JK: The aftermarth of the 9/11 Commission needs to step beyond the beyond the petty partisanship that both Gary Farber and "Sgt. John Stryker" have written about here. In response, I committed Winds of Change.NET to follow-ups that would feature intelligent, non-partisan commentary from both sides of the aisle. Amitai Etzioni is a professor, blogger and founder of The Communitarian Network, a very interesting liberal/centrist group. This open letter was circulated to network members for commentary, and is reproduced here with permission.
Dear Mr. Kean,
As a sociologist who has studied American society for the last 40 years, I am deeply concerned about the impact of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States on the public, federal agencies, and the White House. The cumulative and considerable effect seems to be to encourage one and all to better prepare themselves against the kind of attacks that we had faced in the past rather than focusing on the greatest dangers that we next face. The 9-11 Commission hearings so far indicate that the Commission presumes a symmetry between what we lacked last time -- for instance, open communication between the CIA and FBI and domestic spying of the kind MI-5 provides in the UK -- and what we need to parry major new attacks. Thus, the Commission unwittingly is contributing to a malaise that military historians have long studied: fighting the last war rather than preparing for the next one.
One may say that this is merely a set of hearings. However, let me remind that commission hearings constitute historical, formative moments. One such set of Congressional hearings in effect ended the McCarthy era; another not only drove Nixon out of office, but also led to major reforms in campaign financing. Most relevantly, the hearings of the Church commission, which found that the FBI greatly abused its powers by spying on American non-violent dissenters (including myself), resulted in the firewalls that were erected between the FBI and the CIA and in numerous regulations that made the surveillance of political clubs and places of worship (Mosques included) illegal.
Moreover, commission hearings in the past have had effects that run much deeper than changes in regulations and budgets; they have profoundly changed the informal culture that greatly affects the behavior of both government agencies and the public. A major reason why information about the 9-11 hijackers did not reach those it should have, and why those it did reach refrained from acting, was that the pre-9-11 culture informed FBI agents that their careers were endangered if they were too active in such matters.
The misdirected formative effects of the 9-11 Commission hearings are already evident: they are driving us to focus on improving domestic surveillance (the formation of an American MI-5 is seriously being considered). And the charge that the Bush administration wrongly focused on Iraq rather than Al Qaeda is pushing the Administration to pull all stops to find bin Laden before the elections, under the same magic belief that led it to hold that if we caught Saddam, Iraq would be pacified.
The focus on past experience -- which has other sources, but which is further fostered by the Commission's hearings -- drives the government and the public to focus on two fronts in the war against terrorism while grossly neglecting the third and most important front.
First, we are "hardening" domestic targets. Because airplanes were the last weapon of choice, we spend a giant portion of our domestic security budget on airports; the budget for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is set at $5.3 billion for 2005. And now that trains have been attacked, we are moving to better protect the rails. We seem to ignore that Al Qaeda rarely attacks twice in the same way or in the same place. Indeed, we just found out that the next target of the terrorists in Spain was going to be a shopping center. Furthermore, we have so many soft targets, from subways to water mains, from stadiums to places of worship, that most of what we do on this front is meant to assuage the public rather than truly protect us from the next attack.
The second front, which is a somewhat more promising one, is the effort to capture terrorists wherever they are, before they hit us. This is proving to be exceedingly difficult because, in some areas of the world, terrorists are supported by the local populations and protected by the terrain. For instance, Pakistan has just folded its drive in the northwestern provinces and the United States has been unable to maintain an effective control of southeastern Afghanistan. The United States is also having a hard time gaining the upper hand against a few hundred terrorists that roam the jungles of the Phillippines and the somewhat larger number in the mountains of Columbia. Most importantly, even if the United States eliminates several hundreds of these terrorists, there are so many millions of young, able-bodied men (and women) who hate our guts that terrorist groups are finding it easy to refurnish their lines whenever they are thinned out.
The third front, which was not involved in the last attack and which receives much less attention and many fewer resources, is the effort to ensure that terrorists will be unable to get ahold of nuclear arms -- the most effective means by which they could cause harm of an order of magnitude that would make 9-11 look like small potatoes. (Most chemical and biological agents are much more difficult to weaponize and employ than are nuclear weapons, although these too should also get much more attention than box cutters, pocket knives, and nail clippers.) Fortunately, this front is much more delineated. The number of nuclear devices that float around on the black market is limited. The number of sites in which they are poorly protected is small and well known. The list of experts who may illicitly help develop nuclear weapons is much shorter than that of garden variety terrorists.
The 9-11 Commission would greatly contribute to refocusing the national attention on the greatest threats if it asked:
a) why the U.S. has done so little to shut down the black market in nuclear bombs and the machinery and material needed to build them;
b) why have the corporations that violated our laws and basic security needs not been properly punished;
c) why have the various programs that aim to purchase nuclear bombs and material to remove them from loose hands been given such low national priority, attention, and budgets;
d) why have the various programs that aim to retrain or provide alternative employment to nuclear scientists (and those who specialize in weaponized biological agents and developing chemical weapons) been given such low national priority, attention, and budget;
e) was the United States wise to look the other way when Pakistan fed the nuclear black market and left its nukes poorly guarded, while focusing instead on pushing Pakistan to fighting garden variety terrorists;
f) what can be done to vastly increase the scope and effectiveness of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI); and
g) would the U.S. be well served by the creation of a special center for coordinating intelligence concerning nuclear attacks so that relevant information will not be lost among the endless streams of other information about terrorists? (This center could be a division of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center.)
Although the preceding questions have been formed in terms of why things were not done in the past, the deliberations should focus not on parceling out blame but on finding ways to enhance these efforts in the future.
Otherwise, the next 9-11 Commission, following a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons, would list among the factors that left us under-prepared, the current 9-11 Commission misfocused hearings and their formative effect.