Scaring the Senate Intelligence Committee

This is unconscionable:

At Tuesday's hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Mr. Blair [the Director of National Intelligence] to assess the possibility of an attempted attack in the United States in the next three to six months.

He replied, "The priority is certain, I would say" -- a response that was reaffirmed by the top officials of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.

I don't know what "the priority is certain" actually means, but now everyone is reporting that these agencies claim there will be a terrorist attack in the U.S. during the next six months.

Posted on February 5, 2010 at 11:59 AM • 40 Comments

Comments

PeterFebruary 5, 2010 12:05 PM

Didnt all of these scaremongers leave with the Bush administration.

I want to know how these people know what the terrorist are planning, and why they arent stopping those plans before they happen.

stanley lieberFebruary 5, 2010 12:08 PM

@Peter: That's just it. When no attack takes place, they can claim they _did_ do something about it. Another tactical carryover from the previous administration.

ScottFebruary 5, 2010 12:13 PM

It certainly keeps the budgets and number of subordinates growing, right? This is less about violent lawlessness than Parkinson's Law.

I want the dragon-repellent contract with these guys. No dragon? See...it worked!!

BetaFebruary 5, 2010 12:28 PM

Some high official *almost* saying that there will be a terrorist attack within six months... this sounds familiar. I remember hearing this in the spring of 2002, and at least twice since then. Can someone better at news-sifting take a look?

vanillaFebruary 5, 2010 12:33 PM

When I first heard, " ... the priority is certain ... ", I took that to mean America as a target. As a priority target. It would seem to me that they would be quite mum about any 'specific' knowledge they might have, owing to the bar having been raised to red-handed in order to obtain successful prosecution (which is bunk, imho.)

I did not take 'priority' to mean 'specific'. Rather, America being a 'priority' is a big, fat "well, duh ...".

Preston L. BannisterFebruary 5, 2010 12:47 PM

The questions that should have been asked:

"Will there be a successful, significant attack within six months?"
"Will there be a well-planned, well-implemented attack within six months?"

There might be another loser that only manages to set his pants on fire (or the like), but that does not count as either successful or significant.

SlonobFebruary 5, 2010 1:54 PM

"Six months? I have a rented car!" -- Woody Allen's "Bananas"

This will be followed by a big push to change policy to "protect us." As in previous unexpected expected attacks, the efficiency at which the proposal will be produced will be astounding.

This has been brewing for at least the last year. All signs point to it being around the corner.

I think it's a Manchurian candidate sort of thing and it will be triggered by a ticker feed that shows the DOW at 6000.

Section9_BateauFebruary 5, 2010 1:58 PM

Sorry to spam from the earlier thread: ( http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2010/02/... )

"P.S. Sorry to go off-topic, but someone should get this out, considering the recent fear-mongering. I was in a eyes-only discussion a while back, where a hypothetical cyber-attack was presented, one that shocked me. Suppose someone took advantage of the online money transfer facilities offered by banks, a large botnet of compromised machines, and a listing of compromised accounts. The attack would consist of having the bots randomly transfer money among the known accounts, purely for the purpose of creating havoc. Consensus of the meeting was that the failure point of the attack would be that at which the network congestion within the banking system brought it down, and after that point, it would be nearly impossible to sort out the confusion caused by this attack, to quote one very wise person there "I do not know how, or even if, you could push the 'reset' button after that." -- just thought it relevant with the recent news, and it may become moreso."

Andrew SuffieldFebruary 5, 2010 2:11 PM

With a country the size of the US, it is pretty likely that some moron will "attempt" an "attack", for sufficiently vague definitions of those words.

I liked the bit about "malicious cyberactivity". We all know what that's about.

Trichinosis USAFebruary 5, 2010 2:14 PM

The Canadian Parliament has been suspended by their Prime Minister for the duration of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. If a terrorist attack happens at the Olympics, there will be no government in session and no legal precedent for how to handle it.

Hence... martial law, quite possibly which will spread to the US if the attack is serious enough.

Add into the mix that the US-based corporation which provided faulty security during the 7/7 subway attacks in Great Britain is the one that has been contracted to provide same for the Olympics, and you do indeed have a recipe for contrived terror.

And these clowns, who - let's face it - have a 50/50 shot of actually knowing about it beforehand, will sit there and smugly say they told us so.

PackagedBlueFebruary 5, 2010 2:38 PM

I find no problem with "The priority is certain." For just speach, people speak poorly, and other contextual clues matter more.

Other comments here apply well about interpretations of attempted attack.

