Counterterrorism Before September 11 | Commentary

An Exchange Between Gabriel Schoenfeld & Critics

Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

During the Reagan administration I was awarded the Seal Medallion of the Central Intelligence Agency. This is among its highest honors and was given, I assume, for eight years’ service on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the last four as vice chairman with Barry Goldwater as chairman.

This has mattered to me, and hence I was deeply troubled by Gabriel Schoenfeld’s lead article [“Could September 11 Have Been Averted?”] in the December issue, which charges me with having introduced legislation that included what “might aptly be labeled the Free Admission for Terrorists clause.”

The bill (never passed) was designed to put an end to the “lookout lists” for persons with “unacceptable opinions.” These were a legacy of the McCarthy era, which no longer served our interests in any way. However, Section 203 of the bill provided that “an alien whose entry or proposed activities in the United States the Secretary of State has reasonable ground to believe would have a serious adverse foreign-policy consequences [sic] for the United States is excludable.” The bill went further to state, “Nothing in this title requires the admission . . . of any alien believed to be a national-security threat to the United States” [emphasis added].

Mr. Schoenfeld defames me. As a friend of COMMENTARY, I am desolate.

The Woodrow Wilson Center
Washington, D.C.


Paul R. Pillar:

While I am flattered by the attention that Gabriel Schoenfeld gives to my book Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy and the favorable contrasts he makes with other supposed purveyors of “official thinking” on counterterrorism, some of what he extracts from the book misrepresents its message. A reader of Mr. Schoenfeld’s article would be excused for mistakenly thinking that I espouse a viewpoint that is smugly content with past successes against terrorism, and coldly clinical in looking at terrorist attacks as no different from other causes of death.

A major theme of the book is that Americans have too often slid into complacency during periods in which terrorism has been out of the headlines, and that it is a mistake to believe that the passage of time without a major terrorist incident indicates the problem has lessened. It is all the more a mistake during an era in which, as the book discusses, international terrorism has become increasingly threatening in several respects: more anti-American, more lethal, and with a wider geographic reach, including the United States. That I considered counterterrorist policy, even before September 11, to be an appropriate subject for a book-length analysis—with numerous recommendations for making the policy better—speaks to my belief that previous success is not enough.

Another theme is that the significance of terrorism cannot be measured simply by comparing the number of casualties with other sources of death and injury (as some who downplayed terrorism before September 11 liked to do). One reason it cannot is that, as Mr. Schoenfeld correctly states, the slaughter of innocents for a political purpose is simply not morally and emotionally equivalent to other reasons our citizens die. Another reason is that terrorism has numerous indirect costs, including the costs of trying to protect against it.

It was in discussing those costs that I mentioned aviation security and the previous paucity of hijackings—a mention that was not, as Mr. Schoenfeld’s context-less quotations might lead one to believe, a judgment about the adequacy of that security. Instead, it was an illustration of the point that even in the absence of terrorist attacks, we have spent major resources to try to prevent such attacks, and such expenditures must be counted among the indirect costs of terrorism. As I wrote on the same page from which Mr. Schoenfeld drew the quotes in question, “the very fact that so many resources are consumed—however necessary or unnecessary, effective or ineffective, any particular countermeasure may be—is itself a reason for the subject to command policy attention.”

Mr. Schoenfeld expresses dislike for a couple of my analogies but does not mention or refute the points they are used to make. Counterterrorism is like many other issues of public policy, including highway safety, in that we must attack the problem by using every available tool, each of which has something to contribute but no one of which is sufficient by itself. In short, there is no silver bullet. Does Mr. Schoenfeld disagree? If so, what is his silver bullet?

Counterterrorism is also like public-health efforts against communicable diseases, not because deaths from disease are morally or psychologically equivalent to deaths from terrorism, which they are not, but instead in the sense that each subject involves a constantly changing array of threats. As one disease or terrorist group is vanquished, another emerges. Our current terrorist foes do not represent an end to the evolution and transformation of international terrorism.

