Apr 29

On Wednesday I wrote that I rewatched Brazil for one specific line of dialogue. One hour and thirty four minutes into the film, the nervous protagonist, in response to the protests of his love interest, says, “I suppose you’d rather have terrorists?”

To which his foil replies, “How many terrorists have you met? Actual terrorists?”

He pauses, stammers, then finally comes up with...

“Well, it’s only my first day.”

This question has only become more relevant since 9/11. Even counting law enforcement personnel, intelligence analysts and the military, how many people have actually met a terrorist?

Apr 27

About eight minutes into Brazil--the movie, not the country--the camera slowly pans over a chaotic movement of people and paper in a frenetic scene driven by an equally frenetic score, remixes of the titular song “Aquarela do Brasil”. Dozens of men in suits, white shirts and black ties, shuffle an ungodly amount of paper. Later, we learn these men run part of the authoritarian government’s security apparatus for a future dystopian government.

Why bring up this cult classic sci fi film today? Because, midway through the film, one character asks another a question that could define the problem of terrorism in America. Since we launched On Violence two years ago, I had intended to find that piece of dialogue. Instead of just finding that scene on Youtube, though, I sat through the entire thing again. I’m glad I did.

For instance, that scene I just described isn’t just Gilliam’s attempt at satire. It is, I realized, a physical depiction of how the U.S. intelligence community works. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Top Secret America, in physical form.

Should one really expect the guy who co-directed Monty Python and The Holy Grail to give us penetrating/mature insights into political relationships? Turns out, yes. And his satire has only become more relevant since its release in 1985. (Which isn’t to say I am totally in love with Brazil; Terry Gilliam can really try the patience of his audience. Exhibit A: The scenes where two ladies try to outdo each other in plastic surgery, and one dissolves into goo.)

Here are four of the satirical insights that are more relevant now than they were in the 1980s.

1. Brazil’s future is all about information. Wait, the present is all about information. In the future, they don’t have a “Department of Homeland Security”, they have a “Ministry of Information, with a Department of “Information Retrieval”. It is hard to deny that, in the 21st century, information reigns supreme. Wikileaks, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Wikipedia and the Internet didn’t exist in the 1980s. The only difference between our present and the reality of Brazil is that we got rid of paper. Mostly.

2. Intelligence analysts connect a lot of dots not worth connecting. I thought of this analogy today during my morning coffee. If you give a little kid a Connect-the-Dots puzzle, and it has numbers to follow, it will pretty clearly make, say, a giraffe. But say you give a kid a grid with a thousand doubts in a random arrangement on the page. Well that same kid could probably still make a giraffe, though the underlying information--the dots--didn’t mean anything. The kid made the connection.

Brazil has this happen repeatedly. A concerned citizen demands the return of a wrongfully detained individual. Since she cares so much, and her constant harping for answers makes the government look bad, the security apparatus assumes she must have ulterior motives. Later, through happenstance, the government can connect her to the original suspect, even though she had never met him.

Does this happen to the U.S. intelligence community? Read the Guantanamo Files reporting by The New York Times, the McClatchy papers, NPR and The Guardian. You tell me.

3. Intelligence people get distracted easy. In Brazil, all the workers watch television as soon as the boss shuts the door. In America, intelligence people watch Fox News or football while at work.

4. With terrorism comes torture, which goes hand and hand with increased surveillance and extraordinary rendition. In Brazil, all of America’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism responses--admittedly at a level much higher than anything the U.S. government has attempted--make a cameo. A massive surveillance apparatus? Yep. Secret detentions? Yes. And the biggie, torture? You betcha, they euphemistically call it “information retrieval”. The biggest difference between the U.S. and the totalitarian government of Brazil is that the U.S. government has primarily focused on non-U.S. citizens. Still I find it interesting that as soon as the citizens of a country perceive an existential threat, the core rights of liberty disappear.

Oh, and that question I mentioned that was the entire reason I watched Brazil again? Tune in tomorrow for that.

Apr 25

This week we have two posts, one on Brazil--the country--and another one on Brazil--the Terry Gilliam movie. They are completely unrelated, except that both posts have the word “Brazil” in the title.

