Thursday, January 23, 2014

On Speaking At JFK 50

I spoke at the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, Texas. This was an honor for me and the thrill of a lifetime.

There were at least three groups that held events in Dallas that weekend. The Sixth Floor Museum essentially rented Dealey Plaza from the city of Dallas and the most noteworthy gathering was held there. Tickets were sold to would-be attendees, but only 5,000 winning tickets were drawn in a lottery. The lottery winners had the privilege of being in Dealey Plaza during the city's official 50th commemoration. I was not one of them, but I stood just outside the perimeter while the ceremony took place. I stood in front of the Hotel Lawrence, one block directly south of Dealey Plaza and three blocks south of the Texas School Book Depository. Though it was a cold and dreary day, I had a clear view of the Depository and the infamous sixth floor window from where shots were said to be fired. The Sixth Floor Museum that hosted JFK50 is solidly behind the "Oswald did it all by himself" theory of who shot JFK.

There were also two conspiracy-oriented groups that held meetings. JFK Lancer has a reputation as the "well behaved" conspiratorialists. The Coalition on Political Assassinations (COPA) are the rowdy conspiracy theorists that have generally occupied Dealey Plaza during anniversaries 1 through 49 of the JFK assassination. Some of them breached the perimeter of the official 50th ceremony and pointed toward the grassy knoll. They are a lively bunch, I can tell you that. I spoke at COPA's 20th annual meeting which began on the evening of the 22nd and wrapped up on Sunday night, November 24.

Later, I discovered that there was still another conspiracy oriented group that met in Arlington. I had not heard of this group before.

Socked In By Fog

I traveled to Dallas on the 22nd. I would have preferred getting there a day earlier, but finances were tight, so I had little choice but to travel on the day of the anniversary.

My home in Lake Charles was socked in by fog, a thick kind of sea fog that made driving extremely hazardous. I decided to travel north out of Lake Charles as quickly as possible on U.S. 171 and try to outrun the fog. It worked; on 171 north of U.S. 190, there was less fog.

Mayhem in Shreveport

U.S. 171 travels straight north out of Lake Charles and was the quickest way out of the fog. We had traveled this route twice before, as we evacuated from Hurricanes Gustave and Ike. It is a spacious but lightly traveled road. At 4 A.M. on November 22 there was very little traffic and the driving is easy. A few small towns here and there, but I could live with that. Better to slow down than to be in a multi car pileup on I-10 or I-45. Yes, I could live with that.

I encountered hardly any traffic at all until Shreveport. U.S. 171 is now a four lane highway all the way from Lake Charles to Shreveport, and the miles accumulated quickly and without incident. In Shreveport, I was delayed slightly by the traffic outside a high school, but I was later glad for this delay. I think it saved my life. At the very least, it saved my trip.

I had seen spectacular lightning to the north for a couple of hours now as I was driving north on 171. I new something major was happening there. I think a small twister blew through Shreveport just before I got there.

By the time I reached the intersection of I-20 and U.S. 171 in Shreveport, I knew there had been a major event, a weather biggie. The streets were flooded but still passable. Entering the on ramp to I-20 West headed toward Dallas, what appeared to be a car bumper was directly ahead, blocking my way to the interstate. There was no one behind me, so I passed it by on the left part of the on ramp. Heading on to the interstate, I'm not sure why there was no traffic at all. It was eerily silent on the roadway. It was 8 AM, normally the height of the rush hour. I traveled about a mile west on I-20 when something that looked about the size of a lawn mower engine was directly in my path in the right hand lane. Getting closer, it looked larger, more like a car engine. Why it was it in the middle of the road, I don't know. Must have been blown out the back of somebody's pickup. Then, the effects of the high winds became very obvious. Three semi trailer trucks were in the infield of the interstate, all headed west, all having jackknifed into the grass. Fortunately none of them had turned over; I think the heavy rain helped. The trucks just slid on the grass, tearing it up badly, but not threatening the lives of the drivers. There was a brief delay as passersby naturally rubbernecked the scene, looking to see if the truck drivers were all right. Apparently they were. Thank God for that.

The Assassination Hour

By 10:30 AM I had reached Mesquite, Texas on the far eastern edge of Dallas. I was beginning to get excited now, because I knew that, barring the unforeseen delay, I would make it to Dallas in time for the "assassination hour" from 11:30 AM to 12:30 PM, the last hour of Kennedy's life.

I came in to Dallas on U.S. 75 and took the Elm Street exit into downtown Dallas. Elm Street, yes, the same one on which the President had died 50 years ago - at this hour.

