Mark Steyn at the Claremont Institute Dinner, December 5, 2005
Chicago-Sun Times: To connect the dots, you have to see the dots
Here are two news stories from the end of last week. The first one you may have heard about. As “The Today Show’s” Matt Lauer put it:
“Does the government have your number? This morning a shocking new report that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans.”
The second story comes from the United Kingdom and what with Lauer’s hyperventilating you may have missed it. It was the official report into the July 7 bus and Tube bombings. As The Times of London summarized the conclusions:
“Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the bomb cell, had come to the attention of MI5 [Britain’s domestic intelligence agency] on five occasions but had never been pursued as a serious suspect . . .
“A lack of communication between police Special Branch units, MI5 and other agencies had hampered the intelligence-gathering operation;
“There was a lack of co-operation with foreign intelligence services and inadequate intelligence coverage in . . .”
Etc., etc., ad nauseam.
So there are now two basic templates in terrorism media coverage:
Template A (note to editors: to be used after every terrorist atrocity): “Angry family members, experts and opposition politicians demand to know why complacent government didn’t connect the dots.”
Template B (note to editors: to be used in the run-up to the next terrorist atrocity): “Shocking new report leaked to New York Times for Pulitzer Prize Leak Of The Year Award nomination reveals that paranoid government officials are trying to connect the dots! See pages 3,4,6,7,8, 13-37.”
How do you connect the dots? To take one example of what we’re up against, two days before 9/11, a very brave man, the anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, was assassinated in Afghanistan by killers posing as journalists. His murderers were Algerians traveling on Belgian passports who’d arrived in that part of the world on visas issued by the Pakistani High Commission in the United Kingdom. That’s three more countries than many Americans have visited. The jihadists are not “primitives”. They’re part of a sophisticated network: They travel the world, see interesting places, meet interesting people — and kill them. They’re as globalized as McDonald’s — but, on the whole, they fill in less paperwork. They’re very good at compartmentalizing operations: They don’t leave footprints, just a toeprint in Country A in Time Zone B and another toe in Country E in Time Zone K. You have to sift through millions of dots to discern two that might be worth connecting.
I’m a strong believer in privacy rights. I don’t see why Americans are obligated to give the government their bank account details and the holdings therein. Other revenue agencies in other free societies don’t require that level of disclosure. But, given that the people of the United States are apparently entirely cool with that, it’s hard to see why lists of phone numbers (i.e., your monthly statement) with no identifying information attached to them is of such a vastly different order of magnitude. By definition, “connecting the dots” involves getting to see the dots in the first place.
Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) feels differently. “Look at this headline,” huffed the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The secret collection of phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. Now, are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al-Qaida?”
No. But next time he’s flying from D.C. to Burlington, Vt., on a Friday afternoon he might look at the security line: Tens of millions of Americans are having to take their coats and shoes off! Are you telling me that tens of millions of ordinary shoe-wearing Americans are involved with al-Qaida?
Of course not. Fifteen out of 19 of the 9/11 killers were citizens of Saudi Arabia. So let’s scrap the tens of millions of law-abiding phone records, and say we only want to examine the long-distance phone bills of, say, young men of Saudi origin living in the United States. Can you imagine what Leahy and Lauer would say to that? Oh, no! Racial profiling! The government’s snooping on people whose only crime is “dialing while Arab.” In a country whose Transportation Security Administration personnel recently pulled Daniel Brown off the plane as a security threat because he had traces of gunpowder on his boots — he was a uniformed U.S. Marine on his way home from Iraq — in such a culture any security measure will involve “tens of millions of Americans”: again by definition, if one can’t profile on the basis of religion or national origin or any other identifying mark with identity-group grievance potential, every program will have to be at least nominally universal.
Last week, apropos the Moussaoui case, I remarked on the absurdity of victims of the London Blitz demanding the German perpetrators be brought before a British court. Melanie Phillips, a columnist with the Daily Mail in London and author of the alarming new book Londonistan, responded dryly, “Ah, but if we were fighting World War Two now, we’d lose.”
She may be right. It’s certainly hard to imagine Pat Leahy as FDR or Harry Truman or any other warmongering Democrat of yore. To be sure, most of Pat’s Vermont voters would say there is no war; it’s just a lot of fearmongering got up by Bush and Cheney to distract from the chads they stole in Florida or whatever. And they’re right — if, by “war,” you mean tank battles in the North African desert and air forces bombing English cities night after night. But today no country in the world can fight that kind of war with America. If that’s all “war” is, then (once more by definition) there can be no war. If you seek to weaken, demoralize and bleed to death the United States and its allies, you can only do it asymmetrically — by killing thousands of people and then demanding a criminal trial, by liaising with terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan and then demanding the government cease inspecting your phone records.
I yield to no one in my antipathy to government, but not everyone who’s on the federal payroll is a boob, a time-server, a politically motivated malcontent or principal leak supplier to the New York Times. Suppose you’re a savvy mid-level guy in Washington, you’ve just noticed a pattern, you think there might be something in it. But it requires enormous will to talk your bosses into agreeing to investigate further, and everyone up the chain is thinking, gee, if this gets out, will Pat Leahy haul me before the Senate and kill my promotion prospects? There was a lot of that before 9/11, and thousands died.
And five years on?
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