To the question of the day: I’ll be honest, before I read this Economist article about Brazil’s peacekeeping mission last September, I hadn’t heard of CIOpPaz. That’s a shame because more officers in the U.S. Army should know what it is.

Opened in 2005, the Centro de Instrucao de Operacoes de Paz, Brazil’s “peacekeeping school”, teaches its officers to conduct Chapter Six (Peacekeeping) UN missions around the globe (different from “peace enforcement” or Chapter Seven missions that Brazil tends to avoid). This schools institutionalizes the Brazilian philosophy of overseas intervention, which leads to some of the crazy ideas the school either teaches or helps to reinforce. Consider these quotes I pulled from the article:

“Brazil’s elite thinks peacekeeping is part of the price you have to pay to be among the nations who make the rules.”

“We’ve shifted from teaching purely military aspects to teaching how to align military and civilian goals.”

“There may be some synergy between peacekeeping and security in favelas (slums).”

“”Brazil’s peacekeepers conduct joint exercises with police in favelas, while the director of Viva Rio, an NOG that works in some of Rio de Janerio’s toughest slums, teaches at CIOpPaz.”

I agree with all those ideas about military force. I also agree with their international outlook, a view that subtly clashes with American ideas about using force. It seems like Americans have been wary of peace enforcement since Somalia.

Brazil, on the other hand, embraces peacekeeping. It took over the 13,000 strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti mission in 2004. It opened CIOpPaz because since 1949, it has participated in half of the UN-supported peacekeeping missions. As an added benefit, their military has learned to help in Brazil’s amazingly violent favelas. Thus Brazil has subtly created an international profile as one of benevolence, not war-mongering.

So what does this mean for the United States? First, the United States just doesn’t have a school like this, and we need one. (I don’t count the School of the Americas.) Second, as I wrote before, the U.S. military should embrace peacekeeping missions. By definition a peacekeeping mission requires the consent of the nation the peacekeepers go to. Instead of disdaining these missions, the U.S. should embrace them, and go even further by not charging the U.N. for our services. This way we could still partner with countries like Brazil or Pakistan--that need the U.N. money for peacekeepers--but still have a good presence.

As I said when I wrote this before, I’m not optimistic that the U.S. will ever embrace an expansive foreign policy that tries to prevent global conflict, instead of just reacting to it.

Apr 22

Eric C finished Wednesday’s post with the obviously provocative question: why do soldiers fight? I thought I’d answer that question today, at least as best I can

In some ways, I’ve answered the question, “why do I serve?” before (here and here), so I could just point to those posts and say, “Well, that’s why I joined.” Like Eric C, I had altruistic motivations; I wanted to literally serve my country.

In spring of 2003, I watched our country embark on a war that at the time I considered ill advised. Combined with my skepticism that Afghanistan would be a short war (something I was proven wrong about, then later proven right) it seemed clear to a young, naive college student that if ever our nation needed smart people serving in its military, 2003 was the time. So I joined for selfless reasons, to serve my country.

That’s not really the whole story though.

Eric C isn’t really just asking about my opinion, he’s asking about the opinion of all soldiers in general. What Eric C is also asking, circumscribally, is, we all know the selfless reasons to serve, what are the selfish reasons to serve?

Back to my personal experience. As soon as I sat down in the ROTC recruiter’s chair, weeks after I first thought about joining, I was pitched several things. The good Major pitched me about serving my country, yes, but also about the tremendous leadership experiences of young officers and the pay and benefits. I also learned that ROTC could help pay for my college.

Did those things influence my decision? Absolutely, especially the parts about leadership.

If I am being totally honest, the idea of serving as an officer in the military went back to grade school. Back then, I desperately wanted to someday be President of the United States. To do that, I determined that I needed to serve in the military, because it looked good for Presidential candidates. So even the idea of serving my country has selfish gains; I would look like a good person.

Does my experience apply to all Soldiers? I think it does. The reasons for why a soldier serves aren’t simple. Some need the money, some have no other options, and some want the experience. Selfless service to country is only one part of the equation.

