The Rockford Files - Season Four The name Stephen J. Cannell will likely only be familiar to readers of a certain vintage. Those who grew up watching television during the 1970s will remember Cannell as the writer and creator of such canonical prime-time television shows as The Rockford Files, The A-Team, The Commish and Riptide among others.
Cannell died the other day, at age 69, of complications from melanoma. As my elderly neighbors where I used to live in the Bronx would say, “he was a young man! Such a tragedy.” Too true.
Even if Cannell’s name is not instantly recognizable, his signature trademark is. At the end of each Cannell-created show, the image of a complete typewritten page being pulled dramatically and conclusively from an electric typewriter by the writer appeared: driving home the point that the TV show we had just seen was the product of a highly creative mind who evidently also took immense joy and pride in his work.
That was surely Stephen J. Cannell. He was a prolific television writer who brought us such memorable—and often pleasantly amusing—protagonists as Jim Rockford, the fallen cop and ex-con turned private investigator, indelibly played by the magisterial James Garner. The ensemble cast assembled for that show was further testament to Cannell’s genius.
They included Rockford’s endearingly curmudgeonly father, “Rocky” Rockford (Noah Beery, Jr.); his long-suffering friend and former partner, LAPD Sergeant Dennis Becker (Joe Santos); former cell-mate, and indefatigable schemer and shyster, Angel Martin (Stuart Margolin); comely lawyer and occasional love interest, Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbbett); and, especially, the magnificent Gandolph “Gandy” Fitch, a former jailhouse-snitch and hustler extraordinaire (memorably played by the late soul and R&B singer Issac Hayes).
Thirty Years of The Rockford Files: An Inside Look at America's Greatest Detective Series The Rockford Files was the archetypal 1970s series. Set in a less crowded and febrile Los Angeles than exists today, each show opened with the same cheeky sequence involving what was cutting-edge technology in the 1970s—a message left on an answering machine picking up a phone call. The screen then immediately cut to the brilliant montage of California freeway signs depicting Rockford taking care of business across the LA metropolitan area as the synthesizer-created theme song played perfectly in the background.
Rockford was the American everyman. The independent, hardworking loner who, as a former police officer, becomes trapped and betrayed by the system and seeks redemption not with his fists, but with his wits. Rockford’s weapon of choice in one episode, for instance, was the dragon’s teeth embedded in the pavement of southern-California-beach parking lots to prevent cars from entering through the exit lane by puncturing their tires.
Rockford used his smarts, not a gun. Back then, at least, brains counted for more than brawn and, in Cannell’s world, ingenuity and being clever always triumphed over ham-handed threats and brute force.
Rockford’s purpose in life seemed to be helping a spectrum of Angelenos from different socioeconomic classes and races to right wrongs and avenge injustice. He wore double-knit, polyester sports jackets and golf slacks in various combinations of 1970s beige and brown tones. Rockford lived and worked out of a run-down trailer, seductively parked next to the Pacific Ocean alongside a pier and a restaurant/bar in Malibu. When I moved to California in 1981, one of my first priorities was to drive up the majestic Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to pay homage to the series at the spot where the fictional trailer sat and Rockford existed.
Rockford may in fact have been Cannell’s own alter ego. Each seemed to be the nice guy who, beset with adversity, overcomes some Herculean challenge to find success (of sorts in Rockford’s case), personal satisfaction and perhaps even great wealth (alas, not in Rockford’s case)—but who still remains a nice guy.
Cannell, for example, suffered from extreme dyslexia that went undiagnosed until he nearly flunked out of university. It was there, through an encouraging professor, that he discovered a talent for writing and subsequently a unique facility for churning out the engaging television scripts that launched his career.
Cannell’s New York Times obituarist, Bill Carter, got it exactly right when he wrote, “In many ways Mr. Cannell’s own success mirrored the formula he repeated in so many of those episodes. It was a three-act, feel-good story of overcoming debilitating flaws.” Even more revealing perhaps is the epitaph that Carter penned for Cannell: “He was successful and happy, unlike many of his Hollywood writing contemporaries.”
At the end of the obituary Cannell himself is quoted reflecting on his life and career. “I’m generally a very happy guy,” Cannell had observed in an interview published earlier this year in Success magazine, “because I’m doing what I want. I’m willing to tell you that there are people who are much better than I am in writing. I don’t have to be the fastest gun in the West.”
Jim Rockford would likely have said exactly the same thing in the context of his chosen profession. It was what they both were all about and is perhaps the most important legacy that Cannell—both himself and through Rockford—left us.
