Schneier is back. Actually, he was never gone. The feed I was using to track him had been abandoned; I finally decided to see why he was silent and found a new feed. That's a relief, I was worried when he didn't seem to be commenting on the routine incompetence of our guardians and government. This time he's reviewing the latest news of a terrible plot foiled, and putting it in the post-9/11 context ...
It's a great review, I encourage everyone to read the entire essay. Schneier has put a lot of related material in one place. So what lessons can we draw from this history?
... I don't think these nut jobs, with their movie-plot threats, even deserve the moniker "terrorist." But in this country, while you have to be competent to pull off a terrorist attack, you don't have to be competent to cause terror. All you need to do is start plotting an attack and -- regardless of whether or not you have a viable plan, weapons or even the faintest clue -- the media will aid you in terrorizing the entire population.
The most ridiculous JFK Airport-related story goes to the New York Daily News, with its interview with a waitress who served Defreitas salmon; the front-page headline blared, "Evil Ate at Table Eight."
Following one of these abortive terror misadventures, the administration invariably jumps on the news to trumpet whatever ineffective "security" measure they're trying to push, whether it be national ID cards, wholesale National Security Agency eavesdropping or massive data mining. Never mind that in all these cases, what caught the bad guys was old-fashioned police work -- the kind of thing you'd see in decades-old spy movies.
The administration repeatedly credited the apprehension of Faris to the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping programs, even though it's just not true. The 9/11 terrorists were no different; they succeeded partly because the FBI and CIA didn't follow the leads before the attacks.
Even the London liquid bombers were caught through traditional investigation and intelligence, but this doesn't stop Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff from using them to justify (.pdf) access to airline passenger data.
Of course, even incompetent terrorists can cause damage. This has been repeatedly proven in Israel, and if shoe-bomber Richard Reid had been just a little less stupid and ignited his shoes in the lavatory, he might have taken out an airplane....
Well, we already know our leadership is incompetent and that they inflate threats in order to further their political agendas. That's not a useful lesson. The more interesting trend is the matching incompetence of our terrorists.
The 9/11 crew had engineers among them. Engineers are dangerous. Since then we've had schizophrenics, cognitively disabled persons, people with personality disorders, and no real engineers that I know of. It's been a very unimpressive crowd. The only times they seem to get inventive is when undercover FBI agents give them ideas.
Imagine if Bruce Schneier were a terrorist. We wouldn't stand a chance. We're still standing because, as near as we can tell, our enemies have been unable to recruit geeks, intellectuals, and the nerdy special forces types that work for us. Maybe there's something about al Qaeda's 14th century agenda that doesn't appeal to anyone with insight.
I think George Bush has been (unintentionally) working very hard to recruit higher quality terrorists. I only hope he's been as unsuccessful with that effort as he's been with everything else he's touched, because the alternate theory is that we're only catching the idiots ...