Now to Eric C’s thesis: some soldiers serve to fight. They are fighters and the Army is the place many go to fight the enemy (since 9/11, the enemy is “terrorists”). Yes, I think this describes plenty of soldiers very well. When faced with danger, some citizens feel duty bound to personally sacrifice themselves to face it. Others feel obligated to shoot that danger in the face, right or wrong. That describes fighters.

Apr 20

If you’ve read my bio on the about page, than you know that in college, while Michael C was in ROTC, I co-chaired an environmentalist group. I also marched in anti-war protests leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

Listening to the This American Life episode about Brandon Darby for Monday’s post, I thought again about my activism in college. I asked myself why I did it.

It’s actually a pretty good question, especially at a college like UCSB. With beaches, mountains, beautiful women and partying everywhere, why would you voluntarily spend weeknights, weekdays and, most oddly, weekends getting politically involved?

A lot of people view activism--or any sort of altruism--negatively. (For example, any episode of House MD where anyone is being nice to anyone else.) The idea is that we only do good things because of the tertiary benefits we get from them. Everyone benefits in some way from doing good for others. I’ll tackle that one first.

What benefits could you get from activism? Fame, at least getting your face in the paper (I made the cover of UCSB’s Daily Nexus five times, but who’s counting?). Or very helpful recommendations (the Chancellor at UCSB offered to write me a recommendation). Or you do it to get chicks. I recently listened to an excerpt from a book that said, in short, men are activists to get laid. (Yes, as well.)

Or power. The most dangerous type of activist was the one who wanted power. I met a number of activists who were into meeting powerful people and attending important meetings. They never seemed to really care about changing anything, just as long as they were seen as saviors and change makers. We always used to joke that people like that would end up as publicists for Exxon Mobil or BP.

In my environmental group, some people who joined just wanted to be part of a community that ate vegan food and liked drum circles. Other people did it to party. (Again me, but then again, at UCSB did anyone not party?) Some people just wanted to fight, as I wrote about on Monday.

All of those reasons above are hollow. So hollow. If you’re an activist or politically involved because of any of the above reasons, then you really don’t care about what you’re doing. You’ll end up bouncing from crazy campaign to crazy campaign. You’ll end up like the people I wrote about on Monday.

So what’s the positive reason to do activism? What’s the good reason to hand out fliers, ask people to sign petitions, to lobby your local government and write editorials? To change the world. Yeah, it may be pretentious, grandiose and naive, but that’s why I did it. I look back at my experience in college and I can say, I saved a park, I ran an environmental group, and I passed a green energy initiative.

Ultimately, that’s why I was an activist, to leave UCSB better than I found it.

What’s the point of all this? Purpose, or lack of purpose, affects all of us. But it matters more to people in power and everyone who affects the lives of others. It applies to activists and it applies to politicians. So I wonder, does it apply to soldiers? Every soldier has their own reason for joining the Army or Marines. A lot of the reasons above probably apply, (and one I didn't mention, money) but the point is this: it matters.

So I pose this question to Michael, why did you join?

Apr 19

Quick heads up:

Michael C just had a guest post published at The New York Times "At War" Blog titled, "One Soldier’s Experience With One Nation Under Contract."

Check it out.

Apr 18

In college, I had a friend of a friend who was an anarchist. He got arrested at an Iraq war protest after vandalizing downtown San Francisco. He now works for Halliburton. Another friend who got arrested with him now works for a big pharmaceutical company.

Which brings me to the story of Brandon Darby.

As a teenager Brandon Darby became an anarchist. In 2006, with a mixture of heroism and recklessness, Darby bought a boat and headed to post-Katrina New Orleans to save a fellow activist. Smart and controlling, but flighty, Darby began organizing effective relief efforts in the Ninth Ward, co-founding the organization Common Ground and bringing medicine and food to the locals. After initial success--and a lot of good publicity--Darby took a radical step: he went down to Venezuela to raise money for his cause from Hugo Chavez.

Back in New Orleans, things spiraled out of control. Vegans took over the kitchen, serving vegan food to people who wanted to eat meat, eggs and dairy. Anarchists refused to work in a church because “churches are patriarchal”. Most importantly, the radical activists ran into resistance from residents of the Ninth Ward. All of this conflict led to a mass protest against Darby, which led Darby to a revelation, "Politics is politics, you know. We were no more morally correct than the political system of the US government. That was a big realization for me, that I was on the wrong track.”