I traveled Elm through downtown Dallas, expecting some kind of massive traffic tie up in conjunction with the anniversary event, but there was nothing even remotely like that. If anything, traffic was much lighter than I had expected. I tried to imagine the bright sunny and almost hot day that the President and his wife enjoyed during their motorcade through the city in 1963. Today, for the 50th anniversary, it was windy, cold, dreary, and miserable - an exact replica of the day I experienced 50 years ago as a youngster growing up in Iowa City.

Most of the attention was focused on the far west end of Elm, where the street empties into Dealey Plaza. I could see some bright lights there. However, in route to the west end I did see a number of Dallasites walking briskly or running along the street, trying to stay warm. They seemed to be absorbed in their own thoughts, and I imagine it was their own mundane thoughts and not thoughts about the history being made at the west end of Elm. City buses unloaded passengers who walked briskly or ran toward their destinations. At El Centro College, three blocks from Dealey Plaza, students deboarded buses and scrambled into school, probably not wanting to be late for classes starting at 12 noon. History was being made down the street but for these Dallasites, life in the present churned steadily straight forward.

I got about three blocks from the plaza when I saw the bank of lights at the end of the street that were used to accommodate the TV cameras and the photographers from around the world that had come to Dallas to see the event. To call it a "bank" of lights is an understatement. It was more like the landing of an alien spacecraft. Yes, that's a better description. I looked at the lights for a few seconds but had to look away. Yes, it was that bright.

Trying to find a parking spot was a challenge. The police had all the streets headed into the plaza blocked off about three blocks out to the east. I drove for quite a while, then was fortunate enough to find a parking spot at WFAA park, a small patch of green not far from the plaza. It was metered parking, but someone had just left with about 90 minutes of time left on the meter. This was my day, to be sure.

I heard someone with a bullhorn outside of a McDonald's on Commerce Street commandeering a small crowd of rowdies who shouted "No More Lies." I never did find out who these people were. I strongly suspect they were the ones who briefly caused havoc at JFK 50 by breaching the perimeter and pointing toward the grassy knoll (yes, the COPA folks). I suppose it is just as possible that it was anti-globalization protesters or animal activists upset with McDonald's who coincidentally picked November 22 for a protest; I never did find out who it was exactly.

Next up on my list of tasks was to find the Hotel Lawrence, where I had a reservation for three nights. I found it on Houston Street, one block directly south of the Plaza.

12 Noon

Around 12 Noon I could tell that the official JFK 50 ceremony was underway. A choir sang, the mayor spoke. Everything was a lead up to 12:30, when the President died, and there was a moment of silence to mark his passing.

The city of Dallas hoped that this ceremony would officially put the dreaded historical event behind it. It had heard the "City of Hate" moniker for 50 years. It was time to move on, and this dignified ceremony would do it.

I assembled in front of the Lawrence about 12:20. I contemplated the horror of knowing that 50 years ago the President was enjoying his last moments of conscious activity on earth. Could he have had any foreknowledge of what would happen? While reading the newspaper at his hotel on the morning of the 22nd, the President had reportedly told his wife, "we are entering nut country today," after seeing a black bordered ad in the Dallas Morning News which was a mock welcoming of the President to Dallas.

At 12:25 I saw a grief stricken man about 70 years old fleeing Dealey Plaza as fast as he could escape it. The man's face was both distinctive and terror-stricken. I had seen that face, I was sure, in one of the documentaries on the assassination. It was the likeness, I thought, of Gordon Arnold, who had witnessed the assassination 50 years ago and had even told reporters that he had felt the shock wave of a bullet travel over his left shoulder. This man fleeing with such panic right before 12:30 - PTSD is what I thought was the cause, and I was sure that it was Arnold. And if it was Arnold, it all made sense: he did not want to relive the horror of what he had seen fifty years ago. As it turned out, I was completely wrong. Arnold died in 1997. But the face - it was so much his face that I'm thinking it was a close family member - had to be!!

12:30 came with a moment of silence.

I was sad, first of all, for the way the course of the nation had been changed by what happened here. I grieved once again for the President's family. And I was sad that 50 years had flown by since this awful day. Where had the hours and days gone? Why are we still so uncertain what happened here? Can it be said in any way that we are better off because of what had happened in Dealey Plaza? It was like grasping for straws, but I did think of how far presidential protection has come. I thought that with all the opposition to Barack Obama, that he would be the next president to be assassinated. Yet, he is well into his second term and still very much alive as this is being written.

When it was all over, the press left first, and I saw a few familiar faces from my spot outside the Lawrence: Brian Williams, John King, Kyung Lah were the first wave. Others press types followed, then came the dignitaries including the Mayor and other top Dallas officials. Before long, the perimeters were being removed. The ceremony was over. The city moves on in the miserable rain.