In recent years, a heated debate has raged both inside and outside government over whether the most consequential terrorist threats today are “top down” or “bottom up.”
That is, whether they are organizationally driven by existing identifiable groups and their leaders or instead emanate from spontaneous collections of unaffiliated individuals (e.g., “bunches of guys”).
A prominent feature of this debate has been the argument that al Qaeda has ceased to exist as either an organizational or operational entity and that its founder and preeminent leader, Osama bin Laden, is no longer of any operational importance.
What became known as the leaderless-jihad theory instead claimed that our main security problem came from these self-recruited and mostly self-trained wannabes with a limited capacity for violence.
Still more consequentially, this canard suggested that formal terrorist organizations had become as immaterial as they were superfluous. As such, it dismissed more traditional conceptions of terrorism as a process involving existing organizations that guide recruitment, direct information operations, and actively plan, plot, and implement attacks.
The reports this past week of a major terrorist operation involving simultaneous attacks on cities in Europe—and perhaps even—similar to the lethal November 2008 assault on Mumbai, where multiple terrorist teams killed nearly 200 persons and wounded more than 300 others—yet again provide fresh evidence that terrorist organizations and leaders still matter.
The story, originally broken on Tuesday by Wall Street Journal reporter, Siobhan Gorman, detailed how some combination of al Qaeda, its allies in the Taliban and the so-called Haqqani network and perhaps even the al Qaeda clone calling itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, were behind the series of deadly attacks planned for Germany, France, Britain, and possibly the U.S.
Now, however, new information uncovered by National Public Radio’s Dina Temple-Raston points not only to the involvement of the terrorist organizations detailed in the Wall Street Journal article, but also of another al Qaeda affiliate called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan but of bin Laden himself.
More significantly, however, intelligence officials tell Temple-Raston that some months ago, Osama bin Laden himself dispatched couriers to al Qaeda’s affiliates and associates across the globe. His message was simple. According to Temple-Raston’s sources, bin Laden “told them that he would like to see a Mumbai-style attack on at least three strategic targets—the United Kingdom, Germany and France.”
As Temple-Raston explains,
Osama bin Laden's directive is meaningful because it suggests that the core leadership of al-Qaida still has influence over its followers and that the group has added a new style of attack to its repertoire . . . .
‘We know that Osama bin Laden issued the directive,’ said an official familiar with the intelligence surrounding the plot. ‘And if he issued the directive, we just don't believe that the U.S. wouldn't be on his short list of strategic targets. It has to be.’
The London newspaper, the Guardian, reported yesterday that two British brothers—one of whom was killed in a recent drone airstrike in Pakistan—and eight German nationals were to have executed the simultaneous, multi-national assaults. The article cited an Associated Press story from Pakistan claiming that the death of one of the brothers likely derailed the plot.
Much still remains unknown. But, if true, the long list of terrorist organizations believed to have been involved in the plot; its unique—indeed contemporaneous—bin Laden pedigree; and, the plan to stage a series of Mumbai-like attacks in multiple international locations, all would suggest that the war on terrorism is still far from being won.
Reports of al Qaeda’s demise and bin Laden’s irrelevance, like those of Mark Twain’s death, will thus have also proven to have been exaggerated.
When it comes to terrorism, our memories are either too short or too long. Too short given that, in the absence of a recent attack, we try to convince ourselves that either it can’t or won’t happen again or that our response to the last one was perhaps exaggerated or excessive or even hyped by politics and emotion.
Paradoxically, our memories can also be too long in that we often draw the wrong lessons from the last incident: believing that we can somehow wrap ourselves in a protective security blanket through bureaucratic reorganization, redundancy, and expenditure and thus shield ourselves from some new attack.
Each of these has been the subject of a past blog and requires no further explication. Rather, the current offering is meant to reflect on my observations from this same day nine years ago, when I drove up to New York City from Washington, DC for the first time since the September 11 attacks.
At the time, the then-editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly, Michael Kelly, and my old friend, Benjamin C. Schwarz, the magazine’s literary editor and national editor, had asked me to keep a daily journal at the start of what they rightly guessed would be a long war.
I never kept it. A combination of the intense work pressures of that febrile, and profoundly melancholy, time combined with the nature of the work I was doing left no opportunity or scope for journal writing.
I did, though, make an inchoate attempt before abandoning the effort, and the two journal entries that follow below were the first and only two that I made.
They came to mind last night as I was reading Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, which was published on Monday.
The book’s discussion of the debates and framing of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy suggests that it’s evidently easier now to tolerate a terrorist attack and its aftermath then it was then. Woodward quotes President Obama in an on-the-record interview from July stating, “We can absorb a terrorist attack. We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever . . . we absorbed it and we are stronger.”
