February 20, 2020
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After Two Years

Real dangers and false solutions in the age of terrorism.

After Two Years

Kenneth Adelman, a former Reagan administration official and close associate of the ruling neoconservatives, has offered his advice to the Bush administration for securing its re-election. "We should not try to convince people that things are getting better," he said. "Rather, we should convince people that ours is the age of terrorism."[1]

The fact that upgradings of the color-coded terror alert frequently seem to coincide with some scandal or bad news that the Bush administration would like to keep off the front page, makes us all cynical about the terrorism threat. But manipulation of terror warnings should not obscure the very real dangers that terrorism poses.

So now, two years after the horrors of 9-11, given the fact that this administration has staked its future on making its citizens safe from terrorism, it's reasonable to ask what it has actually done to reduce the threat of anti-U.S. terrorism.

In March 2003, Bush's special adviser for counter-terrorism, Rand Beers, resigned. In June he charged that the "war on terrorism" was "making us less secure, not more secure."[2] The Bush administration, he said, put too much emphasis on attacking terrorists overseas: "There's not enough focus on defense and dealing with the basic sources of humiliation and despair that exist in large segments of the Islamic population."[3]

Beers is no starry-eyed liberal. He was a 20-year veteran of the National Security Council, where he had loyally carried out atrocious policies under Reagan and Bush Senior, as well as Clinton. Just last year, to help get a judge to dismiss a lawsuit opposing Plan Colombia -- the multi-billion dollar U.S. aid program -- he submitted a deposition stating that Colombian guerrillas had received training in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, a claim he was later forced to retract as baseless.[4] Nevertheless, in his limited way Beers points to the real problem. The key to reducing terrorism against the United States is to eliminate as much as possible those "basic sources of humiliation and despair." So how successful has the Bush administration been when it comes to those "large segments of the Islamic population"?

Consider the findings of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which interviewed some 16,000 respondents around the world:

"[T]the bottom has fallen out of support for America in most of the Muslim world. Negative views of the U.S. among Muslims, which had been largely limited to countries in the Middle East , have spread to Muslim populations in Indonesia and Nigeria . Since last summer, favorable ratings for the U.S. have fallen from 61% to 15% in Indonesia and from 71% to 38% among Muslims in Nigeria …. In the wake of the war, a growing percentage of Muslims see serious threats to Islam. Specifically, majorities in seven of eight Muslim populations surveyed express worries that the U.S. might become a military threat to their countries.… Support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism also has fallen in most Muslim publics. Equally significant, solid majorities in the Palestinian Authority, Indonesia and Jordan and nearly half of those in Morocco and Pakistan say they have at least some confidence in Osama bin Laden to 'do the right thing regarding world affairs.'"[5]

In Pakistan , virulently anti-American Islamicists won local elections in two out of four of the country's provinces and are now the third largest party in the national parliament, their best showing ever. For the first time, their support comes not just from the areas bordering Afghanistan , but even from urban areas. In Kuwait , elections in July returned Islamic traditionalists and supporters of the royal family, while liberals suffered a severe defeat. And in Indonesia , the New York Times' Jane Perlez reports, "Jemaah Islamiyah was only the most extreme of a number of groups that were galvanized by the events of 9/11 and the American response in Afghanistan ."[6]

What is the impact of this growing anti-Americanism in the Islamic world? The London-based World Markets Research Center , which assesses terrorism threats for top corporate clients, now ranks Colombia , Israel , and Pakistan as the only countries with a greater terror risk than the United States . "Another Sept. 11-style terrorist attack in the United States is highly likely," they warned in August 2003. "U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan and Iraq has exacerbated anti-U.S. sentiment."[7]

Many al Qaeda members have been killed or captured, but the expert consensus is not sanguine. The conservative but often canny International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded in May 2003 that al Qaeda was "more insidious and just as dangerous" as it was before September 11, 2001. Jason Burke, author of a forthcoming book on al Qaeda, has written "That the conflict in Iraq led to a rise in recruitment for radical groups is now so clear that even U.S. officials admit it. This is a huge setback in the 'war on terror.'"[8]

