Green Room

Terror Prevention: What a Difference a Day in September Made

posted at 7:05 pm on October 1, 2010 by

If you have the perspective of informed hindsight – if you knew what the intelligence was in the months before 9/11 – then the information about the latest mega-plot to attack Western targets, and the peremptory response being mounted to it, are a study in moral contrasts.

The moral contrast lies in what we were willing to do before 9/11 and what we are willing to do today.  The basis for comparison is strong:  the character of information that tipped us to the threat before 9/11 was the same thing as what tipped us to the threat being revealed this week.  Consider these passages from one of ABC’s earliest reports on the current plan against Europe and the US (linked by AP here):

A senior US official said that while there is a “credible” threat, no specific time or place is known. President Obama has been briefed about the threat, say senior US officials…

In testimony before Congress last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, “We are all seeing increased activity by a more diverse set of groups and a more diverse set of threats.”

And this one from Newsweek (h/t AP again; link at top):

For weeks now, as missiles from American drones have snuffed out their leaders and terrorized their recruits in the remote mountains of Pakistan’s North Waziristan area, Al Qaeda fighters have kept their spirits up by telling each other they were about to have their revenge. “It’s like they’ve just been waiting for news, as if they were all excited about something big about to happen in the West,” says an Afghan Taliban intelligence officer known to NEWSWEEK who operates as a liaison between his organization and Al Qaeda.

A credible threat; no specific time or place known; increased activity by multiple groups; terrorist operatives talking about “something big” that was going to be done against the West – that describes perfectly the organized information US and other Western authorities had to work with before 9/11.

What we did not have before 9/11 was a military occupation and a cooperative government in Afghanistan, a detention center for terrorists in Bagram, a detainee interrogation program, the agreements with dozens of nations to take preemptive action against terrorists, or the willingness on our part to repeatedly conduct military attacks on terrorists operating in other nations’ sovereign territory, even when the other nations object (as Pakistan is doing), and when the terrorists haven’t committed their atrocities against us yet.

Each one of these measures and agreements has been essential to identifying the particulars of the current plot and acting effectively to avert it.  In the absence of 9/11 itself, I cannot imagine Americans or other Western nations deciding to institute such measures or agreements.  Yet if we were not willing to occupy the territory used by terrorists, and detain terrorists, interrogate them, and attack them in their strongholds before they can pull their plans off, we would be talking this fall about smoking rubble and charred bodies in Europe instead of terrorists being killed and their plots defeated.

Actionable prior intelligence on terror plots doesn’t just happen.  The main things it takes are the things we weren’t willing to do – had no idea of doing – before 9/11.  The events of the past week have clarified that, with a starkness we haven’t seen for quite a while. Something Americans must not forget is that if we weren’t keeping the nexus of this effort overseas, the price we would be paying would not just involve taking hits from terror attacks.  Our people would be unwilling to simply do nothing and wait for the next hit.  We would be focusing “prevention” inward – with less of an operational effect, but nevertheless rapidly destroying the civil liberties that make it matter to be an American in the first place.

I have strong reservations about Obama’s heavy reliance on drone strikes, which perilously skirts an ugly, amoral cynicism.  In fact, I’m quite concerned about the direction he is taking our operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  But with the larger strategy of fighting this war forward, we must agree, if we want to keep our own freedoms and have the highest likelihood of preventing future attacks.  This war, started on George W. Bush’s terms, has had its “goods and others,” but it does ultimately represent the lowest cost of any alternative we have.

Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.

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And what was that we heard from BarryO last week about absorbing an attack? A pre-press release.

Robert17 on October 1, 2010 at 7:24 PM

A senior US official said that while there is a “credible” threat, no specific time or place is known.

And apparently no general time nor place either. This is worthless.

Luka on October 1, 2010 at 7:44 PM

This war, started on George W. Bush’s terms, has had its “goods and others,” but it does ultimately represent the lowest cost of any alternative we have.

