A Nation of Spies and Snitches

The United States is pretty darn good at infiltrating terrorist groups -- at home and abroad -- these days. But should we be worried about the social costs?

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, one of the most stinging criticisms leveled at the CIA was that it had utterly failed to penetrate al Qaeda with a human source.

That worm turned this week when headlines erupted with the story of how a Saudi spy, working in conjunction with the CIA, penetrated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), preventing an attack on a U.S.-bound airliner, providing critical intelligence to guide a drone strike against a sought-after AQAP commander, and delivering an intact bomb design for U.S. intelligence to dissect.

It was, by any measure, a spectacular intelligence coup going to the heart of the al Qaeda branch believed to be most actively conspiring to kill Americans. But as plaudits began to traverse one vector of the press and the blogosphere, a backlash emerged in another. One of the more prominent expressions of the latter came in a typically overwrought posting by Salon's Glenn Greenwald:

So just as virtually every "domestic Terror plot" is one conceived, directed, funded and controlled by the FBI, this new Al Qaeda plot from Yemen was directed by some combination of the CIA and its Saudi partners. So this wasn't merely a failed, nascent plot which is causing this fear-mongering media orgy: it was one controlled at all times by the U.S. and Saudi Governments.

Greenwald was not alone in making this questionable assessment. Dozens, if not hundreds, of bloggers and pundits of various stripes were right behind him, ranging along the edges of mainstream politics and spreading enthusiastically in more aggressive anti-establishment circles.

Infiltration and other spy games hold a particular fascination for the American psyche. When a terrorist attack succeeds, Americans demand to know where their intelligence services were and how they could have missed the warning signs. When all's quiet, however, Americans are generally happy enough to look the other way -- so long as the dirty work of keeping the country safe stays out of sight.

But a growing number of "foiled cases" -- from Rezwan Ferdaus's plan to fly a remote-controlled model plane into the U.S. Capitol as a member of an FBI-provided terrorist cell to this week's double-agent revelation -- has voices expressing dismay over just how far those services are willing to go.

The penetration of a well-established foreign organization like AQAP is a far cry from most domestic infiltration programs. To be clear, none of the reporting currently on the table even vaguely suggests the CIA "conceived, directed, or funded" this attempted bombing, which is nearly identical to the one AQAP tried on Christmas Day 2009 without even being detected by U.S. intelligence. But the aggressive approach to intelligence and prevention that evolved after 9/11 in response to perceived failures is increasingly counterweighted by a new perception that the U.S. government has gone too far, a perception that is now spilling over to taint what seems on the face of it to be an unqualified success story.

Since 9/11, more than 300 U.S. residents have been prosecuted for crimes related to homegrown terrorism. About half were targeted by law enforcement using infiltration techniques -- confidential informants, undercover operations, or in some cases both. Claims about the breadth of infiltration run from the foot-soldier level to nearly the top. In a posthumous article published last week, Anwar al-Awlaki, the notorious American who played an important role in AQAP, claimed that both the CIA and the FBI tried to coerce him into becoming a mole.

These tactics have become increasingly controversial for a number of reasons, including a perception that they target Muslims exclusively and do so by means of entrapment (which, it should be remembered, is a legal claim that rarely succeeds in court).

But infiltration -- including the use of undercover agents and paid informants -- was employed extensively long before 9/11. And it isn't just about Muslims, or even terrorism. In recent months, informants and undercover agents have played a key role in criminal cases involving anarchists in Ohio associated with the Occupy movement and right-wing extremists in Georgia, Arizona, and Michigan (where a rare terrorism acquittal was recorded after charges the government had overstated its case).

Even the Mafia is not immune. "Anyone who's out there should realize that if they look to the left or look to the right, they should realize someone is working with the FBI or wearing a wire," defense lawyer Anthony Cardinale told the Boston Globe in an article this week.

The tarnishing of what should be a major triumph for the CIA points to a growing societal concern about the cumulative effect of infiltration tactics on targeted communities and the broader public. There are legal rules and guidelines regarding infiltration and entrapment, and the courts have almost universally upheld the government's use of these tactics since 9/11.

As anyone who has been in a relationship knows, however, you can be technically right and still end up in the wrong place in an argument. The political and practical motives for saturation coverage of would-be extremists are easy to understand -- nobody wants dead Americans on their watch. What we are only beginning to examine are the social costs created by filling a country with spies and snitches.

The national conversation about infiltration remains mired in the formative phase. Open outrage is still found mostly on or over the edges of mainstream discourse. Nagging worries about these tactics are creeping toward the center, however, and the subject is likely to become even more important in the months and years ahead as we adjust to life in a post-post-9/11 world.

Journalists, academics, law enforcement officials, and politicians need to start working now to inform this emerging conversation with facts and context. It's all too easy to get swept up in waves of emotion and truthiness.

The fringe thesis, expressed often and loudly, is that the government is deliberately staging these terrorist incidents to inflate its successes and generally cow the public into submission. It boils down to an absurdly subtle method for achieving an absurdly blunt goal. Why invent underwear bombs when you can invent suitcase nukes? Why disclose the role of informants and agents at all? The list of logical fallacies is nearly endless.

