A New York State of Mind

In the late afternoon on Thursday, Oct. 6, New York City authorities raised security as a result of what Mayor Michael Bloomberg described as a “specific threat to our subway system.” According to a bulletin issued by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), “a team of terrorist operatives, some of whom may travel to or who may be in the New York City area, may attempt to execute an attack on the New York City subway on or about Oct. 9, 2005.” But that same bulletin also stated that federal authorities “have doubts about the credibility of the threat.” Nonetheless, police presence on the New York subway system was increased and passengers with baby strollers, briefcases, backpacks, and luggage were subject to possible search.

Despite believing the threat to be real enough to warrant increasing security, Mayor Bloomberg said, “I believe people should live their lives as they always do and have faith in the world’s greatest police department” – which was reminiscent of when, after an October 2002 FBI warning that al-Qaeda may be planning to attack passenger trains, an administration spokesperson urged Americans to “continue to ride our nation’s rails.” But this amounts to a “don’t worry, be happy” response. How can people be told to go about their normal lives, when, in fact, a specific terrorist threat is anything but normal? Riding the subway and depending completely on the best efforts of the NYPD to prevent an attack after being told of such a terrorist plot is akin to hoping the levees would hold and not evacuating in the face of Hurricane Katrina.

Defending his decision to announce the threat and increase security on the subway system, Mayor Bloomberg said he would rather err “on the side of being cautious.” But such cautiousness did not mean that all of New York’s 460-plus subway stations were conducting container searches. And at those stations where searches were occurring, not every stroller, briefcase, backpack, or piece of luggage was being inspected – yet the FBI/DHS bulletin warned that terrorists would try to hide explosives in exactly those items. To be sure, with some 4.5 million daily riders it would be impossible to search everyone with a bag or stroller in response to the more general possibility that terrorists could attack the subway system. But if the danger was as real as New York City officials believed, then it seems incongruous to allow unchecked bags and strollers onto the subway in response to a specific threat that was deemed credible.

At least there was some rhyme and reason to New York City’s decision to increase subway security – which is more than can be said about DHS’ color-coded homeland security advisory system. To date, the homeland security alert level has been raised from yellow to orange a total of five times: on the first anniversary of Sept. 11; in February 2003 in conjunction with the Muslim holiday the Hajj; for the Iraq war; during Christmas 2003; and in August 2004 specifically for financial targets in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. But there have also been countless warnings about possible terrorism that didn’t change the alert level. So it’s hard to determine how warnings about possible terrorist attacks relate to the actual alert level. Given that there haven’t been any terrorist attacks regardless of the alert level, it’s also difficult to know if the alert level makes any difference at all. And it’s not clear what the relationship is between the alert level and the threat. For example, when the alert level was lowered back to yellow in November 2004 for the financial sectors in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., James M. Loy (deputy secretary of homeland security) said that the decision was based on improved security, not because the threat itself had diminished.

But one thing the New York subway alert and previous terrorist warnings issued by the FBI and DHS may have in common is the very real possibility of dubious intelligence (the alert was based on uncorroborated claims by a source in Iraq), which could be misinformation to intentionally mislead authorities. It could simply be sex, lies, and videotape to test how the authorities react to threat indicators as a way to help terrorists plan their next attack. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has previously admitted that as many as 90 percent of the terrorist threats are designed to test the government’s response: “They jerk us around, try to jerk us around, and test us.”

Ultimately, the recent security alert for the New York City subway system is a microcosm for the larger task of homeland security. And the lesson to be learned is best summed up by what the Irish Republican Army told the British after a failed assassination attempt against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984: “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once – you will have to be lucky always.” On 9/11, we were unlucky. Thankfully, we have been lucky since. But eventually our luck will run out because no matter how much we spend on homeland security and how many defensive measures we implement, in the final analysis we cannot build a perfect defense against every potential terrorist attack.

The paradox of homeland security is that we must build defenses against terrorist attack, but defending against terrorism is a Maginot Line because a determined terrorist will eventually find ways to circumvent those defenses. And since it is unrealistic to believe that we can kill each and every al-Qaeda terrorist, this only accentuates the imperative to change U.S. foreign policy. If the United States does not change its policies to stem the growing tide of anti-American sentiment overseas – particularly within the Islamic world – all the time, effort, and money spent on other aspects of homeland security will be wasted because the pool of terrorist recruits will grow and the United States will continue to be a target. No matter how successful the United States is at homeland security and dismantling al-Qaeda, it will not stop terrorism unless U.S. foreign policy changes. More than anything else, U.S. foreign policy is the cause of the virulent anti-Americanism that is the basis for terrorism. Changing U.S. foreign policy may not guarantee victory in the war on terrorism, but not changing it will certainly spell defeat.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.