Thursday, December 31, 2009

NCTC's Failure to Premediate Terrorism

This morning the Grey Lady featured two front-page stories on the failure of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to uncover and prevent the plot, sponsored by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. The first, "Spy Agencies Failed to Collate Clues on Terror," detailed the failure of the NSA and other affiliated organizations to "connect the dots" about the plot. The second, "Shadow of 9/11 Is Cast Again," analyzed the way in which the NCTC, described as "the crown jewel of intelligence reform after the September 11, 2001, attacks," repeated the mistakes made before 9/11, mistakes which the NCTC had been established precisely to avoid.

The categories with which the Times analyzed this failure, which most likely mirror those with which the NSA approaches the problem of preventing terrorist attacks, were by now familiar and were focused predictably on treating the problem as one of data and information and detection: the NCTC didn't "connect the dots"; they hadn't "assembled the clues"; they failed in their "mission to unite every scrap of data"; they didn't "put the pieces of the puzzle together." Unfortunately, the problem with this approach, like the problem with pre-9/11 security, is that it focuses on the future in terms of probability not potentiality, as a problem of prediction rather than premediation. In other words the thinking of the NSA seems focused on identifying and disrupting plots that already exist rather than premediating potential plots that could, but might never, materialize. Sadly this posture bears a tragic similarity to the way in which the US military seems always to be fighting the last war against Al Qaeda, while Al Qaeda has already moved on to the next one or the one after that.

In other words, the NSA and NCTC have failed to approach the problem of preventing terrorism as a problem of premediation. What this means on the one hand is that they continue to approach the problem as one of trying to identify connections that already exist among the terabytes of data they possess rather than trying to generate from that data as many possible future scenarios as they can. But what it means more sigificantly is that they continue to pursue the problem in terms of data or information rather than in terms of affectivity or structures of feeling. For what seems most telling about the report that the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused bomber, visited the US Embassy in Nigeria to express concerns about his son’s radicalization, is not that he came with specific data about a possible plot, but with an affectivity of concern over his son's recently radicalized affect. Taken as data or information, this report failed to trigger a security alert. Taken for what it was, an affective premediation, it might have.

Of course, as we now know so well, profiling of all sorts is a regular tool of governmental and private security organizations, which would seem to make this failure to premediate even more curious. After all, the aim of profiling (what Ryan Bingham jokingly trivializes as "stereotyping" in Up in the Air) is to predict future behavior on the basis of demographic and other personal characteristics. But like connecting the dots or assembling the clues, profiling relies largely on a model of data and information, which imagines the future as inevitably knowable and always on the verge of being fixed or determined. Such an approach is focused chiefly on using the past to predict the future. What premediation provides is an alternative model in which the potentiality of the future is used to impact the present. If the affective potentiality reported by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father had somehow been deployed to premediate potential futures, the NCTC and the NSA might have been in a much better position to have prevented his son from ever having boarded NWA flight 253.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Al Qaeda, Cancer, and the Obama Doctrine of Preemption

I have seen surprisingly little discussion in the print, televisual, and networked media of President Obama's rhetorical decision to characterize the Al Qaeda threat in Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of the metaphor of cancer, which he introduced just past the half-way point of the speech:

"We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That's why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border."

This metaphor is troubling for any number of reasons. It participates in the long human history of characterizing one's enemies as threats to the health of one's own nation or state--such terms as vermin, parasites, and plagues have historically been employed to unite a nation against its enemies and to make it easier for soldiers to kill other humans. This kind of dehumanization is often coupled with racism or xenophobia, as was the case in Nazi Germany, in Vietnam, and in recent and ongoing military campaigns against Islamic nations. In characterizing Al Qaeda and the Taliban as cancers, Obama sadly opens the door for increased Islamophobia.

The cancer metaphor is also of concern for the way in which it medicalizes the threat of terrorism in order to naturalize or take for granted the need to eradicate it. I mean, who would simply let a cancer spread or metastasize if we could contain it through radiation, chemotherapy, or surgical removal? Choosing to characterize the threat as a cancer presumes one set of approaches to the problem and precludes many others. For example, it undercuts the possibility of seeing either Al Qaeda or the Taliban as having any legitimate concerns and it rules out the possibility of making an argument about the culpability of the US or the West in the development of these different, but at this point interrelated, organizations.

It is perhaps ironic in light of the current administration's focus on health care reform at home that Obama chooses to justify his deployment of additional troops as a form of preventive health care aimed at saving not only lives but billions of dollars in future medical expenses. Painting himself as the good physician, Obama sees no choice but to remove this cancerous invader in order to prevent it from spreading even further. Indeed it might not be going too far to say that the discourse of health care reform serves in some non-trivial sense as a premediation of Obama’s Afghanistan strategy.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of Obama's cancer metaphor, however, is that it seeks to provide rhetorical cover for the disturbing fact, pointed out by The American Conservative, that the Obama Administration has endorsed and continues to perpetuate the Bush Doctrine of preemptive warfare, which the Bush-Cheney administration used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, a military action that initiated the war that Obama has only intensified in the past year. Although rhetorically different from its manifestation during the Bush-Cheney Administration, premediation will continue to furnish the dominant media logic of the Obama Doctrine of preemptive military care.