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Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

High Time for the War on Terror to Be Retooled

July 13, 2005|Steve Lopez

There's an upside, and a downside, to vacationing on California's Central Coast.

The natural beauty and tranquillity can quickly lull you into a state of oblivion. But sooner or later, you have to return to the real world. In my case, it happened the moment I made the unforgivable mistake of turning on the hotel television.

My grief at the news from London turned to anger, and rage gave way to fear when we returned to Los Angeles, which figures to be a bigger terrorist target than, say, Cambria and Morro Bay.

I don't mean "fear" in the sense that I'm afraid to get out of bed in the morning. I'm talking about the nagging anxiety of knowing that cowardly maniacs roam the world on a twisted religious mission, trying to pulverize innocent people on their way to work or school.

I'm also talking about the anxiety that comes from knowing that if we had racked our brains and prayed for inspiration, we could not have designed a war on terror that makes less sense.

Osama is still on the lam, we've created a terrorist training academy in what was the most secular Arab state (even if it was run by a psychopath), and the war without end has cost so much in blood and money, we've run up record deficits while shorting budgets for intelligence, homeland security and healthcare for soldiers coming home on stretchers.

But none of that stopped a Fox TV trio of attack dogs from going after Rep. Jane Harman of Venice, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the Committee on Homeland Security, a moderate Democrat who committed the unconscionable crime of telling the truth.

The day of the London bombings, Harman, who voted to authorize the war in Iraq, stated the obvious: "The notion that we are fighting terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to fight them in our cities is clearly false."

This got the Fox Dobermans worked into a lather. But I suspected Harman might have had a more nuanced message than you ordinarily hear on cable "news," so I called her when I got back home.

"We've spent $200 billion on Iraq so far," she told me. "Our Homeland budget, depending on how you count, is between $30 [billion] and $40 billion a year."

Harman wasn't suggesting that we could simply write a bigger check and guarantee security at home.

But she's really irritated by the lack of attention to obvious security holes such as those at major ports like the Long Beach and Los Angeles facilities. She has preached for four years about the threat of a nuclear or biochemical attack.

"The real tragedy on homeland security is that we've barely had any strategy," Harman said. While Long Beach and Los Angeles port officials begged for funding to beef up security and bomb detection, she noted, there was pork aplenty for port operations in Alaska, the Virgin Islands and Martha's Vineyard.

Unfortunately, while we may have secured the safety of the Vineyard yachting set, the Government Accountability Office reported that because of understaffing, only 65% of U.S.-bound cargo is inspected at foreign ports, and 90% of the security checks slated for shippers and terminal operators after Sept. 11, 2001, have not been completed.

And Harman told me she didn't know "which rocket scientists" bought them, but the radiation monitors now being installed at the local ports might not be of much use in certain instances.

"They cannot pick up small amounts of highly enriched uranium, which can be shielded effectively," she said.

Harman thinks Michael Chertoff, the new Homeland Security chief who visited the L.A. ports last month, has more on the ball than his predecessor Tom Ridge, whom she referred to as "an interior decorator" for his preoccupation with color-coded warnings. And she hopes the schoolyard tussle over intelligence gathering is finally over.

But she warned that there's a long way to go, and as she explained what she meant, any notion of quick fixes was extinguished.

"The threat has changed since 9/11, and it's more dangerous. On 9/11, the folks who attacked us -- regardless of what Dick Cheney keeps saying -- were not Iraqis. They were card-carrying Al Qaeda members with a top-down structure led by Osama bin Laden in ... Afghanistan.

"We have wounded Al Qaeda ... but what grew up in its place is franchise terrorism. I think we're going to find that the cell in London is not Al Qaeda, but a copycat, and there are lots of those growing up around the world."

So what do we do?

Beef up intelligence. Encourage more denunciation of fanatics by mainstream Muslims. Get Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to focus more on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Develop a domestic energy policy that cuts our suicidal addiction to Middle East oil. Accelerate the training of an Iraqi army and set benchmarks for an eventual withdrawal.

"The [terrorists] President Bush calls 'the bad guys' are not going to be rehabilitated ... and we should have the tools necessary to remove them. I'm not in favor of killing people in particular, but I'm not against it," said Harman.

"But that will not win in this era of terrorism. What we have to do is win the argument with the next generation.... In addition to military force, we need public diplomacy, jobs and educational opportunity, and we need to project American values they'll respond to."

Harman recalled a leaked 2003 memo in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mused as to whether the U.S. was killing more terrorists than the madrasas and radical clerics were training.

"The answer to that right now," said Harman, "is no."

That vacation already seems like it was eons ago.

*

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez.

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