] noteworthy wrote:
] ] Timothy Naftali, author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of
] ] American Counterterrorism will be interviewed on the Fox &
] ] Friends morning program, Wednesday, June 1st, 7AM.
] Have you read this book?
Yes, I have read the book. I originally posted a review of the book on May 5. I also recently mentioned it in a thread about the detained Cuban bomber.
] "Naftali concludes that open, liberal democracies like the U.S.
] are incapable of effectively stopping terrorism." What does he suggest?
The book is first and finally a history book, so it is primarily an analysis of the past rather than a prescription for the future.
He concludes that Americans are basically unwilling to do what it takes to decisively defeat terrorism in "peacetime", both at the level of the public and also at the senior levels of the military and government. He cites the inherent structure of American government as partly responsible for extreme political sensitivity to public pressure when it comes to imposing restrictions on the public and authorizing invasive security measures.
In the last chapter, he criticizes Clinton for the way he allowed the public to drive his external policies. He calls Clinton's efforts "serious, but in retrospect ... half-hearted." Those who've read the two stories last year in the Washington Post (and memed here, to characteristic American indifference), which detailed the various abortive attempts throughout the 1990s to capture bin Laden in Afghanistan, will understand Naftali's criticisms in this regard.
Anyone who followed the news during the Clinton years will recall the way in which his administration extensively employed opinion polls in order to devise and refine public policy positions. In this book, and in the 9/11 report more broadly, the public-private contrast of Clinton becomes quite clear. Although he declared (privately and secretly) to the government, the military, and the entire intelligence community that stopping bin Laden and al Qaeda was The Supreme Job One, Above All Else, No Expenses To Be Spared, he never explained this intense focus to the public. In the midst of all the personal scandals of his second term, Clinton devoted enormous amounts of time to counterterrorism, but in the end he failed to act, at least in part because he was concerned about a lack of public support. This was largely a problem of his own making, because he kept the risks hidden from the public. It wasn't until December 2001 that his national security adviser published his cautionary treatise on the subject. Although his heart and mind were in the right place, for the public it was far too little, far too late.
Naftali says the verdict is still out on the wisdom of having a DNI. He considers the DHS experiment to have been a failure, generally speaking. In particular, he calls out the "public awareness program", with its color coding scheme, for special scorn.
He complains that the American public is not really getting the truth from its government. At times, there is a simple failure to report, as in the case of Clinton. At other times, the issue is deviously (but quite effectively) employed as political theater, as in the case of the 2004 Republican Convention (mirror). Naftali is harsh on the candidate Bush, saying that "a mature discussion of terrorism would not look like what we saw in the 2004 campaign, where Republicans sabotaged Kerry's attempt to discuss terrorism in an effort at short-term political gain. It was a highly selfish political act.
Naftali takes a long view. "As long as the US remains an object of envy and there are adversaries who wish us harm, there will be terrorism." I think you'd be hard-pressed to disagree with that point. There are plenty of nonstate actors with absolutely nothing to lose and thus no reason to refrain from demonstrably effective tactics.
At the end of the day, the problem is that the kinds of people we choose to elect as presidents are typically not equipped to tackle the problem. And regardless, we simply ask too much of them, in terms of breadth. "The problem is how busy people in Washington can learn to spot trouble before it happens," says Naftali. Nobody likes an alarmist, especially in an election year, even if he turns about to be only partly wrong.
We do have experts; they're out there, and they work hard trying to raise the alarm about the right thing at the right time. The problem is that being an expert is not conducive to building a career in the FBI, CIA, State Department, or other relevant agency. Condi Rice is an expert -- on the Soviet Union. She's a Secretary today because of her personal connection to the President, not because she speaks fluent Russian.
Naftali has uncovered some amazing facts about the cold war. "Throughout the first half of the Cold War, the team that wrote national intelligence estimates on the Soviet Union did not include a single expert on Russian history or one who could read or speak Russian." Though it remains unsaid, the implication is that a similar situation persists today in regard to the hotspots of transnational terrorism.
I suspect Naftali would say that the recent thread about al Qaeda being a "scene" (more traditionally a "movement") is Right On Point. This goes a long way toward explaining the challenge.
Suppose I wrote that "liberal democracies like the US are incapable of effectively stopping hacking." Would you disagree with that? Today, the public countenances security breaches at LexisNexis, ChoicePoint, Citi, and the rest in much the same way that the public of the 1960s tolerated skyjacking, who, as Naftali says, felt as though having your coast-to-coast flight rerouted to Cuba was akin to a roundabout detour past a bad snowstorm in Chicago.
As Kerry tried to explain in the fall of 2004, the citizenry of a liberal democracy has to be prepared to accept a certain reality.
On the last page of the book, for example, Naftali asks whether we should "pay the huge pricetag to defend all commercial aircraft against the possibility that terrorists might fire portable rockets against them?" This has been in the news lately, but the writing seems already on the wall. The system will not be funded; the public will balk at spending enormous sums on a long shot risk, and the politicians know it.
Naftali seems resigned to the reality of future attacks, and he is definitely skeptical of any quick fix or silver bullet. But there is also a hope that we can learn from our mistakes. (Youll see that my commentary on the first Steve Coll article from February 2004 was "If at first you don't succeed, at least learn from your mistakes.")
Above all, there is still the utmost confidence in our ability to weather any storm and to prevail.
RE: Timothy Naftali to appear on Fox News