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Are We Safer?

President Bush is fond of repeating, “We are fighting them over there so that we won’t have to fight them here at home.” As a slogan, this may be good politics. But as a counterterrorism strategy, it appears to be a disaster. Fighting them “over there” has since 2003 meant committing over one hundred thousand troops, hundreds of billions of dollars, and thousands of lives to a conflict in Iraq whose only clear connection to the “war on terror” has been its encouragement of terrorism. The US attack on Iraq has created the world’s principal breeding and training ground for anti-American terrorists. Many highly informed commentators have argued that the war in Iraq, based at best on faulty intelligence and at worst on outright lies, was a major diversion from the real enemy—al-Qaeda and the terrorists loosely linked with it, or inspired by it—and that the war with Iraq has therefore made us less secure.1

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, counterterrorism experts at the National Security Council under President Clinton, argue in their new book, The Next Attack, that the problem is more deep-rooted than the administration’s erroneous venture in Iraq. In their view, the Iraq war is a symptom of the Bush administration’s obsession with fighting an offensive “war on terror,” an obsession that has caused the administration to disregard the less glamorous but more crucial task of shoring up America’s defenses against future attacks. Committed to an outmoded strategy directed at states rather than the loose-knit non-state terrorist movements that actually threaten us, the administration sought out a state to attack, and after an initial and justifiable campaign in Afghanistan, invaded Iraq. But when it comes to fighting the decentralized threat of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, Benjamin and Simon maintain, the best defense is not a good offense, but a good defense.

Especially after the US and its local allies forced al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, the threat of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism is not centralized, but globalized and dispersed. The subway bombings in Madrid and London in 2003 and 2005 were the work not of disciplined al-Qaeda agents acting on orders from above but of small bands of young men with little or no connection to al-Qaeda, and little or no previous record as terrorists. Benjamin and Simon see these attacks as signs of a “new breed of self-starting terrorist cells,” and argue that the development of such cells has been vastly facilitated by the Internet. In 1998, they report, there were only twelve Web sites for terrorist groups; in 2005, there were 4,400. The Web sites spread both religious doctrine calling for violence and practical instructions for carrying it out. The consequences have been dire: according to the RAND Corporation, three quarters of all suicide bombings since 1968 took place in the four years after September 11.

Because the terrorist threat is decentralized and globalized, it cannot be fought by traditional military methods. There is no territory to take, no land to occupy, and, with few exceptions, no country to hold accountable. The target is constantly moving and growing. Benjamin and Simon suggest that we think of the terrorist threat as two concentric circles—a relatively small inner one consisting of committed terrorists, violently opposed to what they see as infidel Western governments and institutions, and a larger outer circle consisting of those susceptible of being moved to the inner circle. The challenge, they argue, is not only to find and incapacitate the inner circle, but also to reduce migration from the outer to the inner circle. Or, as Donald Rumsfeld asked in an October 2003 internal Pentagon memo, “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”2

Much of Benjamin and Simon’s book concentrates on the war with Iraq, which they view as having played into the terrorists’ hands. Drawing on their own experience and contacts when they were members of Clinton’s National Security Agency, they retell the now-familiar story of how the Bush administration was bent on regime change in Iraq almost from the day it took office. It started planning for war against Iraq immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11; pressured intelligence agencies to make a case for the invasion of Iraq; created its own ad hoc Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, headed by Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, to make the case when the intelligence agencies were reluctant to do so; and then failed to plan for the war’s aftermath. According to Benjamin and Simon, administration officials, certain that the US would be welcomed with open arms, literally prohibited planners from even considering the problem of postwar security.

There is little question that the Iraq war, instead of supporting the struggle against terror, has weakened it. In February 2005, CIA Director Porter Goss told Congress that “Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-US jihadists,” and those “who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of urban terrorism. They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups, and networks.”3 The military analyst Anthony Cordesman has identified thirty-two “adaptations” to US strategy that the insurgents have successfully made since the war began, including “mixed attacks” in which one bomb follows another with some delay, in order to maximize injury to police and rescue workers; more sophisticated surveillance of US forces and their allies; improved infiltration of the Iraqi military and police forces; and increasingly deadly improvised explosive devices. The insurgents have obtained access to large caches of Saddam Hussein’s arms that the US military failed to secure. And they have been able to demonstrate to the world their commitment and their willingness to die by daily attacks on the US and Iraqi military and police forces—many of them suicide attacks that are videotaped and promptly disseminated throughout the world via the Internet.