Perhaps. But when I reread my lone two journal entries for September 2001 I was left with a profound disquiet born of the events from nine years ago when our world was turned upside down and a handful of repugnant, odious terrorists changed the course of history.
Saturday, September 29th 2001
Driving up to NYC through NJ Meadowlands and gazing in awe that there are no twin towers. It is remarkable how prominent a place those buildings played in the lives of those who visited as well as lived in NYC. Last night my wife was combing through family photographs to put together a scrapbook for my father's 80th birthday celebration [BH note of 9/29/10: the reason for my trip to New York City that weekend] and we were amazed how many family snaps there were with the WTC as a backdrop. None intentional. I could hardly have really focused on the WTC before. It is just testament to the extent that the Twin Towers overshadowed and dominated NYC. It was impossible, I realized, to visit the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island or take the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan and not have at least one photo from each with the WTC in the background.
NYC is a changed place. More reminiscent of Europe at the height of their terrorism travails than the NYC I grew up in. Policemen at almost every corner; the streets around the Port Authority bus terminal blocked off and then lower Manhattan: almost too depressing for words. The West Side Highway closed below 40th Street and all traffic barred below Canal Street. All the north-south streets closed--Church, Broadway, West Broadway: blocked off with blue NYPD saw horses and guarded by phalanxes of police and state troopers. Only emergency services, residents and deliveries allowed and all trucks searched. In fact, before entering the Lincoln Tunnel, police were stationed next to the E-Z Pass lanes and were stopping vans and panel trucks and searching them. For a New Yorker (by birth): amazing. Most saddening are the endless posters pasted on lamp posts and the sides of buildings in lower Manhattan: put there by relatives and friends searching for their loved ones.
My mother, a life-long New Yorker, just remarked to my wife, "The city's sad, isn't it? The flashing lights on police cars, the saw horses and the skyline, for the first time in my life, I just don’t like coming into Manhattan."
Every store has a flag in it; almost every car displayed a flag decal.
It's the first time in my life I've ever seen the city sullen. Almost humiliated or embarrassed at having suffered so dramatic a blow to its beloved icons.
Sunday, September 30th 2001
Autumn came to NYC this morning. The sky was gray and a chill wind whipped through the streets. Somber to compliment the melancholy in evidence yesterday was how the city seemed. The fact that it seemed empty only contributed to the feeling of suspended animation. This wasn't entirely surprising given that I had awakened before 7:00am on an unappealing Sunday morning and was out the door of my hotel room shortly after to go down to what is now known as "ground zero"--the spot where the WTC once stood.
The enormity of both the destruction and upheaval wrought by the terrorists cannot be appreciated without visiting the site. Groups of two to five policemen are on every street corner, guarding a maze of metal barriers that cordon off each block in Cartesian fashion. Movement north to south is unimpeded, but any effort to walk west from Wall Street or from Nassau Street is blocked either by NYPD officers or more zealous, less cynical, National Guardsmen. On my second attempt, I was able to talk my way past a barrier and walk to Broadway and the corner of Liberty Plaza. Just beyond that is "ground zero." By this morning, only one large distinctive WTC girder was standing. Large trucks were constantly rumbling by with cleared debris. More stunning to me was looking across the WTC site to see the facade of a Gothic looking church, tilted over, resting against a building on the far side of the pit [BH note from 9/29/10: it was in fact a part of the scorched, skeletal structure of the World Trade Center, still defiantly standing that I mistook for the steeple of a non-existent church. Its photo is on the cover of the 2nd edition (2006) of my book, Inside Terrorism. Loitering was not permitted. After a few minutes a very over zealous National Guardsman appeared to shoo people away and threaten to confiscate cameras. The damage is extraordinarily. Whatever I've seen of bombings in Belfast [Northern Ireland] or Colombo [Sri Lanka] city center is dwarfed by the scale of this destruction. Not just the demise of the Twin Towers, but the destruction inflicted against surrounding buildings. The soot and dust caked everywhere; the American flag defiantly flying from a relatively unscathed building across from the pit.
Cut to my father's 80th birthday party in a suburban Westchester hotel that same afternoon. Endless questions from family and friends. "When will they attack again?" "Will they use a biological weapon?" “Is it safe to go to Jamaica for Thanksgiving?" "Is it safe to travel to London this week?" “How could this have happened? Didn't people know it was coming.”
Yes, we absorbed that tragic, epic attack. And, yes, we emerged from it stronger in some respects. But the searing, inescapable pain that it caused, and the troubled aftermath that continued for months on end—and still of course remains for those who either survived or lost loved ones—is something that we also need always to be reminded of.
