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TERRORISM

A Policy Behind the Times

November 12, 2000|Bruce Hoffman | Bruce Hoffman is director of the Rand office in Washington. This article was adapted from Rand's Foreign Policy and National Security Transition 2001 report

WASHINGTON — When Bill Clinton leaves office in January, he can claim credit for having done more than any other president to ensure that the United States is prepared to counter the threat of terrorism. Overall spending on preparedness and response measures nearly doubled, and terrorism was elevated to the top of the list of security threats confronting the United States.

Yet, despite all this progress, last month's attack on the USS Cole tragically demonstrates that U.S. capabilities to defend itself against terrorism, and to preempt or respond to attacks, remain inchoate and unfocused. Constructing an effective counterterrorism policy is not a question of more attention, bigger budgets and increased staff. Rather, it requires greater focus, a better appreciation of the problem and understanding of the threat, and, in turn, the development of a clear, cohesive strategy.

This is not simply an intellectual exercise. It is the very foundation of any effective counterterrorism policy. The failure to develop such a policy has undermined counterterrorism efforts of the U.S. and other democratic nations before, producing frustratingly ephemeral, if not sometimes negative effects. In some cases, it actually increased the threat of terrorism.

For example, as satisfying or cathartic as retaliating against terrorism may be, it can have the opposite effect: provoking an escalation rather than curtailing terrorist attacks. The 1986 U.S. airstrike on Libya is a case in point. Rather than deterring Moammar Kadafi, the attacks goaded him to further excesses, including, it is believed, the inflight bombing of Pan Am 103 two years later.

This is not to suggest that the U.S. shouldn't forcefully respond to terrorism, but that such actions need to be planned and orchestrated as part of a wider, well-developed strategy designed to achieve long-term objectives and not simply to satisfy immediate desires. The next administration must turn its immediate attention to knitting together the full range of U.S. counterterrorist capabilities into a cohesive plan.

A critical first step is a comprehensive assessment of the terrorist threat, both foreign and domestic, today and in the future. There has been no such assessment for at least the past five years. Moreover, no mechanism exists to assess the domestic threat. By embracing policies and pursuing solutions that may not only be dated, but also irrelevant, we lose sight of current and projected trends. As a result, we risk responding to illusory threats and challenges.

The focus of current U.S. counterterrorism policy remains too weighted toward the threat of mass-casualty terrorism. An emphasis on what even champions of this approach admit are "low-probability/high-consequence threats" may be the least effective means of setting budgetary priorities, allocating resources and assuring security. As the attack on the USS Cole demonstrated--and those against U.S. embassies in East Africa two years before, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, and New York City's World Trade Center in 1993 have already shown--the most salient threat to U.S. citizens and interests comes not from exotic biological and chemical weapons but from explosives, including homemade bombs assembled from ordinary, commercially available materials. The bomb used at the World Trade Center, for example, cost about $400 to fabricate, yet caused in excess of $550 million in damages and lost revenue.

Concentrating on exotic threats begs the question of whether the United States is better prepared today to respond to an Oklahoma City bombing-type incident than it was five years ago. The next administration must be confident that the United States is capable of responding to all types of terrorist threats, from relatively simple and unsophisticated explosive devices to biological weapons, with equal emphasis given to conventional, yet lethal events like the attack on the USS Cole.

But it must resist the temptation to fix wheels that aren't broken. A former secretary of the Navy, for example, was among those who described the attack on the USS Cole as an "obscene failure of intelligence." Such accusations ignore the intelligence community's highly commendable track record in thwarting a succession of anti-American terrorist acts here and abroad. These include repeated attempts made against U.S. embassies following the East Africa bombings, the apprehension last December of a terrorist in Washington state and the disruption of a related plot to kill U.S. tourists in Jordan that month. Indeed, this appears to be the one key area of U.S. counterterrorism policy that functions admirably.

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