We're Still Vulnerable
Op-Ed, The Boston Globe
September 12, 2003
Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School
Observing the second anniversary of Al Qaeda's assault on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, administration spokesmen sought to highlight progress in the war on terrorism to support President Bush's claim that we're getting safer every day. But if one stands back and asks whether Americans are actually safer from terrorist attacks than we were 12 months ago, a serious answer requires a net assessment. Our safety is a function not only of what our government does, but also of changes in our adversaries' capabilities and motivation.
Assessing that balance, I conclude that the threat of terrorist attacks on America in the year ahead remains at least as high as it was last year. Consider four fronts in this war: the international campaign against Al Qaeda; homeland security; preventing nuclear and biological terrorism; and Iraq.
In the first 12 months after the attack, America organized an extraordinary worldwide campaign against terrorism. Universal sympathy for American victims of 9/11 led governments and citizens around the world to proclaim solidarity under the banner, 'We are all Americans.' Through the UN, the United States enlisted more than 100 nations in a global effort to share intelligence information, enforce antiterrorist legislation in each local setting, and stop terrorists' flow of funds.
In the past year, this global coalition has frayed. America's standing in the world has fallen further and faster than at any time in the history of polling. When asked recently whom they trust to 'do the right thing regarding world affairs,' more Pakistanis, Indonesians, and Jordanians chose Osama bin Laden than President Bush.
Why does this matter? The essence of effective counter-terrorism is intelligence and police enforcement at the local level. The mastermind of Al Qaeda's Southeast Asian operations was captured in Thailand as a result of a tip from suspicious neighbors combined with active cooperation between local Thai agents and the CIA. The 'hearts and minds' of governments and citizens provide either a sympathetic sea in which terrorists swim and hide, or alternatively, millions of eyes and ears from which terrorists cannot escape. Although the United States caught three of Al Qaeda's top leaders in the past year, bin Laden and his second-in-command are still on the lam and Al Qaeda recruitment is up.
Second, in defending the American homeland, the US government has taken many significant actions, most notably the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. In time, this will yield security dividends. But realism requires recognition that in the first year after such disruptive changes, capabilities are more likely to decline than increase. Former Senator Warren Rudman's recent Council on Foreign Relations report finds a shortfall of $98 billion in priority investments in homeland security over the next five years.
Third, the campaign to prevent a nuclear or biological 9/11 is failing. Despite lots of talk, North Korea is today producing plutonium that could be sold to terrorists for use in a nuclear attack. Russian and Pakistani nuclear weapons and materials remain as vulnerable to theft as they were last year. Orphaned research reactors in a dozen countries around the world, including Libya and Ghana, contain highly enriched uranium sufficient to make a number of nuclear weapons. And while Saddam no longer rules Iraq, he has gone missing, and with him a sophisticated smuggling network and whatever biological weapons Iraq had.
While the administration rightly recognized the threat of a bioterrorist attack with smallpox or other agents, the campaign to protect American citizens flopped. The announced goal of vaccinating 500,000 first responders against smallpox was recently disbanded after vaccinating fewer than 40,000. Long term, Project Bioshield will create new vaccines and therapeutics. Short term, the public health system's capacity to identify and respond to bioterrorism remains dangerously inadequate.
Iraq is the wild card. Analytically, Iraq was tangential to the immediate war on terrorism. The CIA found no links between Saddam and 9/11 and no evidence of Iraqi support for terrorist attacks on American targets since the early 1990s. But President Bush's decision to market war on Iraq as a centerpiece of the war on terrorism has now forged an inextricable link.
While the demonstration of America's military might has surely sobered regimes that wish America harm, the administration's incompetence in postwar Iraq has attracted both terrorists and jihadi wannabes in what now threatens to become a terrorist incubator akin to Afghanistan during Soviet occupation.
For the year ahead, Americans are at least as vulnerable to terrorist attacks as we were in the year past. After the next mega-terrorist attack, Americans will find our government's failure to mount a more effective war on terrorism as inexplicable as they found the failure to prevent 9/11.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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