Thursday, July 19, 2007

Schneier review: excellent essays on secrecy, security and the modern terrorist

I fell behind on reading Schneier on Security. Mistake. I see a dozen posts I'd like to expand, integrated, comment on, cheer about, etc. Instead, here's the rundown:

  • Why our governments passion for secrecy is bad for our security: It's open vs. closed source. Secret stuff isn't critiqued, so stupid assumptions aren't questions. The WaPo article had this money quote: "... some members of Congress tell me that they avoid reading classified reports for fear that if they do, the edicts of secrecy will bar them from discussing vital public issues."
  • The recent flock of terrorists have been idiots. I've written about this too, though much less well. The shoe bomber (Richard Reid) was obviously cognitively impaired and probably schizophrenic -- he's been the template for the post 9/11 crop. Not all terrorists are idiots however -- Hamas has competent terrorists. Menachem Begin was a very smart (Irgun) terrorist. Whether by intent (how smart is Zawahiri anyway?) or by accident, the flood of incompetent terrorists, and our idiotic panicked responses to them, will make it easier for competent terrorists to do their work. See also: terrorism and the shoulders of giants and how talented is this group?
  • Why terrorism doesn't work. It works to create terror and disruption, but not to achieve the stated aims of the terrorists. Schneier: "The author believes that correspondent inference theory explains this. Basically, the theory says that people infer the motives of an actor based on the consequences of the action. So people assume that the motives of a terrorist are wanton death and destruction, and not the stated aims of the terrorist group..." Schneier expands on this theme in a longer related essay which reassuringly suggests Bin Laden and Zawahiri are really stupid:
  • This theory explains, with a clarity I have never seen before, why so many people make the bizarre claim that al Qaeda terrorism -- or Islamic terrorism in general -- is "different": that while other terrorist groups might have policy objectives, al Qaeda's primary motivation is to kill us all. This is something we have heard from President Bush again and again -- Abrahms has a page of examples in the paper -- and is a rhetorical staple in the debate. (You can see a lot of it in the comments to this previous essay.)

    In fact, Bin Laden's policy objectives have been surprisingly consistent. Abrahms lists four; here are six from former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer's book Imperial Hubris:

    1. End U.S. support of Israel
    2. Force American troops out of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia
    3. End the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and (subsequently) Iraq
    4. End U.S. support of other countries' anti-Muslim policies
    5. End U.S. pressure on Arab oil companies to keep prices low
    6. End U.S. support for "illegitimate" (i.e. moderate) Arab governments, like Pakistan

    Although Bin Laden has complained that Americans have completely misunderstood the reason behind the 9/11 attacks, correspondent inference theory postulates that he's not going to convince people. Terrorism, and 9/11 in particular, has such a high correspondence that people use the effects of the attacks to infer the terrorists' motives. In other words, since Bin Laden caused the death of a couple of thousand people in the 9/11 attacks, people assume that must have been his actual goal, and he's just giving lip service to what he claims are his goals. Even Bin Laden's actual objectives are ignored as people focus on the deaths, the destruction and the economic impact.

    Perversely, Bush’s misinterpretation of terrorists' motives actually helps prevent them from achieving their goals.

  • Commentary on the UK "plots": He's picked a great set of commentaries to review. (See also idiots, above.)
  • Improvising weapons: The comments are scary. (See also my post on talent, terrorism and the shoulders of giants.)
  • Greek wiretapping scandal. Was the engineer murdered, or did he jump? I'd not heard of this 2005 story. It happens here, of course.
  • Cameras used for congestion monitoring are now for security monitoring. Of course. Surely no-one is naive enough now not to expect this. If the data is cost-effectively available it will be used. No matter what the law once said. Laws are easy to change.

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