Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | October 1, 2010

Terror Prevention: What a Difference a Day in September Made

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 AllahPundit 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 AllahP 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 Hot Air.



  1. Could you clarify what you mean in your last two sentences?

    Why shouldn’t we use every technology at our disposal? Our enemies aren’t interested in a “fair” fight, are they?

    And, shouldn’t 9/11 have been thwarted had our agencies shared intelligence, such as the unusual number of Arab exchange students learning to fly?

    • No, 9/11 would not have been thwarted by the sharing of intelligence. It would probably have occurred on a different day, and been executed by a different set of plotters, but merely sharing intel (between the FBI and CIA) would not have been a magic pill.

      This is one of the hardest things for non-professionals to understand about the use of intelligence by decisionmakers. There is no such thing as slam-dunk intel that tells us, by its very nature, what we ought to do. There is only intel, on the one hand, and people’s opinions about its implications on the other. Under Democrats and Republicans we can actually have radically different opinions about what actions are indicated by intel. Even presidents and Congresses of the same party see implications differently over time.

      The actions we take when new intel comes in are dictated almost entirely by pre-existing political mindsets and expectations. Intel never rules a national security decision, nor should it. If we had put together the 9/11 plotter list by sharing FBI intel with the CIA (that was the direction it would have had to go to be useful), we could have identified and arrested maybe 5 or 6 of the attackers.

      But remember, we could not have interrogated them. I’m not sure why fuster asks below if we didn’t interrogate prisoners before 9/11, because he must know the answer. Of course we didn’t. We read them their rights and gave them lawyers. We didn’t learn all about their overseas networks or their future plans during the judicial process, because that wasn’t important to convicting them. When they were arrested overseas, they were dealt with according to the civil criminal laws of the other nations. The purpose in that case too was to get convictions, not to interrogate the prisoners for intelligence that would be useful to preemption in the United States.

      Treating terrorism as a law enforcement matter means operating on law enforcement’s methodology — and that means going for convictions, not intelligence. There are plenty of situations in which trying to get intelligence would actually jeopardize the conviction, by putting the prosecution in a dubious legal position. Prosecutors won’t go that route, and for good reason. Their job is convictions.

      If you think the law enforcement process prevents murders, then you might think it can prevent 9/11-type attacks. But I think it’s clear law enforcement doesn’t prevent every murder. We could have rolled up a handful of the 9/11 flight-school trainees, and others would simply have undertaken the attack at a different time. We may or may not have gotten detailed information from the arrestees about how exactly they would carry their attack out. At the time they were in flight school, they probably didn’t even know. We wouldn’t have known enough, at that point, to try to effectively search passengers beforehand. We wouldn’t have found out that there would be terrorist facilitators wearing credentials around the secure areas of the airports.

      Bottom line: arresting a handful of the 9/11 plotters when they were in flight school would not have prevented a 9/11-style attack. In fact, nothing we’re doing today is guaranteed to prevent one; it just puts us in a better position to see attacks coming and avert them. It takes cooperation from foreign governments in treating terrorists like war criminals — not civil criminals — and it takes presence overseas, the ability to round up terrorists ourselves on foreign soil, the ability to hold a gun on those who harbor them, and a set of other forensic activities in banking and communications, all of which the foreign countries and the American people ourselves would have objected to, as excessive and unwarranted, in the absence of the actual 9/11 attack.

      Regarding using every tool we have to fight the terrorists, I think we should certainly do that. The problem with Obama is that he’s not doing that. He is very clearly not putting a committed effort into securing a significant section of Afghanistan from the Taliban, so that the people and the government can find a way to resist and defeat that influence themselves. He has also signalled clearly that he only wants out of Iraq, and doesn’t much care how we leave it.

      The effect of this posture in Afghanistan is that Afghans are being killed in greater numbers by the Taliban. In the not too distant future, we are likely to see Iraqis being killed in greater numbers by terrorists, as US disengagement under Obama becomes more obvious. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, what the US does do is kill people from a stand-off distance. The point is clear: Obama doesn’t care how many Afghans are killed by the Taliban, he just wants to use Afghan territory as a sniper perch. (This is properly called the “Biden Strategy,” as I’ve discussed at contentions.)

      I can’t get behind that. It’s opportunistic, cynical, and amoral. It’s also unsustainable. The people themselves, the farmers and merchants, will become easy to galvanize against us, the longer we treat them like a morally meaningless convenience for our safe little sniper war.