During the afternoon, WFAA, which is one block south of the Lawrence, broadcast the assassination "as it happened." I saw a familiar clip that I had seen many times, of a reporter from WFAA ordering a camera to go live. The reporter was out of breath, the newsroom was chaotic, as reports of the President's shooting started to filter in. I understand now why the fellow was out of breath -- he had just run four blocks at a full sprint after watching Kennedy get shot. The camera was hot, live, and the reporter had caught his breath just enough to interview a very young Bert Shipp, a cameraman who was in Dealey Plaza at the time the shots were fired. 


The night before my speech before the Coalition on Political Assassinations, Friday night, I went over the talk one more time, taking some deep breaths and trying to calm down. Tomorrow is a big day, huge, the biggest.

I got to the venue, the Aloft Hotel, about 10 AM. I found it to be an easy walk from the Hotel Lawrence. About 400 people were there watching the speakers on the dais with rapt attention. I had never seen this kind of attention and respect being given to speakers before. The audience hung on every word being said.

The morning panel broke up abut 11:30, and it was now one hour until my speech. I broke out my laptop and put my presentation into the laptop on a disk and gave it to COPA's technical nerd Randy Benson who is also a top notch researcher. He had to break the news to me that the presentation would not run on the video equipment that he had. Fortunately, I had another copy of the presentation stored on a plug in my car; I walked out to the car and got it. Bringing it back to Randy, he was able to get this copy to run -- bingo. My powerpoint was ready and the show would go on. It was all going to work. Thank you Randy Benson, I appreciate your skills so much.

I was expecting Ed Curtin, a professor from Massachusetts, to be in my cohort of speakers. He was not there, and had been replaced with Dennis Sheehan, a former editor of the Harvard Civil Rights Review. What an honor it was to be on the panel with Dennis! Then, I found my old friend Bill Simpich, a San Francisco attorney and long time researcher. We had exchanged information about the JFK case about 10 years ago, and it was like meeting an old friend. I immediately felt better after speaking with him, my blood pressure creeping lower.

I took my seat at the dais and downed a glass of water, probably too quickly. I had drained the tall glass but was not quenched at all; I needed a refill. I went to the drink table at the back of the room, and got a refill. Glancing left with my glass full, I came directly into the gaze of COPA co-founder and Pittsburgh legend Dr. Cyril Wecht, the noted forensic pathologist. I nodded and smiled to him and he reciprocated. What do you say in the presence of a legend?

Bill, Dennis and I were now on stage. It was nearing 12:30, when our panel was to start. COPA co-founder John Judge ambled toward the stage to take on his responsibility as panel moderator. He looked at my nametag, shook my hand warmly and welcomed me to COPA. I had never met this distinguished man until this moment. In the past I had heard stories that Mr. Judge had a hard edge but I frankly saw none of it. In all my dealings with him, he has been warm, cordial and respectful toward me. His introduction of me to the audience was respectful and sincere. I wondered if my presentation would live up to the hype.

Dennis was first, followed by Bill. We each had 20 minutes. I was the last to speak. During the first two presentations, I was reviewing my notes. But I did detect some common themes between what I was going to say and what had gone before - I listened as much as I could.

Now, I'm up. The event was being videotaped. People were taking pictures of me. This is the moment for a lifetime. Once I got started, I kicked into prof lecture mode, and I was on my way. Yes, it was monumental.  The biggest lecture of my life, to be sure. Probably, it will be unmatched in importance, compared with all the other lectures I have given in my career.

My talk was about right wing extremists in north Texas that had flown under the radar of the Warren Commission and most of the investigations since then. No big conspiracy theory at all - just some new suspects - red meat for the conspiracy crowd. I ended with a serious point. I was there to support the release of the remainder of the files that are held secret by the government. I noted that the NSA keeps big data on all sorts of intelligence, some even involving the mundane particulars of the lives of foreign leaders. We live in the era of big data, but the government will not allow the release of the remainder of the JFK files - relatively few when compared with the mountains of foreign intelligence that we now have stored in warehouses around the country

Finally, it was over!! I survived and lived to tell about it.

I went back to my room, drank deeply from the beer I'd purchased, and relaxed as I had never relaxed before. I wanted to go back to the Aloft to see the Saturday night presentations, but couldn't get out of bed. I fell into a deep and happy sleep.

Sunday, November 24

Sunday morning there were more speakers on the dais at the Aloft. My long time friend Edgar Tatro of UMass-Boston was scheduled to speak. He was on the preliminary program but apparently did not make it to Dallas. His spot was taken by Dawn Meredith, who read from John Armstrong's work. I have known Armstrong, author of the legendary book, Harvey and Lee, since 1995 and we've worked well sharing information about the JFK case over the years. I would have loved to see Edgar, or Dawn, but I still had the same problem I had on Saturday: I was exhausted from giving the speech of my life the day before.