In the two weeks since the report of the National Security Preparedness Group (NSPG) titled, Assessing the Terrorist Threat, was released by the Bipartisan Policy Center, attention has fastened on three paragraphs of its 42 pages.
The three paragraphs, found on page 16, state the following:
The American “melting pot” has not provided a firewall against the radicalization and recruitment of American citizens and residents, though it has arguably lulled us into a sense of complacency that homegrown terrorism couldn’t happen in the United States. Before the July 7, 2005, suicide attacks on the London transportation system, the British believed that there was perhaps a problem with the Muslim communities in Europe but certainly not with British Muslims in the U.K., who were better integrated, better educated, and wealthier than their counterparts on the Continent.
By stubbornly wrapping itself in this same false security blanket, the U.S. lost five years to learn from the British experience. Well over a year ago, federal authorities became aware of radicalization and recruitment occurring in the U.S. when Somali-Americans started disappearing from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and turning up in Somalia with Shabab. Administration officials and others believed it was an isolated, one-off phenomenon. But it wasn’t -- as grand juries in Minnesota and San Diego can attest, along with ongoing FBI investigations in Boston, two locations in Ohio, and Portland, Maine. The number of Somali-Americans who left the U.S. to train in Somalia turned out to be far higher than initially believed, and once they were in Somalia some were indeed being trained by al-Qaeda.
In sum, the case of the Somali-Americans turned out to be a Pandora’s Box. By not taking more urgently and seriously the radicalization and recruitment that was actually occurring in the U.S., authorities failed to comprehend that this was not an isolated phenomenon, specific to Minnesota and this particular immigrant community. Rather, it indicated the possibility that even an embryonic terrorist radicalization and recruitment infrastructure had been established in the U.S. homeland. Shahzad is the latest person to jump out of this box.
These arguments figured prominently yesterday in the hearings held by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. The opening statement of Ranking Member Senator Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) zeroed in precisely on these same paragraphs of the NSPG report, which was written by Peter Bergen and myself.
“On the eve of our nation’s 9/11 commemorations,” Senator Collins stated
the National Security Preparedness Group, led by Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean, issued a timely report, “Assessing the Terrorist Threat.”
The report said America continues to face serious threats from al Qaeda affiliates around the world ... and from homebased terrorists.
It warned of an increasingly wide range of ‘U.S.-based jihadist militants,’ who do not fit ‘any particular ethnic, economic, educational, or social profile.’
It also sounded this grave warning:
‘The American “melting pot” has not provided a firewall against the radicalization and recruitment of American citizens and residents, though it has arguably lulled us into a sense of complacency that homegrown terrorism couldn’t happen in the United States.’ . . . .
The past two years have taught us, through harsh lessons, that we must increase our efforts. As the Kean-Hamilton report observed: ‘It is fundamentally troubling that there remains no federal government agency or department specifically charged with identifying radicalization and interdicting the recruitment of U.S. citizens or residents for terrorism.’
We must redouble our efforts to better anticipate, analyze, and prepare. We must address what is quickly becoming a daunting and highly challenging crisis. This dangerous reality must be met with better security measures, innovative community outreach, and enhanced information-sharing. Most of all, we cannot risk another failure of imagination.
The written statements of each of the Obama Administration’s three witnesses invited to testify before the Committee—The Honorable Janet A. Napolitano, Secretary U.S. Department of Homeland Security; The Honorable Robert S. Mueller III, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation U.S. Department of Justice; and, The Honorable Michael E. Leiter, Director, National Counterterrorism Center Office of the Director of National Intelligence—addressed the growing terrorist threat depicted by both Senator Collins and the NSPG report and also discussed the government’s strategy and countermeasures.
Mr. Leiter presented the most vigorous defense of the Administration’s efforts, arguing that the counterterrorism community has not been lulled into complacency and specifically objecting to notions that either no one is in charge or in the lead or that a comprehensive counterterrorism and counter-radicalization strategy does not exist.
“NCTC's strategic planning efforts follow the policy direction of the President and the NSS to provide government-wide coordination of planning and integration of department and agency actions,” Leiter explained,
involving ‘all elements of national power,’ against terrorism including diplomatic, economic, military, intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement activities within and among agencies. NCTC helps develop plans and processes to support interagency implementation and provide input to the NSS to evaluate progress against objectives and refine plans as necessary. NCTC also works in support of the NSS and with our interagency partners to develop plans designed to disrupt and diminish the capability of terrorist organizations and their networks, and to eliminate identified regional safehavens . . . .
