Letters to the editor

The Decline of the IRA

While Matthew Teague’s “Double Blind” (April Atlantic) was indeed a fascinating read, I was hardly convinced that Kevin Fulton’s role was as significant as the dramatic cover photo and caption might suggest. Indeed, it is worth asking if the Irish Republican Army did in fact “topple,” or whether it simply came to the realization that terrorism was no longer a viable tool. Terrorism in our modern era depends less on the effectiveness of the act itself and more on the effectiveness of the communication of that act to the global public. The day the media opts not to cover terrorist activities will be the day that terrorists start looking for other means to accomplish their goals. It cannot be a coincidence that while there has been a rise in terrorist activities in the Middle East over the last decade or so, there has been a corresponding decrease in terrorist activities in Northern Ireland. American/Western interests dictated that the happenings in the Middle East would be the first priority for mass media organizations, and the IRA realized that it would be hard pressed to compete for global media attention. Thus, terrorism in Northern Ireland became an ineffective use of time, money, and human life.

Adam Hill
Kandern, Germany

Matthew Teague replies:

It’s true, as I noted in the story, that the IRA fell into military ruin due to a confluence of several circumstances: an environment inhospitable to terrorism, political gains by its partner Sinn Féin, and of course British agents within its ranks.

I think it’s not true, however, that the IRA stopped operating due to a lack of global media attention. Quite the opposite. If the IRA were to restart its bombing campaign, in London or elsewhere, the media coverage—in the current climate of fear and awareness—would be total, including within the United States. And since America is one of the Republican movement’s largest financial bases, such attention would actually be devastating to the organization.

The NSA Can Hear You

James Bamford (“Big Brother Is Listening,” April Atlantic) presents the late Senator Frank Church and, by implication, the senators opposing present National Security Agency activities as heroes. But it should be remembered that the practical result of Senator Church’s efforts was to destroy the operational side of the CIA for almost three decades, and to end the careers of an entire generation of intelligence people whose skills would likely have been useful in the present age of terrorism. Perhaps 9/11 or the attacks on the USS Cole or our African embassies could have been prevented had those skills been passed on.

Mr. Bamford does not consider that almost everything in life is a trade between competing values. In an age of fanatics and weapons of mass destruction, it seems prudent to know why anyone in the United States is talking with suspected terrorists overseas.

Len Winner
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

James Bamford reports that the USS Jimmy Carter uses “complex” technology to attach bugs to undersea fiber-optic cables in order to intercept transoceanic telephone calls. I do not know where Mr. Bamford got his information, but there is no way, based on the laws of physics, to covertly tap fiber-optic cables. There is no detectable signal of any kind—optical, thermal, or electrical—outside the fiber from the passage of the modulated light beam within. To tap a fiber, one must sever it, polish both severed ends, feed the fiber into a mirror device that divides the light beam, reattach the other end of the fiber, and then connect the diverted signal to a transducer, allowing the eavesdropper to decode the light beam’s contents. The interruption in service is lengthy, as it takes several minutes for a trained technician to sever, polish, and reconnect a single fiber in air. It would take hours to do this to dozens or hundreds of fibers underwater at oceanic-basin depths. The cable operator would know that service has been interrupted, and would later realize, due to loss of light intensity at the receiving transducer, that the signal has been split. Any other method of tapping an optic fiber is not science; it is science fiction.

David P. Vernon
Tucson, Ariz.

James Bamford replies:

Mr. Winner’s charge—that the “practical result” of the joint intelligence committee under Senator Frank Church “was to destroy the operational side of the CIA for almost three decades”—is an old canard. The only real restriction on the CIA’s Directorate of Operations to come out of the investigation was a prohibition on assassinations. As for his comment that “it seems prudent to know why anyone in the United States is talking with suspected terrorists overseas,” I agree. So do federal judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court: out of about 19,000 warrant applications, they have turned down only four. What is new is the Bush administration’s decision to illegally bypass the court and place the decision-making authority, according to the former director of the NSA, in the hands of NSA “shift supervisors.” I have always supported an energetic NSA, but when it turns to spying on American citizens there needs to be a responsible third party—the FISA Court—deciding who should be targeted.

Mr. Vernon’s letter reminds me of the German high command’s belief during World War II that the ciphers generated by their Enigma machine, an extremely complex encryption devise, were absolutely unbreakable. A quarter of a century later, it was finally revealed that British and American codebreakers at Bletchley Park, outside London, had successfully broken the ciphers, perhaps the greatest secret of the war. In my book Body of Secrets, I quote from a classified address by an NSA deputy director to the agency’s technical staff: “We’re much further ahead now in terms of being able to access and collect network data, fiber-optics, cellular data, all the different modalities of communications that we are targeting.” Also, intelligence officials have been quoted a number of times as saying that the USS Jimmy Carter was designed especially for such a mission.