As Benjamin and Simon put it, the administration “failed the first test of military leadership. They did not know who their real enemy was.” The authors cite the constant bombing and heavy ground fire of the “shock and awe” campaign at the beginning of the Iraq war as an illustration of the problem. The bombing was effective for a few weeks in subduing Saddam Hussein. But if the enemy is a terrorist ideology spread throughout the Muslim diaspora, a “shock and awe” strategy is very likely to backfire by reinforcing the enemy’s description of the United States as an aggressive force without regard for the lives of innocent Muslims.

National security policy, the authors argue, should reject the model of a military “war on terror,” and instead adopt an intelligence-based approach that (1) seeks to identify, capture, and disrupt terrorists; (2) safeguards the most dangerous weapons to keep them out of terrorists’ hands; (3) identifies and protects the most vulnerable targets in the US; and (4) reduces the creation of new terrorists by addressing the grievances that drive people to extreme violence in the first place.

The Bush administration’s stubborn adherence to the traditional conception of war has caused it to disregard more important and effective defensive actions. The administration, Benjamin and Simon write, has failed to safeguard nuclear weapons materials in the former Soviet Union; failed to identify and protect the most vulnerable targets within the United States, such as water supplies; failed to work effectively with private businesses that are responsible for other vulnerable targets, such as chemical plants; and failed to increase in any significant measure the monitoring of container cargo at shipping ports, of which only one in twenty is inspected. According to the authors, the FBI is still so reluctant to adapt its methods to the realities of terrorism that it has used its intelligence “analysts” to take out the garbage and answer phones, the result being a very large turnover of employees who should be piecing together scraps of intelligence in order to find terrorists and disrupt their plans.

Benjamin and Simon’s critique of homeland security is largely corroborated by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission’s assessment in December 2005 of the Bush administration’s progress in fulfilling the forty-one recommendations in the commission’s Final Report, released in July 2004. Grading the administration on each of its recommended reforms, the 9/11 Commission gave it five F’s, twelve D’s, eight C’s, several incompletes, and only one A–. Among the measures that received either an F or a D are some of the most basic requirements of security. The administration was given a D for its identification of vulnerable potential targets, as well as for its efforts to secure weapons of mass destruction, its screening of checked luggage and cargo for explosives, its arrangements for sharing information among intelligence agencies, and its support of secular educational reform in Muslim countries. It received an F for, among other things, its failure to develop common standards with other nations for detaining and prosecuting terrorist suspects as well as for its failure to establish an effective program to screen airline passengers for potential terrorists.4


Benjamin and Simon’s diagnosis of the Bush administration as fixated on outdated conceptions of war is ironic, given the administration’s insistence that “everything changed” after September 11, and that it has adopted an entirely new model for fighting global terror. For example, the Pentagon’s National Security Strategy, issued in September 2002, advanced a new and controversial justification for going to war. It argued that in light of the threats now posed by weapons of mass destruction, war is justified not only when the nation is attacked or faces imminent attack—the only justifications for war recognized by international law—but also when the US faces a more speculative but potentially catastrophic future threat. This was the theory for the Iraq war. Since the administration could not argue that an attack by Iraq on the United States was imminent, it contended that the potential for attack with weapons of mass destruction at some undetermined time in the future was sufficient to justify a “preventive” war.

The administration has invoked a similar “preventive” rationale to defend the use of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment to interrogate al-Qaeda and other prisoners, maintaining that the information it obtains may help prevent future attacks. It has argued that the conflict with al-Qaeda is a new kind of war, and therefore traditionally recognized rules of war, such as affording detainees a hearing to decide whether they are in fact enemy combatants, and treating detainees humanely, do not apply.

Within the US, Attorney General John Ashcroft repeatedly promoted what he labeled a new “paradigm of prevention” in law enforcement. When the enemy is willing to commit suicide to inflict mass casualties on civilians, he argued, the US must act preemptively to prevent the next attack from occurring. On this theory, the administration subjected 80,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants to fingerprinting and registration, sought out 8,000 Arab and Muslim men for FBI interviews, and imprisoned over 5,000 foreign nationals in antiterrorism preventive detention initiatives. As part of this program, the government adopted an aggressive strategy of arrest and prosecution, holding people on minor charges—in fact pretexts—such as immigration violations, credit card fraud, or false statements, or, when it had no charges at all, as “material witnesses.”

  1. 1

    See, for example, Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (2004) and James Fallows’s “Bush’s Lost Year,” The Atlantic, October 2004.

  2. 2

    Memorandum from Donald Rumsfeld to Dick Myers et al., “Re: Global War on Terrorism,” October 16, 2003, available at www.globalsecurity.org /military/library/policy/dod/rumsfeld-d20031016sdmemo.htm.

  3. 3

    Hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, 109th Congress, 1st Session, February 16, 2005.

  4. 4

    Final Report on 9/11 Commission Recommendations,” December 5, 2005, available at www.9-11pdp.org/press/2005-12-05_report.pdf.

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