Nevertheless, there is no question that the age of infiltration raises important challenges and thorny questions that need to be discussed in a fact-rich environment. It's time to bring this conversation in from the shouting periphery of American dialogue and into the realm of informed debate.

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The Last RINO

To the modern Republican Party, Richard Lugar was already a dead man walking. He just didn't realize it.

This year, a new book by John T. Shaw appeared about Sen. Richard G. Lugar, who lost his primary to Tea Party candidate and Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock. Like Lugar, its tone is steady, reassuring, and unexciting. The tome is called Statesman of the Senate: Crafting Foreign Policy from Capitol Hill. It has received blurbs from everyone from former senior Clinton administration official and Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott -- "a trenchant study of statesmanship as practiced from the legislative branch of our government" -- to former Sen. Sam Nunn -- "A close-up look at the dedication, effectiveness, and outstanding public service of Senator Dick Lugar."

Such encomiums from top Democratic pooh-bahs should come as no surprise: Lugar has burnished his reputation over the past several decades by cooperating with Democrats on important foreign-affairs issues, notably those regarding nonproliferation agreements with Russia. Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, columnist Peggy Noonan called for Lugar's reelection and summed up the consensus view: "In Washington now very few have their eye on the big picture. Mr. Lugar does." With Lugar's defeat, a chorus of media Cassandras will surely declare that the defeat of a senator whom Time magazine called "The Wise Man" represents a terrible blow to U.S. foreign policy and that it essentially spells the official end of a bipartisan approach.

But just how significant is Lugar's loss? Does it really signify something more than the defeat of an octogenarian who had worn out his welcome with a state he has not resided in since 1977?

The truth is that Lugar is already a spent force. Yes, he was a Republican who supported the United Nations and believed in international law. Yes, he abhorred inflammatory rhetoric. But his signature achievements -- such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which has, among other things, resulted in the deactivation of thousands of Russian strategic nuclear warheads and the elimination of hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles -- are now long behind him and will have to be taken up by a new generation. Whether he returns to the Senate is largely irrelevant.

His principal function nowadays is to serve as a sonorous adornment on the Washington dinner circuit, not for his accomplishments, but, rather, as a venerable symbol of a bygone era. Lugar was a product of the Cold War, when Democrats and Republicans squabbled about how to deal with the communist threat, but didn't act as though foreign affairs was irrelevant to America's future. Over the past decade, however, Lugar was barely on active service in the Senate. As Indiana voters sensed, Lugar has become the pet creature of the foreign-policy establishment, wheeled out on occasions when a Republican was needed to bless an event or policy as bipartisan. But politically, he was a dead man walking.

Call him the last RINO.

Lugar's transformation could be seen in the stands he took, or did not take, in recent years. Once chummy with Sen. Barack Obama -- the Obama campaign ran ads of the two together, a move that Lugar did not object to during the 2008 campaign -- he became increasingly peevish following Obama's victory. Confronted with the Tea Party challenge, Lugar didn't try to pull an Orrin Hatch; rather, he attempted a mild makeover of his foreign-policy record. The champion of an emollient bipartisanship sought to distance himself from Obama. His internationalism may not have gone out the window, but he had certainly begun to roll up the blinds. For example, Lugar was a sharp critic of the Obama administration's intervention in Libya. So in March 2011, he suddenly donned the plumage of a budget hawk, stating on CBS's Face the Nation: "Almost all of our congressional days are spent on budget deficits, outrageous problems. Yet, at the same time, all of this [intervention] passes, which is a very expensive operation." This from the senator who has been the most stalwart champion of the foreign aid derided by much of his party.

As Joshua Hersh incisively reports on Huffington Post, Lugar's new approach to foreign policy went beyond what he said. It was what he refused to say that is most telling. News releases about foreign policy? Lugar's presses went silent. His campaign website focused on "The Obama Agenda" and "Cutting Waste." Foreign affairs -- Lugar's calling card -- had become almost invisible as he tried to dodge the charge of being what Mourdock derisively branded a "globe-trotter." He even tried to deflect attention, Hersh writes, from the book Shaw devoted to him. Its preface admiringly states, "His schedule looks more like that of a deputy foreign minister than a senator." Well, yes. But not the kind of praise that wins you tough primary contests in Indiana, apparently.

In a party that will become increasingly torn between its neoconservative wing on the one hand and its Tea Party wing on the other, Lugar had become a party of one. The foreign-policy establishment is largely frozen out from the Republican Party. With the rise of the neocons, the Democratic Party has become increasingly receptive to it -- former Sen. Chuck Hagel, for example, has an outside chance at a top job if Obama wins a second term.

And if Lugar had somehow eked out a win, what would he have been able to accomplish? Noonan surmised that he would be "newly alive to certain conservative needs and concerns." Trying to muscle over Russia, which Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has blithely declared is America's No. 1 geopolitical foe? Attacking the Iranian mullahs? Whether or not Lugar is in the Senate, Lugarism has had its day.

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