The Phony War
By Robert Dreyfuss
21 September 2006 Issue
President Bush not only created a fake "War on Terror" to scare voters into supporting his policies - he is failing to address the real threat facing America.
In August, even before the official announcement that some two dozen would-be terrorists had been arrested in London, President Bush and his top advisers swung into action. Their goal was not to stop the terrorists, who were already safely behind bars, but to use the threat to justify the president's seemingly endless "War on Terror."
Vice President Dick Cheney, who had known in advance about the pending arrests, hinted darkly about the threat posed by "Al Qaeda types." The president, standing on an airport tarmac in Wisconsin the next morning, warned that the arrests were "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." And that afternoon, Peter Wehner, the director of the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives, declared that America is engaged in nothing less than a "civilizational struggle" with enemies who seek "to establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia."
Fortunately, Wehner added, the country has a leader who knows exactly how to combat terrorism: "George W. Bush understands, with extraordinary clarity, the great struggle of our time."
The problem is, almost everything that President Bush understands about his own war on terrorism is wrong.
According to nearly a dozen former high-ranking officials who have been on the front lines of the administration's counterterrorism effort, the president is not only fighting the wrong war - he is fighting it in a way that has actually made the threat worse. The war on terrorism, they say, has been mismanaged and misdirected almost from the start, in no small part because the president simply does not understand the nature of the enemy he is fighting.
"I hate the term 'global war on terrorism,'" says John O. Brennan, a CIA veteran who served as the first director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the primary organization set up by Bush to analyze all intelligence about terrorism and coordinate strategic operational planning. "I hate the tough talk, you know, the 'we're gonna kill these guys' stuff."
Brennan is not alone. In a survey conducted this summer, more than 100 top foreign-policy experts - including former secretaries of state, CIA directors and high-ranking Pentagon officials - were asked if the president is "winning the War on Terror." Eighty-four percent said no.
Five years after the attacks of September 11th, the administration has failed to grasp the shifting realities of terrorism. If the United States is to have any chance at preventing another terrorist attack - as the British government apparently did in London last month - there are five essential lessons the president needs to learn:
1. Al Qaeda Has Been Virtually Eliminated as a Threat
Although the administration continues to scare Americans with the specter of Al Qaeda, the organization that attacked the United States on 9/11 has been virtually wiped out. While Osama bin Laden and a number of Al Qaeda veterans are still at large, the force that assaulted New York and Washington has been effectively dismantled. "I personally don't believe Al Qaeda exists as a robust organization anymore," says Wayne White, a top intelligence official in the State Department who left the Bush administration last year.
The systematic elimination of Al Qaeda began within weeks of the 9/11 attacks. Going into Afghanistan in October 2001, the CIA had a fair understanding of Al Qaeda's strength, organization and location. "We had a pretty good idea of who was there," says a CIA veteran who asked not to be identified. "We weren't asleep. We had a list of Al Qaeda people going in, and it included a lot of people who'd passed through their training camps over the years."
CIA intelligence at the time suggested that Al Qaeda was about 5,000 strong in Afghanistan. According to U.S. intelligence officials, many - perhaps most - of the group's members were killed in the bombing raids unleashed by the U.S. military. "We had a lot of success with airstrikes," says a former CIA operations officer. "We came in with B-52s and F-16s, and at Tora Bora we dropped a 15,000-pound device on them. We blew them to bits. If you wanted to do a body count, you would have needed to pick up the pieces with Q-Tips."
According to Gary Berntsen, a longtime CIA operations officer and former CIA station chief, only a few hundred Al Qaeda members managed to get out of Afghanistan in 2001. "Before Tora Bora, some did slip out, a dozen here and a dozen there," says Berntsen, who led the CIA team in the field that was assigned the task of hunting down Al Qaeda. "In Tora Bora, we estimated there were about a thousand who fell back, and many of those were killed. They broke into two groups, finally. One group, of about 130, was captured in Pakistan. Another group, about 180 people, got away."
The few who managed to get out - including bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri - were barely able to scramble to safety. "It was a disorganized rout," says White, the former intelligence official.
In Afghanistan, the CIA reaped an intelligence bonanza, seizing Al Qaeda's computers, files and organizational records. "Once we got Al Qaeda's hard drives, our knowledge expanded exponentially," says a retired CIA station chief. That intelligence has enabled counterterrorism officers to target Al Qaeda operatives around the world, all but eviscerating the group's foreign presence. "We've killed or captured at least one or two terrorists a day for five years, all over the world," says an experienced CIA hand. "More than 4,000 in all." A relentless crackdown in 2003 by authorities in Saudi Arabia virtually eliminated Al Qaeda there, and a terrorist group in Algeria allegedly tied to bin Laden was smashed.
Today, despite sketchy reports that an Al Qaeda veteran may have been involved in the London plot to bomb U.S. airlines, counterterrorism officials no longer believe that bin Laden has the ability to command cells of followers - let alone to plan, organize and manage large-scale terrorist actions. According to Brian Jenkins, who has spent more than thirty years studying terrorism at the RAND Corporation, Al Qaeda now totals fewer than 500 members, including its leaders and foot soldiers. At the top - "that is, bin Laden and the boys" - the organization is much smaller. "There is a core of only tens to scores of individuals involved in managing this thing," Jenkins says.