Monday, November 25

The Great Ice Storm of 2013 that was supposed to arrive on Sunday and extend my stay in Dallas for a day or two never materialized. Thus, I was able to get out of town around 10 A.M, but not before meeting Gary Seversen and Mark Newman during breakfast at the Lawrence. As it turns out, they had an eventual few days in Dallas. I think that you should go to John Delane Williams blog to read all about that.

No ice storm, but there were still patches of ice in spots which made traffic kind of slow going initially. On I-20 headed toward Shreveport, there were nothing but tractor trailer vehicles lined up for about a half a mile, which reminded me of why I do not like to travel on interstates. And I remembered the mayhem in Shreveport. So I got off I-20 at a place I do remember and it is safe to say that I was lost and did not know where I was at for much of the day. No matter, I was on cloud nine after JFK50 and I felt that I was floating on air. I was content to take the back roads going generally south, and I knew I would hit Beaumont sooner or later.

My wife called in an order of steak dinners to go to the Saltgrass in Beaumont, and that was my last stop before getting back to Lake Charles. The heavy odor of ribeye permeated the car on the way home and remained a pleasant memory for a couple of days after I got there. So, on Wednesday, November 27 I could say the trip was officially over. The best one ever. How sweet it is!!!!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

McMania Is Here, But For How Long?

Local sportswriter Alex Hickey called it McMania, and he is right. These are heady, manic days at McNeese State, the mid-major university of about 8,500 students located in Lake Charles, Louisiana. For those that don’t know, Lake Charles is in far southwestern Louisiana, about 35 miles from the Texas line.

After blowing out FBS foe South Florida in football on Saturday, August 31, McNeese t-shirts at a local Sam's Club sold out within 45 minutes of the store’s opening the following Monday. McNeese got its FCS national ranking back. ESPN had McNeese highlights on Sports Center. (yes, those guys) featured Dylan Long celebrating his Tampa touchdown. Meanwhile at USF, the football program reached the absolute lowest low in its history. Impressive stuff. Subsequent wins over Arkansas-Pine Bluff, West Alabama, Weber State and arch-rivals Central Arkansas and Sam Houston State just stoked the fire. Creation of the music video, "Through It All", just confirmed to me that the mania is real.

That’s just the beginning.

Construction is booming on campus. A building that will serve as a regional "new business incubator" opened in August. There is a new dorm just for the super-bright kids in the Honors College. The brand spanking new 865 space parking garage has apparently solved what had been the number one student problem at the school for decades – the lack of places to park on campus. New high tech dorms replaced ugly and dangerous Depression era buildings. The first building built in the school’s history, Kaufman Hall, is newly refurbished. I just moved into my new office there. The place looks good and even smells good. That's quite an accomplishment for Kaufman Hall.

But wait, there’s more.

The school is now a Tier One Regional University according to U.S. News and World Report. The school is one of the top fifty schools in the South. It is one of the best values for its money in the nation according to a recent study. Alums of its award winning MFA program in writing are racking up prestigious national prizes. The engineering program is among the country's finest. The undergraduate research program is now in the national spotlight.

I'm feeling giddy.

McNeese has achieved much with a budget that has been cut approximately in half in recent years by the Louisiana Legislature. Talk about doing more with less.

The students have some spring in their step. Going to class is now back in style. Even with the new parking garage, parking spots, at least early in the fall semester, were hard to come by on the campus.

For How Long?

Football helped to fuel McMania, and McNeese State’s football coach, Matt Viator,  knows that this is the beginning of the season, and not the end. He knows how the fan support goes around here. He’s been at McNeese for 14 years as a coach. Before that, he was a student at McNeese and his dad played here too.  It comes down to this. There is interest in the football team until McNeese loses its first game that it is not supposed to lose. This is the dreaded “coming back down to earth” game when hopes for the season become more realistic and in line with the the current team's available talent. After the loss, the previous week’s superheroes appear to be just mortal men. And the turnstiles at McNeese's Cowboy Stadium cease turning with the same rapidity as before.

Why does this interest me? I’ve studied bizarre forms of human behavior for decades. Weird unstructured behavior is called Collective Behavior, which is the name of a course I'm teaching this fall at McNeese State. As a topic for a college course, collective behavior covers things like fads, fashion, rumor, urban legends, crowds, targeted violence, and riots. That's a lot of oddity for one semester, but I love teaching the subject anyway. Manias such as the one now at McNeese are just one type of such weird behavior. My class encountered manias starting September 22.

According to its sociological definition, a mania is hyper enthusiasm over something we eventually come to see as overvalued. Remember the tulip craze in Holland? How about the dot com craze in the U.S.? The sub prime housing bubble of 2008? In retrospect, these items (tulips, stocks, houses) were not something of great value at the end of the episode. Which means that the Lake Charles Sam's Club might not be able to give away any McNeese shirts that it has at the end of the season. Or maybe I'm wrong. I'm a fan too, and I hope that I'm dead wrong about this.   