NCTC’s support to NSS processes includes developing agreed “whole-of-government” strategic objectives, and facilitating coordination, integration and assessment of USG initiatives designed to achieve those objectives.
However, an authoritative 124-page report issued Monday by the Congressional Research Service, titled, American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat by Jerome P. Bjelopera and Mark A. Randol, raises anew questions about the coordination and strategic focus of America’s counterterrorist and counter-radicalization efforts.
Nor does it mince words about the absence of a clear, publicly articulated strategy. “Many agencies at all levels of government are engaged in counterterrorism activities,” the CRS states, “however, there is no unified strategy, plan, or framework focused on homegrown jihadist terrorism.”
The report goes on to explain that
The Obama Administration has articulated a broad National Security Strategy, and continues to operate with a counterterrorism plan developed in the George W. Bush Administration which is predominantly focused on the foreign terrorist threat to the United States. The Obama Administration’s strategy addresses the threat of violent extremism in the United States only in general terms and as part of a broad counterterrorism effort. It may be claimed that the strategy is not intended to include specifics and that fleshing out policy and coordinating efforts is best left to individual executive branch agencies cooperating with one another. However, even among the agencies, apparently no such strategy for combating homegrown jihadist terrorism exists. For many other counterterrorism and homeland security activities—disrupting terrorist travel, combating specific threats such as biological and other weapons of mass destruction, there are discrete strategies that outline specific activities and responsibilities.
Accordingly, the report recommends that “Congress may opt to consider requiring that the executive branch produce a national strategy, framework, or plan to combat violent extremism domestically.” Specifically, it explains, such a strategy would need to address, at minimum, the following specific issues:
- Identifying Radicalization and Interdicting Attempts at Recruitment: It has not been entirely settled which agencies have which responsibilities in this area.
- Countering Radicalization: What role is there for government, if any, in countering radicalization—particularly radical jihadist ideology which is not necessarily illegal—before it manifests itself in actual violence? Should the government be in the business of contesting radical ideology and extremist narratives within the United States?
- Enhancing Domestic Intelligence: According to former and current intelligence and law enforcement officials, there is no national estimate of domestic terrorist threats; national domestic intelligence collection plan; nor domestic intelligence collection requirements, priorities, or coordination.
- Congress may also consider requiring the Director of National Intelligence to examine whether and how to develop a national domestic intelligence framework or plan as part of a unified strategy to combat violent extremism within the United States.
The work of the CRS was neither coordinated with that of the NSPG nor did Peter Bergen or I meet with or have any communication with the CRS report’s authors. It is thus remarkable that both efforts, undertaken completely independently of one another, reach the same fundamental conclusion.
Yesterday, Senator Collins cogently expressed her concern that, “We also are seeing the terrorist threat morph into another stage of development.” This was also the thrust of both the NSPG and CRS reports and indeed of yesterday’s testimony, too: that today we face an evolving terrorist threat that is as diversified as it is dynamic.
Ensuring that America’s intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security communities are both prepared and able to counter this new concatenation of terrorist adversaries must remain an ongoing priority of the highest order for the U.S. government, its leaders, and those charged with protecting our citizens and defending our country against such threats.
Despite some disagreement or differing interpretations heard at yesterday’s Senate hearing, on this absolutely critical issue all the participants—senators and witnesses alike—were firmly and incontrovertibly on the same page.
I got my first job in Washington 35 years ago. If I have learned anything since then, it is that when someone here talks about the need to think “out of the box,” everyone usually runs as fast they can in the opposite direction.
This of course was one of the salient criticisms of American counterterrorism strategy and policy that the 9/11 Commission made in its seminal 2004 report. “We believe,” it concluded that “the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.”
The American approach to counterterrorism, as Dana Priest and William M. Arkin reported in the Washington Post two months ago, has been markedly less creative than overly bureaucratic. It entailed, they meticulously documented, the creation of a vast and expensive counterterrorism and homeland security archipelago.
This led Priest and Arkin to conclude that “lack of focus, not lack of resources was at the heart” of the serial failures over the past year to anticipate the Fort Hood shootings that claimed the lives of thirteen persons last November; the fortuitously botched Christmas Day airline bombing plot; and, the attempted attack in New York City’s Times Square this past May.
As I wrote in this space last month, for my money, the most innovative and cutting-edge work being done in the U.S. at any level of government in the critically vital symbiotic areas of counterterrorism and homeland security is that performed by the New York City Police Department (NYPD)—and specifically by its separate Intelligence and Counterterrorism Divisions.
