10/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

9/11 and the GOP's False Sense of Security

The GOP's recent demolition derby with reality is exhilarating. And it's been harmless enough, sending little things like truth, honor, credibility, and decency to the junkyard on the far side of the Bridge to Nowhere.

But one car in this raucous smashup should scare the hell out of us. The car is America's counterterrorism policy. Listen to the Republican National Convention's 9/11 "tribute" video and Gov. Sarah Palin and you'll realize that these people are gunning the engine and blithely swerving straight toward the grandstand where we're all sitting.

The convention video, which brimmed with exploitative images of the 9/11 massacres, concluded with these reassuring words: "And we will never let it happen again."

Gov. Palin, in her interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson, later said, "now we are at a point here seven years later, on the anniversary, in this post-9/11 world, where we're able to commit to never again."

Maybe these words only sound crazy to me because I'm old enough to remember when Republicans talked about the terrorist threat with grim realism. Way back in 2002, when I was just a boy of 29, we had a vice president named Cheney, who went on NBC's Meet The Press and used the bleak words "not a matter of if, but when" to describe the likelihood of another major terrorist attack.

"In my opinion, the prospects of a future attack against the United States are almost certain," Cheney added. "I'd like to be able to say it's never going to happen again, but I don't think anybody who's really looked at it can say that."

As recently as last month, the New York Times relied on remarks by the U.S. government's senior terrorism analyst for a story that warned, "Al Qaeda is more capable of attacking inside the United States than it was last year, and its cadre of senior leaders has recruited and trained 'dozens' of militants capable of blending into Western society to carry out attacks."

In this context, it's more than just a political game to play demolition derby with the truth and claim "we're able to commit to never again," as Gov. Palin did. Words matter. In this case, the words matter because the fairytale that we can commit to "never again" risks making us complacent.

I contacted Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar under Clinton and Bush, for his take on all this. He e-mailed back: "If you ask yourself why is it possible to happen again, the chief reason is that al Qaeda was able to reconstitute. And why was it able? Because we shifted key forces to Iraq ..."

Clarke noted that Senator McCain was one of the prominent voices backing the president during the drive toward war. The Iraq War distracted us from al Qaeda's hiding places in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as Senator Obama and others have argued. But Clarke looks at the war, sees its mammoth pricetag, and thinks of all the counterterrorism measures that sqandered money could have purchased.

As Clarke wrote in his e-mail, "We will never be fully secure, but we could be a lot more secure than we are for a small portion of what we spent on Iraq."

Clarke wrote a recent opinion piece, detailing his counterterrorism shopping list and our unfinished work toward preparedness.

"We said we would never let it happen again, but what have we done to live up to that pledge? We have not destroyed al Qaeda, but our failures don't stop there. Our multibillion-dollar 'homeland security' response has degenerated into a politicized pork-barrel project. The Department of Homeland Security ranks among the lowest in terms of performance standards and the highest in the percentage of political appointees. Our borders are still porous. Our air and sea cargo are still not fully screened, despite congressional orders to do so. We still do not know when or if visitors depart our country, despite Congress's mandating an exit screening to track when people have overstayed their visas. There is little security on passenger rail systems, from Amtrak to Boston's T to San Francisco's BART. Few major metropolitan areas are prepared to deal with a mass casualty event. The list goes on."

And his list does go on. Please take the time to read his piece. Again, here's the link.

Senator McCain has his own list of work that needs to be done to protect America from terrorism. The list is long enough and detailed enough that it's hard to fathom why Senator McCain allowed his convention to feature empty claims that "we will never let it happen again" or why he hasn't made a very public show of correcting his VP's assertion that "we're able to commit to never again." For now, we are left to wonder whether Senator McCain has read his own plan, whether he has a personal grasp of why the "never again" talk is, at best, premature.

Let's hope and assume that Senator McCain does understand these things. If he does, he owes it to the country to explain them to Gov. Palin. We talk about her possibly being one heartbeat away from the presidency. But there is also the chilling possibility that either Gov. Palin or Senator Biden may be one terrorist attack away from the presidency.

Whether this election gives us President McCain or President Obama, it seems logical to expect that terrorists will try to strike early and spectacularly in the incoming administration in a bid to provoke the new president into responses as counterproductive and repellent as those of President Bush. This hunch of mine unfortunately seems to be bolstered by the recent U.S. government analysis mentioned earlier in this post. The coverage of last month's assessment by Ted Gistaro, the government's senior terrorism analyst, concluded with this:

"With the election and inauguration of a new president coming up, Mr. Gistaro said, intelligence officials expect a surge in threat reporting about possible domestic attacks.

"Any Qaeda attack timed to the election would be aimed at wreaking havoc, rather than influencing the balloting in a particular direction, he said.

"'There is no intelligence that suggests to me that Al Qaeda has a preferred candidate in our upcoming election,' Mr. Gistaro said."

If you remember nothing else you've read here, remember that last quote. No matter what the attack ads may claim in the coming weeks about Senator Obama being the chosen candidate of every boogeyman from Hamas to Castro, we are all in this together. Our safety depends on us acting together. And our shared action depends on a basic shared understanding that it is far too soon to claim "never again."

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