Counterterrorism Myths and Failures

At the National War College, the first lecture in a course titled "Homeland Security" was scheduled for September 11. A quote from a 1999 report by the United States Commission on National Security introduces the lecture:

America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland, and our military superiority will not entirely protect us.

The National War College is a joint effort of the Armed Forces and the Department of State, training military and civilian leaders in national security matters. The timing of the introductory lecture on Homeland Security -- an elective course -- was exceptionally ironic, coming as it did on the very day that U.S. homeland security was breached with unprecedented violence and impact. This is just one example of the many ways in which protecting the nation from domestic terrorism has failed to attain priority with this administration, or previous administrations, or Congress.

Since 1997 when a Pentagon study group reported that the domestic civilian population faced a growing threat from terrorist violence, a series of commissions and adminstrative directives have attempted to tackle the problem of homeland security. In 1998 President Clinton established the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office (CIAO) inside the National Security Council. The Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction (also known as The Gilmore Commission) was established by Congress in 1999. Congress also created the Commission on National Security, headed by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman. The commission concluded, "A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter-century. The risk is not only death and destruction but also a demoralization that could undermine U.S. global leadership. In the face of this threat, our nation has no coherent or integrated governmental structures."

Writing in the February 2001 issue of National Defense magazine, Charles R. Bell urged the Bush administration to adopt the recommendations of the Gilmore commission. In particular, the article endorsed the commission's recommendation to create a National Office for Combating Terrorism within the executive office of the president. A high-level, independent office, Bell argued, would avoid squabbling between FEMA and the FBI, whose National Domestic Preparedness office deals with domestic terrorism. It would also more easily address the dual domestic/international aspects of terrorism than FEMA or the FBI, whose dominant concerns are domestic. Bell points out that many components required for effective prevention of and response to terrorist actions are in place within the Armed Forces, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Justice, but that what primarily is lacking is an "overarching organizational framework."

Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri had introduced a bill (H.R. 1292) on March 29 that would have implemented many of the recommendations of the Hart/Rudman commission. As a product of the Clinton administration the bill was mired in committee while the Bush administration pursued other priorities, primariliy its tax cut for the rich. Nominally, the delay of H.R. 1292 was so the administration could have time to develop its own strategy. In June, however, the conservative news weekly Insight published by The Washington Times, owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and a "usually reliable source" of Bush administration spin, admitted that there was no strategy. Mark DeMier of ANSER Analytic Services, a nonprofit U.S. Air Force-funded think tank, and editor of its Homeland Security Bulletin is quoted as saying."There is no single, coordinated U.S. government definition of 'homeland defense'."

In typical fashion, Bush's hesitant moves toward implementing a homeland security policy centered around political patronage and placating business. Determined to reject any product of the Clinton administration, Bush tasked Vice President Cheney with developing a terrorism-response plan, as if the Gilmore and Hart/Rudman commissions never existed. And he assigned the responsibility for implementing the plan to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), headed by former Bush campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh. With no experience in disaster management, Allbaugh's principal qualification for the FEMA job is detailed knowledge of the demographics of Bush supporters and political contributors. Thus the terrorism-response plan implementation would be guaranteed to benefit Bush corporate contributors maximally. The main objection by the Bush administration and other conservatives to the CIAO recommendations is that they "could not be translated into business terms that corporate boards and senior management could understand." It's not clear whether they wanted the recommendations to be dumbed down, or simply that corporate managers found them objectionable. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack, Bush finally created a cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security, and appointed Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.

Aviation safety and security had received considerable government attention, even before the 1997 Pentagon terrorism study. In 1996 then-President Clinton asked Vice President Gore to chair a commission on improving air transportation safety. The commission's report, issued in February 1997, included the following recommendations:

  • Treat aviation security as a national security issue, and providing appropriate funding.
  • Mandate security enhancements, including explosive detection, automated bag matching, and profiling programs.
  • Work with airlines and airports to ensure positive identification of passengers.
  • Work to improve air transportation security internationally.
  • Control access to aircraft and improve physical security.