Rohan Gunaratna, a Southeast Asian expert on al Qaeda, reports that the organization has had no trouble in recruiting fresh members among Muslims whose anti-Western passions have been fueled by the war in Iraq. "For every three to five members, they have five to ten more recruits. As a result, active terrorist groups will be able to grow and become more powerful and influential." Gunaratna told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States that outside of Palestine less than 20% of the population of any Muslim country actively supports terrorism. But, he continued, "This may change with time. This may change, especially after 9/11, especially after U.S. intervention in Iraq ." "America has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat" -- Iraq -- "and turned it into one," notes Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill.[9]

The Bush administration, which warned so vociferously that Saddam Hussein might pass weapons of mass destruction on to al Qaeda or other terrorists, has now created a situation where such fantasies could become realities. After all, the terrorists now collecting in Iraq potentially have access to the looted radioactive material and nuclear waste from Iraqi facilities at Tuwaitha and elsewhere, left unguarded by U.S. forces in the postwar weeks. These were not weapons facilities, but some of the missing materials could be used to make a "dirty bomb."[10]

Bush always exaggerated the danger that would ensue if Saddam's Iraq had acquired weapons of mass destruction. There is no reason to think that deterrence wouldn't have applied to his regime as much as it did to Stalin's or Mao's. But there is no doubt that the more countries that have such weapons, the more dangerous a place the world becomes. So it is reasonable to ask what the impact has been of Bush foreign policy on the dangers of proliferation. The consequence of the Iraq war in this regard is not likely to be positive.

As Joseph Cirincione, author of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destructionand a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, has written:

" U.S. officials report that North Korea is accelerating its nuclear program, not abandoning it. Iran , too, has consciously raised the public profile of its ostensibly civilian nuclear program and insisted that it would acquire full nuclear fuel-cycle capability, thus enabling it to enrich uranium to weapon-grade levels and reprocess plutonium from reactor fuel. Like India 's army chief of staff after the first Iraq war, officials in Pyongyang and Tehran may believe that if one day you find yourself opposed by the United States , you'd better have a nuclear weapon."[11]

Convincing countries opposed by the United States to submit to UN weapons inspections will no doubt become more difficult than ever, given that when Iraq grudgingly accepted inspectors, allowed them to destroy some of its missiles, and subjected itself to U.S. spying, it was attacked anyway.

More generally in terms of our safety two years after September 11, the United States has worked hard to create a more dangerous globe.It has blocked efforts to improve compliance with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and has insisted on a reservation to the Chemical Weapons Convention allowing the President the right to refuse an inspection of U.S. facilities on national security grounds.[12] With regard to nuclear weapons, the Bush administration has refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and has stated that it can't rule out a resumption of nuclear testing. It has declared that it might use nuclear weapons in response to chemical or biological threats and that new nuclear weapons are needed to target chemical and biological weapons sites in potential enemy countries, as well as deeply buried and hardened command posts. It has begun research on modifications of two types of existing nuclear bombs and has proposed the repeal of a ten-year old ban on low-yield nuclear weapons research and development. As the mainstream Arms Control Association has noted,

"Coming from the United States , the world's pre-eminent military and political power, such policies undermine nonproliferation efforts by suggesting to other states that nuclear weapons are legitimate and necessary tools that can achieve military or political objectives. Such an approach, if implemented, only increases the odds that another country or group will race to acquire -- and perhaps someday use -- the destructive power of these terrible weapons."[13]

If the Bush administration's foreign policy destabilizes the world at every level, what of its domestic policies?

Under the Patriot Act and prior legislation, the Justice Department has certainly arrested or simply incarcerated in one way or another large numbers of people, actions that have endangered civil liberties, while doing little to address the actual threat of terrorism. It is conceivable, in fact, that, Attorney General Ashcroft's boasts aside, it is even increasing the menace of terrorism at home.