The “Metropolitan” section of the Sunday New York Times (which persons living outside of the New York metropolitan region usually do not receive in hardcopy) carried a fascinating profile of the Intelligence Division’s Analytic Unit and its accomplished director, Mitchell D. Silber.
The article provided a rare, but highly informative and, indeed, compelling, look at this “little-known unit of the New York Police Dept. [that] relies on the expertise of civilian analysts to unlock an unfamiliar world.”
As reporter Alan Feuer explained:
Formally known as the Analytic Unit of the department’s Intelligence Division, the team was created in 2002 as part of the city’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It stands as a unique experiment in breaking traditional law-enforcement boundaries, comprising two dozen civilian experts—lawyers, academics, corporate consultants, investment bankers, alumni of the World Bank and the Council on Foreign Relations and even a former employee of the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan.
The team serves as the Police Department’s terrorism reference arm: available on demand to explain Islamic law or Pakistani politics to detectives in the field.
‘We have found that conducting terrorism investigations is more art than science and requires a breadth of complementary skill sets,’ Mr. Silber said during one of several interviews this summer. ‘Our detectives tend to have a very narrow focus. But the analysts have 360-degree visibility. They focus on the bigger picture, and they sometimes see things detectives don’t see.’
Interestingly, the article also recounted NYPD’s success in luring analysts from the federal government in Washington—precisely the place, one would have assumed, where the most exciting, challenging and innovative counterterrorism and homeland security work is being done.
Alas, this does not appear to be the case. “New York seems an ideal place to practice this theory of intellectual investigation,” Feuer continues, “and the unit has managed over the years to attract people who have worked in the Washington bureaucracy and seem to prefer the city.”
Coincidentally, I later chanced upon evidence to support this argument while reading the Summer/Fall 2010 issue of OSS: The OSS Society Journal, kindly sent to me by its publisher.
The OSS, of course, is the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II–era U.S. intelligence and covert action agency founded by First World War hero, Medal of Honor recipient and Wall Street lawyer Wiliam J. “Wild Bill” Donovan at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request. The OSS was the precursor to both the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).
The journal's mission is to “celebrate the historic accomplishments of the Office of Strategic Services and to educate the American public about the continuing importance of strategic intelligence to the preservation of freedom.” It might also be said, that an additional purpose is to celebrate and highlight the “out of the box” thinking that epitomized the OSS and played so signal a role in the victory won in less than five years by the U.S. in World War II.
The current issue of OSS contains a fascinating article titled, “Glorious Amateurs Needed In War With Terrorists” by Charles Pinck, the president of the OSS Society. Pinck’s fundamental argument is that, “if lawmakers truly want to reform our intelligence community, they would be wise to look backward instead of forward—all the way back to World War II’s Office of Strategic Services . . .”
His points about the OSS’s “diverse and brilliant” personnel, Donovan’s encouragement of what now would have been termed, “out of the box” thinking are all well taken. But what really struck me was Pinck’s anecdote about a young acquaintance, who some years ago had sought his advice on joining one of the sixteen agencies that comprise America’s intelligence community,
“This person’s record was nothing less than remarkable,” Pinck writes.
After graduating from high school, he backpacked alone for 18 months across five continents. Along the way he discovered a talent for languages and achieved conversational proficiency in three. He went on to get an undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern history from a top university with a 3.9 grade point average. Later, he taught himself Farsi by moving to an Iranian expatriate community, spending thousands of hours learning the language fluently and the culture. Despite these impressive qualifications, he was unable to elicit any interest from our intelligence community . . . . Had he been alive in World War II, the OSS would have grabbed him in a second.
Doubtless, so would the NYPD had he applied for an analyst’s position with unit that Silber leads.
That fact alone encapsulates perhaps the challenges we continue to face in the war on terrorism—a war that has now dragged on for nearly a decade. It may also perhaps explain why innovative ideas such as Congressman Frank Wolf’s (R-VA) proposal to institutionalize a “red team” counterterrorist capability as an essential element of our efforts to combat terrorism in the war against al-Qaeda, unfortunately has never acquired any traction in Washington.
The logic behind Congressman Wolf’s idea is simple and makes eminent sense. Since both the U.S. intelligence community and our national security and law-enforcement agencies are overwhelmed with data, information and a multiplicity of immediate “in-box”-driven issues that continually challenge their ability to think both strategically and in terms of a patently evolving, dynamic, multidimensional threat, the red team concept would represent a new approach to counterterrorism that would potentially enable the United States to stay one step ahead of our adversaries’ own strategy and tactics.