The New Science of Love

Having done my share of online dating, I enjoyed Lori Gottlieb’s recent article on the “science” of attraction and compability, “How Do I Love Thee?” (March Atlantic). As I was reading along, pondering the lengths of my ring and index fingers and reflecting on the insights into my personality this information is believed to provide, I was suddenly caught off guard. In order to make a point, Ms. Gottlieb chose an excerpt from an online profile. My profile. My words. To add to the weirdness, it was the bit about my reading habits, which mentions my preference for magazines. Like The Atlantic.

While my friends encouraged me to label my profile “As Seen in The Atlantic,” the coincidence almost burned me: a woman who had recently contacted me on Match.com subsequently read the article and assumed that I was a plagiarist!

Ironically, Gottlieb’s point was that she and I were probably not a match, because of my choice of reading material. Ah, that hurt a bit, but I was still flattered to see my words in one of my favorite publications and amused to be described as a guy with “a literary bent.” As inaccurate as that characterization may be, it made me sound intriguing. Then again, now that my finely crafted prose has appeared in The Atlantic not once but twice, perhaps Ms. Gottlieb might reconsider our compatibility.

Tommy Donovan
aka dedalusinseattle
Seattle, Wash.

The Health-Care Debate

Clive Crook dismisses the Canadian health-care system (“Poison Pill,” April Atlantic) as some kind of a joke. Apparently he has been listening to the propaganda trumpeted by for-profit health-care providers who would make fortunes if they were allowed to expand their operations in Canada.

True, the Canadian system is plagued by unacceptably long waiting lists for some procedures, notably hip and knee replacements. But even with these unfortunate anomalies, the Canadian system withstands scrutiny better than almost any other country’s system, and especially when contrasted with the United States.

Since cost seems to be Crook’s main interest, how does he justify the fact that health-care costs per capita in the United States are twice those in Canada? Or that they consume roughly 14 percent of America’s gross domestic product, compared with 7 percent in Canada? If the U.S. system generated twice the benefit of the Canadian system, perhaps it would be worth the doubled cost. But does it do so? Start with the 45 million Americans who have no health-care protection whatsoever, and add the other 20 million Americans who have completely inadequate coverage. It is no wonder that unexpected health-care costs are the largest single cause of personal bankruptcies in the United States.

Let’s look at some other outcomes. Life expectancy in the United States is the lowest among nine comparable coun- tries; Canada is tied for third place, behind Japan and Sweden. The average American between twenty-five and sixty-five has a 40 percent greater chance of dying than the average Canadian of the same age. And what about purely medical outcomes? Crook is right that his proposed user-pay “solution” would discourage people from making so many visits to the doctor. But countless public-health studies have shown that total medical costs are actually saved by early intervention—that is, by catching and treating a disease in its early stages before it becomes catastrophic. Crook’s plan to reduce the number of visits to doctors would result in more serious illness, and a higher cost both in dollars and in lives.

Bruce Partridge
Victoria, British Columbia

Nigeria’s Peril

Jeffrey Tayler’s depiction of Nigeria (“Worse Than Iraq?” April Atlantic) is an update on an old story, but I was glad to get the update nonetheless. As a resident of Lagos for the past three years, I know full well the precarious state of the country’s so-called democracy and have followed the small successes and large failings of the Obasanjo presidency.

But while I appreciate the coverage, I can’t quite accept the Iraq analogy. Tayler claims that the U.S. government’s naming of African oil as a “strategic national interest” means “that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to protect it,” and that Nigeria’s troubles would, “like those of the Persian Gulf, cost us dearly in blood and money.” This is a bold extrapolation, the plausibility of which I doubt (barring a northern Nigerian collusion with al-Qaeda). In Iraq there was at least the semblance of a direct threat to national security; any military action in Nigeria would be transparently economic. And it would be an outrage if, after passing on intervention so recently in Sudan, allowing genocide to continue there, the United States intervened in Nigeria to stop the destruction of American oil.

Craig Eldon Curry
Lagos, Nigeria

Jeffrey Tayler replies:

The Bush administration’s designation of African oil as a “strategic national interest” implies the possibility of using American military force to protect it—a matter of definition, not extrapolation. Defending a strategic national interest—oil, in Nigeria’s case—is no trifling matter, given how much the United States depends on imports of cheap energy.

It might be outrageous to imagine the United States intervening in Nigeria solely to protect oil, but then how are we to react to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, when the grounds for war advanced publicly by the Bush administration have proved overwhelmingly false? As worldwide competition for energy supplies intensifies, actions previously unthinkable drift within the realm of the possible, and weighty pretexts evolve to justify them.

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