Suspected Boston bombers the Tsarnaev brothers. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)
Can we stop talking about “connecting dots”?
I’m all for investigating and catching terrorists, especially before they do their evil deeds. At the same time, however—as the latest reports about the bombings at the Boston Marathon show—“connecting dots” can often be a euphemism for overly intrusive, civil liberties-violating snooping, spying, and deployment of government and FBI infiltrators, provocateurs, and worse.
The New York Times reports today that the FBI “did not tell the Boston police about the 2011 warning from Russia about Tamerlan Tsarnaev,” and it adds:
Had [the Boston police department] learned about the tip, in which Russian officials said that Mr. Tsarnaev had embraced radical Islam and intended to travel to Russia to connect with underground groups, “we would certainly look at the individual,” [Police] Commissioner [Edward] Davis told the House Homeland Security Committee.
Wow. Let’s unpack that for a second.
First of all, since 9/11 there has been a huge and unprecedented expansion of city and state police intelligence units, many of which engage in something close to outright spying. The idea that the Boston police department ought to be shadowing every person who has committed no crime, merely on the basis of tip from the notoriously excessive and unreliable Russian secret service—especially after the FBI, which investigated Tsarnaev and questioned him and his family—is scary. In addition, so far at least, we have no idea just how many potential “terrorists” the Russians have warned us about. It can’t be only the Tsarnaevs. Dozens? Hundreds? No other bombs have gone off since 9/11. Do we want police departments tracking innocent people?
Second, at least some of this is driven by politics. The very committee that Commissioner David testified in front of is controlled by radical-right Republican extremists who can’t wait to find some flaw in the administration’s handling of the Tsarnaev case so they can use it against the president. These are the same bizarre, obsessive Republicans who have sunk their teeth into a utter non-scandal over the September 11, 2012, assault on a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, and won’t let go. The Times quotes Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican on the committee, who says:
We learned over a decade ago the danger of failing to connect the dots. My fear is that the Boston bombers may have succeeded because our system failed.
Maybe, but the fact is that we don’t want to live in a country where we have 100-percent effectiveness against terrorism, because that would be a police state.
Third, let’s stop talking about close cooperation with the Russian secret police. I don’t trust Russia’s oppressive secret services one bit, certainly far less than I trust the FBI and the CIA, and that isn’t very much. It is true that Moscow is battling an incipient Islamist revolt in the Caucasus region of southern Russia, in Chechnya, Dagestan and elsewhere. However, their version of how to fight that insurgency is akin to Bashar al-Assad’s version, namely, kill anything that moves. And in many ways, the insurgency in southern Russia, to the extent that it has migrated from nationalism and separatism to some version of radical Islamism a la Al Qaeda, is Russia’s doing. But engaging in ethnic cleaning and destruction of whole cities and towns in Chechnya and elsewhere since 1994, the Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin did a lot to create the vary radicalism that Putin is now fighting. Let’s give the FBI credit, perhaps, for trying to distinguish between a real tip from the Russians and a spurious one.