Expert tells Raw Story, "I ... have long ago given up trying to correct how individuals, whatever their political agenda, use quotes from my remarks to advance a cause"
Recent Congressional testimony describing how pressure from the US has destroyed al Qaeda's ability to engage in large-scale terrorist operations and forced it to fall back on scatter-shot attempts to stir up violence among disaffected young Muslims is being distorted by conservatives — and even some media outlets — to paint the Obama administration as weak on terror.
Brian Michael Jenkins -- a senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation who has been called "one of the world's leading authorities on terrorism -- testified (pdf) before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in November that after eight years of constant assault al Qaeda has been reduced to "a strategy of weakness," which "envisions an army of autonomous terrorist operatives, united in a common cause, but not connected organizationally."
Jenkins did acknowledge that al Qaeda's new emphasis on using the Internet to incite disaffected or mentally unbalanced young Muslims in the US to violence means there were more low-level jihadist plots uncovered in 2009 than in prior years and that a future attack "causing scores of casualties ... is not inconceivable." It is that part of his testimony which has been seized upon since the failed Christmas Day bombing by such outlets as Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal and used to charge the current administration with falling down on the job and to argue for harsher measures.
When Raw Story asked Jenkins whether he was concerned about his work being misunderstood or misappropriated, he responded, "I have engaged in research on terrorism for more than four decades and have long ago given up trying to correct how individuals, whatever their political agenda, use quotes from my remarks to advance a cause or defend a position. Preventing distortions and correcting misinterpretations can become a full-time task--certainly a futile one."
"I have a reputation for being fiercely independent and ferociously non-partisan," Jenkins added. "I choose my words very carefully but speak bluntly. And I think that I write clearly. The only thing I can do is invite people to look not at a single sentence or a sound bite, but to read my entire remarks."
In a December 28 op-ed titled "The Terror This Time," the Journal proclaimed that "Brian Jenkins, who studies terrorism for the Rand Corporation, says there were more terror incidents (12), including thwarted plots, on U.S. soil in 2009 than in any year since 2001. This increasing terror tempo makes the Obama Administration's reflexive impulse to treat terrorists like routine criminal suspects all the more worrisome. ... The charges mean the Nigerian can only be interrogated like any other defendant in a criminal case, subject to having a lawyer present and his Miranda rights read."
There are no fewer than three different errors in the Journal's account of Jenkins' Congressional testimony. First, in comparing 2009 to prior years Jenkins was speaking not of "terror incidents" in general but only of cases involving home-grown jihadis. Second, not all of the incidents he described were on US soil -- at least three took place overseas. Finally, two of the incidents occurred prior to Obama's inauguration, though they were only resolved in 2009.
The Journal is not alone in its appropriation of Jenkins' testimony. Conservative columnist Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette used Jenkins' testimony to argue that "This spike [in home-grown jihadists] probably is due in part to the fact that security officials in the Obama administration think it more important to avoid hurting the feelings of Muslims than to take effective measures to protect Americans."
One blog even headlined its take on the story, "Obama Gives "Unprecedented" Speech to Islamic World in Cairo. Result: Domestic-Terrorism Incidents Skyrocket in 2009, Hit New High..."
Although conservatives are manipulating his testimony to stir up fear and encourage civil liberty violations, Jenkins' own work is diametrically opposed to such hysteria. His 2006 book, Unconquerable Nation, for example, begins with the statement, "Instead of surrendering our liberties in the name of security, we must embrace liberty as the source and sustenance of our security."
In responding to Raw Story's request for comment, Jenkins also pointed to his recent article on the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing, titled "How a Decade of Terror Changed America." That piece concludes with these cautionary words:
The past decade also saw an unprecedented assertion of presidential authority, electronic surveillance without warrants, the detention of individuals solely on the basis of their having been declared enemy combatants, secret and indefinite imprisonment without trial, and the use of coercive interrogation techniques that before 9/11 would readily have been labeled torture.
These were the greatest dangers posed by terror: that it would erode our own democracy, our traditional respect for human rights, our commitment to the law itself. Fortunately, these excesses were challenged in the courts, in Congress and by the electorate, and they are now being corrected.
As the decade draws to a close, the Detroit airliner plot reminds us that terrorism abroad and at home will continue for the foreseeable future. Yet despite unprecedented challenges, the republic has survived. It has weathered dark periods in the past, and it will continue to do so.
Ron Brynaert contributed research to this story.