In answering the question, "Is McMania real, or a figment of Stan's imagination," I got a variety of answers.

Some said the real mania was years ago, when McNeese played in the Gulf States Conference. Others said that there's a bit of mania each fall at McNeese. The new school year is an exciting time. The freshmen especially are glad to be in school. Hope springs eternal for football greatness. The mania lasts until the football team loses or you get your scores back from the first round of tests, whichever comes first.

As for me, I've lived through some football manias and I believe that the current McMania is the real thing. I can say without hesitation that they are absolutely great fun. In the dismal world we inhabit, they can be some of life's premier moments. We remember them by name - Broncomania (Denver), Oilermania (Houston), America's Team (Dallas). These all occurred in the Seventies. Yes, these were pro teams and not college, but the manias were still memorable to say the least. Do they ever return? Yes, manias can reemerge periodically although never in their original uber enthusiastic form. The upshot is that you have to enjoy the mania while it lasts.

So, if McNeese makes a deep run into the FCS playoffs this year, sit back and enjoy the manic ride. As a fan of this cash challenged school, you deserve it. And remember -- this is the mania, the real deal. It doesn't get any better than this.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Observations on "Our Nixon"

If you thought the CNN film "Our Nixon" was going to rehabilitate the image of President Richard Nixon, think again. If you thought the film would personalize and humanize the former President - thereby starting a new positive narrative - you can flush that thought as well.

Nixon comes off very poorly in this documentary, and deservedly so. The comments made to his staffers in recorded meetings are at times disgusting to hear with 2013 political ears. Nixon's shortcomings are not muted, but amplified by what you hear in the film.

I did find that the raw footage shot by Nixon's inner staff circle was very interesting and may help historians to contextualize some of the tough decisions that the former President had to make while in office. It could help historians understand, as well, the social dynamics of a presidential staff that comes completely off the rails. The footage also helps focus clearly on those most responsible for the Watergate debacle: Chapin, Segretti, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and the President.

Speaking of Watergate and Nixon staff matters in general, the documentary assisted in reinforcing some longstanding views I've had about the Nixon White House.

1. The mindset of the staff was to please the President. There was no debate. The staff presented options and the President made the decisions.

2. June 23, 1972 was the last real day of Nixon's presidency. In a routine meeting that day, he decided to obstruct the investigation into the money found on the Watergate burglars in the DNC offices.

3. The President tried to micromanage the flow of information by tightly compartmentalizing who knew what about each issue. For Issue A, there was one roster. For Issue B, there was another. Problem was, the roster was different for each issue. So no one person knew everything about all the issues except the President. On the Issue of the voice activated taping system in the Oval Office, Butterfield, Haldeman and the Secret Service were on the list, Ehrlichman was out of the loop. No wonder Watergate was such a disaster. The Inner Circle did not really understand what had happened. Sam Ervin's Committee was eventually able to pour all the information into one bowl for everyone to see.

4. There was a strong need on Nixon's staff for someone to be the devil's advocate or to present alternative views about what ought to be done. There was a need for someone to be able to grab the president by the lapel and say, "Mr. President, that is a wrong strategy." Ehrlichman tried to serve in this role late in his days at the White House; he got fired as a result.

5. Richard Nixon was likely the only person in the White House that listened to the June 23, 1972 smoking gun tape and also understood what it meant. I believe that he listened to the tape three to four weeks before his resignation. He never really believed that the contents of the tape would be made public. Once the tape was made public, he was in complete denial that he had done anything wrong. But he had, and he knew it. After all, he was a lawyer as well as the chief executive.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Weiner Would Be A Footnote To History, If Not For His Wife

Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 after sending lewd photos of himself to six women around the country. Now, claiming to be rehabilitated, he is running for Mayor of New York City. His claim to be "clean" from his illness turned out to be false. Once again, he is accused of sending lewd photos of himself to at least one women with which he has no formal attachment using the alias Carlos Danger.

Not surprisingly, late night comics love Weiner. They hope that he will continue to run for something, anything. His antics are funnier than anything they could make up about politicians in Washington. Just read the newspaper, find the article on Weiner, and report what happened. Instant comedy.

However, there is a serious side to Weiner's problem behavior. It involves the Democratic frontrunner for the 2016 presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton.

Weiner's wife Huma Abedin has been a close associate of the Clinton family for years. She was a top adviser to Hillary while she served as Secretary of State. Now, she serves as Hillary's aide as Ms. Clinton goes through the transition to to her family's foundation.

Huma Abedin has been standing by her husband throughout his scandals. That's the problem.

Weiner is thus linked in a triadic relationship with Huma Abedin and with Hillary Clinton. Something has to give.

