Terror Prevention: What a Difference a Day in September Made
posted at 7:05 pm on October 1, 2010 by J.E. Dyer
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.