First, it would have a broader remit than the red team exercises currently employed by individual agencies. Congressman Wolf’s idea is that this red team would have a strategic counterterrorism mandate and would therefore look at general, global patterns of terrorism rather than the use and effects of individual tactics.
Second, it would be composed of nongovernment specialists and experts representing a broad array of different perspectives, backgrounds and opinions—the type of “glorious amateurs” described by General Donovan who once populated the OSS but who would now be enlisted in the war on terrorism.
Under Congressman Wolf’s formulation, these persons would advise and help inform the assessments of both the National Intelligence Council (NIC) and Office of the Director of National Intelligence by providing broad strategic analysis of terrorism trends and patterns and their possible future implications. In this manner, alternative assessments and strategic counterterrorism analysis could be provided to the Intelligence Community that would also help to avoid “group think.”
To date, Washington has turned a cold shoulder to this idea. As yesterday’s New York Times article again showed, what “out of the box” thinking in the war on terrorism exists, appears mostly to be outside the Beltway as well.
“The Idea Lab” page in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had an interesting article titled “Engineering Terror: Why are so many extremists from a single profession?” by David Berreby. It explained, much to the chagrin of the former president of the National Academy of Engineering, that “in the ranks of captured and confessed terrorists, engineers and engineering students are significantly overrepresented.”
The article cited the research of sociologist Diego Gambetta and political scientist Steffen Hertog whose databases of terrorism perpetrators evidences this trend. “For their recent study,” Berreby reported,
the two men collected records on 404 men who belonged to violent Islamist groups active over the past few decades (some in jail, some not). Had those groups reflected the working-age populations of their countries, engineers would have made up about 3.5 percent of the membership. Instead, nearly 20 percent of the militants had engineering degrees. When Gambetta and Hertog looked at only the militants whose education was known for certain to have gone beyond high school, close to half (44 percent) had trained in engineering.
Terrorism, it must be said, has always been an individual avocation. The reasons why someone picks up a gun or throws a bomb represent an ineluctably personal choice born variously of grievance and frustration; religious piety or the desire for systemic socio-economic change; irredentist conviction or commitment to revolution.
Joining an organization in pursuit of these aims is meant to give collective meaning and equally importantly cumulative power to this commitment. The forces that impel individuals to become terrorists and insurgents are thus timeless—and, in fact, have less to do with one’s chosen profession than perhaps with other factors.
No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century For terrorists to survive, much less thrive, in today’s globalized, technologically savvy and interconnected world, the preeminent terrorism expert, Walter Laqueur has argued, they have to be
educated, have some technical competence and be able to move without attracting attention in alien societies. In brief, such a person will have to have an education that cannot be found among the poor in Pakistani or Egyptian villages or Palestinian refugee camps, only among relatively well-off town folk.
Because engineering is often the most prestigious vocation in developing countries, it makes sense that this new generation of well-educated terrorists would disproportionately come from that profession.
This was in fact the conclusion also reached by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey in their 2006 study of madrassas (Islamic schools) and lack of education as a putative terrorist incubator. Using a database of some 79 jihadis who were responsible for the five most serious terrorist incidents between 1993 and 2005, they found that the most popular subjects amongst those jihadi terrorists who attended university was engineering followed by medicine.
Bergen and Pandey further observed that 54 percent of the perpetrators either attended university or had obtained a university degree. The terrorists they studied “thus appear, on average, to be as well educated as many Americans—given that 52 percent of Americans have attended university.
Finally, they observed that two-thirds of the 25 terrorists involved in the planning and hijacking of the four aircraft on September 11th 2001 had attended university and that two of the 79 had earned PhD degrees while two others were enrolled in doctoral programs.
The popularity of medicine as a terrorist vocation most recently surfaced in connection with the botched attempt to bomb a nightclub in central London and the dramatic, but largely ineffectual, attack on Glasgow’s International Airport in June 2007. Six of the eight persons arrested were either doctors or medical students; the seventh person was employed as a technician in a hospital laboratory; and the eighth member of the conspiracy was neither a medical doctor nor in health care, but instead had earned a doctorate in design and technology.
Medical doctors becoming terrorists is hardly new, either. George Habash, the founder and leader of a prominent 1960s-era Palestinian terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was a medical doctor. As was the PFLP’s head of special operations, Wadi Haddad.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s chief strategist and bin Laden’s deputy, is a trained surgeon. Orlando Bosch, who was active in the militant Miami, Florida-based anti-Castro movement and was charged with the inflight bombing of a Cubana Airlines flight in 1976 that killed 73 persons, practiced as a pediatrician.
