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Scanning Cargo Containers is More Important than Scanning Emails

The United States has built huge internet surveillance infrastructures, but failed to implement its own 9/11 law about maritime cargo security.

The risks of an attack at a US port or the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction (or their components) in shipping containers are big. Compared to the importance of scanning more cargo containers, the benefits of scanning emails appear quite small. What is needed is a serious debate about the right priorities for counter-terrorism and cost/benefit analysis of current policies.

While US and other Western governments claim that internet surveillance has prevented several terrorist attacks, it could also be argued that internet surveillance catches only some of the stupid terrorists, who can only pull off relatively minor attacks. (But not all of them, e.g. not the Boston bombers.)

Smart terrorists like Osama bin Laden, who have the brains and resources to kill tens of thousands of people, do not communicate over the internet. (Or they use very serious encryption, which the NSA computers won’t break in time.) They might plan sophisticated operations for American, French, Dutch or German harbors.

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Interview about Obama's Nomination of John Brennan

Deutsche Welle, Germany's international broadcaster, interviewed me about John Brennan and his nomination for CIA Director. The article is available in various languages, including Arabic, Turkish, German, Albanian and Chinese, because my opinion about the CIA is so super important that folks need to read it in their mother tongue. ;-) Not In English though.

My argument was in a nutshell that Brennan is a good choice for CIA Director because he worked for the agency in the operative and analytical divisions, has Middle East expertise, and is close to Obama. Better than a politician or a general.

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What a Difference 10 Years Can Make

French foreign policy has not changed that much in the last decade, but some prominent US opinions about Paris have.

I am surprised to read the headline "Can the E.U. become the world's policeman?" in the Washington Post. Anne Applebaum's latest op-ed about French policy in Mali concludes that Americans should "stop giggling about cheese-eating surrender monkeys and start offering logistical and moral support. Europe may not be the best superpower. But it's the only one we've got."

Wow. Thanks. But that's too much praise. Of course, the EU will not, cannot and does not even want to become the world's policeman or a superpower in the foreseeble future.

Still it's nice to read this as we approach the 10th anniversary of the transatlantic quarrels over the Iraq war. On January 24, 2003 the NY Post published the “Axis of Weasel” cover story about France and Germany and a play on George W. Bush’s denunciation of the “axis of evil”. And then there were the Subway ads, which SuperFrenchie campaigned against.

Anne Applebaum assumes that Europe has changed so much since the Libya operation and makes a big deal out of the French intervention in Mali and its context. I think she exaggerates, but she also makes important observations, which will change American perceptions of France:

In other words, the French are in Mali fighting an international terrorist organization with the potential to inflict damage across North Africa and perhaps beyond. Not long ago, this sort of international terrorist organization used to inspire emergency planning sessions at the Pentagon. Now the French have had trouble getting Washington to pay attention at all. Some U.S. transport planes recently helped ferry French soldiers to the region but, according to Le Figaro, the Americans at first asked the French to pay for the service - "a demand without precedent" - before wearily agreeing to help.

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Shame on us: Germany Boosts Arms Sales to Mideast

"Germany has become a key arms supplier in the Middle East despite stringent export controls that have inhibited weapons sales in the past," writes UPI (via SeidlersSiPo) in a good summary of recent sales. In the current conflict in Libya, weapons manufactured by German defense companies are being used by both sides:

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces use tank transporters built by Mercedes Benz, German-made electronic jamming systems and Milan-3 surface-to-air missiles made by the French-German MBDA company. NATO forces employ the twin-engined Eurofighters for their air campaign against Gadhafi's beleaguered regime.

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German Moralizers Criticize United States on Killing of Bin Laden

1. Many German politicians, media and church representatives criticize Chancellor Merkel for expressing her joy about the killing of Osama bin Laden, because it is not appropriate to have such a feeling when a human being gets killed. She was only "allowed" to express her relief. => Okay, fine with me.

2. The same folks also criticize those Americans who celebrated bin Laden's death. => Okay, fair enough. I do, however, consider the reactions understandable since he headed a terrorist group that killed thousands of Americans and was determined to kill more. Moreover, no government official celebrated. No "mission accomplished" parties. So, please let's not make a big deal out of it.

3. The same folks and several German law professors (in German) and talk show pundits question the legality of killing bin Laden. This issue seems to be dominating the debate in the German media currently. => Now I am getting annoyed. This is so typical. Aren't there bigger problems? Should not we question our policy on Pakistan? How supportive is the Pakistani military and intelligence of terror networks? As Leon T. Hadar writes in the Huffington Post: "Pakistan is a failed state with nuclear military power, whose elites and public are hostile to the U.S. and sympathetic to its enemies. (...) Pakistan is not a strategic ally but an irresponsible client state."

Law professors could also make sound proposals for ethical and efficient changes to international law to meet the realities of of the 21st century, like terrorism and assymetric warfare, failing states etc. That would be more important and more constructive than making a fuss about the killing of Bin Laden.

4. And this Süddeutsche article discusses whether bin Laden was buried correctly. => Give me a break and rethink your priorities.

Spiegel International provides an English language summary of some commentaries from German newspapers. More evidence for the above claims in this Tagesthemen commentary, which Davids Medienkritik would rip apart, if they'd still be active. Criticism of the German coverage can be found in Die Welt by Clemens Wergin and Alan Posner (all links in German)

Endnote: Last week Congressman Dana Rohrabacher responded to a four year old article on this blog. He provided some context to the quote "Well, I hope it's your families, I hope it's your families that suffer the consequences [of a terrorist attack]."