Given the middle east now, Iran and issues with H* terrorists, sure. Yemen clerics are on record for threats.

I would even expect some to short the stock market, with some attempted attack, given the coming economic slowdown.

So, DNI's speach is reasonable, given others support it. As to unconscionable, well I'll leave that to those in the intelligence world to qualify what is acceptable to the S.I.C.

Jeff DegeFebruary 5, 2010 2:53 PM

Given that there has been at least one attempted attack in any six month period, for the last couple of decades, I don't see why this is so surprising.

Brandioch ConnerFebruary 5, 2010 3:11 PM

@Andrew Suffield
"With a country the size of the US, it is pretty likely that some moron will "attempt" an "attack", for sufficiently vague definitions of those words."

Exactly.

Even the Fort Dix pizza terrorists could qualify.

DanFebruary 5, 2010 3:39 PM

Well, given the question that was asked, what sort of answer do you expect? If you think through the logic of the question, you'll see that ANY answer is meaningless.

In this case, Mr. Blair was asked, "What is the likelihood of another terrorist attempted attack on the U.S. homeland in the next three to six months? High or low?" Mr. Blair doesn't have a crystal ball. All he has is intelligence that has raised some concern. In that context, classifying the likelihood of an attempted attack as either "high or low," is so oversimplified as to be downright silly. It's like he was being asked to play the weatherman on the TV news and give a probability of precipitation next Tuesday.

And what is an "attempted attack" anyway? Does an attempted attack include the scenario where two sheepherders sit around a campfire in Yemen and talk about attacking Americans?

Don't be so hard on Mr. Blair. He was asked a silly question, and he addressed it with a well deserved silly answer.

Stephen SmoogenFebruary 5, 2010 4:00 PM

The question seems to have been "What is the probability of an ATTEMPTED attack in the next 6 months?" I would also lay the odds at 100% that someone, somewhere will ATTEMPT an attack in the United States in the next 6 months. The question is so open ended that to answer anything but would be wrong.

People who would like to become terrorists do try to come into the country all the time. The vast majority of them have been stopped for years with the same methods that were in use before 9/11/2001. So technically they are ATTEMPTING to commit terrorist acts. [Of course the various people who blow up mailboxes every April 15th to protest taxes may be technically committing terrorism ... so you can go beyond 'attempting'.]

To me, the unconscionable part of the conversation was the open ended question, and the lack of digging by the reporter on that.

BF SkinnerFebruary 5, 2010 4:14 PM

@Andrew Suffield "likely that some moron will "attempt" an "attack""

This seems like something that could be calculated even without the intel world's "proprietary data" isn't it?

Joseph WebsterFebruary 5, 2010 4:15 PM

This is just the typical political theater that accompanies the annual budgeting process. If a terrorist attack is eminent then surely you need more money to help prevent/mitigate it. If the likelihood of a terrorist attack has decreased then you clearly don't need as much money. Besides "terror attack no more likely than it ever was" won't grab many headlines.

BF SkinnerFebruary 5, 2010 4:18 PM

If this is what they are using to create fear in open session what are they briefing in the closed sessions?

"Space Monkeys Senator. there are some terrifying space monkeys positioned HERE in Bimini, HERE in the Phillipians, HERE in central and S. America, HERE in Africa. SENATOR! We are surrounded."

Daniel BouletFebruary 5, 2010 5:33 PM

The bit about Canada being in a state of martial law if a terrorist attack occurs while Parliament is not in session is nonsense. The Canadian government remains in control even if Parliament is not sitting (much like the US government remains in control even if Congress is in recess). The Cabinet easily has enough inherent Constitutional authority not to mention authority based on emergency measure preparedness laws and such to deal with any eventuality. It also would not take very long to bring Parliament back into session should the need become apparent. Finally, it is not all that unusual for Parliament to not be in session. It happens during every single election campaign and from time to time between election campaigns. Even a terrorist attack during a federal election could be dealt with by the systems in place. That's not to say that such an attack would not make quite a mess of the election campaign but the Cabinet (which remains in control during an election campaign) could and would deal with whatever came along. There are also processes in place to deal with the deaths of key officials or even the entire Cabinet should such an unlikely event occur.

PeterFebruary 5, 2010 5:41 PM

The PATRIOT ACT has until the end of February to get renewed. The people who benefit from this abomination of a "law" are trying to scare everyone into renewing it unscathed. When it was first going through Congress, some anthrax letters were conveniently mailed to democrats and news agencies despised by the right wing noise machine. Clarke's book Against All Enemies stated that the staff inside the Whitehouse started taking Cipro on 12SEP2001.

alexFebruary 5, 2010 8:20 PM

I also took it to mean, "I'm certain someone will attempt to do something," which doesn't necessarily mean anything. Nowadays, using a toothpick can be taken as a terrorist threat.

