09 September 2010

Here's a sensible way to expand intelligence

"Our intelligence community was extremely poorly prepared before 9/11. Since then it hasn’t done a good job of hiring the kind of people who speak and understand the languages and cultures of that region. One of the heroes of my book and my film, Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who came closer than anyone at stopping 9/11, was one of eight Arabic-speaking agents at the FBI on 9/11. Now there are nine."

- Because obviously adding one more Arabic speaker makes us an impregnable fortress. Think about this. How much would it have cost to merely double the number of Arabic speakers for the FBI's counter-terrorism unit (both financially and in the damage to public liberty)? And then how much did all the other random bullshit that we've done cost.. both financially (hundreds of billions, if not trillions counting the wars) and in public liberties (which we are still tabulating).

So why don't we do it?

In a word: bigotry. "I talked to the guy who’s the head of the army translation corp, and he said that after 9/11 many Muslims and Arab-Americans came forward and offered their services to American intelligence and were spurned. The army picked up a number of them and they went to Iraq to become interpreters, which is the most dangerous imaginable assignment. He said after four years of serving their country they still can’t get a job in American intelligence because they can’t get past the security clearance. Well what other declaration of loyalty do you need to make?"

Another point...

"...is that the American Muslim community is the richest and most successful Muslim community in the world, including Saudi Arabia. By a long shot. The most educated, most professional, highest achieving group in the whole world, because they are in a country where they are allowed to be free, practice their religion and advance themselves under the rule of law. That’s the model of America that we should try to get out. That is the best thing we have to show to the Muslim world.

I think it’s also important for Americans to be more engaged. I will give credit to Americans, for instance before 9/11 there were only eight or nine students in the entire US that were majoring in Arabic language, and now it’s very common even in junior colleges across the country for Arabic to be offered. There has been movement inside the country to try to understand that region of the world. But there’s very little actual physical exchange of people. When I was working on my book I often felt like the only Westerner in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, places like that. People were either not there or in hiding. Our official diplomats were buried in these embassies around the world that look like prisons. They rarely get out into the society that they’re representing our culture to. It means we’ve kind of withdrawn and suppressed our narrative. We can’t get our story across."

This is and always has been a war over ideas. Bombs may be used (I think somewhat less than they have been), but they won't win it because bombs cannot kill an idea. Ideas are bulletproof and bombproof. The more the people of America understand this, the more we have common cause to win and fight it on the actual battlefield, just as we did during the Cold War in a plain of ideas and notions and treat them with the seriousness that they deserve, not to serve ourselves simple platitudes like "they hate our freedom" or "Islam is an evil cult", and so on.

To engage, understand, and sometimes oppose ideas is our highest duty as citizens. There should be much to admire in the history and culture of the Islamic world, both for Americans and for Muslims themselves, and there is, much like our own history, much to despise and to be accountable for preventing. We share that history as human beings and have an obligation to be honest with ourselves of its bright spots and dark with each other, and to build upon it peacefully if we may, to help one another in times of suffering (see Pakistan floods) and to arbitrate our disagreements as best we may so that we understand them first rather than seek to destroy them first. Understanding is not a justification. There is, usually, little justification for violence. Especially against innocents. And yet, without understanding that violence, we have little ability to seize upon its causes and stop it.

I would call upon people not to forget 9-11. But to neglect and shed their fear of it and of a people they do not understand but have been told about only obliquely to have a character of evil. This is, as with all wars, partly propaganda, and as with all governments, that is a necessary step to assert a need for powers (over us) that it does not actually possess nor need to in order to prosecute those wars. There may be legitimate grounds for (some of) our fears, but they need not lead us astray and into irrational panics.

If we should remember other things about that time instead, instead of the fear, we might find we would produce a stronger outcome than is provided by lashing out in anger and aggression.
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