After a few months, Darby quit Common Ground and moved back to Austin.

Missing the action and adrenaline of activism, Darby tried to start a new organization that would escort medical personnel into war zones. He eventually met a radical Palestinian who wanted to bomb checkpoints in Israel. Shocked, Darby reported him to the FBI, and eventually became a full blown informant. (Listen to this This American Life episode to hear the full story.) Now Darby writes for the infamous right wing website Big Government, run by famous conservative Andrew Breitbart.

I’m not sure a bigger political transformation is possible, from anarchist revolutionary to right wing blogger. How does someone go from "talk[ing] openly about overthrowing the US government”, hating police and authority, to working as an informant for the FBI and writing for conservative blogs? For me, I kind of shrugged. At the fear of psychoanalyzing Brandon Darby, I think I know why he transformed so radically. I know why my friends went from activists to corporate shills.

They all wanted something to fight against.

Notice I wrote, “fight against” instead of “fight for”. The cause itself doesn’t matter; the fight does, whether as the protester against the system or as the cop protecting the system

It’s all about time and place. If you go to UC Santa Cruz, you fight the man. Grow up in rural Montana, you join the Army. If I could, I'd create an alternative reality time machine, and test what would happen if Malcolm X grew up wealthy and white in Mississippi. Or watch George Wallace grow up as a poor black man. How would their futures be different? I guarantee you this, they’d find something to fight against.

For some people, it isn’t about the cause; it’s about the battle.

Apr 15

(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)

There is an old saying: bad novels make great movies, and great novels make bad films. This truism is, well, true, to some extent, though I would rephrase it as, “Trashy novels make great films.” Novels like The Godfather, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Maltese Falcon aren’t bad, but they aren’t “high art”. Great novels--particularly the novels by the lost generation like The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby--have not made good films.

But Atonement--the book--is a great novel by a great writer (Ian McEwan), but Atonement--the film--is still a good film, with a “universal acclaim” rating on Metacritic. Particularly, the film’s dark, ugly picture of thousands of stranded British soldiers waiting for retreat on the shores of Dunkirk is as good, if not more evocative, than the novel. (It’s also shorter. When I tried to include the pages from the book for this installment of “war at its worst”, it was nearly 2,500 words long.)

Click here to watch the scene.

There is something about a chaotic, fearful, every-man-for-himself retreat that illustrates all that is bad about war. My earlier post on A Farewell to Arms showed this terror as well. A coming enemy, who you would have killed if given the chance, is now coming to exact that same terrible vengeance upon you. In other words, it is all about survival. Like when a Stucka attack plane strafes the retreat and all the retreaters scramble for cover, all you can feel is fear.

The other disgusting element is mob vengeance. Waiting on the shores of Dunkirk for a rescue, British soldiers in an empty, liquor-less saloon find an RAF pilot and menacingly ask, “Where was the RAF?” Not in the sky, not at Dunkirk. They try to enact an ugly, mob-style revenge on the innocent fellow, pushing him and preparing to beat him, possibly to death. In war, there is often no logic to the violence.

Makes you wonder, in response to Heinlein, what problem this ugly act of violence solves.

Apr 14

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

We stepped cautiously through the door at the behest of an Orange County Sheriff. Our patient, a fifteen year-old girl who took a razor blade to her wrists, walked down the stairs to our gurney with pressure dressings on her forearms, teary-eyed. We wheeled her out of the multimillion dollar home on the gurney, past the BMW her father bought her for her upcoming sweet sixteen birthday party, and loaded her into the ambulance so she could be evaluated for her wounds and depression.

I struggled to understand this phenomenon for a long time, wondering about kids or adults who have more than we even aspire to have are depressed and attempt to kill themselves. EMT’s working for minimum wage, I’ve noticed, find it particularly difficult to grasp. “Like their life was so hard,” we would say bitterly.