I wish that a strong commitment to “victory” over terrorism, and actions that express that commitment forcefully, would eliminate the problem, as Mr. Schoenfeld suggests. But wishing it does not make it true, and believing it can have two unfortunate effects. One is a tendency to lash out with acts that show how strong our commitment is but may be ineffective, or even counterproductive, in saving lives from future terrorism (for example, military strikes that are made against targets not as suitable as those in Afghanistan and that may jeopardize the behind-the-scenes cooperation with foreign partners that is critical to dismantling terrorist infrastructures).

The other effect is to undermine the kind of public support that is most needed in fighting terrorism: sustained, long-term support, given without expectation that the need for it will end any time soon. The delusion that we can “win” a war against terrorism in general is an invitation to the nation, once it has achieved a victory of sorts over al Qaeda or whoever is the other foe of the moment, to slip back to the inattention that has too often characterized American attitudes toward terrorism.

Washington, D.C.


David G. Epstein:

I am in overall agreement with Gabriel Schoenfeld’s reflections on terrorism. But the very last sentence of his essay, referring to a “victory” over terrorism, distresses me. I take it to mean that we should strive to replicate what we accomplished in World War II, and I do not see that as realistic or useful.

I spent thirteen years as chief of the training division in the Office of Anti-Terrorism Assistance at the Department of State. We worked with the security and police forces of over 60 countries that were experiencing some aspect of a terrorist threat, including Israel, Jordan, Greece, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Argentina, Ecuador, and Pakistan. Our problems began with the questionable competence of the official gun-bearers of some of these governments. Also not beyond doubt was their willingness and/or ability to get serious about countering bombings and assassinations. In some nations, the security services resorted to methods that our government found extremely difficult or impossible to support. In others, there was no possibility of reaching a political compromise or of negotiations with dissident elements, short of a willingness to destroy the national coherence of the state. Turkey and Spain, which still face secessionist movements, are but two examples. Israel is a third, for obviously different reasons. In Egypt, Jordan, and again Turkey, forces intent on halting the Westernization of public and private life are by no means averse to violence.

As the major force behind Westernization in the world, or as an indispensable supporter of existing governments, the United States has become an enemy to many groups, some of which engage in terrorism. We cannot, and will not, send expeditionary forces to deal with each of these threats. In many cases, the indigenous police and military forces will remain unable to do the job themselves. What then?

The answer is that we need to climb down from that typical American conceit which propels us to believe that all military problems are solvable before Christmas. President Bush has certainly not encouraged us to believe that the struggle will be quick and easy. We must steel ourselves to the reality that we have no hope of total victory, nor do we have any choice except to continue the war.

San Diego, California


L. Paul Bremer, III:

Gabriel Schoenfeld is right that the September 11 attacks represented a calamitous failure of intelligence and law enforcement, immigration and border control, and aviation security. As he notes, these failures grew out of a counterterrorist policy that had become progressively more risk-averse at precisely the time that dangers were increasing.

Our enemies learned from the Gulf war that America cannot be effectively attacked using conventional forces. So groups or states that hate us are tempted to use unconventional tactics. Terrorism is the quintessential form of unconventional warfare. This is why developing an effective counterterrorist strategy is fundamental to American national-security policy. Yet during the 1990’s, the American government ignored the repeated warnings of analysts and terrorists themselves about “the changing threat of international terrorism.” That is the title of the report to the President issued in June 2000 by the National Commission on Terrorism that I chaired. The report warned of the possibility of mass-casualty attacks on American soil, and we particularly singled out the threat of bioterror.

The proper goal of a counterterrorist strategy is to prevent attacks. To do this, you need to know about them ahead of time. Only a spy can tell you that, and therefore the key to success is good human intelligence. The single most important recommendation of our commission was to repeal the Clinton-imposed rules restricting the CIA’s recruitment of terrorist spies. Regrettably, nothing was done about this issue until months after September 11. Astonishingly, the CIA was still defending these old rules as late as November.

Mr. Schoenfeld asserts that it is a mistake to consider terrorism largely a law-enforcement issue rather than a national-security issue. The commission agreed, and pointed to the meager results of the government’s decade-long pursuit of the Pan Am 103 terrorists. And when the U.S. does resort to military action, it must be decisive, not the kind of pinprick responses that characterized the Clinton years. Lobbing a few cruise missiles revealed our weakness, not our resolve.

