About a year ago, I had lunch with someone who then held a relatively high position in America’s homeland security forces. During our conversation, I casually referred to “somebody setting off a suitcase nuke in an American city.” He replied, “That will happen.”
I therefore found striking the headline in this Sunday’s Washington Post: “U.S. Sees Drop in Terrorist Threats.” The first paragraph of the story went on to say,
“Reports of credible terrorist threats against the United States are at their lowest level since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to U.S. intelligence officials and federal and state law enforcement authorities.
“The intelligence community’s daily threat assessment currently lists, on average, 25 to 50 percent fewer threats against domestic targets than it typically did over the past two years, said one senior counterterrorism official.”
What is going on here? Are we really safer, or is Washington living in a fool’s paradise?
Three factors seem to have led to this new confidence in our homeland security. The first is real, the other two are delusions. The real factor is that our security forces may have gotten over the Chicken Little Syndrome, where any indicator sent them squawking in panic. As the Post story reports,
“Counterterrorism officials said the atmosphere, particularly in the Washington area, also has calmed because they are less jittery and less inclined to warn the public about every vague, unsubstantiated threat. . .
“‘People are more hesitant to pull the trigger, and now think, “Let’s wait a day or two” to investigate,’ said John Rollins, former chief of staff for DHS’ intelligence unit .”
This change is for the better. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) color-coded warnings had become a national joke.
Less good is the second factor: our Washington-based intelligence services are forgetting the threat of the “unknown unknown,” terrorists who understand how our intel system works and know how to evade it. The Post reports that people outside Washington see this danger:
“Several officials in urban areas that are considered prime targets, said they worried most about what law enforcement is not detecting. ‘I’m not so comforted’ by the drop in intelligence warnings coming out of Washington, said one senior U.S. intelligence official based elsewhere. ‘I’m concerned about what is going on under our radar scope. And I’m worried about the radar scope.'”
This concern is valid. It would not be difficult for our enemies to game our sometimes less-than-sophisticated intelligence process, and thus learn how to spoof or bypass it.
The third factor is an even greater worry: Americans seem incapable of grasping our enemies’ concept of time. We are an impatient people; they are not. We want results fast; they please Allah by simply carrying on the struggle, leaving results in his hands. To Americans, “oldies” are 10 years old; Osama bin Laden muses about the loss of Spain in the 15th century.
In his new book, The Fourth Power, which argues that America today has no grand strategy and needs one, former Senator Gary Hart hits this nail on the head:
“The war in Iraq shortly led to guerilla operations against U.S. and UN presences but did not immediately stimulate retaliation against the U.S. homeland. It is necessary to recall, however, that al-Qaeda documents captured in Afghanistan substantiate the connection between the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia following Gulf War I in 1991 and the wave of terrorist attacks that began with the first attack on the World Trade Center two years later. It will take some time before we know whether initiating a war against a major Arab state makes us safer or more in danger, more secure or less. Terrorists have proved to be patient.”
Patient indeed, as you can be when you have, literally, all the time in the world.
It could be years before a suitcase nuke goes off in an American city. It may be several decades before America gets hits with a genetically engineered plague that kills millions or tens of millions of Americans. But so long as we continue pursuing an offensive grand strategy, the goal of which is world domination, it is only a question of when, not whether, such events will happen. The paradise of fools turns into the purgatory of fools’ successors.