Saturday, January 01, 2005
Having ignored al-Qaeda until September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush responded to the attack in three ways. First, he ordered an end to the terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan. For five years thereafter a token U.S. military force assisted the Kabul government in its attempts to rule the warlords and suppress the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Second, he moved to strengthen U.S. domestic law enforcement with the first Patriot Act (a law that civil libertarians would find benign from today's perspective) and the Department of Homeland Security, which in those early years of the war on terror was largely ineffectual. Third, Bush ordered the ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq, which effectively turned his administration into an active recruiting office for al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups around the world . . . .
Then the second wave of al-Qaeda attacks hit America. Since then we have spiraled downward in terms of economic strength, national security, and civil liberties. No one could stand here today, in 2011, and say that America has won the war on terror. To understand how we failed to win, and exactly what has been lost along the way, I want to look at the past seven years in some detail.
The U.S. government had predicted that future attacks, if they came, would likely be on financial institutions, noting that Osama bin Laden had issued instructions to destroy the U.S. economy. Thus when the casinos were attacked, it was a surprise. It shouldn't have been; we knew that Las Vegas had been under surveillance by al-Qaeda since at least 2001. Despite that knowledge casino owners had done little to increase security, not wanting to slow people down on their way into the city's pleasure palaces. Theme-park owners were also locked into a pre-9/11, "it can't happen here" mindset, and consequently were caught off guard, as New Yorkers and Washingtonians had been in 2001. The first post-9/11 attacks on U.S. soil came not from airplanes but from backpacks and Winnebagos. They were aimed at places where we used to have fun, what we then called "vacation destinations." These places were particularly hard to defend . . . .Well before the end of the first quarter of 2006 the economic effects of the previous year's attacks were clear. The closing of casinos and theme parks around the country had increased only regional unemployment, but the national effect on the already ailing airline industry was significant. The pre-Christmas attacks on shopping centers had been the most damaging of all. Economic indicators in the first quarter of 2006 showed the dramatic ripple effect of the collapse of retail shopping on top of the earlier economic devastation of recreational travel: GDP growth was negative, and national unemployment hit 9.5 percent in January . . . .
Then came Subway Day. Public-transit systems in Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia were all struck at 8:15 A.M. eastern time, on a Monday in April. Unlike the previous year's attacks, these strikes did not appear to involve suicides. The bombs were apparently hidden on trains while they sat in rail yards, or were placed in newspaper racks and ticket machines. "We knew something was up," the homeland-security secretary said, in a remark that many believe led to his resignation a week later. "We hesitated to raise the alert level to red again because we lacked actionable intelligence and we didn't want an increase in the terror alert to tip off the terrorists." More than 200 people died and more than 3,000 were injured . . . .
Most analysts now agree that Subway Day and Railroad Day not only caused the Senate filibuster to end, permitting the passage of Patriot Act III, but also finally triggered the withdrawal of some 40,000 troops from Iraq. The Army was needed in the subways.
We had suspected that Iran had assembled some nuclear weapons, but only owing to the good work of the British Secret Intelligence Service did we learn that all the weapons would be in one place at one time. The president decided to launch a pre-emptive attack; given the circumstances, he could hardly have done otherwise. The B-2 strike in May did indisputably destroy all the mobile missiles and their launchers. (Regrettably, it also killed some Chinese defense contractors.) To the president's dismay, the attack apparently did not destroy any of the nuclear warheads, because they had not yet arrived at the base. Intelligence is still not good enough to provide precision. The good news was that without their missiles, the Iranians had very few ways of using their nuclear warheads. The bad news was that this revived fears that the warheads would fall into terrorist hands . . . .
The U.S. bombers that struck Iran had been refueled from and then landed in Saudi Arabia. This gave fundamentalist forces in that country the spark and the distraction they needed to finally stage a coup against the regime, which they did in August. The coup succeeded, and the House of Saud was driven out, at which point the price of oil reached the vicinity of $85 a barrel and stayed there.
The main stimulus for the coup probably came from the many Saudis who had returned from neighboring Iraq, where they had been radicalized by their experiences fighting the U.S. occupation. Osama bin Laden's final, pre-death request, captured on video and broadcast worldwide on al-Jazeera and other media networks, was that the royal family be deposed. It unexpectedly unified a variety of Saudi dissident groups . . . .
Working with the remnants of al-Qaeda, the Iranians staged a significant cyberattack in the United States during the 2008 election year. Reliance on cyberspace for retail had, of course, increased significantly after the many mall closings. More important, America had been using cyberspace to control its critical infrastructure since the late 1990s. Electrical-power grids, gas pipelines, train networks, and banking and financial markets all depended on computer-controlled systems connected to the Internet . . . .
The stock market closed, as did the commodities markets. Major hospitals canceled all but emergency surgeries and procedures. Three major power grids experienced brownouts. Police and state militia units were ordered into the cities to maintain order and minimize looting. Millions of Americans, now staring at blank computer screens, were sent home from work.
The already reeling economy took another hit.It had been three years since a terrorist bomb had been detonated on U.S. soil when executive jets packed with explosives slammed into chlorine-gas facilities in New Jersey and Delaware. Fortunately, in New Jersey much of the potential gas cloud was consumed by the flames of the initial explosion, and winds sent what remained of the plume over a largely uninhabited area. Delaware, however, was less fortunate: the poisonous cloud produced by the explosion left 1,500 dead and 4,000 injured, some as a result of panic during the evacuation of the Wilmington area . . . .
Heavy lobbying by the chemical industry in the years following 9/11 had prevented any congressional regulation that would have imposed terrorism-specific security requirements or standards on chemical plants near large municipalities. Some reports claimed that the Bush administration had tried to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency by relaxing the system for evaluating plant security, in order to reduce the number of facilities deemed high-risk.48 Indeed, both the facilities that were attacked had at one point been on the EPA's high-risk list but were not on the Bush administration's. Therefore they never underwent the security upgrades that a more severe risk assessment might possibly have induced. Outrage at this realization led to substantial new regulations and security requirements for private chemical and nuclear plants. Whereas the federal government might once have helped fund and carry out these improvements, the economic situation now placed the burden on companies and state militias. Money was drying up.As we mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and the launch of our global war on terror, it is hard for many Americans to remember when the sight of police officers with automatic weapons and body armor was rare. Yet it wasn't so long ago that we could enter a shopping mall, a train station, an airport, or a public building without "see-through scanners" and explosive-sniffers. The use of sids is now so routine that we can hardly believe we ever did without them. For all the additional security these developments have afforded us, however, they have also produced a powerful political backlash. Polls show that the American Liberty Party may draw up to a third of the popular vote in the campaign next year.
Could the global war on terror have played out differently?