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Fear Factor: SOTU Edition

President Bush was at it again during his State of the Union address: playing up the fear factor. Below are some excerpts from the speech.
Bush: It is said that prior to the attacks of September 11th, our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy. We now know that two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to al-Qaida operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late. So to prevent another attack – based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute – I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qaida operatives and affiliates to and from America. Previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have – and Federal courts have approved the use of that authority. Appropriate Members of Congress have been kept informed. This terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talkin' with al-Qaida, we want to know about it – because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again....

Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder -- and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously. They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East, and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder.

Their aim is to seize power in Iraq, and use it as a safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world....

A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison, would put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country, and show that a pledge from America means little.

As is his usual, Bush mentions 9/11. He does so because of the emotions that the events of that day invoke, chiefly fear and hatred. Indeed, images of the towers falling on that lonely Tuesday morning will forever be ingrained in our minds. Truly there is a life before and a life after 9/11 (or as Karl Rove likes to call it a 'pre-9/11' vs. a 'post-9/11' world). But the Bush administration has only exacerbated the fear and hatred that September 11th burned into the American consciousness.

Bush mentioned 9/11, and the idea that it could have been prevented, as an excuse for his authorization of domestic spying without a warrant (don't try to sell me on this whole 'terrorist surveillance' junk, but I’ll get to that in a minute). He talks about how two of the hijackers made calls outside the US prior to that day (see that is what is known as an international call, boys and girls, not a domestic call and in case you can't figure out the difference: Domestic vs. International). Bush is suggesting that had this ‘terrorist surveillance’ program been active then, we might have been able to prevent the attacks.

What Bush does not note is the fact (and this was documented by the 9/11 Commission) is that it was not a lack of intelligence but rather inter-agency fighting that lead to the inability to find out about the plot in time. You also have the fact that a shortage of Arabic translators at the NSA meant that two key communications which were intercepted on 9/10 were not translated until 9/12. So even if the current 'terrorist surveillance' program that Bush is defending was active then, who’s to really say it would have thwarted the attacks.

And speaking of 'terrorist surveillance' program I have only this to say: why the hell are we surveilling them at all? If there are terrorists in this country, and we know who and where they are, shouldn't we be conducting a 'terrorist apprehension' program? How come we aren't hearing about all the arrests that can be attributed to this 'terrorist surveillance' program? Now granted there are probably instances were it is better to let them go about their business in the hopes they will give away critical information (like the location of a major player in the network for example). But if, as the Bush administration claims, the program is limited to some 500 people at any given time, isn't that a bit too much to just let them go about their business? Every day that they are at large is just one more day they have to plan, plot and perhaps execute some attack the government hasn't been able to figure out from their 'conversations'.

But apparently 'terrorist surveillance' program might not be as 'limited' as the administration claims. According to James Risen's State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Bush not only authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans without seeking a warrant but to listen in a whole new way: intercepting large volumes of communications among categories of people and then analyzing or 'mining' the data for patterns that might offer 'potential evidence of terrorist activity'. So it may be more accurate to call the program a 'terrorist mining' operation.

And it would seem that whatever software the NSA is using doesn’t work too well. According to a NY Times article, shortly after 9/11, the NSA began flooding the FBI with phone numbers, emails, and names in search of terrorists. Most lead to dead ends or innocent Americans. Apparently it became so bad that some of the field agents began making the joke that more tips from the NSA meant more 'calls to Pizza Hut'. I guess the key to winning the ‘War on Terror’ is being able to ascertain what toppings a terrorist likes on his deep dish.

Or, as I expand on here, politics may have been a motivating factor for the surveillance.

Later Bush mentions that the 'terrorist surveillance' program has helped to prevent attacks. And yet in the same NY Times article, it seems that the only plot the administration can claim was thwarted with the help of this program was the almost laughable plot to topple the Brooklyn Bridge with a blow torch. Trust me there are far easier ways of taking down a bridge. Even then the plot was already known because of prisoner interrogations and other means.

The President's comments on Iraq are as equally lame, only in so far as they were merely ‘copy and paste’ rhetoric from previous speeches. Yet again he raises the specter of Bin Laden (how convenient for Bush that Ole BL released an audio tape recently to remind us he is still out there and kicking). Bush again makes the claim that Al-Qaeda wants to take over whole nations, starting with Iraq.

Bush says this despite the fact that he has admitted in a previous speech that only a small percentage of the Iraqi insurgency are terrorists. Then there is the fact that the Iranian backed Shiites currently in power would hardly sit idly by and let Al-Qaeda take over. Plus they have their own militias who memberships I’m sure far outweigh the number of Al-Qaeda operatives that may be inside the country. The President is constantly praising the new Iraqi government and boasting about how more Iraqi battalions are taking the lead in fighting the insurgency.

Yet whenever he trots how his ‘If we leave, the terrorists take over’ excuse, he gives the impression that the Iraqis are so weak that they couldn’t even defend themselves against a small group of radicals whose number is probably a thousand, and perhaps even less than that. It’s no wonder more and more Iraqis are worried that the US will never leave their country; no matter how strong they become, they will never be strong enough in the eyes of the Bush administration.

Let’s face it; Bush is still trying to use the fear factor to draw our attention away from his increasingly imperial exploits both here and abroad.

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