Monday, June 19, 2006


The photo below was taken on a hill in Arizona shortly after the Senate immigration bill passed a couple of weeks ago:

45 Days

This Time magazine excerpt from a soon to be released book by Ron Suskind might sour you on any plans you may have had to visit New York or it may give you a stronger appreciation for the work our intelligence agencies are doing to protect us and our families:

Al-Qaeda terrorists came within 45 days of attacking the New York subway system with a lethal gas similar to that used in Nazi death camps. They were stopped not by any intelligence breakthrough, but by an order from Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Zawahiri. And the U.S. learned of the plot from a CIA mole inside al-Qaeda. These are some of the more startling revelations by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind, whose new book The One Percent Doctrine is excerpted in the forthcoming issue of TIME. It will appear on early Sunday morning.

U.S. intelligence got its first inkling of the plot from the contents of a laptop computer belonging to a Bahraini jihadist captured in Saudi Arabia early in 2003. It contained plans for a gas-dispersal system dubbed "the mubtakkar" (Arabic for inventive). Fearing that al-Qaeda's engineers had achieved the holy grail of terror R&D - a device to effectively distribute hydrogen-cyanide gas, which is deadly when inhaled - the CIA immediately set about building a prototype based on the captured design, which comprised two separate chambers for sodium cyanide and a stable source of hydrogen, such as hydrochloric acid. A seal between the two could be broken by a remote trigger, producing the gas for dispersal. The prototype confirmed their worst fears: "In the world of terrorist weaponry," writes Suskind, "this was the equivalent of splitting the atom. Obtain a few widely available chemicals, and you could construct it with a trip to Home Depot - and then kill everyone in the store."

The device was shown to President Bush and Vice President Cheney the following morning, prompting the President to order that alerts be sent through all levels of the U.S. government. Easily constructed and concealed, mass casualties were inevitable if it could be triggered in any enclosed public space.

Having discovered the device, exposing the plot in which it might be used became a matter of extreme urgency. Although the Saudis were cooperating more than ever before in efforts to track down al-Qaeda operatives in the kingdom, the interrogations of suspects connected with the Bahraini on whose computer the Mubtakkar was discovered were going nowhere. The U.S. would have to look elsewhere.

Conventional wisdom has long held that the U.S. has no human intelligence assets inside al Qaeda. "That is not true," writes Suskind. Over the previous six months, U.S. agents had been receiving accurate tips from a man the writer identifies simply as "Ali," a management-level al-Qaeda operative who believed his leaders had erred in attacking the U.S. directly. "The group was now dispersed," writes Suskind. "A few of its leaders and many foot soldiers were captured or dead. As with any organization, time passed and second-guessing began."

And when asked about the Mubtakkar and the names of the men arrested in Saudi Arabia, Ali was aware of the plot. He identified the key man as Bin Laden's top operative on the Arabian Peninsula, Yusuf al Ayeri, a.k.a. "Swift Sword," who had been released days earlier by Saudi authorities, unaware that al-Ayeri was bin Laden's point man in the kingdom.

Ali revealed that Ayeri had visited Ayman Zawahiri in January 2003, to inform him of a plot to attack the New York City subway system using cyanide gas. Several mubtakkars were to be placed in subway cars and other strategic locations. This was not simply a proposal; the plot was well under way. In fact, zero-hour was only 45 days away. But then, for reasons still debated by U.S. intelligence officials, Zawahiri called off the attack. "Ali did not know the precise explanation why. He just knew that Zawahiri had called them off."

The news left administration officials gathered in the White House with more questions than answers. Why was Ali cooperating? Why had Zawahiri called off the strike? Were the operatives planning to carry out the attack still in New York? "The CIA analysts attempted answers. Many of the questions were simply unanswerable."

One man who could answer them was al-Ayeri - but he was killed in a gun battle between Saudi security forces and al Qaeda militants, who had launched a mini insurrection to coincide with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Suskind quotes a CIA operative as questioning whether it was an accident that the Saudis had killed the kingpin who could expose a cell planning a chemical weapons attack inside the U.S. "The Saudis just shrugged," the source tells Suskind. "They said their people got a little overzealous."

You might want to read Ed Morrissey's analysis of this revelation at Captain's Quarters. We wonder how much of a role, if any, the NSA eavesdropping program that the left was so outraged by a few months ago played in defusing this threat.

Great Expectations

Despite my reluctance to question a genuine genius, I'm skeptical that we're anywhere close to doing what Stephen Hawking claims we're on the verge of doing:

Acclaimed British physicist Stephen Hawking has said that humanity is finally getting close to understanding the origin of the universe. Speaking at a lecture in Hong Kong, Hawking said that despite some theoretical advances in the past years, there are still mysteries as to how the universe began.

"Despite having had some great successes, not everything is solved. We do not yet have good theoretical understanding of the observation of the expansion of the universe," he told an audience of 2,500 at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Thursday. "Without such understanding, we cannot be sure of the future of the universe.

"New observational results and theoretical advances are coming in rapidly; cosmology is a very exciting subject. We are getting close to answering these old questions: why are we here, where did we come from?"

My skepticism arises from the fact that even if we do elucidate the Big Bang and figure out how it occurred, we still will not know why it did. "Why" questions are metaphysical and beyond the purview of scientific discovery.

There really are only two candidates vying for the honor of answering the "why" and "where from" questions: Either we are a flukish by-product of the cosmic birth pangs having no reason for being here and having come from nothing but primordial star dust, or we are here because a loving, powerful being intentionally caused it to be inevitable that we would emerge. Perhaps this being - perhaps it is the God of the Bible - desired significant, conscious beings upon which to lavish, and with which to share, the gift of existence, and so created us.

We are here, in other words, because God has willed it. If that is not the case then there is no reason at all why we are here. Life is totally void of purpose and meaning. We are like insects which live, reproduce and die. Nothing we do, no matter how impressive, means a thing.

Science, at least as so many of its practioners insist, is not equipped to endorse either alternative and is not competent to answer the "why" question.