In the wake of the crash of TWA Flight 800, airline crash victims' advocates on the Gore panel called the recommendations a "whitewash", because it left implementation to the FAA. Nonetheless, some in the airline industry questioned that security was even an issue. This attitude was exmplified by TWA spokesman John McDonald, quoted by Newsday as saying, "TWA last year carried 21 million people and we didn't have a single plane blown out of the sky by someone who carried a bomb on the plane through security. I don't see it as an issue. The reality is, it hasn't occurred." Other industry spokespeople argued that increased security measures would be disruptive as well as costly, because they would frighten away passengers. Susan Rork, managing director of security for the Air Transport Association of America, the industry's lobbying group, said, "We sell an illusion. Travel is supposed to be pleasant."

The airline industry promoted their views with political contributions and lobbying. Over a two-year period, airline political action committees contributed to 24 of the 25 members of the House subcommittee on aviation. They also contributed to eight of the nine Republicans on the Senate aviation subcommittee, but to only one of eight Democrats. Airlines and related groups, including airline employee unions, distributed more than $2 million in contributions to hundreds of candidates during the 1995-1996 campaigns. Lobbyists included former Labor Secretary Ann D. McLaughlin, who headed the 1990 Bush Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism. A so-called "legislative action" -- a lobbying position paper -- by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association claimed that the commission had overstepped its mandate by recommending "aviation user fees" to pay for its proposed security improvements.

The industry position was supported by the conservative press, with most arguments denouncing the commission recommendations as not "cost effective" A March 1997 New Republic article titled "Hot Air" complained "Israel's El Al Airlines demands a 100 percent match of bags to passengers for every flight. That makes El Al flights a lot safer, but it takes a great deal of time. As Tuvia W. Livneh, El Al's security chief from 1987 to 1993, explained to The Washington Post, to 'search for one piece of luggage from one passenger who left the plane and to take it out of a 747 container ... will take you four hours, and here at El Al we will do it.' A full bag-passenger match in the U.S. could conceivably paralyze the entire air transportation system.", concluding, "On a cost-effective basis, the recommendations simply don't add up....neither commission's recommendations are likely to go anywhere. They are the leftovers from a terrorism scare...."

As Paul Krugman pointed out in a recent op-ed piece, airport security is treated as a law enforcement issue in Europe, funded by airports or the national government. In the U.S. it's a perfect example of "privatization," paid for by the airlines. Robert Crandall, chairman of American Airlines, proposed in 1997 that responsibility for airport security be be given to a national nonprofit corporation. But congressional and public opinion favored reducing the role of government, not expanding it, and the proposal went nowhere. Then, like now -- at least prior to September 11 -- the Republican Congress opposed any increase in government spending that was not explicitly military. In 1996 a panel on airline security proposed spending about $1 billion, or $2 per passenger, on improvements. But it rejected the idea that they be funded by an airport tax, arguing that general revenues be used. That, of course, would have required Congress to act, and it didn't. Krugman concludes "we have nickel-and-dimed ourselves to death."

As with the Gilmore commission and the Hart/Rudman commission, the Bush administration seems to be ignoring the recommendations of the Gore commission. Consistent with its practice of pretending that industries can regulate themselves, the Bush Airport Security Task Force and the Aircraft Security Task Force are composed almost exclusively of airline industry representatives, including Herb Kelleher, chairman of the board of Southwest Airlines, Charles Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, Robert Baker, vice chairman of American Airlines; Robert Davis, a former vice president of Boeing.

Counterterrorism in general, despite billions of dollars spent since the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, has been singularly ineffective, as the events of September 11 demonstrated spectacularly. Writing in the July issue of The Atlantic Monthly, former CIA operative R.M. Gerecht refers to U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East as "a myth." Pakistani President Musharraf's recent agreement to allow U.S. forces to use Pakistani airspace and share intelligence represents a break with Pakistan's previous position. According to Gerecht, Pakistan resisted assisting the U.S. in its pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, primarily because of U.S. opposition to Pakistan's successful nuclear weapons program. Such assistance is crucial, in part, because Bin Laden's operatives use Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier, as their modem, phone, and fax link to the rest of the world. Even with Pakistani cooperation, the CIA may not be able to mount an effective counterterrorism operation against Bin Laden. Gerecht argues that "The only effective way to run offensive counterterrorist operations against Islamic radicals in more or less hostile territory is with 'non-official-cover' officers—operatives who are in no way openly attached to the U.S. government." Currently, most of these are "a group of fake businessmen who live in big houses overseas."