Could the September attacks have been avoided? Perhaps, if:

  • the U.S. government had had better and more aggressive intelligence and law enforcement;
  • we had established better controls over our borders;
  • we had moved earlier to shut down the terrorist bases in Afghanistan; and
  • our leaders had paid more attention to the real dangers of mass-casualty terrorism inside the United States.

All of these steps were recommended by the National Commission on Terrorism. Not a single one was acted on before September 11.

Washington, D.C.


Gabriel Schoenfeld

Daniel Patrick Moynihan levels a very serious accusation, which I shall answer in due course. But I want to begin by thanking Paul R. Pillar for his letter and for the opportunity it affords to explore our differences more fully. I certainly did not mean to suggest—nor do I believe I did suggest—that Mr. Pillar was “smugly content” with past successes or “coldly clinical” about deaths from terrorist violence. Although I have my disagreements with him, and with his book, Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, written while on sabbatical from the Counterterrorism Center of the CIA, I gave the book itself rather high marks.

It is true that I dislike Mr. Pillar’s preferred metaphors for the campaign against terrorism, despite the qualifications he attaches to them. But my real quarrel with him is about the one “metaphor” he firmly opposes: namely, that of a war on terrorism.

“If counterterrorism is conceived as a war,” Mr. Pillar writes in his book,

it is a small step to conclude that in this war there is no substitute for victory and thus no room for compromise. The nature of terrorism and of how American public attention to it has evolved in recent years have made the topic prone to this simplistic pattern of thought. Americans . . . have had more reason to think of terrorism simply as an evil to be eradicated, rather than a more complex phenomenon with sides that may need to be reckoned with differently.

My own “simplistic pattern of thought” tells me that terrorism is inescapably an “evil to be eradicated.” Indeed, in a world with weapons of mass destruction, the events of September 11 would seem to make its eradication an imperative for our survival. To me, the key question at this juncture is not whether but how best to accomplish that goal.

In his book, Mr. Pillar looks through the counterterrorism toolkit and shows that, as he writes in his letter, each of the tools “has something to contribute but no one . . . is sufficient by itself.” If we are to have any hope of containing terrorism, he concludes, all the instruments must be used together. He also wonders what I would do differently and better. What is my “silver bullet”?

I do not have one. But the U.S. military does have a variety of silver bullets, including B-52 bombers, the U.S. Marine Corps, the Green Berets, Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles, Navy SEALs, and so forth and so on. And this brings me to the subject on which I expressed my sharpest disagreement with Mr. Pillar, but about which he is now silent. I am referring to the use of armed force to strike preemptively against terrorists and the countries that harbor them, a policy option that in his book he unconditionally rules out as both “unlikely and unwise.”

The long and the short of it is that before September 11, Mr. Pillar opposed not only the metaphor of a war against terrorism but the very idea of waging such a war. Yet it was our failure to embark on such a war, despite our certain knowledge that a half-dozen or more states were giving safe haven to terrorists, and despite an escalating series of attacks on our country by some of those selfsame terrorists, that brought us to catastrophe.

Can we defeat our adversaries in such a war? Both Mr. Pillar and David G. Epstein express serious doubts. Obviously, if one defines victory as eliminating all terrorism once and forever, they are correct. But I would settle for a more modest conception: we can declare a major (if not a final) victory when the U.S. government no longer has reason to compile lists of states that sponsor and give sanctuary to terrorists.

That day will arrive only if, as President Bush has urged, we “direct every resource at our command—every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war—to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network.” In calling the idea of winning a war against terrorism a “delusion,” Mr. Pillar, now a high-ranking official at the National Intelligence Council, seems to be at variance with his boss on this central point.

Needless to say, I agree with Mr. Pillar that declarations of victory come with a danger: after winning one or another significant battle, we might indeed “slip back to the inattention that has too often characterized American attitudes toward terrorism.” This danger must be resisted; but it is hardly a reason not to fight and crush those who would destroy us.

Turning now to Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, I thank him for expressing agreement with me on so many points (some of which I did not even make), but I regret that he does not respond to or even acknowledge the criticisms I leveled at the national commission that he chaired. Among other things, its report began with a declaration that “U.S. counterterrorism strategy is on the right track”—which is, to say the least, rather at odds with Ambassador Bremer’s present statement that our counterterrorism policy was a “calamitous failure.”