      The difference with Bush was that he used drone attacks sparingly and concentrated on the tough work of making regime-change meaningful. His idea was to reverse the conditions that foster terrorism — and he actually acted on that principle in his strategy.

      I’m afraid I can’t agree with anyone who thinks we can fight this war effectively by simply killing lots and lots of terrorists, no matter how we do it. We can’t kill everyone who might become a Muslim radical, nor should we want to. That’s just not on the table. We certainly can’t kill everyone who has no intention of raising his or her hand against us, but who thinks it’s right for us to gradually, little by little, become ruled by Islam. There is no moral finality in open-ended killing; there is only the perpetuation of grievance and guilt. Not to mention bloodshed. As tough as it is for many Americans to get their minds around, we really do have to persuade Muslims to reject Islamism. We have to do what Bush started. We probably have to find ways to do it better, but it has to be done.

      • Thank you for the explanation.

        I know if the queen had a &$!@ (male member), she’d be the king, but, still, I wonder if Justice’s firewalls, brought to us thanks to Democrats in power, Democrats like Jaime Gorelick, if those firewalls were down, we might have been able to confiscate computers and follow the pilots in training and maybe we could have prevented such a devastating blow.

        Bush had Massoud, right? Whom do we have now that he is long gone? Without people likeMassoud to help in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, perhaps resorting to sniper perches is the best we can do.

        We have to convince Moslems to not back their Islamists? OK. How is that working for the Brits and Canadians? How is it working here, where their major organizations bleat about Islamophobia very loudly and occassionally maintain their opposition to terror rather quietly?

        • I think we can only answer your questions after we’ve actually started trying to change the minds of Muslims in our midst about Islamism, Scientific Socialist. No one has started doing that yet: not the US, not the Brits, not Canada. So at this point, there’s no effort whose results we can judge.

          This is a harder problem than the Cold War, because the explicit point of contention is a religious belief. A lot of people like to say Islam isn’t a religion, but that’s not accurate. Islam isn’t a WESTERN-style religion. But it’s a religion, all right. It purports to fill the need in people for a connection with God.

          The difficulty of the project before us is that it can’t be accomplished by the force of the state. Even if we Americans thought it was a good idea to try to separate Muslims from Islamism by national force, it still wouldn’t work. It never does. There are things only time and contact with our society can accomplish — things that can’t be forced by government to happen quickly.

          But we will win Muslims over only if we are certain that our beliefs about intellectual freedom are better, and are worth enforcing when Islam starts making little demands on them. We won’t win Muslims by shouting “Socrates is great!” at them and then blowing them up; our posture has to be one of goodwill but refusal to compromise on what is important to us.

          • I hate to keep crowding out frog, but, thank you again, for your patience and care. Hopefully you are right. My teen agers have Moslem friends who know they are Jewish. They like my kids, so maybe there is hope for some kind of internal renaissance within that part of the Moslem World here in our midst.

            • No worry about the crowding and I’m sure that your son is going to love school in St. Louis.

              • Right, Mr. Frog. He loves it there. It is impossible for me to imagine a better school for him.

  2. You might also aid understanding of your post by explaining what it is you mean by

    “a detainee interrogation program”

    Is interrogation of prisoners something that we had not done previously?

  3. I read somewhere that the increased drone attacks along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border were done to disrupt the planning for these attacks. There is a report of several German citizens being killed while training for a European attack. I am somewhat skeptical. What kind of precise intelligence would be required to let us identify just the right guy to whack at just the right time to disrupt the enemy’s planning?

    But, could it be a message to the terrorist organization that if they do plan attacks, we will attack them? Maybe we don’t get the guy who was organizing the whole thing, but we get somebody in the organization.

    Of course, that raises the question: Why were we not attacking them before? Were we not serious?

  4. “But remember, we could not have interrogated them. I’m not sure why fuster asks below if we didn’t interrogate prisoners before 9/11, because he must know the answer. Of course we didn’t. We read them their rights and gave them lawyers.”

    This is not really true, opticon. We certainly did interrogate people in custody. Always have, always will.

    You can’t be quite that confused that you think that we don’t … or haven’t.
    You could brush up on that Miranda warning stuff. If you follow the words through the thing, you’ll pretty much realize that’s it’s all about interrogating prisoners.

    You must mean something rather different when you’re lauding something that you describe as a “detainee interrogation program”.

    You’re not shy about clarifying, are you?

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