In the 9/11 report, the Bush administration was quite rightly assigned a significant part of the blame for failing to anticipate and prevent the attacks. Similarly, the administration should also be assigned credit – in this case “negative” credit – for preventing, or at least delaying, any major subsequent domestic attack. This is not something that the administration can spend any time directly crowing about as the mere mention of such a thing is a direct challenge, and invitation even, to attack.
Daniel Byman, an assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, thinks it’s time to give credit where credit is due:
- since the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, pundits and policymakers have warned that additional spectacular terrorist attacks on the United States were inevitable.
I have long been part of this pack of doomsayers. My reasoning was simple. Well before Sept. 11, al-Qaida had brutally demonstrated both its desire to kill Americans and its ability to do so. If anything, the carnage of Sept. 11 bolstered the organization’s desire to kill large numbers of Americans. Al-Qaida had captured the world’s attention, brought the war home to America, and inflicted considerable economic damage to boot. If this was not incentive enough, the ousting of al-Qaida’s patron the Taliban, the arrest or death of many senior leaders at the hands of U.S. forces, and the worldwide hounding of al-Qaida operatives should have redoubled its determination to strike back. Indeed, a bloody al-Qaida response would have met with considerable applause in much of the Muslim world angered by the U.S. war against and occupation of Iraq.
….U.S. defenses are now better and popular vigilance is higher, making it more difficult for attackers to get through. The post-Sept. 11 FBI crackdown on potential terrorists and the increased scrutiny, however fumbling, of the various components of the Department of Homeland Security make it harder for radicals to strike. Most encouragingly, various FBI arrests do not suggest a massive logistics and recruiting infrastructure on U.S. soil.
But this is only a partial explanation, as FBI officials freely admit. The greatest blow to al-Qaida has come from the removal of its haven in Afghanistan and the disruption of the permissive environment it enjoyed in numerous countries in Europe and Asia. The leaders of the organization are under intense pressure, with killings and arrests commonplace. As a result, attacks that require meticulous planning and widespread coordination are far more difficult to carry out.
Al-Qaida has changed in response to these pressures. As former CIA Director George Tenet testified earlier this year, “Successive blows to al-Qaida’s central leadership have transformed the organization into a loose collection of regional networks that operate more autonomously.” Before Sept. 11, al-Qaida worked closely with various local jihadist movements, drawing on their personnel and logistics centers for its own efforts and working to knit the disparate movements together. Since 9/11, local group leaders have played a far more important role, taking the initiative in choosing targets and conducting operations, looking to al-Qaida more for inspiration than for direction.
….Sadly, less sophisticated attacks do not necessarily mean less lethal ones. It is easy to kill. In the past, terrorists without a sophisticated organization behind them have used arson, car bombs, assassinations, and other low-tech means to wreak havoc. Even the complete destruction of al-Qaeda would not end this threat.
National and local leaders must walk a careful line. The threat, of course, remains quite real, and doom-saying is always the safest political strategy. Outrages in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe also demonstrate that the battle against terrorists has only just begun. While many components of the U.S. war on terrorism are failing, others may be going better than we think—a statement that remains true even if there is another major attack on U.S. soil tomorrow. At some point, Americans should recognize that the safety we’ve enjoyed at home comes from more than dumb luck. [Slate]
And I would say that time is now as we enter the presidential election season in earnest.
The administration should also be given credit for responding favorably and with urgency to the 9/11 report, agreeing with the commission’s call for a unified and coordinated approach to intelligence:
- Bush announced his support Monday for a national intelligence chief and a national center to plan counterterror operations in the United States and abroad. On Tuesday, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee will discuss the counterterrorism center and the House Government Reform Committee (news – web sites) will hold hearings on how to reorganize executive branch agencies so they do a better job sharing information.
“All the institutions of our government must be fully prepared for a struggle against terror that will last into the future,” Bush said Monday in the Rose Garden. “Our goal is an integrated, unified national intelligence effort.”
The two proposals Bush embraced were the key recommendations of a bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“If Congress has the will, I believe we could enact intelligence reform legislation before we recess for the elections so that changes are in place before the year is over,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (news – web sites), D-Conn. “That’s an ambitious timetable. But I think it is justified, given that our country is under threat of attack.”
While Congress works on legislation to create the new intelligence director post, the president will tell the CIA (news – web sites) director to tap all the authority he has under current law to manage all 15 agencies, a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity.
….The president said the new reforms he’s proposing are in addition to steps the administration already has taken, such as refocusing the FBI (news – web sites) on terror threats, creating the Homeland Security Department, setting up the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and working to ensure a “seamless spread of information throughout our government.”
Kerry said Bush should have acted sooner. [AP]
Perhaps, but I’m not sure how he could have acted on the commission’s recommendations before the commission made recommendations.