Why is it that America has little more than five percent of the population controlling more than thirty percent of household wealth, but has a higher rate of depression than any other country? The most reasonable hypothesis would seem to confirm the adage that money cannot buy happiness. In fact, is seems money only buys discord.

Abraham Maslow suggested human beings have a hierarchy of needs. At the most basic are the biological: food, water, air, etc. Following in that pyramid are needs of security, belonging, self-esteem, and finally self-actualization. When one level is attained, a human being struggles with ensuring the next. For example; a person is unlikely to worry about finding a permanent shelter if that person cannot guarantee a steady supply of nourishment. In the case of my patient, once food and safety are ensured, she struggled to fulfill higher level and more abstract needs such as belonging and self-esteem.

Maslow’s theory has evolved and my explanation is of course overly simplified. But the core concept remains the same: humans long to fill needs in accordance with what they have and what they do not. Happiness is then a counter cultural abstraction of faith and value, rather than the ownership and property. Complexity of thought rather than of trappings and lifestyle.

My patient’s life was full of everything money could buy, yet it wasn’t enough. Entanglement in the material, investing in our culture of more and better and faster as the means of happiness only revealed her wanting; her own solitude and disconnection. As for me, though at the time I lacked an understanding with what made her attempt to kill herself, I was happy with something simple. I was just happy that she didn’t succeed.

Apr 13

Last October, we tackled the issue of rape in war zones, both of civilians and soldiers. Since the beginning of the new year, it seems like articles kept popping up to remind us that with war comes rape. Here is an unhappy collection of news stories about something tragic:

Every week I look forward to The Economist’s International section. They usually have one or two articles that highlight a topic in depth that you just won’t see anywhere else. This article from January highlights their good reporting. Bottom line: rape happens frequently in war zones.

And as if to show that with instability comes violence--including rape--enter Exhibit A, Egypt, where Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by a group of men in Tahrir square. As NPR and others have reported, Egypt has a severe problem with misogyny. Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are a deplorable part of their culture, and the political instability magnified that.

Then, in Libya, a similar story of brutality by a corrupt regime emerged when Iman al-Obeidi stormed into a Tripoli hotel to tell her story to journalists. The story mixes the unbelievable--but probably true--with the tragic.

Most revolutions are violent, ugly and chaotic, more like war at its worst than democracy. We’ve written about this before; these rapes demonstrate it. Joe Klein elaborates on this idea here.

This Frontline article is a few years old, but we have been on a Frontline kick recently. So as we were gathering articles for this post, we stumbled on this piece that opens with the provocative statement that under Saddam, rape was a rare occurrence in Iraq. Since the invasion--with the widespread deaths of young men, the protectors of women in that culture--rape became a tool of oppression.

Finally, rape continues within the ranks of the US military, as we reported in our last link drop. Yahoo/AP reported in February about a class action lawsuit submitted by 15 female veterans suing over mishandling of their reports of sexual assault. Though rapes within the military are offensive, nee tragic, we want to avoid a false equivalency; the American military is not comparable to the armed militias in the Congo or the mobs in Cairo. In those places, chaos caused widespread rape and violence. War is chaotic; so is revolution.

Though other places have worse problems with rape, that still doesn’t excuse our military.

Apr 07

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

For full FCC disclosure, here’s how we came across our copy of Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War: Over at Kerplunk, Gallagher’s (mil?)blog, he offered a little contest for a signed hardcover copy of Kaboom. Whoever wrote the best joke won. I entered the following:

An Irish man goes to the doctor. The doctor tells him he has cancer, and he is going to die. When the man returns home, he finds his son, and tells him, "Son, I have cancer and I'm going to die. But we're Irish, so I'm taking you to the pub to teach you how to drink." So they go to the pub. They order two pints and go to a table. Patrick and James, two old friends, approach the man.

"What's the occasion?" they ask.

"I've found out I have AIDS and I'm going to die," the man says, "So I'm taking my son out to the pub to teach him to drink."

They take a toast and leave. The son asks, "Dad, I thought you said you have cancer?"

"I do son, but I don't want those bastards sleeping with your mom after I'm dead."

