Adventures in the Search for Domestic Terrorists

August 27, 2013

William Vollmann writes books.  Good books.   The kind of books that win the 2005 National Book Award.  The kind of books that win nominations in 2003 and 2009 for the National Book Critics Circle Award.  He does not mail bombs.  Nor does he mail anthrax.

Vollmann is the kind of author who will try anything.  He’s smoked crack with street prostitutes, lived alone at the North Pole, roamed around several war zones, and requested his own FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act.

It turns out that the FBI seriously suspected that Vollmann might have been the Unabomber.  Apparently someone reported him to the FBI because of the themes found in his writing.  Some FBI official wrote in his file that “anti-growth and anti-progress themes persist throughout each VOLLMANN work.”  His file also contained this gem: “UNABOMBER, not unlike VOLLMANN has pride of authorship and insists his book be published without editing.”  With the arrest of Ted Kaczynski in 1996, it became clear that Vollmann was not the Unabomber.  However, the FBI wasn’t done with him.  When somebody started mailing letters laced with anthrax in 2001, they also investigated him for that.  He still receives mail that has already been opened.

The FBI had also looked into the Tsarnaev family.  In 2011, the FBI received information from the Russian government that Tamerlan Tsarnaev “was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground group.”  Moscow requested information, so the FBI “checked U.S. government databases and other information to look for such things as derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity, associations with other persons of interest, travel history and plans, and education history.”  The Bureau also interviewed Tamerlan and some of his family members.  It found nothing and reported that fact to Moscow.

On April 15, 2013, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev apparently bombed the Boston Marathon killing three people and injuring 264 others.  That day, William Vollmann was probably writing a book.

The investigation of William Vollmann has prompted a good deal of derision—not least from Vollmann himself in the pages of Harper’s magazine.  The Atlantic Wire has written that the FBI’s literary analysis of Vollmann’s work and its purported similarity to that of the Unabomber “wouldn’t pass muster in a late afternoon high school English class.”  The abortive investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev has also met criticism from Capitol Hill and the public.

We can all agree that the FBI’s investigation of Vollmann looks silly (at best) or creepy (at worst).  We can also agree that it would have been better if the FBI had gotten something on Tamerlan Tsarnaev back in 2011 and thereby prevented the Boston bombing.

It is important to understand, though, that these were opposite kinds of errors—and thus our wishes about how these cases should have worked out—are somewhat in tension.  With Vollmann, the FBI produced a false positive.  With Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the FBI produced an apparently false negative.  (I say “apparently” because it’s far from clear that in 2011 Tamerlan Tsarnaev had any criminal intent.)  Any investigative organization will make both kinds of errors from time to time.  However, if the FBI takes steps to reduce the number of times that it produces false positives, it will produce more false negatives.  If a higher standard of evidence is necessary to open an investigation, then inevitably some faint but genuine signals of impending terrorism will be ignored.  But the opposite is also true.  If the FBI and the intelligence agencies doggedly run every lead to ground, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, then we end up with more stupid investigations like that of William Vollmann.

Should the FBI and the U.S. government lean more toward restraint and thereby lean slightly away from false positives and toward false negatives?  I think we may be at a tipping point in the United States on questions like this.  As I have written previously here at War on the Rocks, we may already be on the slow descent toward an end of the war on terrorism.  Until recently, the American public was more concerned about physical security and less concerned about privacy.  With the waning of the struggle against al Qaeda-inspired terrorism and the revelations about the NSA by Edward Snowden, the public is starting to perceive less of a physical threat and feel more protective about its privacy.

Would it be so dangerous to the nation to adopt a less aggressive strategy for initiating investigations and conducting domestic surveillance?  The physical risks appear obvious, but are they actually as great as they might appear?  A lot of would-be domestic terrorists do not seem to be very bright.  It is easier to catch idiots than it is to catch evil geniuses like a Kaczynski or a Ted Bundy.  Even when today’s terrorists get all the way to the execution phase of their plots, the bomb doesn’t always go off.  In addition, a less heavy-handed approach might prompt even greater cooperation from the Muslim community and other communities that sprout would-be terrorists while at the same time undercutting an important part of the anti-American narrative peddled by some radical Islamists.

And what about the costs of staying on the present course?  Are America’s security efforts feeding the fevered imagination of some future American terrorist, inspiring him or her to commit an Oklahoma City-style bombing in order to ward off the Men in Black?  Does the pursuit of marginal cases induce paranoia or alert fatigue—the phenomenon under which repeated alerts become progressively less and less meaningful?

It’s truly not clear to me what the best way ahead is.  However, I think a slight relaxation is worth serious consideration.  It’s a truism in military affairs that strategy trumps tactics.  A country conducting a war with a good strategy and bad tactics can probably muddle through, but a country with bad strategy and good tactics is doomed to defeat.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.