2. What We Don't Know About Al Qaeda Can Still Hurt US
If the president had kept his focus on capturing bin Laden, top officials say, he might have been able to declare a swift victory. Instead, Bush shifted from going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to going after Saddam Hussein in Iraq - a decision with fateful consequences for U.S. security. "Iraq broke our back in the War on Terror," says Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA's Al Qaeda unit until 2004.
Bin Laden, thought to be hiding in Pakistan, may not retain much ability to coordinate terrorist acts, but by his very existence he provides a rallying point for other would-be terrorists. "He is not much more than a standard-bearer," says White. "He's like a regimental flag-carrier, holding up the flag and trying to inspire people." About forty times over the past five years, bin Laden and Zawahiri have delivered tapes for broadcast, usually to the Arabic-language television channel Al Jazeera. There is no indication that any of these messages relate directly to specific acts of terrorism, but their taunting bravado encourages wanna-be terrorists.
"They're inspired by the great fucking leader," says a former CIA station chief with wide experience in the Middle East. "And we need the great fucking leader's head on a pike."
Unfortunately, now that bin Laden and Zawahiri are in Pakistan, finding them is an exceedingly difficult assignment. "In the sense that Al Qaeda is decentralized, it's much harder to get your hands around," says John McLaughlin, the former acting CIA director who left the agency in 2004. Whatever is left of Al Qaeda's core leadership has gone off the grid, avoiding electronic communications, and the CIA suspects that they connect with one another only through couriers. "They're highly conscious of operational security, and they've got geography in their favor," says Paul Pillar, a retired CIA counterterrorism expert who served as chief Middle East analyst under Bush. "The area that they're thought to be in is pretty much alien territory."
As a result, the CIA knows almost nothing about how bin Laden contacts the copycat groups he inspires. "We don't know squat about their leadership, or how they communicate," says a longtime CIA official who recently retired. "We don't know where they are, so we don't know who they are. We don't even know how the fucking videotapes get to Al Jazeera."
3. The Threat Has Gone Viral
By failing to "smoke out" bin Laden as promised, the president has given hope to a new generation of freelance terrorist cells, Islamist copycats and Al Qaeda wanna-be's. "We let them get away," says a retired CIA station chief. "We took a relatively centralized organization and turned it into a generalized virus. Before Afghanistan, we were facing somewhat of a unified threat. We now have the equivalent of a phantom that we're fighting."
It is that phantomlike, post-Al Qaeda form of terrorism that worries most U.S. experts, including former administration officials. "What is of greater concern is the development of local organizations," says White. Compared to the Al Qaeda of 2001, this new generation of terrorists is mostly amateurs, less likely and less capable of pulling off truly spectacular acts of violence. Though they can cause significant casualties from time to time, counterterrorism officials say, they are more like a low-grade viral infection - life-threatening only if left unattended. "There is a relatively small number of people who are out there trying to hurt us," says James Steinberg, a deputy national-security adviser under President Clinton.
These new formations - such as the cells that carried out deadly transit bombings in Madrid and London after 9/11, as well as the one accused in the recent London plot - may be less organized than the old Al Qaeda, but they are harder to defend against. When a handful of angry Islamic radicals meets in secret, decides on violence to seek revenge for alleged wrongs, and then hatches a plot, there is no organizational record for police and intelligence officials to track. "It means that the people who are carrying out terrorism are not people we know about," says Vince Cannistraro, who served as chief of operations and analysis at the CIA's counterterrorist center. "They're not on any lists. And you are not going to find out about them, even if you capture Zawahiri."
Copycat cells are angry, embittered Islamic radicals who hear Bush talk about a "crusade" and see U.S. troops occupying Iraq - and who want revenge. Because they arise spontaneously, without formal ties to Al Qaeda, the CIA can only guess at their location. "We don't have a very good map of where these cells might be," says Jenkins. "We only know where attacks have occurred." Based on those attacks, as well as other intelligence, analysts believe the cells are concentrated in a handful of cities in Europe, from London and Madrid to radical mosques in Germany and Switzerland. Some cells also appear to be connected to radical Muslim groups in Pakistan, including veteran terrorist groups involved in Kashmir, a divided region claimed by both Pakistan and India.
4. Fighting Terrorism Is for Cops and Spies, Not Soldiers
For President Bush, the way to stop terrorism is to wage a war. But isolated terrorists who conspire in the suburbs of London and coordinate their attacks on jihadist Web sites can't be defeated by armies - they can only be stopped by a combination of patient, old-fashioned police work and good intelligence. Indeed, the success of the British police and Scotland Yard in halting the recent threat in London represents a textbook example of how terrorists can be thwarted.