A former senior Near East Division operative says:

"The CIA probably doesn't have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan. For Christ's sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We don't do that kind of thing." A younger case officer boils the problem down even further: "Operations that include diarrhea as a way of life don't happen."

According to Gerecht, the culture of intelligence officers and diplomats in the field is so risk averse that "Unless one of bin
Ladin's foot soldiers walks through the door of a U.S. consulate or embassy, the odds that a CIA counterterrorist officer will ever see
one are extremely poor." Moreover, throughout the entire ten-year Soviet-Afghan war, the CIA never developed a team of Afghan experts. The first case officer with any proficiency in the Afghan language arrived in Afghanistan less than two years before the war ended. Headquarters rejected as too dangerous the suggestion of one case officer that intelligence could be gathered from the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.

Ahmad Shah Mas'ud was the ruler of northeastern Afghanistan, and the army he led is the only force that is still fighting the Taliban. (Mas'ud was killed September 9 by suicide bombers posing as an Arab news crew.) His army regularly engages Arab units connected to Bin Laden, and has captured Pakistani, Afghan, Chinese-Turkoman, and Arab fighters. The CIA first met Mas'ud in October of 1999, and as of the time of Gerecht's writing, had never debriefed any of Mas'ud's soldiers or prisoners. And despite the increased prominence of the Counterterrorism Center within the CIA during the 1980s, recruitment in the Near East remained confined to diplomatic and business conferences circles.

Ironically, Bin Laden himself was one of these high-level recruits, connected through his father to the Saudi royal family. At the onset of the Gulf War, Bin Laden recommended that Saudi Arabia rely on native soldiers. Despite the much-trumpted "success" of the Gulf War, led by Dubya's father, the euphemistically labeled "collateral damage" -- civilian casualties -- did not topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, and did create considerable anti-American sentiment in the region. In this climate of unrest Bin Laden found many Muslim recruits eager to redress grievances against the U.S.

Gerecht's criticism of CIA practices in the Near East seem borne out by recent history. As the LA Times reported, Bob Woodward and Vernon Loeb wrote recently that, "The CIA has been authorized since 1998 to use covert means to disrupt and preempt terrorist operations planned abroad by Saudi extremist Osama Bin Laden under a directive signed by President Bill Clinton and reaffirmed by President Bush this year, according to government sources." Clinton ordered bombing of Bin Laden's training camps in response to the bombing of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Prior to September 11, Bush administration policy was actually leaning toward support of the Taliban -- the faction in control of much of Afghanistan that is harboring Bin Laden. Last May drug enforcement officials lauded the regime's success at limiting opium production. A New York Times headline on May 20 proclaimed "Taliban's Ban On Poppy A Success, U.S. Aides Say," and went on to say,

The first American narcotics experts to go to Afghanistan under Taliban rule have concluded that the movement's ban on opium-poppy cultivation appears to have wiped out the world's largest crop in less than a year, officials said today.... The sudden turnaround by the Taliban, a move that left international drug experts stunned ... opens the way for American aid to the Afghan farmers who have stopped planting poppies. On [May 17], Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced a $43-million grant to Afghanistan in additional emergency aid to cope with the effects of a prolonged drought. The United States has become the biggest donor to help Afghanistan in the drought.

The episode is another example of the inconsistent and contradictory Bush administration foreign policy, and more specifically, Near East policy. "This is typical of the mixed signals we've been sending," wrote Robert Scheer in the LA Times recently. Scheer suggests that even this humanitarian aid sent an implicit message that harboring Bin Laden was "somehow acceptable."

CIA directory George Tenet has described the U.S. countererrorism program as "robust," and counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke describes Bin Laden's men staying awake at night "around the campfire ... worried stiff about who we're going to get next." The September 11 attack clearly calls such characterizations into question. Moreover, there is evidence that warnings by Israeli and Phillipine intelligence services about a pending attack went unheeded at the CIA.

More disturbingly, there are reports and evidence that the CIA was warned by Israeli intelligence services about the danger of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, up to a month before the recent events, and that some of the terrorists were known to have been traveling to and from the Phillipines for up to a year.

