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Five Years Later

Michael Tanji | The Weekly Standard | Friday, September 8, 2006

Five Years Later

FIVE YEARS AFTER the attacks of September 11, 2001, we face many threats at home and abroad, yet our response has been mostly superficial and expedient. One is left to wonder: Are we serious about winning this fight?

Al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri recently called for an expansion of the fight against the West and pointing out that future attacks could take place anywhere in the world. This kind of talk from radical Islamic quarters is not new; in fact, we have been suffering both the rhetoric and the actions of these terrorists for nearly 30 years. Yet we declared the war on terror only after we had run out of cheeks to turn--and still the media call terrorists "militants" and practically use air-quotes when mentioning the conflict. They are similarly squeamish about any attempt to communicate the positive gains made thus far in the war. Yet using the body counts--primarily of American bodies--to measure success or failure is as misleading today as it was 40 years ago.

While it is true that our adversaries in the war on terror may look Middle Eastern, Asian, or Caucasian, the overwhelming majority of those who conduct terrorist attacks against Americans look a lot more like Zacarias Moussaoui than John Walker Lindh. Nevertheless, we have refused to concentrate our security efforts on those who match the threat profile. We are told that profiling would be racist--but also that it makes little sense because al Qaeda is seeking recruits with "Western" looks.

So then the only thing that distinguishes innocent Alice from Jihadi Bob is how Bob behaves. Our security agencies realize this, so they sort through data sets like phone records, financial transactions, and Internet traffic that may point to the odd Bob in a sea of Alices. It is an approach that makes sense in the digital age. Yet politically cowed security mavens and narrow-minded law enforcement agents label such efforts a waste of time and resources--never mind that electronic surveillance of terrorist phone calls and web activity led to the arrests of 17 Canadian jihadists in June who allegedly attempted to acquire 3 tons of explosive material for use against targets in Ontario. Then in August, over 20 U.K.-based jihadists planning to blow up as many as 10 commercial airliners were arrested after authorities monitored phone, financial, and Internet activities.

IN THE WAKE of 9/11 we were told that our intelligence agencies had failed us. What are we to make, then, of the FBI agents in Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Yemen who, each in his own way, uncovered a portion of the 9/11 plot before it happened? Remember Julie Sirrs? Late of the Defense Intelligence Agency, she traveled to Afghanistan in 2001, then warned the intelligence community of the growing threat posed by bin Laden. Let's not forget the Defense Department's Able Danger data mining project that by some accounts connected more 9/11-related dots before the attack than all the aforementioned efforts combined. The intrepid Sirrs was forced out of service. Able Danger was shut down and its data was destroyed. If there was a failure in the system, it was the longstanding practice of giving the bum's rush to those with the resolve and temerity to make the correct, if unpopular, assessments.

Precious few Americans acknowledge, much less behave as if, there is a war on. Those with family or friends in the military have a sense of what time it is, but there is no serious effort to mobilize the general public to support our efforts in the fight. We rightly focus on the grief of gold star mothers, yet we balk at deliberately celebrating the heroic efforts of veterans for fear of being labeled "propagandists." If we live in a nation where most of the population need neither fight nor suffer when a war is on, then widespread and public acknowledgement of the bravery and sacrifice of those who repeatedly volunteer to enter the fray is the least we can offer.

FIGHTING AND WINNING A WAR demands that hard choices be made, yet Americans seem more accustomed to watering down an effective solution and calling it a middle way. Unfortunately, as oversight committees and the government's General Accountability Office have recently reported, implementing even the modest changes approved in the wake of September 11 seems to have been beyond the capabilities of the current leadership of our national security apparatus. No one expects a perfect solution to arise from the chaos of national crisis. But a significant body of work related to defense, homeland security, and intelligence reform was compiled long before 9/11, and most of it was either ignored or given short shrift. The security of the nation and the safety of her people are not pork-barrel projects to be bargained for. We need leaders who will give serious consideration to some badly needed course corrections.

First, let us start speaking plainly. We are fighting Muslims. Not all Muslims, but Muslims nonetheless. It may be un-PC, but there is nothing wrong with talking about our adversary in accurate, if broad. terms. Minutely parsing every ethnic or religious qualifier is both bewildering and tiresome. Rational people of every ilk know when you are trying to offend and when you are not; thinking that we can win over the irrational with flowery language is a waste of time.

Second, Americans are a diverse and diverse-looking lot, but by and large our adversary is neither. In the wake of the recently disrupted terrorist plot in the U.K., British transportation security officials are reportedly considering adding ethnicity to their passenger screening regimen. They recognize the folly of denying that ethnic background is a factor in this fight, and we should do the same. Providing special scrutiny at the border or airport security checkpoint for every person who fits the terrorist profile wouldn't keep us perfectly safe, but it would catch the low-hanging fruit and offer some deterrence. Profiling people based on their behavior--currently only a pilot program at select airports--should be implemented nationwide as soon as possible. Indeed, overcoming our fear of the very word "profiling" is important to protecting American lives.

Third, recognize that privacy in the information age is a fleeting thing. We do not have real privacy laws in this country; we have laws that attempt to make us whole after our personal information has been abused. People think nothing of turning over private information to save a few pennies on gas or dog food, but heaven forbid the government sort through that same data to keep us safe.

Remember that any of the enemies among us aren't living in a cave; they use the same credit cards, shop at the same stores, and use the same Internet we do. No one proposes a crude rifling of office files or rummaging through personal lives: Data mining exploits information at the aggregate level, searching out suspicious patterns of activity in trillions of anonymous transactions. This is not surveillance--no conversation is listened to or recorded; no one is watched--and the effort to use it to foil terrorists and save lives is justified.

Next, remember that the real impediment to reforming our intelligence system is not imperfect policies or a poorly designed system but the inability of remnants of the Cold War leadership to accept that we are not fighting another monstrous hierarchy with well-defined borders and known allies. That we have barely advanced in five years is a clear indication that there is little motivation to change the status quo--hardly surprising, considering that we've recycled our intelligence workforce instead of reinvigorating it. Shuffling and re-titling the same people who contributed to past failures is setting us up for future ones. Changes in policy and a more effectively designed intelligence system will come only when people who have no vested interest in the old ways are at the helm.

IT WOULD BE NICE TO THINK that we could actually improve our ability to fight and win the war on terrorism by logically examining pertinent data and drawing lessons from mistakes. However, as recent history has shown, the more likely outcome is that we will apply a series of ill-conceived and hastily approved band aids. Making real progress in the war would require that our leaders talk regularly and plainly about uncomfortable and complex issues.

Regrettably, we may have to relearn the lessons of five years ago. As long as we continue to engage in mere quasi-war, another attack on our homeland remains a real possibility. If we are going to avoid that eventuality, we need to change. We need to forge a culture of courage, clarity, and forthrightness in dealing with threats to our national security.

Michael Tanji is a former senior U.S. intelligence officer and an associate of the Terrorism Research Center. He opines at blog.groupintel.com.
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