Finally, did I misrepresent or distort the contents of the bill introduced by Daniel Patrick Moynihan? His particular charge is that, in pointing to a provision that I labeled a “Free Admission for Terrorists” clause, I failed to call attention to exceptions to that clause contained in the bill itself. Those exceptions, writes Senator Moynihan, would have granted the Secretary of State full discretion to keep out an undesirable alien if he had “reasonable ground” to fear “adverse foreign-policy consequences” or if he concluded that the alien posed a “national-security threat” to the United States.

I did indeed fail to mention those provisions—but not because I was unaware of them, and not because I was straining to present Senator Moynihan and his legislation in an unfavorable light, let alone a defamatory one. Rather, I declined to mention them because they are devoid of meaning and, in fact, self-nullifying. For the exceptions themselves contain exceptions that would effectively eliminate all of the government’s discretion.

To help readers judge for themselves, here in their entirety are the relevant passages of Senator Moynihan’s bill. Section 202 is the provision I cited in my article. Section 203 (i) and Section 204 are what he complains I omitted. Section 203 (ii) and the last few words of Section 204, both italicized here, are the two exceptions to the exception that he himself omits in his letter.

Section 202. Within two years of the effective date of this Act the United States Government shall delete from any Lookout List the name of any alien and all information pertaining to such alien placed on such list because of any past, current, or expected beliefs, statements, or associations, if such beliefs, statements, or associations would be lawful within the United States.

Section 203. Subsection (c) of United States Code, title 8, section 1182 is amended to read—

(i) In general—An alien whose entry or proposed activities in the United States the Secretary of State has reasonable ground to believe would have a serious adverse foreign-policy consequences [sic] for the United States is excludable.

(ii) Exception—An alien shall not be excludable or subject to restrictions or conditions on entry into the United States under clause (i) because of the alien’s past, current, or expected beliefs, statements, or associations, if such beliefs, statements, or associations would be lawful within the United States.

Section 204. Nothing in this title requires the admission of or the deletion of any information pertaining to any alien believed to be a national-security threat to the United States or whose name was placed on any Lookout List for a reason other than their past, current, or anticipated beliefs, statements, or associations.

Taken in sum, what would these provisions have meant had they been enacted into law? Consider a hypothetical case, that of a Saudi Arabian citizen who had applied for a visa to enroll in a flight-training school in Florida and who was known to have stated publicly that he revered Osama bin Laden and all his works—but who had done nothing else to attract the attention of the U.S. government.

Because it is incontrovertibly lawful in this country to say that one reveres Osama bin Laden, if our hypothetical gentleman’s name had been on a lookout list, the U.S. government, under this bill, would have been compelled to remove it, to expunge all information about him from it, and to admit him into the United States.

The exception to the exception, as outlined in Section 203 (ii), makes it plain that even the Secretary of State would have had no basis for barring entry to such a person, for he would have been forbidden to consider this gentleman’s “past, current, or expected beliefs, statements, or associations, if such beliefs, statements, or associations would be lawful within the United States.” The last eleven words of Section 204 repeat this same restriction on the government’s discretionary authority.

In sum, I presented Senator Moynihan’s legislation fairly and fully. More, I believe my criticism of this clause in his bill was entirely legitimate, and I am dumbfounded that he persists in calling lookout lists based upon “unacceptable opinions” a relic of the McCarthy era that “no longer served our interests in any way.” Such lookout lists are a critical national-security tool, one that, as I see it, needs to be enhanced, not abolished.

Some opinions are unacceptable, and it is foolhardy if not outright suicidal to welcome those—men like Mohammed Atta and Zacarias Moussaoui—who propound them. The idea that what is lawful in our free and open society should be a benchmark for admitting strangers into our midst is both dangerous and absurd. Why Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a man with so many distinguished accomplishments to his name (and someone whose performance at the United Nations, some two-and-a-half decades ago, I admired enough to drop out of college to volunteer in his first campaign for the U.S. Senate), would be contesting this point even now, only months after our country suffered the most devastating terrorist attack in history, is to me a source of profound consternation and dismay.


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