Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 15, 2008

NYT Misses the Mark on HLS

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Jonah Czerwinski on December 15, 2008

Something about Peter Bergen’s op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times bothers me. He asserts that “the likelihood of a terrorist attack on the United States in [the Obama administration’s] early stages by Al Qaeda is close to zero.” I hope he’s correct, but his rationale for this optimism leaves too much unanswered.

Despite claims by everyone from the DNI to the SECDEF to the VP-elect to the recent WMD Commission that terrorist threats remain as serious headed into the transition to the Obama administration as they have for recent years, Bergen points to four developments that suggest to him that “the probability of a Qaeda attack on the United States is vanishingly small.” They are:

1. American Muslims have rejected the Qaeda ideology.

2. No Qaeda sleeper cells appear to reside in the United States.

3. It is much harder today for jihadist terrorists to enter the United States.

4. Measures like the establishment of the National Counterterrorism Center have made Americans safer.

Talk about fighting the last war. This reasoning can be boiled down to the following: Because the 9/11 attacks occurred, the 9/11 attacks will not take place again. I think its safe to say that reinforced cockpit doors alone will foil a repeat 9/11. But to suggest that the likelihood of an al Qaeda attack is zero is too sweeping. The four reasons Bergen gives himself are unconvincing in the following ways:

1. Our homeland and national security community is less concerned with the overt support for terrorist organizations within the U.S. than there was prior to 9/11. Overt support isn’t necessary and American Muslims don’t seem to be that much less an adversary for al Qaeda than other Americans.

2. At least Bergen acknowledges the difficulty in proving a negative, but just because we haven’t found them doesn’t mean that sleeper cells do not and will not form in the U.S.

3. Terrorist plotters are unlikely to attempt entry to the U.S. in the same brazen way that they did prior to 9/11. Watch lists and US-VISIT may be steps in the right direction, but the work is not finished.

4. Sure, the NCTC and other such organizations make Americans safer. But do they make us safe? Safe enough? This is not a realistic stasis that the government – no matter how well run – can realistically expect to come about due to the NCTC.

The Times is running a series of op-ed articles by experts about the challenges facing the incoming Obama administration. Yesterday’s was focused on “homeland security and improving our intelligence agencies.” The Times did not succeed in covering sufficient ground. Homeland security challenges were covered by Bergen in this piece and by former NSC senior director Philip Bobbitt. The latter piece focused on fine tuning the counter-terrorism piece of homeland security with a winding treatment of threats and missed opportunities.

Neither of these articles sufficiently addressed the homeland security challenges facing the Obama administration. Little, if anything, discussed the challenges of prevention, mitigation, emergency response, training, coordination of state-local-federal entities, or ongoing needs to integrate the relevant bureaucracies. These are certainly homeland security challenges facing the incoming Obama administration.

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Comment by Kristina Tanasichuk

December 15, 2008 @ 10:07 am

After several years working with first responders in both law enforcement and fire services the attitude they have is not “if but when” the next attack will occur. But of course, they hear the chatter. We don’t.

To say that we have not found “sleepers” is absurd. We have at least three public prosecutions pending against actors in New York, Florida, Michigan and thankfully they were found early. It is naive to think others are not already here. It is exactly that type of complacency and overconfidence that opens vulnerabilities in our vigilance.

Additionally, to define homeland security so narrowly is a disservice. “Homeland security” is a state of mind for every person in America — for us when we visit the grocery store, the mall, driving over the bridge to come to work. For businesses it means protecting and watching their entire operations and securing their people and facilities to prevent an attack and to respond to one. For the public sector it is a constant watch to assure that we know what and who is moving in and out of the country and to let the right people know the right information in a timely, useful way.

It seems to me that when you are defending against an enemy that will wait for generations to plan and execute the next attack, any distraction from our own vigilance is counterproductive.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 15, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

Of course we are the victims of our own egos and hubris. The outgoing Administration proudly touts through its spokepersons, leaders, and followers (media) that it has “Prevented” any follow-on domestic attacks since 9/11. How do we know? We do know some have been prevented but what if attacks on the US were redefined to include communication interruptions, energy outages, Critical infrastructure failures, financial disruption and collapse, etc. Has AQ and its minions been rules out as having succeeded in those arenas? UBL specifically addressed economic targets and economic disruption as part of his long term strategy. Seems to me there is daily proof of his long term success. Okay so what about more obvious targeting? Since 9/11 NYC and Washington DC have upgradded the most but not yet fully capable of handling a mass casualty event of whatever form. Few of the 200 largest cities in the US would not be completely overwhelmed by the lack of the medical response to only 700 severe casulties, not necessarily all burns.
And based on lessons learned, AQ now knows to hit mutlitple targets virtually simulatenously since the top-down command structure built by DHS and FEMA do not seem capable of dealing with mulitple events occurring simultaneously. FEMA is still so short staffed and underfunded that after the first 72 hours of 24 hour ops the key staff would collpase from fatigue. No back up system in place for foreseeable future. How many PFO’s and FCO’s are fullly trained and competent for large scale geographic events? After all the last large scale power outage in the Northeast was almost certainly to be most likely have occurred because of the falling of a single tree limb in Ohio. Hey the enemy gets it we don’t. Good luck to the new team. Hope the first 4 years are without incident but don’t count on it. And hey is the potential for mass casualties from a strike during the inauguration a possibility? Perhaps despite its historic nature this one should be only semi-public? Call me “Worried.”

Comment by Fred Millar

December 16, 2008 @ 11:32 am

One good measure of whether US homeland security is being taken seriously is whether we still allow the railroads to “pre-position” rail and truck cargoes the feds call Weapons of Mass Destruction like 90-ton chlorine gas tank cars right where the terrorist would love to have them, in the middle of all our 60 High Threat Urban Areas. See:


Comment by Ricardo

December 22, 2008 @ 1:35 am

Tell that retard to go to the catskills they are training there for an attack. They have followers all over this country and we keep bringing them in just ask the people in the twin cities or Dearbornastan. Peter Bergen is about informed as my dog. Only my Dog is a bit smarter.

Pingback by NYT Misses the Mark on HLS | Security Debrief - a blog of homeland security news and analysis

February 17, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

[…] NYT Misses the Mark on HLS – Homeland Security Watch Something about Peter Bergen’s op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times bothers me. He asserts that “the likelihood of a terrorist attack on the United States in [the Obama administration’s] early stages by Al Qaeda is close to zero.” I hope he’s correct, but his rationale for this optimism leaves too much unanswered. […]

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