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.