iOS app Android app More

RJ Eskow

RJ Eskow

Posted: August 16, 2006 01:34 AM

A National Security Initiative For The Future, Not the Past


We need a new approach to protecting ourselves from terrorism, one that includes fresh ideas and an honest national conversation about some tough topics. We need to think imaginatively, drawing on our best and brightest from fields as diverse as law enforcement and even ... video gaming. (Yes, I said video gaming.) We need to draw on old disciplines and invent new disciplines, like the one I call "counter-anthropology." And we need to start now.

Part One of this two-part series offered the idea of a National Security Initiative that combined the best of the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan, and the Moon Landing to combat terrorism and create a safer world. It's an enormous undertaking, but Americans have succeeded at such undertakings before. It's a matter of national will.

The purpose here is not to bash Republicans, although Larry Beinhart's picked up on a favorite theme of mine: they've proven to be weak on national security. The point is: why have they failed? How can we do better as a nation? And how can it be a truly bipartisan effort?

That means clear thinking. No more naïve ideas about the Middle East, the transformative power of war, and the unified nature of the "Islamofascist" enemy. At their core, these ideas are sentimental (desire for war is a "sentiment," too). We don't have time for that. We've got a country to defend.

We know now that an expert forecast a mass-murder terror plot just like the one recently exposed in London over a year ago. Why was his prediction overlooked? We also know that a plot to use similar liquid explosives was detected and stopped ... in 1994. We know that cronyism is rampant in our current anti-terror efforts.

None of what we've heard in the past week is new. Why is everyone - to borrow a phrase from Gore Vidal - "stating the obvious with a very real sense of discovery"? Why aren't we demanding and getting more rigor in the safeguarding of our nation?

As I wrote in September 2005, " the GAO just confirmed that the ... DoD left radiological materials in easy reach of passing terrorists for six months." I was also worried at the time that "the next Katrina could be a nuclear attack" due to the presence of unsecured radiological materials in this country, and pointed out that Halliburton was already hiring "radiologic safety officers" in the expectation that they would win the post-catastrophe clean-up contract.

It's time for a dramatic new approach - one that reaches out to Americans with many varied talents, inside and outside government. Where to begin? My first recommendation was to "state the objectives" of our national security effort in an open, clear, and achievable way.

That means that we must discard outmoded kinds of thinking. For example, "Islamofascism" is not a real description of the threat we face. It's a politically-driven term meant to link the specter of 20th-Century fears (Communism, fascism) with today's more complex problem.

"Rogue states" are not the problem, either, although many of the movements we face will have affinities or ties with Iran and Syria (and now, thanks to the Administration, probably with Iraq too).

Nor do we face a unified enemy. Movements within the Islamist world often disagree with one another. Attempts to link organizations as disparate as Hamas and Al-Qaeda into a single movement are not only misguided, they damage our national security. They prevent us from driving wedges between forces when it's to our advantage, and limit our ability to counteract terrorist recruitment messages.

Secondly, whereas "fascist" movements are highly centralized, we face highly decentralized entities. Strategic thinkers would do better to compare Al Qaeda to a chain of independently owned McDonald's franchises than they would to compare it to, say, Italy under Mussolini.

Many of the terror threats that confront us aren't even Islamic. Many Palestinian suicide bombers aren't even Muslim, for example, and Maoist terrorist/rebels caused perhaps as many deaths last year as Islamists did. (More than 13,000 in total have died in Nepal so far). We wear blinders created by ideology or bigotry at our own peril.

"Stating the objective" means explaining to the American people that terrorism is a tactic, a tool. You can't "wipe out terrorism" any more than you can "eliminate murder." What you can do is control it, and reduce the risk of allowing it to take its deadliest forms (such as bioterror or radiological attack).

But to reduce it, you must understand it. That means examining its causes, their perceived grievances, the centers of its development. It's not "aiding the enemy" to examine his grievances, despite what certain ideologues have said, nor do we serve ourselves well with inaccurate platitudes like "they hate our freedoms."

Nor can we rely on techniques that have proven to be a) unsuccessful, and b) counterproductive. These include torture, pre-emption, a confusing "alert system that's a rainbow of colors," and discredited tactics like "psychological profiling."

Our dependence on foreign oil greatly increases our susceptibility to terrorism, by forcing us to continue supporting widely-hated, non-Democratic regimes in the Middle East. A sister initiative to reduce oil dependence would go a long way toward easing the terrorist threat, by allowing us to become more neutral brokers in the Arabian peninsula.

We also need to face some hard facts about terrorists: In many ways, they've adopted far more advanced 21st Century techniques in this struggle than we have. They use blogs, websites, emails, pop music, video, art, poetry ... even video games ... to build support and find recruits.

Like movie studios or record companies, they're masters at "viral marketing, " the use of person-to-person testimonials and non-traditional forms of distribution, to make their case. The counterintelligence efforts we make on behalf of ourselves and our allies will need these skills, too.

My next suggested step is to build our "National Security Brain Trust." We'll need those viral marketers, bloggers, hackers, rock and rollers, film makers, and, yes -- even gamers. ("First Person Antiterrorist," anyone?)