How are you supposed to answer a question like that from a U.S. senator? If you say, "no," then you get raked over the coals when they find the Magic Wand Bomber in a bathroom at the NHL playoffs.

sidelobeFebruary 6, 2010 10:53 AM

Listen to us. We're all talking under the assumption that there are people planning to attach American people on their own soil every day. And we're talking about it as though it is obvious, expected, normal, and trending toward the trivial.

Shouldn't we find this shocking?

Does this mean that the terrorists have won? Not that we're paralyzed with fear, but that we live our lives with the acceptance that we are daily targets.

PhillipFebruary 6, 2010 2:58 PM

Just in time for elections day! Yay! Who knows, Terrorists could attack your local voting precinct! Better keep the ruling party in power otherwise the terrorists will win!

Bruce MonkFebruary 6, 2010 7:19 PM

"Better keep the ruling party in power..." We elect representatives to serve on our behalf and to act in our best interests on matters that are the responsibility of the federal government under the Constitution.

This is a point that seems to be lost on both parties. The current pattern of behavior by the party having a current majority of our representatives needs to recognize this point very soon and start to serve us or they will quickly find that they are no longer in a majority.

MarkHFebruary 6, 2010 11:28 PM

I read a newspaper article that clarified (I think) the meaning of those words. "The priority is certain" seems to have meant, "we are certain that [insert bad guy noun here] have set a high priority on attacking the USA within the next 6 months."

Commonsense interpretation: Since Usama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa, it would seem that attacking the USA has had a high priority with is gang. In this respect, our "national intelligence estimate" is that the next 6 months ... will be very much like each of the preceding twenty-four consecutive 6-month periods.

Now THAT's a headline, stop the presses!

MattFebruary 8, 2010 3:23 AM

Aside from the usual incomprehensible double speak, they present a no-lose situation. Either:

There is an attack - i.e. they had good intelligence and obviously they were right.

There isn't an attack: they had good intelligence and prevented the predicted attack.

AndréFebruary 8, 2010 5:53 AM

@sidelobe
no, if (more and more) people started to accept "terrorism" - that is: someone thinking about attacking them or even trying to - as a common risk of life, just as, say, crossing the street, it would mean, that terrorists would finally lose.

DavidFebruary 8, 2010 9:36 AM

@sidelobe: No, it isn't shocking at all.

The US is the world's most powerful country, and has foreign policies (like, say, that Israel should survive) that lots of people disagree with. There were attacks on Britain and British interests before 1914. There were attacks on Romans when they had power.

If somebody can find an example of a superpower that didn't provoke attacks in its heyday, I'd be very interested, but I doubt anybody can and will.

jgrecoFebruary 8, 2010 1:17 PM

@alex

"How are you supposed to answer a question like that from a U.S. senator?"

Well, you could do the responsible thing and make a snide comment about leaving your crystal ball at home today. Responsibility is lacking in today's government though.

PackagedBlueFebruary 8, 2010 3:36 PM

So what is Iran going to unveil on the 11th?

Sure is being built up with a lot of tension in the news.

A turing test of this blog might wonder why nobody has asked such a question already to my limited viewing.

RobiFebruary 15, 2010 10:59 AM

This is nothing more than a wild guess that responds to political pressure on the FBI and the other national intelligence communities. Both are in a re-active, rather than a pro-active mode of thinking.

I separate these communities, because they are separate and distinct apparatus. In recent years, we have seen a rise in "homegrown" terrorism. The identification of links between individuals, foreign and domestic, is becoming extremely important in the identification of those who pose domestic terrorist threat.

Due to information sharing concerns between FBI, and the other national intelligence activities, we cannot bring the full capability of the intelligence community at-large to bear on the issue of identifying those within our borders who pose a risk.

The lack of information sharing between the federal law enforcement and other national intelligence community is the problem. Law enforcement doesn’t share for good reason; case information must remain secure or the case will be "blown" and prosecution made impossible.

The only real answer to this information sharing problem is for the traditional intelligence community to share all their data with law enforcement community, and allow it to be data mined for links. There are significant legal (Privacy Act) restraints that prevent this, therefore both communities are handicapped.

This opportunity obviously poses significant privacy and personal liberty concerns. The question is what to do about it?

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