But the president shows no sign that he learned the lesson of the London bust. "Some people say, 'Well, this may be a law-enforcement matter,'" Bush said after the London plot was revealed. "No - these are people that are politically driven.... They have a backward view of the world." To combat that worldview, Bush has relied almost exclusively on the military. Since 2001, the administration has spent $430 billion on what he calls the "global war on terrorism" - and nearly ninety cents of every dollar have gone to the Defense Department.
John Brennan, the former counterterrorism director, says that the military is singularly unsuitable to combat the new organizational model that is emerging to replace Al Qaeda. "It's not a Terrorist International that we're fighting," he says. "But the Department of Defense and others insist very strongly on calling it a war, because that allows the Pentagon to prosecute the military dimension of the conflict. It fits their global strategy."
Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Marine colonel who served as Colin Powell's deputy at the State Department, also ridicules the president's notion that the enemy is a global force made up of "Islamic fascists" who can be defeated as the Nazis were by military force. "I don't think there's a soul in the administration, except for Vice President Dick Cheney, who believes that crap about 'Islamofascism,'" he says.
To make matters worse, Wilkerson adds, the Pentagon often undertook its anti-terrorism ventures without even bothering to notify other agencies. Special Forces frequently turned up uninvited in countries around the world, and the State Department didn't even know they were there. "We'd have an ambassador call us and say, 'Why are these six-foot-six Americans walking down the streets here?'" Wilkerson recalls. "And Colin Powell would have to call Don Rumsfeld and say, 'Don, why the hell do you have the Delta Force in such-and-such place?'"
The emphasis on the military has come at the expense of intelligence gathering. In fact, the administration's recent steps to reorganize intelligence agencies have weakened the CIA and created an overlapping and contradictory web of bureaucracy that has complicated the ability of U.S. spies and analysts to prevent another attack. "We have a more confusing organization now," says Pillar. "It's really hard to answer the question 'Who's in charge?'"
Over the past two years, as the CIA has been forced to do the bidding of the Pentagon, scores of top agency officials have been fired or have quit in disgust. In addition, Rolling Stone has learned, the Defense Department has even blocked efforts by the agency to produce a National Intelligence Estimate - a formal, top-secret analysis of the threat posed by Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups. Five years after the attacks of September 11th, the administration still lacks a unified, up-to-date analysis of who the enemy is and how best to fight him.
"When I left the CIA in November 2004, they had not done an NIE on Al Qaeda," says Scheuer, who headed the agency's Al Qaeda unit for nearly a decade. "In fact, there has never been an NIE on the subject since the 1990s." Today, the process remains bogged down in interagency disputes - largely because of resistance by the Pentagon to any conclusions that would weaken its primary role in counterterrorism. As a result, the Bush administration remains uncertain about the true nature of the terrorist foes that America faces - and unable to devise an effective strategy to combat those foes.
5. Terrorism Can't Be Defeated - Ever
Terrorism is not an enemy, but a method. As such, it can never be defeated - only contained and reduced. Even if the United States were to wipe out every terrorist cell in the world today, terrorism would be back tomorrow, because new grievances and new cries for revenge will continue to create new terrorists. In addition, there will always be violence-prone, armed insurgent groups that use terrorist methods in conflicts around the world, from Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon to rebel and dissident groups in Kashmir, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Spain, Colombia, the Philippines and the Congo.
In the short term, the cops and spies can continue to do their best to watch for terrorist threats as they emerge, and occasionally, as in London, they will succeed. But they are the first to admit that stopping a plot before it can unfold involves, more than anything, plain dumb luck. In the end, the advantage is with the conspirators. "Stopping a terrorist plot before it happens is rare," says Pillar, the government's former chief Middle East analyst. "It's tremendously satisfying, but rare. It's a mistake to think we can improve our intelligence specifically to come up with that sort of prevention."
Rather than waging a global war, experts say, the United States needs to work closely with foreign intelligence services that know the lay of the land in their own countries to take down terrorists one by one. "Progress is measured one terrorist at a time, one cell at a time," says Pillar. "We will be attacked. But there's a chance that we will be attacked less often, and less lethally." As unsatisfying as it sounds, that approach suggests a definition of "victory" in battling terrorism: The best we can do is to reduce the threat of terrorism to that of an ugly nuisance.
In the longer term, with each passing day, the heavy-handed U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israel-Palestine conflict is producing new terrorists. By his very policies, President Bush is spreading the virus, not quarantining it. The war in Iraq has radicalized Muslims all over the world, and it has allowed them to portray the invasion of Iraq as an attack on Islam. "The president says Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, but Iraq has turned out to be the central front because we've made it so," says Wilkerson. "Osama bin Laden is probably chuckling in his cave. We gave it to him on a platter, with a knife and fork."
That, in the end, is the most important lesson of all to be learned from the campaign against terrorism. The hatred inflamed by the Bush administration cannot be fixed by cops, spies or soldiers. It can be fixed only by a more unified and coordinated stance toward the rest of the world - one that creates allies rather than inspiring hatred.
"We need a healthier foreign policy," says Brennan, the former counterterrorism head. "It will take a diplomatic track to address this problem - in ways other than killing people."
This article appears in the September 21, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.