Monday, September 12, 2011

Road to 9/11: Hamburg and the Patriot Act

As I wrote earlier 9-11 was just a murderous attack by fundamentalists and their supposed causes were nothing but fig leaves to disguise a murderous ideology. Not many realize that the attacks themselves were made possible by the freedom's enjoyed by the murderers in USA.

Terrorists used the freedoms of US and other western countries to hurt us. To be blunt, a 9/11 kind of attack was possible only in USA, a July 2004 attack was possible in UK. Neither of these would have been possible in xenophobic, illiberal regimes across the middle east from which the attackers mushroomed. Only in USA protected by freedoms given to all who are in its soil could the thugs execute such a dastardly act.

The 9/11 plotters were drawn from a group that is now referred as the "Hamburg Cell". Why did they choose Hamburg? Lawrence Wright, in his Pulitzer awarded and well researched book "The Looming Tower", provides a stunning insight. Germany in it is desire to redeem itself for the Nazi era excesses of curbing freedoms lurched to the other extreme. Hamburg, Wright says, became a sanctuary city, "Acknowledged terrorist grouse were allowed to operate legally, raising money and recruits-but only if they were foreign terrorists, not domestic. It was not even against the law to plan a terrorist operation so long as the attack took place outside the country".

A phrase that became famous in the aftermath of a colossal failure of US intelligence community was the "failure to connect the dots". To use a word that is common place today, there was too much "chatter" after the U.S.S.Cole attack. Today on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 NYC and DC are on heightened alert due to "chatter". Americans were infuriated to learn that CIA and FBI had so many clues. A very famous memo was the one given to Bush in August outlining exactly Osama Bin Laden's resolve to strike USA. Little mention is made of the fact that US laws prohibited sharing of information across agencies and even within agencies.

Wright says that FBI took Rule 6E - of the Federal Rules of Criminal procedure- as absolute. Rule 6E prohibits revealing any information arising from a grand jury testimony. Added to that was a new Justice Department policy in 1995, Clinton era, "that regulated exchange of information between agents and criminal prosecutors, but not among agents themselves". Wright says that FBI took it as holy writ to mean no exchange of information. The CIA too in turn had its own self imposed barriers on sharing information with FBI agents.

When I came to USA in 1998 all that I needed to get a driver license in USA was my social security number and proof of residence. I got a drivers license that was in no way different from a US citizen though I was on H1B. The drivers license renewal date was beyond my H1B visa date. In fact my immigration status was not even inquired about. In US other than for international travel nobody uses a passport for anything. Waving a drivers license for a curb side check in was routine. A driver license, as government issued ID was on par to a passport giving access to many things. Airlines would not share information on passengers to FBI that easily. The drivers licenses were not even tamper proof. my NJ license just had a photo stuck on a card and laminated. Post 9-11 all that changed. Patriot Act and its concomitant sentiments changed it all.

The cost of 9-11 operation to Bin Laden is estimated at $500,000. Half a million dollars!!! That's it. How as money funneled to the conspirators? Some through Hawala some through very legitimate means. Banks would not ask about immigration status for opening accounts, invasion of rights!! It was easy to open accounts with little and sometimes no information. Patriot Act put a stop to that. I work for a major retail bank in US and I've seen the transitions. Again not many know that as a country that welcomes immigrants by the thousands these supposedly lax procedures have made life easy during the initial struggling days for immigrants. Also those, now extinct, freedoms to open an account easily was good for many illegal immigrants from Mexico who come to US, though illegally, only to make an honest living and for the sake of their families.

When the Radia tapes were released most Indians were interested only in the gossip. Nobody, at least not most, batted an eyelid that a government department was eavesdropping on telephones used by people who posed zero threat to the government and as yet no case was made against them. Its impossible to do that in USA. Even if its done such evidence will be thrown out of the court. Obama, as candidate and as President, has repeatedly renewed the FISA act that governs wiretaps.

Americans, especially pre-9/11, are a very open and trusting people. States like NY, NJ, VA, CA and FL, with heavy immigration, are very accepting and hospitable to immigrants. When would-be hijackers told flight instructors that they did not need to learn how to land nobody's radar went up. As recently as 2009 political correctness prevented timely action in preventing a massacre. The Fort Hood Texas shooting suspect (he is no suspect actually, it is him) Nidal Malik was an American born Muslim who served as psychiatrist. Post 9-11 there were many warning bells about him. Political correctness trumped any attempt to dismiss or take any action. The result was a ghastly day that left 13 innocent men dead. This from a guy who was treated honorably as a citizen without any discrimination.

Lawrence Wright who interviewed hundreds to write his book and is very well aware of how rotten the real world nevertheless is uncomfortable in how US is balancing liberty and security. In his column he wonders, "is this the country we want to be". While I understand his concerns I am perplexed at what kind of policy prescriptions are available to combat this hydra headed monster.

America cherishes freedom of  opinion like anything. One could say the most despicable stuff and still strut about safely protected by the First Amendment. Pre-9-11 another issue tested the limits of free speech. Instances of hate crimes against homosexuals brought attention to what came to be labeled as 'hate speech'. US courts have ruled that hate speech is not free speech. However the bar is set pretty high. This problem reached its acuity in the July 2004 bombings in London. Mosques in an around London indulged in unbridled hate speech calling for Jihad against England by its own citizens who have enjoyed liberties not given to anybody in lands from which they came from.

Barack Obama, who sailed to the US Presidency on the power of rhetoric, recognizes what a potent weapon speech is. Nidal Malik was radicalized by listening to YouTube videos of Anwar Al Awlaki. Obama has issued an unprecedented kill order against Awlaki, a US citizen residing in Somalia. Ever since the botched CIA attempts on Fidel Castro, overt and not-so-overt, Congress has passed laws prohibiting the US President from issuing such orders. The Obama administration made out a case that Awlaki, by virtue of his preachings, is an imminent threat to US national security. Again, an act made possible, only in the backdrop of the Patriot Act.

Yes its easy to quote Ben Franklin who said "people who sacrifice a little liberty to secure a little security deserve neither". Ben Franklin would not have imagined the savagery of Al Qaeda. Ben Franklin or Jefferson could not imagine, with all their erudition, the vicious rationalizations of Qaeda. Who can understand  the murderous sophistry behind 'takfeer', declaring ones own coreligionists with whom one disagrees, as "un-Islamic" and hence OK enough to be killed?

America is a very dynamic and resilient country. We shall find our balance in due course. A recent PEW global survey reports that most American Muslims feel good about being in USA post-9/11 despite the harsh light that shone on the community as a whole.

American foreign policy is blamed for 9-11 by its apologists. Anybody who starts of condemning the attacks and then adds "but" to tag on their own prejudices against America is an apologist for terrorism. Let us not forget that Bush came to office vowing to pursue a more humble and withdrawn role, especially, militarily. Al Pacino, the aging Godfather who yearns to get out of the mafia business would get drawn back in after an attack on him. Pacino would curse "just when I want to get out, they pull me back right in".

As for those who continue to beat USA with the Vietnam stick, the napalm bombings and of course Palestine etc, I can only say, "none of the 19 hijackers were from Vietnam or Palestine". USA today shares a very good relationship with Vietnam.

On this day, the 10th anniversary of 9-11, a word of tribute to US armed forces. From the beaches of Normandy to Tsunami stricken Banda Aceh to the sands of Libya its US Army that often stands as a force for good. In human history if any army had the record of US Army, its blemishes and My-Lai notwithstanding, they can be proud.

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