Monday, March 28, 2005

Did Nancy Powell compromise the hunt for Bin Laden? 

The New York Sun ran an article today that reveals how "a lone diplomat compromised the hunt for Bin Laden." The article reports that Nancy Powell, the United States Ambassador to Pakistan for more than two years ending last November,
refused to allow the distribution in Pakistan of wanted posters, matchbooks, and other items advertising America’s $25 million reward for information leading to the capture of Mr. bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders. Instead, thousands of matchbooks, posters, and other material — printed at taxpayer expense and translated into Urdu, Pashto, and other local languages — remained “impounded” on American Embassy grounds from 2002 to 2004...

The article further describes the crusade of Congressman Mark Kirk of Illinois to reverse this decision. Rep. Kirk clearly believes that the State Department removed Powell from her post in November as a result of his meeting with President Bush during the campaign last summer.
Mr. Kirk discovered Ms. Powell’s unusual order in January 2004 and, over the past year, launched a series of behind-the-scenes moves that culminated in a blunt conversation with President Bush aboard Air Force One, the removal of the ambassador, and congressional approval for reinvigorating the hunt for Mr. bin Laden.

This story has unleashed the usual condemnation of the State Department on the hawkish side of the 'sphere. Little Green Footballs blogged the story this morning ("an outrageous decision by US Ambassador to Pakistan Nancy Powell, shortly after September 11, to refuse distribution in Pakistan of material advertising the $25 million reward for the capture of Osama Bin Laden"), and Protein Wisdom ran it this afternoon ("Looks like for all its private grousing about the pitfalls of unilateral foreign policy decisions, the State Department was not averse to employing functionaries who didn’t hesitate to initiate such actions on the micro level…"). Austin Bay drilled her here. Many more here.

I'm more than a little reluctant to defend the State Department against all these guys who I almost always agree with, but I don't think all the facts are yet in evidence. Nancy Powell may not be the total loser that my fellow travelers think she is. A careful reading of the Sun's article raises as many questions as it answers. First, the State Department quite clearly denied that Powell had issued any such order:
The senior State Department official denied that Ms.Powell had restricted the distribution of materials touting the reward for Mr. bin Laden and other “highvalue targets.” That program — known as Rewards for Justice — was discontinued in Pakistan prior to Ms. Powell’s 2002 arrival because it was “ineffective,” the senior official said.

You can't believe everything you hear from the State Department, but in this case it is a little difficult to see why a "senior State Department official" would bag the Department to protect Nancy Powell. The Sun does not explain why we shouldn't take the State Department at face value on these two facts -- that the program was terminated before Powell received her credentials, and that it was substantively ineffective.

Representative Kirk, of course, makes big claims about how effective matchbooks can be -- he cites one arrest as the result of a matchbook reward -- but is a single case ten years ago (and probably not involving al Qaeda) proof that the matchbooks work? I would be interested in knowing whether these programs really do work. There is undoubtedly a big memo in a file somewhere in Foggy Bottom with State's actual assessment, and probably a contradicting memo in another file in Langley. The single ancient anecdote offered by the Sun seems like a frail reed on which to hang Nancy Powell, though.

Interestingly, the only evidence in the story (other than Kirk's anecdote) points to the opposite conclusion:
The full effect of Ms. Powell’s impoundment order is difficult to measure. Pakistan is a key theater in the war on terror. Virtually every Al Qaeda leader captured to date has been apprehended in Pakistan, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the planner of the September 11 attacks.More than 600 Al Qaeda fighters have been killed or captured in Pakistan since 2001.

So, "virtually every al Qaeda leader captured to date" has been caught in a country where we weren't circulating matchbooks and posters offering rewards. How is this evidence that Powell's State's decision was incorrect? It does not prove that it was correct either, but it is hardly dispositive evidence of her stupidity.

So you might say, "hey, TigerHawk, isn't obvious that we would have caught even more dirtbags had we used the posters and matchbooks?" No. It isn't.

Widely publicized rewards programs require deep police resources. Hundreds of false leads are generated for every tip that has any value. The cops either have to run the false leads down, which is a huge waste of resources and a distraction for real investigation, or they open themselves up to the charge that they are blowing off leads. From a bureaucratic perspective, widely publicized rewards programs can dissipate police efforts rather than promote them.
"Big money rarely talks," says Jeffrey Fryrear, executive director of the National Crime Prevention Institute at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. "More money means more tips, but it also means more mismanagement and more room to mess it up. Offering rewards can be counterproductive."

Many in law enforcement despise rewards and complain that valuable resources are wasted to chase crackpot and false leads
, says former homicide detective Steven Egger, now a criminologist at the University of Houston. "I hated it when rewards were offered when I was a detective. It brings out poor eyewitness testimony that has been frequently proved unreliable in court," he says. In fact, a majority of the 100-plus inmates found innocent through DNA testing while on death row were convicted wrongfully because of mistaken eyewitness testimony.

In addition to lowering the signal to noise ratio in the gathering of leads, it may be that the rewards program will be even less effective in Pakistan than it would be in Rep. Kirk's district on the North Shore of Chicago. When Pakistanis have responded to tips and thought that they had earned a reward, we have -- probably because of our own lack of access to the locals -- paid off the insiders, damaging the credibility of the program:
And how happy are those Pakistani neighbors who believed they had hit the $25 million jackpot when they alerted authorities to suspicious behavior in the two-story house in Rawalpindi where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States, was captured? Apparently an Egyptian radical soldier who squeezed information out of a witness will be the one to get the reward, along with another $2 million to relocate.

Finally, I speculate that Pakistan's Islamist parties may have brought pressure on the Musharraf government to demand that back off from our reward program, which by its nature is high profile cooperation with Americans. We have been competing with the Islamists to coerce and cajole Pakistan’s government, which balances on a knife edge between the West and the jihadis. This might have been one that we lost.

I can't believe that I just defended the State Department...


By Blogger Dymphna, at Wed Mar 30, 12:16:00 AM:

I used that story yesterday for a number of reasons, one of which is Rep. Kirk's experience as an intelligence officer in the USNR. The other was Ms. Powell's seemingly officious refusal to discuss it. Not politic of her at tall, at tall...

Also, the darn materials were already in country, just sitting there. Now how wasteful is that?

I gave her credit for not being the one who disbanded the program but no points for refusing to consider re-opening it, esp. with a member of the sub-committee which handles State's appropriations. Now how dumb is that? Where was she during diplomacy 101?

Whether it catches the old boy now or not is neither here nor there. Morale and efficient use of personnel and "white" intelligence are all enough to say 'go' here. Not to mention getting a congressional rep on your side.

OTOH, maybe she just wanted to come home.  

By Blogger Ann Menke, at Mon May 02, 06:39:00 PM:

So does this mean I can give my psychic visions about where Bin Laden is and if they pan out I get the reward?
Who do I call/email?  

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