If endless Shariah Nation Building in Iraq and Afghanistan ‘ultimately represent the lowest cost of any alternative we have’ we might as well bend over and kiss our asses goodbye.

Luka on October 1, 2010 at 7:48 PM

This war…does ultimately represent the lowest cost of any alternative we have.

Then we’re hosed. We simply can’t afford this kind of conflict – not in terms of financial power, nor manpower, nor willpower.

To put it quite bluntly, we either find a way to fight that isn’t so expensive or the jihadis just have to stay in the game until our topheavy system collapses. The USA used the exact same tactic on the Soviet Union and it worked brilliantly.

Dark-Star on October 1, 2010 at 11:16 PM

Actually, Dark-Star, it was very expensive to defeat the Soviet Union. In my view, we made it cost more than it had to in the 35 years before Reagan took office, by repeatedly pulling our punches. The concept of deterrence worked a lot better against us than it did against the Soviets.

But even during the Reagan years, one of the highest cards in our royal flush was money. You also may not remember this, but we had more citizens under arms then than we do now (and way more of all our major weapon systems). Reagan got a lot of grief for proposing to “break America” with his defense spending, and of course he was considered a warmonger who was putting us on an unsustainable footing.

The analogy is not exact, of course, partly because terrorism is a different problem from Soviet Communism. You can’t defeat terrorism by reducing one key government to weariness and self-doubt. The role of government sponsors is a sort of necessary but not sufficient quantity — and therefore, defeating governments is necessary but not sufficient to defeating terrorism. In a sense, the Soviets had made it easy for us to scope the problem by operating conventionally through the nation-state, which terrorists don’t do.

But we didn’t think it was easy at the time. At the time, it looked like a problem we’d never encountered before: the Soviets didn’t play fair and were always fomenting proxy revolutions and running fifth columns.

A major part of everyone’s sense of weariness today is having Obama in office. Americans truly haven’t been this pessimistic since Jimmy Carter. Obama is prosecuting the campaign in Afghanistan badly and giving the Taliban and AQ hope that we’ll do ourselves in and fold. The whole thing could be going differently, with the same number of troops and the same military leadership, if we had a different administration in the Oval Office.

There’s no magic pill, but I think we will find a way to put our effort in just the right places, as Reagan did in the 1980s. I have an idea where that might be, but I’m not sure Americans are ready to think in those terms yet.

J.E. Dyer on October 1, 2010 at 11:44 PM

J.E. Dyer on October 1, 2010 at 11:44 PM

We waged a terror war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and it was pretty cost effective. We just passed cash and arms over to a third party and they waged war on our behalf. We unleashed maniacs against them and we took out expensive equipment with relatively cheap arms. And the initial drive was started by Carter not Reagan. Granted he may not have understood what he initially signed up for it was Carter who signed the funding for the initial push in Afghanistan adn the straight up Cold War.

Explain how Obama is prosecuting the war in Aghanistan badly. It seems to many in the defense world that assets which could and should have been used in Afghanistan were focused in Iraq and a real opportunity to build on initial gains was wasted.

Reagan enjoyed inheriting a credit balance when he took office. Obama is does not have that luxury. Deficit spending… remember when that was a new idea?

lexhamfox on October 2, 2010 at 3:49 AM

Deficit spending… remember when that was a new idea?

lexhamfox on October 2, 2010 at 3:49 AM

Oh puh-leez! Keynesian economics has been around a lot longer than Keynes has!

gryphon202 on October 2, 2010 at 4:07 AM

gryphon202 on October 2, 2010 at 4:07 AM

Yes.. It certainly predates the post-war curve I am referring to. I stand corrected on that. Thanks.

lexhamfox on October 2, 2010 at 5:01 AM

When Bush does it, it just creates more terrorists, when Obama does it, it solves the problem with no negative follow on effects.

astonerii on October 2, 2010 at 1:28 PM