Whether or not you think that joke is funny, Kaboom, Gallagher’s memoir of his tour in Iraq, is very funny.  Like this passage from page 44:
    “I hate going in there,” Private Romero said. “...[the sergeant major] yelled at me for not shaving. I told him that we had just gotten back from an all-night OP and that I was going onto security, and then he told me, ‘Excuses are like assholes,’...what does that even mean?”
    “I think he meant, ‘Excuses are like assholes: Everyone has one,” Specialist Flashback explained.

Kaboom is filled with banter, humorous nicknames and jokes. It’s refreshing and, based on what Michael C has told me, accurate. But this humor doesn’t take away from the sadness of the whole thing. Gallagher has a keen literary eye and he picks up on the heart breaking details, like a trash dump in his Area of Operations where the children and people who live there are so beaten down by life they can’t even accept a beanie baby as a gift, leaving it lying on the ground.

Gallagher started out as a blogger during his tour in Iraq, and got fame (or notoriety) for blogging about his command while stationed. From that experience, he justifiably got a book deal. Kaboom tells the story of his time as a platoon leader in Saba Al-Bor and later working as a lethal targeting officer at a joint-security station in Hussaniyah. All in all, not a lot happens in Kaboom. (Aside from a freak accident, he doesn’t lose any men or get in that many firefights.) I mean this as a compliment, as you’ll know from my post here. By focusing on the banter, the nicknames and the minutiae, Gallagher writes a more accurate picture of war than most of the memoirs I’ve read. And more accurate for more soldiers.

I just love the prose. Told in small chunks--four to five page chapters, which I love--it reads like Dispatches. The writing is, at times, excellent, like this gem from page 12, “I locked and loaded my M4 Carbine by sticking a rifle magazine filled with thirty golden rounds of kill into it...” Or, “The dot [referring to the dot on the map] was impoverished. It was brutal. It was modern Iraq, permanently soaked in a blood-red-sea past it would never be able to part, let alone escape.” Or when he dubs the war, “iWar”. Gallagher also descends into italicized stream-of-consciousness prose, which you wouldn’t think would work, but it does.

This isn’t to say Kaboom is perfect. It’s not. It’s still a memoir, so many of my regular complaints about dialogue, over-explaining, over-abundance of characters, and complaining about leadership apply. On the last one, Gallagher spends a lot of time complaining about his bosses. It’s fine, but it isn’t my thing. I’ve had bosses, but I don’t think they make for good literature.

I think Gallagher has a lot of room to grow as a writer. But I’ll tell you what: Kaboom is one hell of a first book. It is out in paperback now. Pick up a copy.

Apr 07

(Today's guest post is by Jennifer Hunt, author of "Seven Shots". You can read our review here. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

The day after the World Trade Center disaster on 9/12, 2001, I got on the subway near 59th street. I was relieved to discover that there weren’t police or soldiers, armed with rifles and submachine guns, asking to see IDs. Democracy was intact. New York hadn’t turned into a police state. 

These days I’m not so sure.

The NYPD and Democracy

“I’ve never seen anything like this in more than twenty years on the job. It’s a police state down here!”  My friend in the NYPD told me over the phone. It was the summer of 2004. He was calling from his post at the Republican National Convention in Manhattan. I was ensconced in my apartment in Morningside Heights.

Having been warned by police friends that chaos could rein in midtown, I didn’t go out. By this time, I was beginning to question the police commissioner’s leadership and some of the changes he’d instituted.

Before the convention, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had authorized detectives from the Intelligence Division to spy on nonviolent groups in other states without the knowledge of local cops and in violation of the law. During the RNC, he had approved mass arrests of peaceful demonstrators and any civilian who happened to be passing by. Nets were used to help capture large groups and transport them to a makeshift detention center until after the convention was through.

Although 90% of the arrests that took place during the RNC were thrown out of court, the NYPD continued to take photographs of peaceful protest groups. Later, the city denied the rights of nonviolent demonstrators to march against the war in Iraq in Central Park, a location that had a history of peaceful protest since the 1960’s, at least.

The police actions around 2004 and after effectively stifled dissent. Protesters were arrested or not allowed to march or gather in mass. As a result, the media could not capture their image and spread it across the globe.