If it doesn't, then Hillary suffers some "guilt by association," that is, her association with Huma Abedin and indirectly with Weiner. A continuation of the status quo just means that all the scandals of the 1990s will be brought back into the public's consciousness, at a most inopportune time. Bill Clinton's administration was plagued from beginning to end with the Whitewater matter and later with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. There were other controversies in between. All these could come to mind in 2016 if Hillary runs. It is almost certain that she will.

The Clintons are said to be privately livid with Anthony Weiner. They need to be publicly livid.

Huma Abedin appears to be the long suffering, loyal political wife. This kind of loyalty may be what the Clintons like most about her, over and above her professional competency.

Sociologists who study triads know that over time, it is likely that a triad reduces down to a dyad, or a two person relationship. Someone may feel like the "third wheel," and the other two in the triad become better friends. Triads are more work, to be sure. A triad is three relationships while a dyad is just one.

The Clintons are hoping that this triadic relationship does narrow down, with Weiner the odd man out.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Domestic CIA Is Still A Bad Idea

Rummaging through my files, I found a memo dated May, 2002. It was a response to something I read in Newsweek that month.

Fareed Zakaria was arguing for a Domestic CIA to help in the fight against terrorism. Normally I'm a big Zakaria fan, but I disagreed with him on this issue.

I intended to send this memo to Newsweek, but I never sent it. I was not yet a tenured professor, and lacked the "free speech" guarantees that go with the status of a tenured professor.

Eleven years later, I am still convinced that a domestic CIA is not a good idea. However, the functions of such an agency appear to have been taken over by the National Security Agency, according to recent revelations.

Here is the memo, without any editing:

Domestic CIA Would Be A Civil Liberties Disaster

Fareed Zakaria suggests in Newsweek that we need a "domestic CIA" to systematically analyze domestic intelligence and to avert future terrorist attacks (Newsweek, May 20, 2002, "The Answer? A Domestic CIA.").  The terrorists, once inside the U.S., enjoy the freedoms all Americans enjoy, and thus have the capability to escape detection.  And the FBI lacks the resources to sift, analyze, and connect the dots for whatever intelligence it does receive. 

Preventing terrorist attacks is obviously a laudable goal, but the approach Zakaria suggests is flawed.  We already had an "off the books" domestic CIA in America during the years 1953-1975.  It was a civil liberties disaster:  the CIA spied on students on 300 campuses; conducted mind control experiments at several major universities (in some cases with unwitting subjects); kept computer records on 300,000 individuals; and opened 216,000 pieces of private mail.  The persons investigated, in many cases, were considered to be left leaning or radical, but in reality posed no threat to the internal security of the U.S. 

Given this experience, it is unlikely that Americans will support a domestic CIA, even if it is born within a beefed up FBI and is promoted as a weapon to fight terrorism.  Why? Because when the game is political intelligence, even Mr. Zakaria might admit that the game being played is more politics than intelligence.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Problem With Boston Marathon-Style Terrorism

The problem with Boston-Marathon style terrorism is that it may become far more commonplace than we would like it to be in the future. There are thousands of young men that fit the profile of the Tsarnaev brothers who are eager to replicate the Boston tragedy. There are so many of these young people that they may well overrun the carefully set protocols of law enforcement that are in place to discover their plots and deeds. These criminals may simply overrun the ability of our homeland security system to apprehend them. Law enforcement has to be 100 percent accurate all the time, 24 hours per day and 7 days per week to prevent an attack. To carry one out, the terrorist only has to be lucky or good one time.

In 1995, I developed a typology of people that would potentially be of harm to the president of the United States. I did this because 1994 was a record year for presidential assassination attempts - there had been three attempts against Bill Clinton that year. It occurred to me that this typology might also apply to terrorists, and I believe that it does.

Threateners.  These are people that loudly proclaim their radical allegiences and verbally and publically threaten to commit a terrorist act. For example, they may write a public official a letter stating their intention to blow up a federal office building, or some other venue, on a given day and time. The threatener is then arrested and carted off to jail, and more often than not, to a psychiatric faciity for evaluation. Despite their boisterous loudness and boldness, they are the least of law enforcement's problems as long as they are confined and do not escape. When the terrorist attack occurs, they are the first to be ruled out - they are in jail.

Attempters. These are bumbling fools that cannot pull off the terrorist attack for some reason. We are grateful, of course, for their lack of competence. These are ones that attempt terrorism but for some unknown reason could not pull it off. Maybe it was poor planning or poor motivation or poor training. Maybe it was bad luck - who knows for sure? But the attack does not occur, to the relief of the public. The shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, and the foiled Times Square bomber are all examples.

