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When authorities in London broke up a plot to down ten airliners using liquid explosives on August 10, the praise heaped upon British counterterrorism agencies stood in stark contrast to the criticism regularly leveled at the U.S. counterterrorism community.
Some experts say U.S. counterterrorism agencies are more than a match for their British and European counterparts—which have taken plenty of criticism in their own right—but argue their achievements go unheralded because of the necessarily secretive nature of their work. Others, however, claim cultural and organizational problems plague the intelligence and law enforcement community, rendering them less effective than agencies built according to the British model.
How does the United States approach counterterrorism?
Despite President Bush’s insistence that the struggle against terrorism is a “war,” many argue counterterrorism should be a law-enforcement activity, not a military one. The newly revised National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, takes a broader tack, describing counterterrorism not only in terms of military and law enforcement activity, but also in diplomatic, financial, and intelligence terms. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) has coordinated the terror-related efforts of these different sectors of government since President Bush created it in 2004. The White House’s strategy puts forth some ambitious goals, including democracy promotion “as the long-term antidote to the ideology of terrorism.”
But combating terrorism has a short-term goal as well: preventing attacks. This is where most law enforcement, military, and intelligence pieces fit in. The military has played a prominent role in this, particularly in the dismantling of the formal al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. Experts emphasize the importance of domestic resources as well: “The war on terror is increasingly going to be fought at the local level,” says Stephen E. Flynn, CFR’s senior fellow for national security studies.
Who is in charge of domestic counterterrorism activities?
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the lead agency on domestic counterterrorism activities, but fulfilling these duties has not come naturally to the bureau. Traditionally, FBI agents gather court-admissible evidence for investigations into crimes that have already been committed. But the agency now finds itself thrust into a domestic intelligence-gathering role for which it does not have a native skill set. “The training of FBI special agents is training into how to develop a case, how to arrest someone, and how to gather evidence and present it in a trial,” says Richard A. Posner, a University of Chicago senior lecturer and circuit court judge. “The kind of investigations required to discover [terrorist activities] are completely foreign to them.” In addition to logistical challenges, this also raises serious questions over civil liberties: The broad powers granted by the Patriot Act may be appropriate in a counterterrorism context but not in criminal investigations.
Posner and other experts have suggested the United States should create its own domestic intelligence agency, much like Britian’s MI5. “The Security Service,” as MI5 is officially known, employs some 2,000 agents who are given broad surveillance powers but no authority to act on the intelligence they gather. In order to make an arrest, MI5 must turn over its information to Scotland Yard, Britain’s top law enforcement agency.
The FBI finds itself thrust into a domestic intelligence-gathering role for which it does not have a native skill set.
Steven Simon, CFR’s senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies and former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, says the MI5 model might not work in the United States. “MI5 has had a very difficult time adjusting to the current threat environment in the UK,” he says. “Neither [MI5 nor the FBI] has been nimble in responding to new circumstances. Arguably the FBI has been worse, but it’s been Britain that’s been attacked at home.”
Even if the MI5 model is superior, the American public would likely oppose the creation of such an agency in the United States. Simon says it would take another major attack on U.S. soil in order to generate the political will for that kind of government institution.
How well do counterterrorism agencies work together?
Intelligence and law enforcement agencies took a lot of criticism after 9/11 for failing to share information that might have prevented the attacks on New York and Washington. After those attacks, intelligence sharing reportedly improved. But experts say it has regressed. “All the old problems have just reasserted themselves,” Simon says, “The establishment of the NCTC has not been the panacea that people had hoped for.”
According to Posner, “There is a horizontal sharing problem and a vertical sharing problem.” Vertically, no good lines of communication exist between Washington and the local authorities who are best positioned to detect a terrorist plot. Horizontally, the sixteen different federal agencies that comprise the “intelligence community” often resist sharing information, despite the creation in 2004 of a director of national intelligence whose job it is to coordinate these efforts. Not every agency fully cooperates with the director of national intelligence: In a recent CFR meeting, Lawrence Wright, author of the new book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, singled out the Defense Department for its stubbornness. Other problems, Posner says, are that agencies do not recognize security clearances granted by other agencies and that bureaucratic and jurisdictional rivalries create an environment in which cooperation becomes difficult.
Creating compatible computer databases for different intelligence agencies has also proven difficult. Many agency databases do not interact well with one another, stymieing efforts to automate intelligence sharing.
Experts say these problems are likely to persist. “I wouldn’t expect intelligence sharing to improve because there’s not the kind of oversight and White House management that would be required to improve it,” Simon says.
Do U.S. counterterrorism officials have the necessary skills and expertise?