Black-ops in the NYPD?

According to police journalist Lenny Levitt in a recent column, David Cohen, the CIA transplant who Kelly bought in to head the Intelligence Division, appears to have developed a squad officers who are allowed to act above the law. One  of Levitt’s sources suggests that a  “mini-CIA [exists] within a municipal agency without the safeguards to ensure that it does not break the law….What mechanisms are in place to ensure that the NYPD does not become a rogue organization?”

Detectives in Intelligence have been sent to other countries to gather “real time” intelligence, duplicating efforts by the FBI and escalating tensions with U.S agencies that have jurisdiction overseas.

In an incident in 2009, the NYPD undermined an FBI investigation of a serious Al Qaeda plot and forced the premature arrest of some of the conspirators. This included Najibullah Zazi who drove to New York City, planning to join his friends and detonate bombs in the subway.  Without informing the FBI, officers in the NYPD’s Intelligence Division contacted one of its informants and showed him a picture of Zazi. The informant then tipped off Zazi to the NYPD’s inquiries, prompting him to abort the plot. The FBI only learned of the NYPD’s interference because it had wire-tapped Zazi’s father’s phone and thus heard the warning call.

Despite the presence of multiple NYPD units 24-7 in the summer of 2010, a van carrying explosives entered the Times Square area undetected by police. Fortunately, the bombs didn’t detonate but turned to smoke and venders alerted the police. The FBI took over from there.


There are some practical solutions that would help address some of the problems that are plaguing the intelligence and counterterrorism efforts in the NYPD today, although politics will inhibit their being realized anytime soon.

l. Replace David Cohen as Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence. We do not need “a spook” in a position of power in the NYPD. There are other intelligence experts who respect the limits of law and can better negotiate important relations between local police and federal agencies. Communication and the sharing of intelligence.

2. Ray Kelly should step down. Kelly has been police commissioner for three consecutive terms. He has become besotted with his own power and influence and he is responsible for authorizing Cohen’s every move.

3. The Justice Department should begin an investigation of the NYPD Intelligence Division to determine if its bosses have ordered detectives to take action that violate the constitution and other state and federal laws.

4. Create transparency in the NYPD. Since Kelly took office in the wake of 9/11, the NYPD has been closed to scholars and journalists who are not willing to write what he wants the public to know.

5. Recognize that New York has a history of terrorism that proceeded 9/11. At some point there will be another terrorist attack. However, the victory for terrorists will not come from more lives lost but from the way such acts have effectively undermined democratic policing in New York.  Let us do what we can to maximize preparedness for terrorism while maintain a democratic police. 

Jennifer Hunt PhD is a sociologist and the author of Seven Shots An NYPD Raid on a Terrorist Cell and its Aftermath (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). In addition to Seven Shots, she has written a book on ethnography and numerous articles in scholarly journals and popular magazines.

Apr 06

When it comes to the On Violence blog roll (see the sidebar), there are only have three requirements: update regularly, have a take and provide original content.

That is why I have to add Secrecy News to our blog roll. When it comes to providing original content, no one covers this unique topic better. Besides Top Secret America, few mainstream media outlets cover intelligence and government classification. This is disheartening considering the complexity, cost and importance of national security intelligence.

I would also add that Secrecy News excels at having a take. Their take is simple--the federal government needs to do a much better job at managing its classified information--but they tackle the intricacies and difficulties of trying to fix this eminently broken system. Instead of trying to summarize their points, I’ll let their about page do the work:

“Secrecy News, a publication of the Federation of American Scientists, reports on new developments in government secrecy and provides public access to documentary resources on secrecy, intelligence and national security policy.”

Written by Steven Aftergood, I first heard him as a guest on NPR’s On The Media. Besides graduating from UCLA (a big plus for this blog) he has won numerous awards for his first amendment advocacy. He has also published articles in a variety of academic journals and magazines.

Personally, I love Secrecy News because as an intelligence officer finding out news about intelligence is surprisingly tough. Much like the WaPo’s Top Secret America series, the Secrecy News blog shows how the private sector can often produce much better research and useful products then can the government.

