Blind Spots In Counterterrorism

June 1, 2005

by Edward Jay Epstein

At the moment, the word "terrorism" conjures up images of 9/11 and the ghastly violence against civilians in Iraq, Pakistan, Spain, Indonesia and other bloody precincts of al Qaeda's global jihad. But of course terrorism has an infamous history, not least in the past half-century, and it has inspired all sorts of efforts to thwart it, with varying results.

In "Blind Spot," Timothy Naftali surveys the U.S. government's response to the threat of international terrorism from the 1940s to the present day. He begins with a previously undisclosed plot by the Nazis to assassinate Gen. Eisenhower and moves through, among other things, the terrorist strategies of the KGB, the plane hijackings of the 1970s, the activities of Hezbollah and the PLO, the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the terrorism of Osama bin Laden and 9/11. "Blind Spot" is that rare phenomenon: a work of original research on a subject of great importance that is also lucidly written

Mr. Naftali does not present a pretty picture, though. By pulling together documents from 10 administrations, he shows how the American government has failed to confront the threat of terrorism with anything like the necessary decisiveness or skill. For a half-century, bureaucratic infighting has retarded whatever counterterrorism policy there was, and the policy itself, Mr. Naftali notes, has often been chaotic.

"I have come to believe less in the efficiency of conspiracies [e.g., those suggested for 9/11] than I do in the inefficiency of government," Mr. Naftali writes. According to his analysis, such inefficiency has taken the form of good intelligence being ignored or not being properly passed up the chain of command so that it can be acted upon. One remedy to such incompetence is reorganization or, as Mr Naftali writes, creating a "centralizing force in intelligence" that cuts through the existing "bureaucratic layer."

The problem may go deeper, however -- beyond the relaying of intelligence to the actual gathering of it. Until 9/11, the FBI was the agency with the principal responsibility for counterespionage. Even if the CIA found a spy in its own ranks (for example, Aldrich Ames), the FBI had to be called in to investigate and arrest him. But the FBI's own history, over several decades, is illuminating in this respect. Its attempts to penetrate potential terrorist groups -- including the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers and various militias -- ran into serious problems, and little wonder: Positioning an agent in a terrorist cell is horrendously difficult, and "managing" him is a delicate matter, especially when the cell is involved in murderous activities.

True, there are many methods for gathering intelligence aside from using agents. But the information itself, however it is arrived at, must be interpreted and placed within the proper mosaic -- the famous problem of separating signals from noise. How reliable would a "centralizing force" be at such a task? The recent Robb-Silberman Commission had access to every stage of intelligence-gathering and analysis on the subject of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. It concluded that all the relevant U.S. agencies, from the Clinton years through President Bush's first term, consistently misinterpreted both human and technical intelligence. Unless such habits of error are corrected, reorganization would result in merely a more efficient arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But intelligence-gathering is not the only means of fighting terrorism, either. One alternative is security, which operates on the idea that a target can be protected even if there is no specific warning of a threat. Consider El Al airlines. Instead of waiting for intelligence alerts, it relies on locked cockpits, air marshals and rigorous screening procedures. Such security has come at a cost -- $10 to $20 per passenger per flight -- but no El Al plane has been commandeered in 1968.

In the U.S., as Mr. Naftali demonstrates, petty political considerations -- the fear, for instance, of "fight[ing] with the airlines and their main federal ally, the FAA" -- have led the government to a policy quite different from that of the Israelis. Mr. Naftali even notes (although without providing a source or date) that cockpit doors, for an unspecified period, "were routinely left open during takeoffs and landings, the two most dangerous periods in flight." He claims, indeed, that the 9/11 terrorists had learned that "commercial pilots liked to keep cockpit doors open in the first ten minutes of flight."
FAA regulations required locked cockpit doors. Did the pilots on American Airlines and United Airlines flights routinely leave theirs open, as Mr. Naftali suggests? If so, the airlines have much to answer for.

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