April 7, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Sins of Commission

It's not supposed to be about politics. It's not supposed to be about settling scores. It's not supposed to be entertainment. But those are the ways the 9/11 commission's work is being framed for American and international audiences.

The 9/11 Commission – formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States – was charged with two goals: (1) Figure out how trans-national terrorists managed to defeat America's intelligence and national security community, and (2) provide recommendations for more effectively combating the Free World's sworn enemies in the future.

But partly because of the elite media's penchant for simplified conflicts and morality plays, partly because former White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke has an ax to grind, and party because of the intense partisanship in this election year, the focus has rarely been on what broke and how to fix it. Instead, the emphasis has been on who can be blamed and who benefits from laying blame.

Sept 11, 2001 provided proof that neither the Clinton administration nor the Bush administrations had an adequate anti-terrorism strategy in place. As the Washington Times has reported, the final national security policy paper that President Clinton submitted to Congress didn't even mention al Qaeda. The Bush administration's counter-terrorism strategy wasn't completed until just days before the hijacked planes hit the buildings.

In a perverse way, that's cause for optimism: Had the Clinton and Bush administrations been focused laser-like on the terrorist threat, had they done everything that could be done to stop those plotting against us, that would mean there is nothing more left to do – and that would mean … well, the unthinkable.

But the fact that there is much that the Clinton White House, the Bush White House, the CIA, the FBI and others did not do implies that there are more effective strategies we can implement and other weapons we can deploy. Among them:

– When people try to kill you take them seriously. America did not respond forcefully after the first attack on the World Trade Center, after Osama bin Laden openly declared war on Americans, after two of our embassies in Africa were bombed and the USS Cole was hit. On these and other occasions, we exercised restraint, which was interpreted as weakness, and that emboldened the terrorists. A former intelligence agent told me the jihadis had a joke: “You have to be careful with these Americans. Kill enough of them, and they just might sue you.”

– Let intelligence and law enforcement work together. Both collect dots – if they can share and compare, they may make connections. That wasn't possible until the advent of the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act also gives law enforcement the same weapons to wield against terrorism that they already wield against organized crime and drug lords. That anyone would call for repeal of the Patriot Act at this point in the War on Terrorism is mind-boggling. If there are flaws in this law – there's no hard evidence that's so – then as President Clinton might say, “Mend it, don't end it.”

– Start thinking like a terrorist. Terrorism “czar” Richard Clarke has acknowledged that nothing he recommended to President Bush could have prevented 9/11. That suggests he did not provide innovative recommendations. Had Clarke understood the terrorist mentality, he would have insisted that sky marshals be assigned to passenger planes, that volunteer pilots be trained and armed, that pilots be taught aerial maneuvers to bounce hijackers off the ceilings of their planes or at least that cockpit doors be reinforced and not opened for hijackers under any circumstances. Garnering support for such defensive measures would have been easier than convincing Presidents Clinton or Bush to invade Afghanistan pre-9/11 based on “increased chatter.” What we need now are teams of smart people whose job is to think like jihadis, to invent clever plots to slaughter infidels – which other smart people can then invent ways to thwart.

– Hit the terrorists before they hit us. Any serious anti-terrorism strategy must include pre-emption because, simply put, there is no way to either deter or punish a suicide terrorist. It's astonishing that the same folks who rail against the policy of pre-emption also fault the Bush administration for not having pre-empted al Qaeda in Afghanistan before 9/11.

– Regimes that support, encourage and finance terrorists must suffer consequences. Terrorists without state sponsorship are always on the run, looking over their shoulders, struggling to get funds, reluctant to use phones, at risk when they travel or meet with comrades. Such terrorists are hard-pressed to mount sophisticated operations. So regimes that give terrorists safe harbor or any other form of support must be warned that such behavior will be severely punished. And severe punishment must follow for those that refuse to heed such warnings.

– Destroy terrorists training camps. Terrorists with fewer skills also are less dangerous terrorists. They tend to do things like light their sneakers on planes during beverage service. So tell regimes that have terrorist training camps on their territory that if they don't have the will or a way to shut down those camps, we will do it for them. Then do it.

– Focus. The 9/11 Commission needs to continually remind itself that the issue now is not whether Presidents Clinton or Bush could have done more or better prior to 9/11. The issue now is how we win the war that is underway – losing as few battles, and as few Americans, as possible in the process.

And in this election, the question should be: Who will do a better job waging the War on Terrorism over the next four years? President Bush and Senator Kerry need to outline their strategies clearly. And may the best terrorism fighter win.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



Al Qaeda