So if you’re a libertarian, free speech supporter, open government fan, intelligence worker, in the government or just like original, though provoking posts, check out Secrecy News.

Apr 04

Last week I received bittersweet news: Human Resources Command approved my “Request for Unqualified Resignation from Active Duty”. What do all those words mean in English? That, on the 22nd of July, 2011, I will no longer be an active-duty member of our armed forces.

A civilian I will be.

This brings up several questions. First, why? Most immediately, my wife is finishing graduate school in California, and we didn’t feel like waiting another year to live together.

The next question, so why not make the Army a career? The simple answer is that the Army was never a career for me. It was a way to serve my country during a time of need. In return for my service, I gained valuable leadership experience and a pretty healthy pay check. In July, On Violence will also host an entire month of posts about why, after serving in the Army, I still don’t want to make it a career. In addition, expect some more guests posts around the interwebs explaining my issues with the Army’s culture.

What will you do? At this point, I haven’t solidified a plan. The long term plan is to attend graduate school a year from this fall. In the interim, the possibilities are varied, from writing a book to joining the reserves. I do know I want to keep serving the country, hopefully by helping our veterans--either disabled or homeless.

So how does this affect On Violence? Hopefully, it shouldn’t. If anything, it will free up one of the writers to express himself more. For the foreseeable future, Eric C and I want to keep publishing at On Violence.

The final question, will I miss it? I will. You can’t devote five years of your adult life to an organization without good memories slowly crowding out the bad. The memories of smoking cigars with a group of guys in Afghanistan, talking about nothing and everything has replaced the memory that one person in that group will never join in another BS session. Regular emails and facebook updates remind me of the good times, but can’t erase the image of a girlfriend/fiance/wife in tears every time I had to leave again.

Come July, though, the next stage begins. Stay tuned.

Apr 01

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

If you’ve surfed the internet, watched television, or listened to the radio within the last five years, you've heard the jokes. The hyperbolic ultra-macho exaltation of a once B-list action star, Chuck Norris.

Among my favorites:

- There used to be a street named after Chuck Norris. It was changed on the grounds that no one crosses Chuck Norris and live.
- Death once had a near Chuck experience.
- Chuck Norris' tears can cure cancer. Unfortunately, he never cries.
- Beneath Chuck Norris' beard, there isn't a chin, but another fist.

I'm sure you have your own favorites as well. If not there are websites that can help you find some. As impressive as the jokes make the man sound, the truth was much more impressive.

In college, I had a friend with a connection to this icon/demi-god. She never spoke of her affiliation with the action hero, but looking back, I should've seen the signs. She did after all, own a Total Gym. It was a connection we (a roommate and myself) were unaware of until it was too late.

I saw him first entering the room out of the corner of my eye. By that time it was too late to run. He was less than ten yards from us. Instantly, my fight or flight response was activated. The adrenaline sped my thinking. I assessed my options. Do I run or would that, in the same principle as facing a Grizzly Bear, only force him to instinctively attack (in earnest, I could not outrun my roommate either). Do I drop to my knees and beg for my life or would such an act disgust him to the point of ripping my heart from my chest? All my processing mattered little; I froze still considering my options. I clung to the hope that, just maybe, he was an illusion induced from the long drive.

My roommate saw him too by this time. He was not a figment of my imagination. Fear paralyzed me and the world championship fighter made the first move.

His hand extended. "Hi. I'm Chuck Norris," he said as if an introduction was necessary. (Eric C want me to clarify at the introduction, he did in fact use his full acting name). I took the hand that in all likelihood could crush mine without too much effort and shook.

My roommate took the hand when I was done, looked from person to person in the room and asked, "Are you serious?" We all laughed and he generously showed us around his home. It was as if we were meeting a friend of a friend, not an action hero.

Much like those popular jokes, most of the story above was exaggeration. And as much as I enjoy the jokes they fail to do him justice. In truth, what I saw was a gentle humility of a man who loves his family and his life. While I'm sure he finds it entertaining being referred to as the prototypical badass, I saw him as a really nice guy... who could kill me with a single punch... from the fist beneath his beard.

(Happy April Fools. There's no trick here, just a more humorous post than usual.)