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Jeff Ackerman: Surveillance critics miss larger point

Jeff Ackerman

Lost amid the screeching, caterwauling, howling, yelling, demanding, ranting and other noise that generally overrides any meaningful debate these days is fact. That and the innate desire to hold onto one’s own opinion no matter what facts are presented.

After all, truth is mostly a matter of opinion.

“Our point of view is based on our own experience, on what we know and believe. And what we know and believe is just a collection of words and ideas we learn from others and from our own life experiences.” So said one Native American healer whose writing I ran across one day recently. “Truth is a mix of perception, imagination and emotion we use to create our own view,” he wrote.

Politics – especially partisan politics – also play a large role in our perception of truth. Our nation, it seems, has been polarized by partisan politics of like-minded thinkers with very little room for compromise.

As a result, we seem to have lost sight of a few facts, starting with the fact that there are, as we speak, plans being hatched to kill a large number of Americans on American soil.

If you don’t believe that, wait and see.

We recently got a peek at some of those specific threats from John Negrophonte, the director of national intelligence. “Today,” he told a senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “in addition to hostile nation-states, we are focusing on terror groups, proliferation networks, alienated communities, charismatic individuals, narco-traffickers and microscopic influenza.”

He went on to say that in order to protect Americans from another imminent terrorist attack, “Our policymakers, war-fighters and law enforcement officers need the best intelligence and analytic insight humanly and technically possible to help them peer into the onrushing shadow of the future and make decisions that will protect American lives and interests.”

It’s a nasty business, peering into dark shadows. One that many Americans Ð including the ones who complain that we should have anticipated the September 11 attacks Ð do not now have the stomachs for.

While many citizens and lawmakers were screaming about recent revelations that our government might be “illegally” eavesdropping on some telephone conversations, Osama bin Laden surfaced long enough to remind us that he is still out there and that he would still very much like to kill as many of us as he possibly can.

“Attacking the U.S. Homeland, U.S. interests overseas, and U.S. allies – in that order – are al-Qaida’s top operational priorities,” Negrophonte told the Senate committee. “The group will attempt high-impact attacks for as long as its central command structure is functioning and affiliated groups are capable of furthering its interests.”

And those weapons of mass destruction we’ve been hearing so much about? They’re out there, and if bin Laden or any of his pals have them, or get them, they will use them. You can take that truth to the bank.

“Indeed, today, we are most likely to see an attack from terrorists using weapons or agents of mass destruction than states, although terrorists’ capabilities would be much more limited,” said Negrophonte. “In fact, intelligence reporting indicates that nearly 40 terrorist organizations, insurgencies, or cults have used, possessed, or expressed interest in chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agents or weapons.”

The intelligence chief went on the roll out the list of threats, including Jemaah Islamija, the Islamic Jihad Union, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Pakistani militant groups and new Jihadist networks and cells.

Some would argue that we deserve the brunt of all of this hatred; that if we’d been a more compassionate nation there wouldn’t be so many people wanting to blow us up. Perhaps they think all we need to do is tell the radical Islamics that we’re sorry and they’ll put their bombs down and go home and play with the kids. Or … if we just leave Iraq all of this will blow over.

Others argue that there is nothing we can do to lessen the threat of terrorism and that the Islamic radicals will not rest until every non-Muslim person is dead or dying. And they don’t care if they go with us because when they arrive in the Promised Land there will be 72 virgins waiting. The rest of us, I’m afraid, must settle for harp music.

If that’s true (not the virgin or harp part), and I happen to believe it is, then we need to deal with the fact that the No. 1 rule is that there are no rules. Certainly not for the ones plotting our deaths.

Most rational people (wherever they are) would agree that more could have been done to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Subsequent hearings pointed out a fragmented and almost dysfunctional intelligence community that failed to recognize the threat that had been months and years in the making. And … yes … the donkey and elephant both had a hand in that blunder.

Now that our intelligence community appears to be doing what we wanted it to do prior to 9/11, some are worried that they might be eavesdropping on would-be bad guys without the proper paperwork?

Why all the screeching? They just don’t like Bush and will do anything and everything to make him look bad, even if it means weakening our national security, or throwing their own country under the international bus (did you hear the peanut farmer Jimmy Carter in Venezuela?).

After hearing the chilling intelligence report, the only thing one partisan senator from California wanted to know was whether or not we had killed any al-Qaida members on U.S. soil, somehow suggesting that would be an atrocity of the worst kind.

Better to wait until they’ve had a chance to evaporate a subway or city.

Unfortunately, that’s what we seem to be doing. Waiting. We’ll wait until there is a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil and then those same folks who screamed about the eavesdropping will scream that the president didn’t do enough to prevent it.

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299, jeffa@theunion.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.


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