The good news on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attack is we are winning the war on terror. The bad news is that is not enough to stop another horrific and potentially far more catastrophic attack.
Al-Qaida is on the run. Predator strikes are taking out its key leaders. Every few months, the FBI announces arrests of al-Qaida operatives or lone wolves inspired by al-Qaida. The CIA has been targeting other al-Qaida leaders so foreign countries will arrest them. Osama bin Laden is isolated, unable to command his organization.
Yet as the FBI and CIA have adapted to al-Qaida, so has the terror organization adapted. Al-Qaida has pulled back, but that has made it harder for U.S. intelligence to pick up leads because the target is more diffuse.
Still, al-Qaida would love to release biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons on the U.S. A terrorist bent on detonating a nuclear weapon would have to negotiate a series of steps, says Vahid Majidi, the FBI’s assistant director in charge of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. A terrorist would have to find an expert with the right knowledge. He would have to find the right material. Such a terrorist would have to bring the device into the country, and he would have to evade detection programs.
“While the net probability is incredibly low, a ten-kiloton device would be of enormous consequence,” Majidi says. “So even with those enormously low probabilities, we still have to have a very effective and integrated approach trying to fight the possibility.”
The media have gone from initially criticizing the FBI and CIA for not connecting the dots before 9/11, to claiming they are spying on innocent Americans, to minimizing the threat by saying the absence of an attack means the threat of al-Qaida was overblown. In fact, behind the successes are sweeping changes in the intelligence community since 9/11.
The FBI has become more prevention-oriented. Although the FBI always wanted to stop terrorist plots and did so in many cases, when it got the bad guys, as it did in the first World Trade Center bombing, it usually closed the case. Now every case becomes the basis for developing new sources who may be run out for years to infiltrate terrorist groups.
As Art Cummings, who headed the FBI’s national security operations, told me for my book “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack,” before 9/11, the first consideration was, “I got an indictment in my pocket . . . Slap it down on the table, pick the guy up, you throw him on an airplane. You bring him home, you put him in jail, and you go, ‘Okay, I’ve done a great job today.’”
If that were to happen today, Cummings says, “I would have told my agents they basically just put Americans more in jeopardy rather than less in jeopardy. It’s a completely different approach and bears little resemblance to the previous one.”
Now when an agent wants to make an arrest, Cummings tells the agent, “Your objective is not to make the arrest. Your objective is to make that suspect our collection platform. That guy now is going to tell us just how big and broad the threat might be. He now becomes a means to collection, instead of the target of collection. I want you to understand his entire universe.”
Rather than not talking to each other, 200 analysts from the CIA and FBI sit side by side analyzing threats 24 hours a day at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va. A secure video conference takes place three times a day with all members of the intelligence community and the White House to analyze threats and parcel out leads.
The USA Patriot Act tore down the so-called wall that Attorney General Janet Reno had imposed, a wall that prevented FBI agents from sharing information with each other and with the CIA.
But with success has come complacency and the sort of recklessness that led the Obama administration to decide to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 plot, in federal court in New York. Neither the FBI nor New York City police were consulted before Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. made that decision.
Despite such self-generated perils, FBI agents and CIA officers work around the clock and risk their own lives to keep us safe. Most could be making far more money in the private sector. Out of patriotism, they continue to do their jobs, protecting us, our families, and our friends. At the same time, they try to brush aside outrageous attacks from the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who claimed the CIA routinely lies to Congress.
A subhead over a recent Washington Post series said, “The government has built a national security and intelligence system so big, so complex and so hard to manage, no one really knows if it’s fulfilling its most important purpose: keeping citizens safe.”
Quite the contrary: The intelligence community has kept us safe since 9/11, and the annual price tag of $75 billion is a bargain.
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