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9-11 past, present and future

By Alan Caruba
web posted September 12, 2005

It is fitting to review the failures and successes of our nation's intelligence and law enforcement agencies after the anniversary of September 11, 2001. We should celebrate the fact that there has not been a terrorist act since that dread date. We may never know how many plots have been thwarted, but we do know that the US has had real success in degrading the ability of our enemies to inflict harm upon us. So far.

There has been considerable debate over the failure to anticipate and stop what occurred on 9-11. The Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and, in general, our vast intelligence community of agencies have all been severely criticized. We owe a debt of gratitude, therefore, to Timothy Naftali, the author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism ($26.00, Basic Books) for a careful review of what went wrong and, in many cases, what was done right, often without public notice.

Hindsight gives critics an unearned sense of superiority, but what Naftali, an associate professor at the University of Virginia Miller Institute of Public Affairs, lays out in meticulous detail, is a picture of intelligence professionals struggling to do a difficult job often under circumstances limited by either an indifferent or vengeful Congress, as well as successive administrations whose attention span for terrorist threats waned or grew depending on who was in the Oval Office.

"After years of studying the intelligence and security world," writes Naftali, "I have come to believe less in the efficiency of conspiracies than I do in the inefficiency of government."

We tend to forget that US counterterrorism has been around for a long time, dating its modern origins to World War II. Since then, however, as a response to a variety of threats, the bureaucracy of intelligence (the CIA, the NSA, etc) has been steadily growing, along with that of the FBI, charged with acting against domestic criminal elements and spies.

Naftali reminds us that, "the concept of international terrorism had not emerged" during the late 1960's despite many separate incidents. It would take years for them to have a cumulative impact before being recognized as the work of groups that were often state-sponsored and funded, but claimed to be autonomous.

President Johnson was too involved in micromanaging the Vietnam War to pay much attention to counterterrorism. Nixon, despite being embroiled in Watergate in his second term, is credited with being the first to take the threat seriously, but as Naftali notes, "The terms international terrorist and international terrorism did not yet appear in high-level documents or in the national consciousness." It would take the Palestinian attack on Israel athletes at the 1972 Olympics to awaken the entire world to a deadly new threat that operated across national borders. Let me repeat that date: 1972.

The Ford administration paid little heed to the problem. The Carter administration failures actually emboldened terrorists. By then, however, everyone knew the problem of terrorism existed. It would take until 1978 before Congress initiated any legislative response.

In January 1981, in his inaugural address, Ronald Reagan was the first President to mention terrorism. Reagan's policies would bring the Soviet Union to its knees, but along the way, his administration had some terrible lessons to learn about international Islamic terrorism. A suicide bomber's 1983 attack on Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, would be one of them.

The pace of counterterrorism activity by our intelligence agencies increased, despite the lethal separation that denied the sharing of information between the FBI and CIA.

The Clinton administration has been accused of a number of intelligence failures and a feckless approach to international terrorism, but Naftali documents that it made serious efforts to deal with it. Clinton had, in fact, been elected on the promise to cut funding to both defense and intelligence. The first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 changed a lot of minds in the Clinton administration.

The WTC bombing was a wake-up call that revealed how "woefully unprepared" the government was when dealing with serious terrorist attacks at home. The Omnibus Counter-Terrorism Bill of 1995 was, at last, a step in the right direction. It was on Clinton's watch that al Qaeda bombed US embassies in Africa in 1998. Overall, diplomatically and militarily, the Clinton administration failed to respond forcefully to the increase in terrorism on its watch.

Naftali portrays Richard Clarke, a terrorism expert who had served the Ford administration and those that followed, as seemingly the only man who understood the threat al Qaeda posed. Time and again, working through the maze of the White House National Security Council, the CIA, and anyone else who might listen, he tried to raise awareness from president to president.

That would change on September 11, 2001. But then, everything changed after that fateful day.

It is easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize the nation's counterterrorism efforts, but what we now know is that good men and women were trying their best to protect us and often being thwarted by the massive, obdurate bureaucracy of their individual agencies, and by politicians looking backward at the Cold War, at the Vietnam War, at Watergate, while paying little notice to the gathering storm.

The reorganization of our significant anti-terrorism resources will, we're told, will avoid another 9-11, but we still must keep in mind that what has actually occurred. The Homeland Security Department is a further consolidation of an already immense intelligent community. As the Israelis learned after the Six-Day War in 1967, it is the very opposite of what is needed to avoid the next 9-11.

We may well have exchanged the "blind spots" of the past for newer, bigger ones.

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba, September 2005

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