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Saturday, February 23 , 2019, 10:00 pm | Fair 36º


Susan Estrich: What We (Don’t) Need To Know about Terrorism Threats

The leaders of al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen now know that it was the conversation two weeks ago between Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's successor in Pakistan, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, Yemen-based head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in which the former instructed the latter to attack U.S. targets on Aug. 4, that led the United States to take the unprecedented steps of closing embassies and missions in the Middle East and North Africa and declaring a global terrorist alert for travelers.

I didn't know it until my daughter woke me up at dawn, calling from the Middle East. But frankly, I didn't need to. I was terrified enough without the details. Making them public hardly makes us safer, does it?

The following day, The New York Times made clear to the skeptics, and there were certainly some noisy ones, that the threats were indeed serious (that much I had figured out) and that, at the request of President Barack Obama's administration, it was not revealing all of the details that proved it. A day later, another newspaper chain named names, leading to the widespread coverage on Aug. 5 of the communications between the al-Qaeda leaders.

So now everyone knows that the Obama administration wasn't just playing Benghazi politics (if only) when they issued the warnings. They were real. But, oh, yes, we didn't know where the attack might take place. We still don't.

Translate: No place is safe. The group in Yemen is the same one that tried to blow up a plane headed for Detroit. They hate us. They target civilians. What I can do with the extra information being reported today is exactly nothing — except be even more terrified and hope its release doesn't make it more difficult to gather further intelligence, which we obviously desperately need.

All the while, in the background, there was Vladimir Putin, no friend of the First Amendment, being hailed by some supporters of fugitive Edward Snowden for affording the National Security Agency leaker one year of asylum.

I understand that the government can go too far in the name of national security, and that a free press (and yes, sometimes leakers) is essential to our democracy.

But if you'd been lulled into complacency, then the recent announcements and explanations are reminders of how dangerous the world is, of how dependent we are on secret sources of information and on those who risk their lives to do things like sneak bombs made for U.S.-bound airplanes out of Yemen (which is what a CIA double agent reportedly did last year), and of how critical secrecy can be in protecting them and us.

To those who claim that we don't need to balance civil liberties against national security, that Snowden is a hero and Putin a great diplomat, I can only say this: Wake up.

I'm not exactly sure how we are supposed to live in this world. When I was my daughter's age and got raped in my parking lot, I made a conscious choice to keep living — to take reasonable precautions, yes, but not to let a bastard who held an ice pick to my throat turn me into a person who was afraid to go anywhere alone, who was afraid of her shadow. I wasn't going to let the "bad guy" win.

I have learned over these many years to try to live with fear rather than have it send me to bed. But I don't pretend the same rules hold true for al-Qaeda, which is scarier, more dangerous, bigger, stronger and more evil than the thug who attacked me. And of course, I am so much older, which does not make me braver. It is my children I worry about, more than I ever worried about myself.

This leaves me, at the end of the day, with only one choice. Worrying doesn't help. Stay away from the embassy, I tell my daughter; she knows that. It is no guarantee. All I can do is trust my government and hope that this administration is doing everything it can to ensure that such trust is earned and deserved.

I can hope the people in Congress who get briefed on such matters are exercising proper oversight. I can hope the judges on the secret courts exercise good judgment. I can hope the administration is providing wise, temperate, responsible leadership. I can pray for those I love, for those I don't know and for a future in which we somehow find a way to move beyond hate. I don't need names to do all of these things. Hopefully, naming names will not make the world even more dangerous.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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