Privacy SOS

Return of the ‘underwear bomb’: why are they telling us this?

How did you react to the news that the “CIA reportedly thwarted new al-Qaida underwear bomb plot”?  

With relief? Gratitude that intelligence forces were doing their job? Worry that there may be more than one device out there that could elude airport naked body scanners? Concern that this could prompt even more intrusive security measures at airports?  

Or disbelief?

Writing in the UK Guardian, the author and social critic Naomi Wolf is solidly in the latter camp. After detailing how “a cycle of overhyped terror plots involving government agency entrapment feeds a multimillion-dollar surveillance industry,” she sees no reason to take at face value news for which there is “no independent verification.”  

“It is important to note,” she writes, “that we can no longer assume that the FBI and the CIA and the NSA work, first of all, for the safety of the American people; they also now represent a revolving door of government officials who become security industry lobbyists…The sad truth is that we can no longer report and consume such stories as if there were no commercial vested interests involved in creating and sustaining such ‘terror theater’.”

You may find this a far-fetched assertion. After all, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab really did try to bring down a Detroit-bound plane with a bomb in his underwear in the 2009 Christmas Day plot.  

True, Rapiscan Systems lobbyist Michael Chertoff – the former head of the Department of Homeland Security – got a fat commission for supplying the nation’s airports with its x-ray full-body scanners, the sort of machines rejected by European airports as unsafe. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a real threat, right?

Yes, we know there was, and that it greatly embarrassed not just the Obama Administration, but the intelligence agencies that were shown (yet again) not to have “connected the dots,” despite the enormous expenditure of funds that was supposed to enable them to do so.  

We heard about the threat from Abdulmutallab himself, when, on the second day of his trial, he pleaded guilty to all charges and stated that he tried to carry out the bombing because the US was murdering so many innocent Muslims.   

Since then, the killing by drone has been intensified, with the CIA and Defense Department’s Special Operations Command each having their own target lists and each being given the authority to make hits based on “signature behavior patterns” without knowing the names of the targets.  

But don’t assume there is a clear division of labor in the killing fields. Instead, the intelligence and counter-terrorism competition between the CIA and the Pentagon may at the moment be even more contentious than that between the FBI and NYPD.

Which brings us back to the news that a new underwear bomb has ended up in US hands, thanks, we learned a few days later, to a (Saudi) double agent posing as a would be suicide bomber.  

“A plot foiled, but a US agency rift exposed” is the headline of the Boston Globe column written by Juliette Kayyem, Governor Deval Patrick’s former homeland security adviser.   

Speculating about why such detailed information was leaked to the press, Kayyem  deplores the “reckless and detailed disclosure of an ongoing covert operation” which gave the CIA a boost at a time of “ongoing competition between the CIA and Defense Department over the operational control of counterterrorism efforts, and over the budgets to support them.”

“This bureaucratic wrangling for attention and money reflect the fact that no agency exclusively owns this next phase of counterterrorism,” she writes. “Just as Al-Qaeda is dispersed, so are our efforts to combat it.”

So was the story leaked to burnish Obama’s terrorist fighting credentials? Of did the CIA leak the story to gain clout at a time when the Defense Department is gearing up a new intelligence unit in addition to its Defense Intelligence Agency and Special Operations Command?  

The recently-formed Defense Clandestine Service is reportedly the brainchild of an undersecretary of defense of intelligence and former Special Operations forces member, Michael Vickers.  According to the Washington Post’s Greg Miller, Vickers “is best known as one of the architects of the CIA’s program to arm Islamist militants to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s” – which then brought us “blowback” in the form of al-Qaeda. 

But now we are moving beyond al-Qaeda and planning for what Kayyem calls that “next phase of counterterrorism.” Greg Miller quotes an unnamed official as saying that the new spy unit is not supposed to compete for turf and resources, but to work closely with the CIA “as we look to come out of war zones and anticipate the requirements over the next several years.” 

With a retired general (Petraeus) now head of the CIA and a former CIA head (Panetta) now the head of Defense Department, the new agency seems designed to further blur the lines between the civilian and military spheres in intelligence, even as law enforcement is increasingly militarized at home.

The world may one day be free of underwear bombs and men willing to wear them.   But there may be no coming home from the global battlefield.

To learn about how the "forever war" cripples American democratic principles at their very core, watch this video. Forever war means forever emergency rule.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.