Monday, June 29, 2015

Pay No Attention to the Terrorist Behind the Curtain

In case you missed it, there was a rather remarkable exchange today on CBS This Morning.

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell was a guest; nothing really remarkable about that, since Mr. Morrell now works as a national security analyst for the network.  But his comments about a potential terrorist attack over the 4th of July weekend were enough to give anyone pause.

Mr. Morrell noted that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security recently issued a bulletin warning of a possible strike, and that such advisories are provided on a regular basis.  Still, he said, "there's nothing routine about this particular one for me."

[Morrell] said the FBI and Department of Homeland Security's recent bulletin resonated with him for two reasons. One note for concern, he said, is the large number of people who align themselves with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

"There's been about 50 people in the last 12 months who have been arrested in the United States for being radicalized by ISIS, wanting to go fight there or wanting to conduct an attack here," Morell said.

He's also worried about ISIS' "call to arms" for attacks against the terror group's enemies during Ramadan.

And the terror group's latest proclamation is not an idle threat; last week, operatives tied to the group conducted attacks in Kuwait, Tunisia and France, killing more than 60 people.  The strike in France was aimed at an American-owned company; the massacre on a Tunisian beach targeted western tourists.  Fifteen Britons were among the 38 who died. 

Morrell, like all career spooks, speaks in measured tones.  He is not prone to exaggeration, even in his new role as a network pundit.  And, as former senior CIA official, he has extensive ties in the intelligence community.  While it's doubtful that anyone called him and definitively predicted an attack  over the holiday weekend, Mr. Morrell has probably heard from former colleagues who are expressing serious concerns.   

None of this should come as any surprise.  ISIS-related activity in the United States has increased dramatically.  Along with the arrests cited by Michael Morrell, the FBI announced earlier this year that it is investigating ISIS suspects in "all 50 states."   

With that level of penetration and activity, it's easy to envision an attack during the holiday weekend, by a radicalized "lone wolf," or something more sophisticated.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is saying very little about a possible strike.  During today's press briefing, White House spokesman Josh Ernest said there is "no credible threat" to planned 4th of July celebrations.  

Of course, those events represent a tiny fraction of the daily activities across the nation.  So, you may be (relatively) safe at that picnic, concert or fireworks show, but you might get whacked by a sniper on the drive home, or a suicide bomber inside the big box retailer while shopping for your backyard barbeque.  By focusing on holiday events, Mr. Ernest gives himself (and his bosses) lots of wiggle room.

To be fair, the discussion of potential terrorist strikes places any administration in a difficult position.  Say too much and you tip your hand about intelligence sources/methods, or on-going counter-terrorism operations.  Or, you chase vacationers away from beaches, amusement parks and other tourist meccas on one of the busiest weekends of the year.  But if you say too little, thousands of ordinary may be exposed to unnecessary risks and some of them may die.  

Simply stated, the reassurances of Josh Ernest don't square with the concerns expressed by Michael Morrell.  The next week will determine who was closer to the truth.              




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