We'll need more traditional talents, too. As even George Will has conceded, John Kerry was absolutely right in 2004 when he stated that the prevention of terrorism is fundamentally a law enforcement problem. Great Britain foiled a massive terror plot with old-fashioned police work - and without breaking the law.

Not all antiterrorist fighters will drive tanks, or even carry guns. We'll need accountants, for example, who are familiar with "forensic accounting" and can detect irregularities in banking records. If terrorists are deprived of funds they can't operate.

When Donald Rumsfeld called for a leaner, more adaptable military he was catastrophically wrong, but only in context. (As Dr. John sang, "right place, wrong time.") We will need small, adaptable, and highly flexible military units - accompanied by high-technology surveillance and remote fighting units. But their use must be judicious, and in accord with international law. Otherwise, we'll lose another priceless anti-terror tool: the cooperation of other nations.

Which means we'll need diplomats, too.

We'll also need theologians. Fundamentalism is the primary driver of terrorism. From Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East to abortion clinic bombers in the US heartland, we've received incontrovertible proof that the highest human impulse - the search for life's meaning - can be perverted and used for the lowest ends.

A commitment to reducing terrorism requires that we understand its root causes. Sociologists, anthropologists, and theologians must be free to debate and discuss the forces in the human spirit that lead to terrorism.

Why theologians? Followers of one religion who believe terrorism only exists in another mislead us as a people, leaving us vulnerable to future Eric Rudolphs (and possibly future anthrax attacks as well). So, too, do promoters of atheism who believe that terrorism and fanaticism only spring from religious beliefs (the Baader-Meinhof terrorists and the killing fields of Cambodia,disprove that faith-based theory, to name just two). The work of teams like the Fundamentalism Project can be critical tools in our terror fight.

Social scientists also need to be put to greater use in areas like these:

Social networking: Mining the bank data or Internet transactions of millions of Americans is not only unconstitutional, it's bad strategy. We don't have an unlimited supply of analysts. Having them spend hours investigating a body-shop repairman in Bakersfield who once used the same travel agent as a Muslim cleric (it could happen) is not only against our Constitution, it's a waste of valuable anti-terror resources. (And having military intelligence investigate Quakers is not only un-American - it squanders our defense resources.)

We need to examine social networking's possibilities, and come to a national consensus on reconciling data-mining tactics with our treasured laws and core Americanvalues.

Cultural cues: Minoru Yamasaki used Islamic religious motifs in designing the World Trade Center, and described it as "a mosque to commerce." Did that increase its risk of attack? Anthropologists should be studying symbols and rhetoric to assess risk.

Popular culture: Supporters of suicide bombing in the Palestinian occupied territories are adept at using cultural norms about martyrdom (some drawn from the ancient death of the imam Husayn), pop music, and other popular culture references in their recruitment efforts. If we don't understand their techniques, we can't attempt to forestall their efforts.

"Counter-Anthropology": I've invented this term myself, to describe another area where we need to take the initiative. The terrorists are studying us, trying to figure out what kind of attack would wound us most deeply, psychologically and socially. Where do we feel vulnerable - hospitals? Maybe they'll strike there. Places of worship? Schools, as in Russia? They are thinking about it at this very moment. We need to be trying to get into their heads, so we can try to be one step ahead.

Next, we need a "national dialogue" on the topic, to build a consensus on our approach to the problem. We should employ the vocabulary of "risk management," the corporate science of assessing risk and planning accordingly. We need to provide the public with the following:

• an honest, unsentimental assessment of the risks we face
• a full explanation of the "cost vs. benefit" of tools such as legal wiretapping
• An explanation of the "hidden cost of oil" in increased terror risk
• a frank discussion on topics such as, "what level of risk is acceptable for what level of freedom"?

Regular readers will know that I consider our basic freedoms worth a certain level or risk. My opinions aside, there's no doubt we need a national conversation on the topic.

A key piece of the dialog will be the discussion of diplomacy. The phrase "we don't negotiate with terrorists" originated with life-threatening hostage situations. If we then label the entire Islamic world "terrorist," we limit our own options.

The 20th Century was filled with objections to negotiation, yet Nixon negotiated with China and a series of US Presidents negotiated with the Soviet Union.

Let's not kid ourselves. An American President will negotiate with Iran (although never with Al Qaeda or similar groups). The only questions are 1) when will it happen?, and b) will right-wing rhetoric make Democrats so fearful to do it that it will have to wait until a Republican decides to do it (as with China)?

These steps will allow us to move toward the implementation stage - first by "defining the result", and then by moving into the "implementation stage." The implementation stage should include imaginative new law enforcement initiatives, the development of new and sophisticated technologies (some of which will have broader social usefulness, as devices invented for the moon launch did), upgrading of military capability, a renewed emphasis on diplomacy, and a greater understanding of (and interaction with) people in different parts of the world and here at home.

The end result could well be a more liberalized Middle East (the model is Lebanon under its late president, not Iraq under occupation), a safer United States, and side benefits we can't yet even predict. The fight against terror can help us renew our national purpose and reaffirm our national values. There's no reason not to start immediately, provided we have the leadership and the vision.

A Night Light

Follow RJ Eskow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rjeskow