The Manila Times reported that four of the 19 terrorists identified by the FBI as having carried out the World Trade Center attack had been traveling in and out of the Phillipines for at least a year. Phillipine Presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao also stated that Ramzi Youssef, who was convicted in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had trained members of Abu Sayyaf -- a Phillipine Islamic extremist group -- in the use of explosives. "Yousef also ran a five-man terrorist cell in Manila in 1995, which he used as a base to manufacture and test bombs he planned to use in a plot to blow up planes bound for the US from Asian cities." Abu Sayyaf reportedly receives funding from Bin Laden, but there is a dispute within the Phillipine government as to whether the connection still exists.

Meanwhle, the Telegraph (UK) reported that two senior agents from Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, were sent to Washington in August, to warn the CIA and the FBI that a cell of up to 200 terrorists was preparing for a large-scale operation. Although they had no specific information about what was planned, they reportedly implicated Osama Bin Laden, and suggested that Iraq might also be involved. The CIA has denied that it had specific information that would have prevented the hijacking of civilian airliners that were crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

Likewise, the FBI has insisted that it had no reason to suspect that Islamic extremists were training at U.S. flight schools. The Boston Globe reported, however, that the vice president of such a school in Oklahoma told the paper he had been interviewed by FBI agents three weeks before the attack. He also said that the FBI had questioned him two years ago about a former student who had been identified as an associate of Bin Laden. Another associate of Bin Laden testified during the trial of the four men charged with the 1998 bombing of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that he had attended flight school in the U.S.

And the Foreign Report one of the respected Jane's publications, has suggested that the terrorist action on September 11 was sponsored by the Iraqi intelligence service, working through Imad Mughniyeh and Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri. Mughniyeh a Lebanese citizen and the head of special overseas operations for Hizbullah. Zawahiri is Egyptian and may be Osama Bin Laden's principal representative outside Afghanistan. According to the Foreign Report, Iraq has paid other groups to "do its dirty work" for several years. Sources in the Israeli military intelligence agency, Aman, report that two Iraqi intelligence officers shuttled between Baghdad and Afghanistan for the past two years, meeting with Al Zawahiri. The sources name Salah Suleiman as one of the officers, reportedly captured by Pakistan near the Afghan border last October. One source is quoted as saying, "We’ve only got scraps of information, not the full picture, but it was good enough for us to send a warning six weeks ago to our allies that an unprecedented massive terror attack was expected. One of our indications suggested that Imad Mughniyeh met with some of his dormant agents on secret trips to Germany. We believe that the operational brains behind the New-York attack were Mughniyeh and Zawahiri, who were probably financed and got some logistical support from the Iraqi Intelligence Service (SSO)."

Two of Mughniyeh's brothers were killed by Israeli/American intelligence operations -- one in retaliation for the murder-kidnaping of CIA Beirut head-of-station, William Buckley, and one in response to the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina. Mughniyeh has reportedly been the CIA's most wanted terrorist since Buckley was tortured and killed in 1984, allegedly by Mughniyeh himself.
Mughniyeh is believed to have tried to blow up an El Al plane over Tel Aviv in 1997, failing only because the bomb exploded while an operative was building it. Israeli intelligence says of Mughniyeh, "Bin Laden is a schoolboy in comparison with [him].... The guy is a genius, someone who refined the art of terrorism to its utmost level. We studied him and reached the conclusion that he is a clinical psychopath motivated by uncontrollable psychological reasons, which we have given up trying to understand."


Adair, Bill "FEMA director: Terrorist act could become turf war" St. Petersburg Times. 10 Jan. 2001

Waller, J. Michael "Preparing for The Next Pearl Harbor Attack"
Insight Jun. 2001

Kowal, Jessica and Carol Eisenberg "Despite Gore's prestige, his panel is unlikely to help make skies safer" Newsday 22 Dec. 1996

Gerecht, Reuel Marc "The Counterterrorist Myth" The Atlantic Monthly Jul. 2001

Scheer, Robert "CIA's Tracks Lead in Disastrous Circle" LA Times 17 Sep. 2001

Crossette, Barbara "Taliban's Ban On Poppy A Success, U.S. Aides Say" NY Times 20 May 20, 2001

Wastell, David and Philip Jacobson "Israeli security issued urgent warning to CIA of large-scale terror attacks" The Telegraph 16 Sep. 2001

Wolf, Jim "Intelligence Links Bin Laden to Wider Plot" Reuters. 22 Sep. 2001