The World is on Speed

So much is going on these days. Multiple catastrophes in Japan, civilians slaughtered in Libya, cheating German defense minister, US soldiers shot in Germany, uprisings throughout the Arab world and in Wisconsin, bees disappear, Neo-Nazi changes sex and becomes a leftist etc. etc.

I find it hard to keep up, let alone form an opinion and blog about it. This is an open thread for you to discuss and share analyses of current issues important to transatlantic allies. Non-registered users can comment as well.

A few observations and comments of mine to get things started:

1. Japanese earthquake and tsunami and "nuclear catastrophe" and vulcano eruption

It seems that German TV and radio is full of pundits who warn about nuclear meltdowns and a looming catastrophe, while the BBC presents one analyst after another, who says that is all unlikely. What a contrast! I prefer the BBC in situation like this. Yet, I know that the Japanese power companies do not have a reputation of being entirely honest and the government might have good reasons to play down the dangers. Still, I believe this does not justify the shrill headlines in the German media. How's the US coverage?

My sincere sympathies to all Japanese readers! The images and news are so shocking. And yet, I am amazed how the Japanese deal with it. When I wrote about solidarity with Japan on Facebook, it did not take long, until someone responded: "I hope it works better this time than it did the last time." Come on! Nazi jokes are so lame, these days. Everybody Loves Deutschland.

2. Islamist Terror Attack in Germany

Two US soldiers were murdered at Frankfurt airport on March 2, 2011. The first deadly Islamist terror attack in Germany. The media liked to stress that he was an Einzeltäter (acting alone). That was probably supposed to play down the terrorist attack and the new threat level, but intelligence agencies are concerned about a large number of Einzeltäters doing low level terrorist attacks these days. After about two days, this terrorist attack was out of the newspapers. I don't even know how the two wounded soldiers are doing right now. I am very sorry.

3. Libya & Charlie Sheen

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"The Silent Partner" Who Does not Care

"An American drone killed eight German citizens in Pakistan [last] week. Germany's non-reaction says volumes about its role in the war on terror," writes Cameron Abadi in Foreign Policy and concludes "Judging from their eerie silence this week, Germans generally seem willing to let America handle the world's dirty work abroad." It's a great article and I recommend fully reading it and some of his links.

I tend to agree with him, but I also have the impression that the German public does not worry about terrorist attacks in general. They do not consider the US as acting on Germany's behalf and doing "the world's dirty work abroad."

Even the NATO mission in Afghanistan is not given credit for uncovering and disrupting the plot to attack European targets. I have not heard or read a statement in Germany along the lines of Con Coughlin's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal: The Afghanistan War's Dividends in Europe (Free access, if you use Google search): 

"The main reason we can identify these plots and implement measures against them is because of the extensive military and intelligence-gathering infrastructure we have invested in the region," a senior NATO officer in Kabul told me following reports of the latest al Qaeda scheme. "But it is doubtful we would have the same ability to track the plots and respond to them if we suddenly reduced our presence in Afghanistan."

German parliamentarians find it increasingly difficult to tell their voters why they always vote for extensions of the Bundeswehr mandate for Afghanistan, but they don't use the disrupted terror plot aimed at European cities (Paris, Berlin) as a chance to convince voters that our participation in the Afghanistan mission has made us safer. Or what am I missing here?

ENDNOTES: Reuters: "Italy could begin pulling out troops from Afghanistan next summer, the foreign minister said on Tuesday, as the nation mourned four soldiers killed in an insurgent ambush at the weekend.

Germany was elected to the UN Security Council for the next two years. (Canada, I am so sorry!) So, Germany might be less quiet in the years to come. Remember the "fun" we had in the run up to the Iraq war? Any chance for a deja-vu regarding Iran in 2011 or 2012?

"Hamburg cell at heart of terrorist plot against Europe"

The US, the UK, France and now Japan issued warnings of a Mumbai-styled terrorist plot against European cities. Every government warns its citizens of an increased chance of attacks. Everybody? No, a small country at the Baltic Sea appears immune to fear mongering and minds its own business. (Hm, I tried to paraphrase the introduction of the Asterix comics, but probably failed.)


A group of jihadists from the German city of Hamburg are alleged to be at the heart of the recent al Qaeda plot to launch co-ordinated terrorist attacks against European cities, according to European intelligence officials. The plan prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a Europe-wide security advisory for Americans traveling in Europe. Japan issued a similar alert Monday, citing the warnings issued by the United States and by Britain, which raised the level highest for France and Germany.

German authorities seem to be much less concerned than Washington, London and Paris. I wonder why. Any theories? Are Germans ignorant ("nobody will attack our peaceloving country" because the Age of Aquarius has started) or are we the only non-fear mongers, who are skeptical of "the Al-Qaeda brew"? German analysts have not yet interrogated Sidiqi. Perhaps that explains the difference? Spiegel points out:

Still, it remains unclear whether the reports can be considered reliable or whether Sidiqi's claims are the typical al-Qaida brew, consisting of one-third truth, one-third lies and one-third omission. Although the CIA is taking Sidiqi seriously, German authorities are more reserved in their analysis.