Friday, January 08, 2010

Connecting the Cliches

Quelling public panic is part of a President's job description, but yesterday's homeland security dog-and-pony show, while necessary, was not Barack Obama's finest hour.

He offered classic bromides--"The buck stops here" and "connecting the dots," along with the newest, "systemic failure"--followed by a laundry list of proposed bureaucratic "improvements" to paper over the stark fact that predicting and preventing terrorism may be all but impossible in today's world of easy mobility, instant communication and porous borders.

"Here at home," he said about threats from al Qaeda, "we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality...and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust," while at the same time promising "to develop a strategy that addresses the unique challenges posed by lone recruits."

Yet it was a nondescript lone recruit, helped by who-knows-how-few planners in Yemen, who eluded detection, came within seconds of committing mass murder on American soil and managed to tie up the national security leadership for days examining the mechanics of his fumbling failure.

Worse than all this small-scale frustration is what it reflects about prospects for the larger "war on terror" with massive amounts of military might and money on the ground in unreliable Afghanistan and Pakistan, while doing diplomatic dances from afar with failed governments in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

All this suggests that fighting terror is less a war than an intensive daily grind of information gathering and collating, pairing defensive screenings with aggressive and, for the most part, necessarily covert actions against targets such as Anwar al Awlaki, the American-born cleric with ties not only to the Christmas bomber but the Fort Hood shooter last month.

It's going to be a long, hard and dirty business and reassuring the public by tweaking the bureaucratic aspects won't make it fit neatly into the familiar clich├ęs. We will not only have to collect dots and connect them but, in many cases, go on to obliterate them at the source without public postmortems.

In an earlier time, Americans would trust their government to do the right thing and correct any mistakes, excesses or abuses later. Is that still possible?

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