The danger to basic freedoms is so clear that one doesn't have to go to the ACLU or other left-liberal sources for substantiation. A survey of corporate chief security officers by their professional magazine found 31 percent believing that the United States is in jeopardy of becoming a police state. Leading conservative ideologue and former House majority leader Dick Armey warned that the Justice Department was "out of control" and "the most dangerous agency of government." Three U.S. states, including Republican-controlled Alaska , and 157 cities, towns, and counties have passed resolutions challenging the Patriot Act.[14] 

In return for this loss of civil liberties, there has been at best a negligible gain in security. In the weeks following 9-11, hundreds of people were secretly arrested. Virtually all arrested were cleared of any connection to terrorism, yet the average clearance took 80 days, during which time they were confined under harsh, sometimes abusive conditions, according to the Justice Department's own Inspector General. As law professor David Cole has noted, 

"Ashcroft greatly exaggerates his 'successes.' He claims to have brought 255 criminal charges in terror investigations, but the vast majority of those charges were pretextual criminal charges (like credit card fraud or lying to an FBI agent) used to justify holding people who turned out to have no connection with terrorism. Similarly, he claims to have deported 515 people in the investigation but fails to mention Justice Department policy that authorized deportation only after the FBI cleared immigrants of involvement in terrorism."[15]

In some of the few cases where individuals were convicted of charges relating to terrorism, there is reason to believe that guilty pleas were obtained not by any real involvement in violent acts, but by the outrageous threat to treat the defendants as "enemy combatants," and hence beyond the protection of basic rights.[16] 

Dealing appropriately with terrorism does not require the added powers of the Patriot Act, let alone the even more extensive powers of the proposed Patriot Act II. But this legislation is of obvious value to officials intent on gathering unlimited information on our citizenry. (Well, not quite unlimited. Ashcroft wants records on gun sales in a federal data base to be destroyed after 24 hours and to bar their use in terrorism investigations.[17])

Police-state practices are not merely ineffective and unjust: they may also be counterproductive. A crucial requirement for uncovering any hidden terrorist cells in the United States is having the support of immigrant communities. But this support is undermined by the Justice Department's ethnic profiling, high-pressure interviewing,[18] secret arrests, and general mistreatment of the country's Muslim communities.

There are in fact a great many measures that can and should be undertaken domestically to reduce the threat of terrorism, many of which measures are actively opposed by the Bush administration because they require regulating private corporations or call for the kinds of government spending that might preclude tax cuts for the rich.

Consider chemical plants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are 123 U.S. chemical facilities where a release of chemicals could threaten at least one million people; another 700 that could threaten more than 100,000 people; and 3,000 at least 10,000 people. Since October 2001, legislation has been proposed setting minimal security standards for these plants, but the industry and the White House have insisted on only "voluntary compliance." To take just a single example of the problems of depending on corporate voluntarism, in July 2003, the New York Daily News found there to be no security at all at the Matheson Tri-Gas facility in East Rutherford, NJ, a release from which could put up to 7.3 million people in the metropolitan New York area at risk.[19]

Or consider nuclear power plants. Perhaps even more vulnerable than a plant's reactor core are its waste pools where spent fuel is stored. A terrorist-caused rupture in these tanks could start a fire leading to the release of a radiation plume that, according to a study by physicist Frank N. Von Hippel, "would contaminate eight to 70 times more land than the area affected by the 1986 accident in Chernobyl ." A study by Brookhaven National Laboratory showed that a pool fire in a metropolitan area could lead to 140,000 cancer deaths and cause over half a trillion dollars in off-site property damage alone.

These waste pools are currently extremely insecure. There is a fairly inexpensive technological solution to the problem: for about $45 million a year per plant, the pools can be converted to dry storage areas, making them much less vulnerable target for terrorists. Yet the Bush administration has not pursued this or any other solution that might cost the industry any money.[20]

In May Secretary of Transportation Mineta identified maritime ports as the most vulnerable part of the nation's transportation system. "With the number of containers coming into this country, we really don't have a good handle on what's in those containers. And to me that is one that we still haven't really been able to put our hands on." Just recently a Newsweek reporter was able to drive "straight into the truck lanes of the Port of Baltimore -- which U.S. Customs officials say is one of the nation's best protected -- without being stopped, [and] then spent two hours wandering, unnoticed, among stacked shipping containers. 'You just happened to pick a day when a lot of our normal people were out,' port spokeswoman Darlene Frank explained."[21]

When it comes to planning for responding to a terrorist act -- no less crucial to our safety -- the record is no better. The Rand Corporation conducted a survey for the Centers for Disease Control of emergency workers in 40 cities and towns, and found a majority feeling underprepared and underprotected. And a July report from the staid Council on Foreign Relations concluded that "Although in some respects the American public is now better prepared to address aspects of the terrorist threat than it was two years ago, the United States remains dangerously ill prepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil.

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