoring Internet cafes the terror suspects used, keeping tabs on the flow of their money, and watching their travel and phone calls... Such tight control, U.S. officials say, that after months of intense surveillance there was almost no chance any of the plotters could have actually carried out their attacks..." Again, multiple sources, both U.S. and British. There is now speculation from the Brit press that this was blown so early that there's not enough hard evidence for prosecution. As noted elsewhere, justice standards seem to be a bit tighter in the U.K. They've been a bit stingier about giving up their civil liberties.

Daniel Rubin
Posted 08/14/2006 08:16:07 PM

again, i can't tell you what the motivations were here, but the statement that police held the on/off switch is the sort of cocksure assurance a nation that has been attacked might be comforted to hear. even better if it's true.

Gerry Aubrey
Posted 08/15/2006 05:57:51 AM

The announcement of the "terror plot arrests" I believe was done to maximaize the publicity storm that has preceded the 9/11 movie by Oliver Stone. The Bush Administration wanted to blend the two events in a Machievellian blast that would put the fear and terror of 9/11 back in the public's eye. It is tragic the way this Adminstration has desecrated the remains of those killed by trotting them out and sprinkling the dust from their bones in the air every time they need a political boost. The Republican National Convention was the absolutely worst display of shameless sacriledge that I have seen. I have a real simple approach to everything said by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice. I don't believe a single word they say. Everything they say or do is to maximize political gain, or to line the pockets of the already filthy rich. Impeach them? No. It should be more like a trial for treason. You know what the punishment for treason is in a time of war. Even if this pack of liars started the war.

Daniel Rubin
Posted 08/15/2006 07:02:39 AM

Oliver Stone - of course!

That Dude
Posted 08/16/2006 02:30:25 PM

I get the feeling that no matter when this happened the left blogs would point it it was timed for positive political purposes for the right. Maybe the question the left should ask is why do these issues help the right? Maybe, it is because the only Dem idea put forth so far is some version of leaving the battle zone. That doesn't cut it, negotiating with terrorists doesn't cut it. Also, the new culture of the left that anything Bush does is evil will only put them into a box in terms of reacting. Bush could heal a boy on his deathbed and the left would spin it negatively or cynically.

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