Terrorists. Unfortunately, these people succeed where others have failed. They are a success only in the sense that they actually pulled off an attack, and they are likely to be emulated by thousand of young wannabe terrorists. Despite the normal human tendency to label them as "losers," their success at pulling off the attack means that, no matter how flawed they appear to us, they got the job done. This, of course, is the terrorist's view of the episode and not the public's. The public remains sickened by their behavior, as do I.

These young people somehow fly underneath the radar of law enforcement. Their threats are not bold and direct, as was the case with the threateners. Their threats are veiled and somewhat muted. Their threatening behaviors are likely to be discovered only after they have pulled off something "big," and law enforcement is trying to determine a motive for the attack. They may have no criminal record or very little in their backgrounds that would suggest that an attack is imminent. Even if law enforcement starts to monitor social media sites - a long and painful and possibly fruitless task - they may not be able to see in advance much in the way of evidence of sympathy for jihad, or any threats. These youngsters can become radicalized quickly on the Internet, and may be able to delete evidence of their radicalization. Further, the terrorist is one who practices the act before pulling it off. A trial run is often in order; or, at least some practice in making bombs and setting them off. This may be overseas or here at home. Perhaps the only weakness in the terrorists repertoire is an escape plan. For some, such as September 11th terrorists, they are hoping that the attempt succeeds and that escape is not necessary. On the other hand, the young jihadists in Boston clearly had no escape plan. They had no clue how intense the scrutiny would be after the attack, nor did they realize, even in this cell phone crazy era, how much actual photographic documentation there would be of the attack.

Antipathy Toward Runners in Boston 

Why attack the Boston Marathon? I believe it is possible that the Tsarnaev brothers had some serious antipathy toward runners and running. Both were athletes in sports in which they had to maintain a certain weight in order to compete, and running is by far the most effective way of shedding pounds in a hurry. But it might have been something that they hated. The low level trajectory of the bombs they made were specially designed to take out ankles, feet, even entire legs. A runner that has survived a scrapnel attack with foreign bodies in their upper torso could still continue to run, eventually, after healing. A runner or spectator that has nails, ball bearings and other scrapnel in their feet and legs is probably finished as a runner.

Here is a larger motive: the marathon requires hundreds of hours of preparation. At minimum, it would require training of about 25 miles per week of running for a period of about six months. A large commitment of time to be sure. To the jihadist, this is wasted time, time that could be spent rendering to Allah the proper support. Marathoning, in their twisted view, is a symptom of a bloated, wasteful culture that fritters away valuable time in non spiritual pursuits, according to the jihadist.

A Solution

The problem presented by future jihadists is a volume problem.

This reminds me a lot of the situation in the USA with respect to immigration reform in the 1980s. A careful and thoughtful set of laws had been enacted that created a pathway to citizenship for people illegally in the U.S. What happened was that thousands of people simply overran and overloaded the system to where it could not function - the immigration laws in place could not possibly be enforced.

We face the same kind of volume problem with respect to terrorism. There are likely to be thousands of young jihadists who would love to do nothing less than pull off the unimaginable just as the Tsarnaevs did. They may simply overrun our ability to monitor them, just as illegal aliens overran the immigration system of the 1980s.

A solution is what the criminologist calls "target hardening." Here, you make the target harder for the bad guy to get to it. This is probably what the future holds for America.

This means, heightened security at most of our public events. The wannabe jihadist will attack just about anything that is celebratory in our culture or anything that is representative of our so-called bloated wealth, wasted time and lack of "spirituality" in the jihadist sense of the word. More bombing sniffing dogs will be present. Long lines at some public events such as sporting events as people are inspected individually before entering the venue. More police officers present. A quicker response to any potential problem that comes to the attention of law enforcement. This target hardening will make it harder for the terrorist to perform, and may result in less death and less injury at future events.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Killing The American Dream: A Review of Bill O'Reilly's Killing Kennedy

For about one year now, the public has been able to read and enjoy Bill O'Reilly's Killing Kennedy, which he co-authored with Martin Dugard. The book has been a success, judging from the number of copies sold. Mr. O'Reilly apparently believed, as do I, that history is something that has grown well beyond the grasp of the common person. Mr. O'Reilly remembers reading Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, a highly readable and engaging book about history. I also remember Six Crises by Richard Nixon, a book designed to rehabilitate Nixon's image and pave the way for his return to national politics in the 1960s. It seems to me, and probably to Mr. OReilly as well, that somewhere along the way, history became a subject by and for professors, graduate students, college students, and leisured elites that have the time and money to buy up all the latest books. Mr. O'Reilly goes against the grain with this book. I believe also that the authors saw the need to engage a new generation of students in the study of history. This book is non fiction, but has the cadence of a novel, and is likely to engage even the most tweet-and-text saavy young person with its quick pace.

