Since 9/11, it has been generally assumed that Islamic extremists have an almost infinite capacity to wreak large-scale destruction in the U.S. The most pressing question for homeland security officials accordingly was: How do we shore up the country’s equally limitless vulnerabilities? There is reason to think, however, that we may have overestimated Muslim terrorists’ reach. To find out whether this is true, the next stage of the homeland security enterprise should be oriented around one overriding goal: determining the actual capacity of jihadists to strike the U.S. That means ramping up our intelligence efforts and facing down privacy zealots and civil libertarian extremists, who continue to impede those efforts at every turn.
In assessing where the country is five years after 9/11, we need to begin by recognizing that security and intelligence reforms have made it much harder for an Islamic terrorist to get into the country and inflict large-scale damage. No would-be hijacker, for example, will be able to commandeer an airplane again, thanks to strengthened cockpit doors and inevitable passenger resistance. Meanwhile, plastic explosives, botulism and dynamite are tightly controlled, and bulk sellers of fertilizer know their regular customers and would likely report a suspicious purchase.
Nor is there evidence that terrorists abroad have any nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, or could obtain them in the foreseeable future. Trying to amass WMD capacity makes a terror cell much more vulnerable to detection, a risk that so far may have helped tip the balance in favor of more conventional weapons. Better screening of people and cargo passing through official ports of entry and better information from our overseas partners after 9/11 have made coming into the U.S. with malevolent intent and a big weapon significantly more challenging.
The domestic plots uncovered so far do not suggest that at present we face anything like an omnipresent, omnipotent enemy; wanting to bring down the Sears Tower and being able to do so are very different matters. “None of those plots should scare you,” a former government counterterrorism expert who spent years overseeing terrorism investigations told meâ€”off the record. Another intelligence official of even higher rank admitsâ€”also off the recordâ€”that “most of the threats have been aspirational, not operational.”
Yet the security-industrial complex continues to trumpet the notion that we are everywhere under growing threatâ€”enabled by politicians unable or unwilling to understand risk analysis but quick to denounce even a rational decision by the federal government to ignore low-priority vulnerabilities. Grandstanding legislators, for example, preposterously demanded that every cargo container entering a U.S. port be screened for nuclear material following the Dubai ports controversy; similar calls for universal luggage screening have followed the abortive London airline bombing plot.
From now on, every new claim of a supposedly vulnerable target should be accompanied by evidence that some terrorist somewhere has even a fantasy wish to strike it and a remotely credible ability to do so. Alsoâ€”and most cruciallyâ€”the knowledge deficit regarding terrorist capacity must narrow, through deployment of every possible information-gathering method.
The London airline plan was uncovered thanks to several informants. The FBI has tried to build relationships with American Muslim communities in the hope of similar leads, should any domestic terror cells exist. Yet that effort has been jeopardized by the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations’s campaign to portray every security initiative since 9/11 as the product of racism and religious bigotry.
This obstructionism recurs in each intelligence domain. The interrogation of terrorism suspects abroad provides crucial intelligence about possible future plots in the U.S. But military interrogators now shrink from using techniques common in every police station across the country, thanks to the overreaction to the real prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the ginned-up abuse at Guantanamo Bay by advocates who view interrogation itself as a human-rights violation.
Anti-Western jihadists depend on Western communications technology to organize themselves and plan their strikes. That dependency is their greatest Achilles heel. We built the technology, we should certainly be able to use it against them more effectively than they use it against usâ€”if the privacy advocates didn’t object.
Ideally, every time a jihadist sends an email, transfers funds over the Internet, or talks on a cell phone, he should face a risk of detection. Jihadist Web sites, for example, teach aspiring terrorists to frequently switch their cell phones’ SIM cards (the internal computer chips that contain a phone subscriber’s identifying information). Data mining programs should be monitoring cell phone signals for this potentially suspicious behavior, as well as a host of other activities in cyberspace that can signify terrorist intentions.
Yet under pressure from cyber-libertarians, the Senate killed Pentagon research into this vital technology in 2003, despite powerful privacy protections that were built into the proposed programs. Ever since then, even non-government scientists and companies have shunned antiterror technology work for fear of being attacked by privacy crusaders. Congress should reverse its Luddite ban on data mining and establish legal authority for its application throughout the intelligence community. And the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must be amended to permit maximum use of computer technology in tracking terrorist phone conversations, so that programs like the NSA’s international phone surveillance program can proceed with full legal authority.
Even if intelligence analysts start collecting better information about terrorist capacities, however, cultural barriers remain to sharing it. To be sure, real progress has been made in encouraging cooperation among agencies and in integrating intelligence. Still, a high-ranking NSA official was reportedly denied entry to the office of his counterpart in DHS recentlyâ€”because he had not yet received a new type of security clearance. Analysts continue to conceal their intelligence sources and methods from other agencies’ analysts.
Meanwhile, DHS and the FBI battle on over command of domestic intelligence functions. DHS is currently claiming the right to direct the flow of terrorism information between the federal and local governments, but has persuaded few people outside its own precincts that it has the ability to do so. The department remains an unwieldy mess, overwhelmed by congressional mandates, and unable to set priorities among them.
Should we start getting more intelligence and analyzing it more effectively, we may confirm that terror spending should continue to rise sharply. Our vulnerabilities, we may discover, are matched by our Islamic enemies’ current capacities or likely future strength. Such an intelligence push may, however, end up denying the jihadists’ their greatest weapon—limitless fear. Such fear can turn even a failed plot into a resounding success by provoking a massive overreaction, an overreaction premised on the belief that another attack is just around the corner. According to several security experts, the response to the London airline plot represents just such a multibillion-dollar excess.
Vigilance against terrorism will always be necessary. But we may help the fight by ratcheting down the apocalyptic rhetoric just a few notchesâ€”should counterterrorism intelligence support such a de-escalation.