Operation Well Water
Last Friday, a perfect fall afternoon in the mid sixties with blue skies, I was walking up Connecticut Avenue on my way to Buck's for a cheeseburger. Heading in the opposite direction a motorcade raced toward the center of DC. There were four giant black SUVs with fully opaque secondary windows, a prowl car on point with siren wailing and light bar flashing its red blue tango, all five vehicles being chased by a doo-wop blaring, maniacally weaving ambulance. In the split second that they passed me a manila envelope flew through the air and smacked into the pavement right at my feet. Curious, I had a look. It was an inter-agency routing envelope, the kind with a pattern of peek-a-boo holes and a string you wind around little cardboard disks to close its flap, that, from its stamp collection, had made more rounds than a hooker at the Mayflower. Inside, the first thing I noticed were red capital letters spelling TOP SECRET at the top and the bottom of each of several pages. I glanced dourly at a cover memo — as Samuel Johnson said of a dog's walking on his hind legs, high bureaucratese is never done well but one is surprised to find it done at all — and then my spine froze stiffer than a Smithsonian fossil when it dawned on me that I was holding the translated transcript of a conversation between Abu Muhammad al-Parisi, the French intelligence officer (a bomb expert) who recently defected from DGSE to al Qaida, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State. Naturally, I later burned both the envelope and its contents. To give the public a ring-side seat, however, and in the hopes of furthering some commonsensical discussion of national security policy options, here are, as I have redacted them, the highlights:
al-Parisi: Thank you, O Great Caliph, for sparing the time to see me. May Allah's blessings rain upon you and on the Islamic State.
al-Baghdadi: Cut to the chase al-Parisi — or should I call you al-Parisa, the angel, for you are truly an angel of death?
al-Parisi: Your Excellency, please indulge me a roundabout way of telling this story. You may have heard of Marcel Proust, the famous French writer. Well, Marcel's father, Adrien Proust, was a towering French physician of the nineteenth century whose main claim to fame, arguably, was putting in place a "cordon sanitaire" which saved Toulon and Marseille from the worst ravages of Asiatic cholera. Dr. Proust, indeed, according to my family's oral history, may have saved several of my ancestors.
So here's what I want to tell you: a land quarantine — difficult but not impossible — can be effective in dealing with a plague. Conversely, areas that are unable or unwilling to impose a quarantine are vulnerable.
In short, the enemy, O Exalted One, is vulnerable to Ebola.
We have much experience sending martyrs to bomb the godless. In today's world, why not send martyrs as plague carriers?
al-Baghdadi: You mean send martyrs to America?
al-Parisi: Yes, but not only to America.
I mean, if we work at it we probably could get plague carriers into America. It's a much easier problem than trying to send a martyr and a bomb, or a martyr with the knowledge to make a bomb once they arrive. But we could also send martyr carriers to Mexico or, for that matter, to India.
We've seen what massive disruption merely a few Ebola cases causes in America. If the Americans experienced a serious outbreak it would be catastrophic for their economy, their society, perhaps even their political system.
Just think. We could try to send a series of martyr carriers, staggered such that the active ones could harvest the most concentrated virus from fluids from those who are dying. The fluids could then be spread in taxicabs, in public transport, anywhere sensitive. At the Pentagon Metro station, for example, or on a public tour of Congress, or at a medical convention. The possibilities are endless.
If for some reason we fail to surreptitiously send martyr carriers to America we could successfully send some, almost certainly, into northern Mexico. A resulting wave of Ebola victims moving across the border into America would be hugely disruptive.
And while we're at it we could send martyr carriers to India. An out of control Ebola plague in India would put the entire world economy into a tailspin, indirectly wounding our enemy.
It's a classic strategy, O Honored Leader, to throw a corpse over a wall or to poison a well.
al-Baghdadi: You truly have a nightmare vision for our enemy. I wonder, nevertheless, about the risks to us if the enemy discovered our operation or, separately, if through some kind of an accident we were to set off an Ebola plague here. Have you an answer to those concerns?
al-Parisi: O Great Caliph, you have wisely identified the two main potential risks.
To take the first: in my view, if the enemy knew what we had done, assuming we succeeded, the western political system would be no more effective in organizing actions against us than it is at the moment. In other words, the danger is minimal. Perhaps we should even consider whether publicly taking responsibility may be to our advantage.
Your second point is more vexatious. It is in Allah's hands but I would note that the middle east is at risk anyway from migrant workers who go to Ebola afflicted areas. And who knows? If we were to develop effective quarantine measures then Ebola might be of use in our own backyard.
al-Baghdadi: Very interesting, al-Parisi. I will think over your words. Before you go, however, let me ask you one other thing. Does your being here mean that al Qaida now accepts the sovereignty of the Islamic State?
al-Parisi: I am here, your Excellency, on my own ticket as they say, but I fervently wish for what you suggest to come true. I honestly believe we will become our strongest when we unite against the decadent western states. Thank you again, O Shining Star, for seeing me.
al-Baghdadi: Very well, al-Parisi. You are dismissed.
Comment: I suppose people at Fort Detrick may have been thinking about how Ebola could be weaponized, just as I suppose people at the State Department may have been thinking about quarantine strategies, but those efforts, to the extent they exist, have no counterpart whatsoever in the public debate. That is a pity because Ebola presents many aspects of a classic national security threat, one that deserves careful, rigorous, and thoughtful attention. Unless and until we develop an effective vaccine the risks seem to be incalculably dire.
It should be noted as well that banking on the humanity of our adversaries is not a viable option.
[10/20/14 Previously the Huffington Post has published over a dozen of my essays. This one is the first they've declined, and without giving any reason. OK. I'll be absolutely delighted to be proved wrong!]