For everyone who writes a book about the assassination of President Kennedy, the journey is intensely personal. The writer hopes to discover once and for all what happened in Dallas in 1963, not quite believing all that has been written about that day. So it is with Mr. O'Reilly. He comes from an Eastern Irish Catholic family. He has Kennedys in his family tree. He got interested in the assassination working for a TV station in Dallas, about the time of the second national study of the assassination, the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He had tracked down the man believed to be Oswald's best friend in Dallas and also it was rumored that this man was Oswald's "CIA handler." Moments before the interview was to be held, the man killed himself with Mr. O'Reilly nearby. This person was to have testified before the HSCA within a matter of days.

As I read this book, I felt that I was traveling a personal road of reflection. Along the way, I learned something about myself and about the American Dream. Thus, I feel that Mr. O'Reilly's book could easily have been titled Killing the American Dream.

Killing the Dream

One of the great things about growing up in the early 1960s was the sense of security that Americans felt each day of their lives. Sure, there is a tendency to over romanticize our youthful lives because they lacked the weighty responsibilities that come with adulthood. I'm as guilty of that as anyone else. But there was a sense, early in the 1960s, that America was safe and would not and could not be attacked by other countries, which made it an especially carefree time. There was a concern about nuclear war, but it was not imminent, at least at the beginning of the decade of the Sixties. Our lives were somewhat insulated from outside shocks. We bought American products at American stores and markets. There was not as much crime and violence as there is today. Some people left the doors to their homes unlocked. Schools were orderly. You could get almost anywhere you wanted to go in life given the proper effort, talent, luck and the presence of opportunity. Your wealth, or lack of it, was not held against you. The gradual creep of globalization was headed our way but we did not feel it quite yet. However, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon as President Kennedy takes office.

Mr. O'Reilly's discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is riveting. A far greater threat than September 11 in my opinion, it was the one time that the world held its breath, hoping that a mutually destructive world nuclear war would be averted. In late October, 1962 Soviet missiles were discovered by American surveillance to have reached Cuba, and the nuclear warheads that could transport the weapons to the U.S. would be ready in a matter of days. Once loaded onto the warheads, the missile could be fired at any moment, and within minutes, about 60 percent of the American population would be obliterated in a thermonuclear catastrophe for the ages. I was particularly touched by how the crisis affected Kennedy personally, and his family. It reminded me that this event was the one event in the pre September 11 era that had broken my own sense of personal security. It reminded me of how much this sense of security had meant to me and my family. I always thought, looking back at the 1960s, that President Kennedy's assassination had been the end of innocence for my generation, for people of roughly my age. Mr. O'Reilly's book helped me to see that the end of that innocence had actually occurred 13 months prior to the assassination.

President Kennedy's Assassination

Concerning the president's assassination, there is not much in this book that is new. I did learn a few insights about why Mrs. Kennedy accompanied the President on this political trip to Dallas.  I had always wondered about why she went to Texas because she did not much like campaigning, and did not particularly care for Lyndon Johnson or for Texans generally. First, she had taken a measure of control over what happened in the presidential bedroom, hoping to make the experience better for both partners. Second, brother Bobby had warned the President about his sexual dalliances. He told him that he was one bimbo away from scandal, as the Profumo affair in Britain had shown. Then, the couple was still grieving the loss of their infant son Patrick who had died about a month earlier. Because of this, the President no longer took his family, or his time with his family, for granted. For all these reasons, President Kennedy encouraged Jackie to accompany him to Texas.

Mr. O'Reilly does not shy away from the conspiracy theories. He correctly notes that while 70 percent of Americans approved of President Kennedy's job performance, 30 percent hated him. The list of people or organizations that wanted some kind of "regime change" in Washington was quite long: the CIA, the Mafia, Frank Sinatra, the Russians, the Cubans, the Cuban exiles living in America, and this is just the start of the list. The FBI worried constantly about his romantic interludes, and about what kinds of state secrets might be whispered to the wrong kind of people.

In the end, however, the assassination according to O'Reilly is the result of the actions of one twisted human named Lee Harvey Oswald. Kennedy's life was glamorous; Oswald's was miserable. Kennedy was rich, Oswald was poor. Kennedy had a picture perfect family; Oswald's was not. Most important, Kennedy was somebody. Oswald was anonymous, a nobody, but wanted to become somebody. Thus, the same portrait of Oswald as a poor, pathetic loser that we saw in the Warren Commission report of 1964 comes full circle to greet us again in 2012.


The most important thing I learned when reading this book was an insight about myself, America, and the American Dream in the early 1960s. The forces of globalization had mustered enough strength to disrupt the peace and security of the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. About 60 percent of the U.S. population faced imminent death at any moment. Soviet missiles were locked and loaded and aimed at the U.S. America lost its sense of security during that crisis, 13 months before the president's assassination. That sense of security would never return, even if President Kennedy had survived the carnage in Dallas.