“It seems like one lesson we would have learned from 9/11 is that you really need people who understand the enemy,” Wright told an audience of CFR members, but he said this lesson appears to have gone unheeded. Recent articles in the New York Times and Washington Post back this up. The Times published an op-ed revealing that an alarming number of U.S. counterterrorism officials couldn’t identify even the simplest differences between Sunnis and Shiites. A week earlier, the Post reported that only thirty-three of the United States’ 12,000 FBI agents have even a limited Arabic language proficiency. Some experts say these reports belie what Wright describes as an “outright cultural and religious prejudice against Muslims and Arabs” within U.S. intelligence agencies.
“It seems like one lesson we would have learned from 9/11 is that you really need people who understand the enemy,” Wright said.
Ralph Peters, a military strategist and columnist, says the problem is not prejudice, but political correctness. “I have been horrified at the unwillingness on both sides of the political aisle to accept that our enemies are waging a religious war against us,” he says. Richard Shultz, director of Tufts University’s International Security Studies Program, agrees. He cites the National Security Strategy as evidence: “It’s almost pandering; they say that ‘a proud religion has been hijacked.’” Part of this may be oversensitivity, but Peters cites “cowardice,” saying officials fear what it means to face an enemy waging a religious war. “This is an ugly problem with no good solutions,” he says, “The only way to defeat religious zealots, historically, is to kill them.”
Whether caused by bias or hypersensitivity, the counterterrorism community is unwilling to tread on religious terrain, says Douglas Farah, a journalist and terrorism expert. “If you want to understand who these people are you have to understand how they interpret their religion,” he says. Not recognizing this leaves the United States “failing miserably” in its efforts to craft a suitable long-term counterterrorism strategy.
Not everyone believes in the importance of such understanding. “I don’t think it’s crucial,” says Elizabeth Bancroft, executive director of the Association for Intelligence Officers, “If someone’s trying to smuggle nuclear weapons into this country, what does it matter if he’s a Sunni or a Shiite?” For Simon, “That response just shows the degree to which [some agencies] don’t get it. A nuanced understanding of these communities is important to the detection of conspiracies.”
How can counterterrorism agencies increase their expertise?
The shortage of Arabic linguists poses a serious challenge, but this is a national problem rather than one specific to intelligence communities. Counterterrorism agencies face an additional challenge in competing for linguists and cultural experts because their employees must pass a security clearance. Many who could gain clearance instead take jobs in sectors where they don’t need to wait more than a year to begin work.
Posner says applicants with relatives in many Middle Eastern or Islamic countries are often denied security clearance. He says “we ought to balance [security concerns] against the supreme importance of getting people we need into our system.”
Some experts say a lack of expertise in Arabic language and culture comes from organizational structures that reward managerial skills, which creates an environment where knowledge is undervalued. “Incoming agents are still essentially told ‘terrorism stuff is a non-starter,’” and will not lead to promotion, Farah says. Others believe the emphasis on management is justified. After all, good managers don’t require expertise so long as they know where to find it. This is why agencies like the CIA increasingly seek the help of consultants who can provide expert analysis on an ad hoc basis. Consultants cannot completely alleviate the need for expertise, but they can temporarily plug a gap in intelligence agencies’ capabilities.
How else can counterterrorism agencies improve their efforts?
Human intelligence—that is, information gathered by agents in the field—is one area experts say can be improved. This capacity reached its heyday during the Cold War, but was scaled back after the 1970s in the face of several scandals.
“Human intelligence is immensely valuable,” Simon says, but “against this particular target, we don’t have the kind of organic capacity that we ultimately developed in the Cold War.” To improve this, Farah suggests deploying more agents in such places as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Simon points out that the United States has often depended on intelligence provided by liaison services with which U.S. agencies carefully cultivate relationships. Unfortunately, some U.S. policies, particularly the operation of secret CIA prisons, have strained these relationships.
In light of their shortcomings, how effective are U.S. counterterror efforts?
This is difficult to gauge. Certainly the absence of a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 is seen by many experts as a sign of success. They credit government efforts with thwarting numerous attacks that the public will never hear about. Others suggest factors beyond governmental control have contributed to the absence of attacks, saying the next attack could come tomorrow.
Experts generally agree that the ability to detect and respond to terrorist threats within the United States is quite good. “Domestically we’re doing remarkably well,” Peters says, “It’s almost miraculous.”
Peters says U.S. counterterrorism efforts abroad have not kept pace. “We got off to a good start with the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he says. “Iraq didn’t have to be, but it became a diversion from terrorism.” Shultz says part of the difficulty is that U.S. national security organizations were accustomed to state-centric threats, and after 9/11 were slow to realize the extent to which armed groups “can strategically affect major states.”
Despite these challenges, experts see signs of positive developments that will continue to improve U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Most agree with President Bush’s assessment that the United States is “safer, but not yet safe.”