How Not to Do It: Countering Terrorism
By Veterans Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
SUBJECT: Countering Terrorism; How Not To Do It
On June 6, 2002, former FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and how the FBI could do a better job detecting and disrupting terrorism. Time magazine had acquired (not from Rowley) a long letter she wrote to FBI Director Mueller listing a string of lapses in the month before 9/11 that helped account for the failure to prevent the attacks. As painful and embarrassing as it was after such tragedy to unravel the mistakes, Rowley insisted that the unraveling was necessary in order to address effectively the threat of further terrorist attacks. Her VIPS colleagues asked Rowley to review what has happened in the five years since her testimony, and we have contributed to this memorandum. In what follows, Rowley outlines how the primacy given to PR and other political factors has encumbered still further the FBI’s ability to deal in reasonable and effective ways with the challenge of terrorism.
Given the effort that many of us have put into suggestions for reform, how satisfying it would be, were we able to report that appropriate correctives have been introduced to make us safer. But the bottom line is that the PR bromide to the effect that we are “safer” is incorrect. We are not safer. What follows will help explain why.
Wrong-headed actions and ideas had already taken root before that Senate hearing on June 6, 2002. Post 9/11 dragnet-detentions of innocents, official tolerance of torture (including abuse of U.S. citizens like John Walker Lindh), and panic-boosting color codes, had already been spawned from the mother of all slogans-“The Global War on Terror”-rhetorically useful, substantively inane. GWOT was about to spawn much worse.
Within a few hours of the Senate hearing five years ago, President George W. Bush reversed himself and made a surprise public announcement saying he would, after all, create a new Department of Homeland Security. The announcement seemed timed to relegate to the “in-other-news” category the disturbing things reported to the Senate earlier that day about the mistakes made during the weeks prior to 9/11. More important, the president’s decision itself was one of the most egregious examples of the doing-something-for-the-sake-of-appearing to-be-doing-something-against-terrorism syndrome.
As anyone who has worked in the federal bureaucracy could immediately recognize, the creation of DHS was clearly a gross misstep on a purely pragmatic level. It created chaos by throwing together 22 agencies with 180,000 workers-many of them in jobs vital to our nation’s security, both at home and abroad. It also enabled functionaries like the two Michaels-Brown and Chertoff-to immobilize key agencies like the previously well-run Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), leading to its feckless response to Hurricane Katrina.
Radical, Reckless Departures From the Law
There were so many other missteps, so much playing fast and loose with the law, that it is hard to know where to begin in critiquing the results. One transcendent error was the eagerness of senior political appointees to exploit the “9/11-Changed-Everything” chestnut to prime people into believing that effective detection and disruption of terrorism required radical departures from rules governing our criminal justice and intelligence collection systems. Departures from established law and policies were introduced quickly. Many of the worst of these came to light only later-extraordinary rendition, “black-site” imprisonment, torture, and eavesdropping without a warrant. (We now know that senior Justice Department officials strongly objected to the eavesdropping program.)
The first protests came from those most concerned with human rights and constitutional law. But, by and large, the fear-laden populace “didn’t get it.” The prevailing attitude seemed to be, “Who cares? I want to be safe.” Everyone wants security. But all too few recognize that security and liberty are basically flip sides of the same coin. Just as there can be no meaningful liberty in a situation devoid of security, there can be no real security in a situation devoid of liberty. It took a bit longer for pragmatists to observe and explain how the draconian steps departing from established law and policy-not to mention the knee-jerk collection and storing of virtually all available information on everyone- are not, for the most part, helping to improve the country’s security.
The parallel with the introduction of officially sanctioned torture is instructive. TV programs aside, many if not most Americans instinctively know there is something basically wrong with torture-that it is immoral as well as illegal and a violation of human rights. Pragmatists (experienced intelligence and law enforcement professionals, in particular) oppose torture because it does not work and often is counterproductive. Nevertheless, the president grabbed the headlines when he argued on Sept. 6, 2006 that “an alternative set of procedures” (already outlawed by the U.S. Army) for interrogation is required to extract information from terrorists. He then went on to intimidate a supine Congress into approving such procedures.
Virtually omitted from media coverage were the same-day remarks of the pragmatist chief of Army intelligence, Lt. Gen. John Kimmons, who conceded past “transgressions and mistakes” and made the Army’s view quite clear: “No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tells us that.”
Who should enjoy more credibility in this area, Bush or Kimmons?
The War on [fill in the blank]
“War! Huh… What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” This 1969 song lyric turns out to be even more applicable to Bush’s “global war on terror” than to the Vietnam War. As for “The War on Drugs,” that one was readily recognized as little more than a catchy metaphor helpful in arguing for budget increases. But the use of our armed forces for war in Iraq was guaranteed to be self-defeating and to increase the terrorist threat.
— Military weapons are inherently rough, crude tools. Our rhetoric makes bombs and missiles out to be capable of “surgical strikes,” but such weapons also injure and kill innocent men, women, and children, taking us down to the same low level inhabited by terrorists who rationalize the killing or injuring of civilians for their cause. Civilian casualties also serve to radicalize people and swell the terrorist ranks to the point where it becomes impossible for us to kill more terrorists than U.S. policy and actions create. (In one of his leaked memos, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked about that; he should have paused long enough to listen to the answer.) This inherent “squaring of the error” problem in applying military force in this context has been a boon to terrorist recruitment, and has spurred activity to the point of having actually quadrupled significant terrorist incidents worldwide.
— Declaring “war” on the tactic of terrorism elevates to statehood what actually may be scattered, disorganized individuals, sympathizers, and small groups. It empowers the terrorists as they add to their numbers and provides the status of statehood to what often should be regarded and treated as a rag-tag group of criminals.
— There is, of course, political advantage for a “war president” to rally Americans around the flag, but the negatives of the axioms “truth is the first casualty of war” and “all’s fair in love and war” far outweigh any positives. Ultimately, the recklessness and cover-up mid-wived by the “fog of war” (everything from the friendly fire that killed Pat Tillman to the torture at Abu Ghraib and other atrocities) just magnify the “squaring the error” effect. Judiciousness-and just plain smarts-tend to be sacrificed for quick action.
— Perhaps the most insidious blowback from war is that it weakens freedom and the rule of law inside the country waging it. James Madison was typically prescient in warning of this: “No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare;” and “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”
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