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Tim Blagg

Blagg: We’re still at war

It’s hard to know which way to go.

The United States finds itself in a real bind these days, caught between a rock and a hard place.

We are at war, faced with an implacable, well-financed enemy that is so determined to wipe out our way of life that its soldiers have proved perfectly willing to blow themselves to pieces to inflict damage on us.

They have launched brutal attacks on our very heartland, destroying thousands of lives in our greatest cities.

But, unlike the wars of the past, it’s easy for the average American to live their lives totally unconscious of the conflict.

Nobody is asking them to collect scrap for the war effort or to limit their driving or grocery buying.

There’s no draft.

And the news coverage of this war is confusing. It’s easy to believe, for example, that the fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq is a traditional territorial war like Korea or Kuwait, rather than extended regional skirmishes in a global war against terrorism.

In fact, the real war is much more difficult to fight, and its battles are largely unknown — because they’re secret.

And, because this war is so different, so clandestine, so totally removed from any we’ve fought before, that it’s not impossible that we could lose it merely by misunderstanding it.

The biggest weapon in this new war is information. Since our enemy is spread around the world in small cells, mixed in amongst the local population, simply locating them is a daunting task. Its soldiers move constantly or blend in so well with the locals that it’s almost impossible to find them. Some “sleep” for years, waiting their chance to strike.

Their only real Achilles’ heels are the need to communicate among themselves and their constant appetite for money to fund their operations. That means that our anti-terrorist agencies have to monitor international communications, looking for patterns that indicate a leader or operations chief.

Just as police detectives look at telephone “LUDs” or Local Usage Details to try to find drug dealers or other criminals, intelligence agencies look for multiple calls made to a “flagged” phone number or locale.

Obviously, this requires monitoring millions of calls and running them through databases run on supercomputers.

But that, of course, is exactly what civil libertarians have been complaining about lately. “You’re invading our privacy!” they howl — and they’re right, to a certain extent. It’s true that a computer somewhere probably has recorded the fact that I called my wife every night while she was working for FEMA down in New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

So the fact those calls were made is no longer private.

Now, there’s no reason whatsoever for me to believe that a government agent was able to listen in to those calls — although the very fact that they were made on cell phones means that anyone with the proper equipment (not just the government) could have been listening.

Frankly, I don’t care.

I WANT the government to sort those databases looking for terrorists — that could prevent another 9/11, and I think it’s worth the price.

And then, if the CIA does identify a terrorist cell and track it down to a certain location — in Pakistan or Yemen or wherever — and decide that it’s worth a missile strike from an unmanned drone aircraft ... well then, I’m OK with that as well.

Yes, it’s true that sometimes such a strike will misfire and hit innocents. And even if the blast does kill an al-Qaida operations chief, it may also kill or maim bystanders.

But the 9/11 attacks killed hundreds of innocent civilians.

We’re at war here, folks. During the “Good War” back in the 1940s, American and British bomb raids killed hundreds of thousands of civilians while German, Italian and Japanese attacks were doing the same to us.

It was seen as the price of damaging the enemy’s war effort, and the technology of the time was not precise enough to avoid “collateral damage.” So thousands died in London, Berlin, Tokyo and other cities.

“Spying” on civilians — both enemies and friends — is something we have to do to stay ahead of our enemies these days, and anyone who professes not to know that is either incapable of understanding the terrible paradigm of modern warfare or is being deliberately disingenuous for political reasons.

All of this is not to say that I don’t believe that appropriate controls and oversight need to be applied — that’s very important. But in this case, despite the chest thumping and disavowals of the past few weeks, it’s clear that both Congress and the White House were made aware of the scope and purpose of communications monitoring, and signed off on it.

They had to — it’s the front lines of today’s war; to pretend otherwise is to assure that 9/11 will happen again.

And that’s just not acceptable.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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