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Handicapping the Tunguska event

June 29, 2008

This isn’t the “all manner of thing will be well” post I adumbrated. It’s a stray FISA thought brought on by a scientific anniversary.

Every so often, Nature publishes a themed issue. For 26 June, the theme is astronomical collisions.
The lead editorial talks about the catalog of near-earth asteroids that’s been developed since the 1980s. When the catalog was originally proposed, the idea met with some active resistance from astronomers. It wouldn’t really give us any new science, just a lot of boring detail, and the acquisition would have an opportunity cost on more instructive research.

But now we have all the asteroids capable of producing a mass extinction event under our sights; it’s a good thing that we do, and it’s been good PR for astronomy. There’s a tendency to consider the job done. However, there’s a huge population of lesser asteroids that could still be pretty devastating, from the point of view of the layman, if not from a planetary perspective. The editorial recommends beginning the larger survey, but in an incremental way rather than as Big Science.

Imagine an unspotted asteroid laying waste to a significant chunk of land, as happened in the Tunguska region of Siberia 100 years ago this week; and imagine if that area, unlike Tunguska and a surprising amount of the globe today, were populated. The politician or scientific adviser who had dismissed such a disaster as being too improbable to bother with would be in dire straits. Politicians know in their bones that unlikely events matter.

Last summer, Director of National Intelligence McConnell took congressional Democrats aside and told them a terrorist hit on DC was likely over the August recess. It was a lie. The Dems swallowed it hook, line and sinker. And so the “Protect America Act”, authorizing massive warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, was passed.

Over at the Unclaimed Territory blog, Glenn Greenwald, peace be upon him, has been pointing out that fear of “looking weak on terror” by letting the PAA lapse is groundless. Several Republicans have run against Dems in Republican districts lately, using precisely that attack. And the Democrats who have said, “No, surveillance has to be overseen by courts and Congress, it can’t be left to one man’s say-so” have won handily. That fear tactic has been defanged. And the polls show it, too.

That’s right as far as it goes, and it’s true that many Vichy Democrats are paralyzed by exactly that outmoded bogeyman. But I would suggest that there’s another political calculus, which may be behind Obama’s decision to defuse the FISA issue, even if he has to temporarily deep six the Constitution to do it. A calculus based not on fear of being called soft on terrorism for opposing the FISA extension, but on what would happen politically in the case of a Tunguska event.

Not to put too fine a point on it, if Obama were to lead an assault on HR 6304, and succeed, and if before the election there were another major Al Qaeda attack in the US, Bush would flood the media with a false but unfalsifiable claim: that the warrant that would have prevented the attack was tangled in the (nonexistent) “red tape” of the old FISA laws. And with that, any chance of keeping the White House out of the hands of McCain and his neocon handlers for the next four years would be blasted to green glass.

That probably won’t happen. But it isn’t all that unlikely. It wouldn’t take another September 11. Close enough to Election Day, a Madrid level attack would suffice. The chances of such an attack in any given year are surely over 5%. Considering that Al Qaeda wants to keep the neocons in power, once they have an operational plan, they will try to time the attack to coincide with an election. So it’s more likely this year than at any time since 2004. Given Al Qaeda’s resurgence in Waziristan, and the rate at which opium wealth has been pouring into their coffers, it is really more likely than at any time since 2001. And AQ may feel they need to move quickly, because although their wealth and military strength have been growing, their brand is hurting of late. Recent surveys, in Iraq and elsewhere, indicate they are getting a rep for blowing up fellow Muslims rather than infidels, and are being taken less seriously as a result. They need a return to America, or at least to Europe, to bolster recruiting.

Obama is free to forthrightly champion the rule of law – by loudly opposing telecom amnesty and, more substantively, by cheering the restoration of habeas, as he did earlier this month. No October attack could be laid to the telecoms having to spend a little time in court, nor to the fact that a few Guantanamo inmates are finally allowed to spend a little time in one. He can meet any political risk in those stances head on, by educating the public. But if he were to squash the FISA amendments, and Al Qaeda chose October to make its next move, the nation would no more be in the midst of a teachable moment than it was through the awful panicked year of 2002.

I don’t know if that’s his reasoning. (For that matter, I don’t know whether the congressional leadership would give up their love affair with amnesty on his say-so anyhow.) But if it is, he might well be right that the time to fully crank up the country’s long overdue basic instruction in the Bill of Rights will only come once he stands safely behind the Bully Lectern.

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