Saturday, January 17, 2009

IT WOULD BE EASY FOR TERRORISTS TO ... Ah, just shaddup already

For most of the duration of the Bush administration, there's been a cottage industry in the peddling of fear. One of the most popular lead-ins to it was and is the proclamation that "It's easy for terrorists to [fill in the blank]."

Experts, security seminars, newspaper articles, Powerpoint slide presentations, books and pieces in glossy magazines serviced the meme relentlessly, despite a complete absence of proof that terrorists might find exotic methods of inflicting death to be easy.

It was easy to be a chemical terrorist. It was easy for terrorists to get their hands on anthrax or smallpox. It was easy for terrorists to cause mass death through botulism.

Then it turned out it was easy for Ft. Detrick to harbor the most infamous bioterrorist in the world, a perfect place from which to impede the FBI's investigation of the anthrax mailings. And that the only botulism cases caused by the administration of botox were brought about by a defrocked cosmetic surgeon and toxin bought from a California-based research lab meant to serve the US biodefense industry.

"It's a good game," I wrote once. "It needs to take no account of what terrorists are actually doing, no knowledge of what tough to get human intelligence sources and materials may show, or historically -- what preferences, capabilities, experiences and limitations terrorists carry with them. It can assume that there are more terrorists expertly trained in many degrees and methods of mayhem and working themselves into place than there are actual terrorists. For the anti-terrorism effort, it is only necessary to assign a simple universality to fragility and vulnerability and degrees of omniscience and unlimited resources to the adversary. It is easy, so to speak, to think of things that are easy for terrorists to do."

Often the news of what terrorists were alleged to be capable of was simply stupefying.

Case in point, randomly selected from a digital pile of news clippings, from USA Today in July of 2005: "School lunches a terrorist target? USDA calls meals 'particularly vulnerable'... Currently, authorities are looking at how a popular lunchroom staple, chicken nuggets, may be susceptible to tampering."

It was also allegedly easy for terrorists to contaminate rice or the spaghetti-o lunches of school children with anthrax and poison.

None of it has been prescient.

However, almost all of it has been attached to careerism and rationalizations for the doling out of great parcels of federal funding. In this function, it has been very successful. Sixty billion alone has been spent on facilities to study and find answers for bioterrorism. As a consequence, the biodefense industry has slipped from the leash of effective oversight and fiscal control in the US.

"Mistaken threat assessments make mistaken policy and make mistaken allocation of financial resources," maintained one expert with which your host has collaborated, at a recent debate in Washington, DC.

Which brings us to the latest expert with a book and a story to sell, now a bit late to the party.

The fear angle is no longer as popular as it once was. For instance, when another blue-ribbon panel of experts warned of a future of bioterrorism in a recent report, World at Risk, a member of Congress -- once always eager to hear of the latest potential menace -- abruptly brushed them off.

Nevertheless, the need to tell us what we need to be afraid of will always be urging some on.

"Terrorists would find it 'relatively easy' to launch a devastating attack using swarms of insects to spread a deadly disease, an academic has warned," read the Daily Telegraph, a UK right-wing newspaper, a couple of weeks ago.

"I think a small terrorist cell could very easily develop an insect-based weapon," Jeffrey Lockwood, an entomologist from Wyoming on a UK book tour, told the BBC.

"He said it would 'probably be much easier' than developing a nuclear or chemical weapon, arguing: 'The raw material is in the back yard.'"

Terrorists ... could ... very ... easily as part of an assessment is no longer unique. It is aggravatingly tiresome.

Lockwood is the author of Six-legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War -- a book what has generated some press attention in England by dint of its publisher, Oxford.

"Terrorists would not have much difficulty in introducing insects that could threaten agricultural production," reads one mind-numbing review of the book.

"Lockwood reflects on what would happen if a dedicated suicide-terrorist suffering from yellow fever offered his body to be feasted upon by mosquitoes, thousands of which could then be released in a large city. More people might die as a result than were killed in the twin towers."

"How much of this is scaremongering or apocalyptic?" wonders the reviewer.

Max Hastings, the famous war historian and author, was less impressed.

"There is a confusion in Lockwood's narrative between acts of God and man-made contrivances," writes Hastings.

"It is true that two-thirds of the conflict's 488,000 deaths were the result of disease rather than gunshot. But this was because the rival combatants did not know any better, rather than because generals Grant and Lee were clever or fiendish enough to make it so."

"I am amazed by the willingness of Oxford, a university publisher, to lend its imprimatur to a book devoid of rigour, and notably carelessly written," Hastings concludes. "A chapter heading such as All's Lousy on the Eastern Front is scarcely an incentive to take its content seriously."

"Biodefence is the hottest ticket in federal funding," is one quote from Lockwood, published in Hastings' review.


Blogger J. said...

You were at the CATO institute conference? So was I! Didn't see your name tag though. Would have liked to have met you face to face. Great post, as usual.

9:08 AM  
Blogger George Smith said...

No, I wasn't. But I get lots of stuff in my in-box on these kinds of things, so I went out to read the transcript.

Which reminds me, you sent me a notification on it.

So this should be here, too

I saw this quote from Milton, too:

"What we've found so far is that those people have been totally abysmally ignorant of how to read the technical, professional literature," Leitenberg said. "What's on the jihadi Web sites comes from American poisoners' handbooks sold here at gun shows. Which can't make anything and what it would make is just garbage."

Since I did most of this, I'm in total agreement. No one was interested in the truth of this matter ca. 2004-2005. That it's changed is only due to the translated materials being put on the web in annotated form.

So, in a way, the position in which scientists from micro research facilities proceed from is now one in which they have very little interest in going to the trouble to see what's been put on the table. It's evolved, I guess, to the idea that al Qaeda (or whomever) will just hire some scientists who can do all the things they say they can -- just because it's a thing to do to strike America and everyone wants to that. Or maybe, just maybe, it is a bit difficult to find competent people to do these types of things under the direction of the strictures of radical Islam.

However, just because you have training doesn't exclude incompetence either. The failed gas limos bombers in England showed that. One was a doctor, the fellow who set himself on fire trying to ram Glasgow airport.

9:33 AM  
Anonymous SNi said...

Did you see the howler about the AQIM terrorists who died of plague? I had a bit of a giggle re it on my blog ( Great how they would have you believe that terrorists a) develop plague, b) successfully test it (albeit on some of their own), and c) having a successful product walk away for some unknown reason!!!

7:20 PM  
Blogger George Smith said...

Yes. And you've nailed the quality of it just right, I think.

7:43 PM  

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