The Problem With Hillary Clinton’s Proposal for an Anti-Terror ‘Intelligence Surge’

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Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton Campaigns In Cleveland, Ohio
The putative Democratic nominee's rhetoric may sound "tougher" than Obama's, but she has to deal with the same realities.Photo: Angelo Merendino/2016 Getty Images

Horrific atrocities like the murderous rampage in Orlando on Sunday may cry out for divine vengeance. But it’s mere politicians who must actually deal with the fallout. President Obama has chosen an anti-terrorist and anti-ISIS strategy that, for better or worse, requires a measured and emotionally unsatisfying response to such events. But presidential candidates are far less bound by real-world restraints.

Donald Trump predictably demagogued the event, suggesting that Obama’s refusal to “name” the source of this and other attacks as Islam (dictated by Obama’s highly responsible strategy of making mainstream Muslims our chief allies in fighting ISIS and other jihadis) somehow made it happen, and calling again for a ban on Muslims entering the country. He will soon presumably renew his demands for law enforcement and intelligence agency profiling of Muslims — including U.S. citizens — here at home.

Like Obama, Hillary Clinton cannot and will not go down Trump’s road. But as a presidential candidate, she probably feels she has to promise to do something the incumbent is not already doing. And so we get statements like the one she made today:

Hillary Clinton on Monday vowed to make identifying so-called lone wolves a top priority in her administration, if elected president, and proposed an “intelligence surge” that would help thwart would-be attackers.

We have to be just as adaptable and versatile as our enemies,” Clinton said in a national security speech she delivered from Cleveland. “As president, I will make identifying and stopping lone wolves a top priority.”

Sounds good until you think about it for a few minutes.

As Matt Yglesias points out today at Vox, “lone wolf” terrorism is “the thorniest problem in national security.” By definition, “lone wolves” are not part of some global network you can detect and disrupt. Nor does the “flypaper theory” beloved of Bush-era conservatives — fight ‘em over there so you don’t have to fight ‘em here — make any sense, because the terrorist is already here. And dealing with lone wolves the way Donald Trump suggests, by demonizing and profiling Muslims here at home, not only violates constitutional and civil liberties concerns, but plays directly into the plans of ISIS to polarize Muslims against the United States, enormously expanding the pool of “radicalized” Muslims from which lone wolves emerge. 

Where does this process of elimination lead the responsible politician? Well, in Obama’s case, it leads him to an emphasis on gun regulation, which isn’t going to cut much ice politically, but has the advantage of being theoretically part of the solution if it were ever to be pursued. Clinton wanted to say something more than what’s beginning to sound like liberal gun-control Kabuki theater. And so you have the “intelligence surge” against lone wolves. 

It’s hard to know what that really means, since “lone wolves” cannot be identified via links with networks and are often hard to distinguish from fellow Americans from similar backgrounds — e.g., Muslim backgrounds. What kind of intelligence tells you someone’s head is about to explode?

You have to guess that Hillary Clinton is telling a bit of a ghost story here: touting some vague and magical strategy that is vague and magical because it’s not real. That makes it infinitely preferable to Trump’s very real desire to violate civil liberties, do vast missionary work for ISIS, and perhaps get us into another big stupid war in the Middle East with the added attraction of deliberately barbaric torture of combatants and slaughter of civilians. But unless she knows something that has eluded the entire Obama administration, an “intelligence surge” targeting lone wolves while maintaining Clinton’s own commitments to civil liberties is just not happening.