The more salient point may be that, contrary to the common place belief that poverty and lack of education breeds terrorism, to a large extent, those historically attracted to terrorism have in fact tended to be reasonably well, if not, highly educated; financially comfortable and, in some cases, quite well off; and, often gainfully employed.
The I.R.A. and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 Peter Hart in his seminar work, The IRA and Its Enemies found that IRA Volunteers in West Cork circa 1920 were “more likely to have jobs, trades, and an education than was typical of their peers.”
This was also true in the Jewish terrorism campaigns that occurred in pre-independence Israel. Menachem Begin, the leader of one underground movement, for instance, received his law degree from Warsaw University in 1935. David Raziel, a predecessor, was the son of an elementary school teacher and himself studied mathematics and philosophy at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
A fellow Hebrew University student was Abraham Stern, who founded a rival militant group. Fluent both in Greek and Latin, Stern majored in classics, was a protégé of the university’s first chancellor and later president, Rabbi Judah Magnes, and won a prestigious scholarship to study in Florence, Italy.
Engineering, it must also be said, is not exclusive to the current terrorist generation. Yasir Arafat, the founder and leader of the Palestinian terrorist group, al-Fatah, and later Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and President of the Palestinian Authority, was employed by the Kuwaiti Public Works Department as an engineer when he founded al-Fatah, having graduated from Cairo’s Fouad the First University (now Cairo University).
While it is certainly true that the rank-and-file Palestinian fighters of the 1960s and 1970s were likely to be from considerably less comfortable socio-economic backgrounds, it is nonetheless clear that the Palestinian movement’s leadership did not conform to the stereotype of the poor, uneducated, jobless fighter much like their terrorist counterparts today.
Little needs to be said about the socio-economic strata of the American university and graduate students who in the 1960s joined the radical political movement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), before gravitating to the anti-establishment terrorism of the Weather Underground group. Many of its most prominent leaders—including Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Kathy Boudin, Diana Oughton, David Gilbert and Susan Stern—were all the progeny of wealthy, well-connected families (utility company presidents, bankers, toy manufacturers, and lawyers); while most of the others were of families anchored solidly in the middle-class (e.g. Jane Alpert).
The same is true of their radical Muslim counterparts in Britain today. The father of Shahzad Tanweer, one of July 2005 London suicide bombers, was a prominent local businessman and, indeed, the archetype of the successful, hardworking immigrant owning a string of commercial interests as diverse as a slaughterhouse, a convenience store and fish-and-chips shops. Tanweer was a graduate of Leeds Metropolitan University where he obtained a degree in sports science.
The cell’s ringleader, Mohammad Siddique Khan, who was age 30 at the time of the bombings, had a business studies degree from the same university and was gainfully employed as a community worker. Although the third and youngest member of the cell, Hasib Hussain, had an undistinguished academic record and never completed his college course in business studies, according to the official Parliamentary inquiry’s report of the attacks, his family’s socio-economic background, like that of Tanweer and Khan, “was not poor by the standards of the area.” The fourth bomber, Jermaine Lindsay, perhaps conformed better to the terrorist stereotype of a poor, underprivileged, and only occasionally employed carpet fitter who never completed secondary school.
But Omar Khyam, the mastermind behind a 2004 bombing plot of London that Scotland Yard code-named “Operation Crevice,” was also the son of a wealthy businessman and grew up in a comfortable, upper-middle-class environment.
Similarly, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who orchestrated the 2002 kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, also enjoyed a very similar upbringing and attended an exclusive—and expensive—private school. He later was admitted to the world-renowned London School of Economics (LSE), where he studied applied mathematics statistical theory, economics, and social psychological. Described as “handsome, tall and muscular, very bright and charming,” his parents expected he would be knighted some day and not now languishing in prison awaiting execution.
Omar Khan Sharif who, with a fellow British Muslim named Asif Hanif, staged a suicide bomb attack on a Tel Aviv seaside bar in 2003 also studied mathematics at a similarly prestigious British university—King’s College, London.
The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left As Ed Hussain, the former British Islamic extremist recounts in his memoir, The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left “Interestingly, neither Asif Hanif nor Omar Sharif Khan came from an unemployed, disenchanted inner-city Muslim community; both had middle-class backgrounds.”
Similarly, Abdullah Ahmed Ali, the then-27 year old who was one of the ringleaders of the August 2006 plot to bomb simultaneously U.S. and Canadian passenger airliners departing from London’s Heathrow Airport, hardly conformed to the stereotype of the wild-eyed, fanatical, homicidal suicide bomber. A husband and father of a two-year-old son, Ali held a bachelors of science degree in computer systems engineering from a respectable British university. For all intents and purposes, he appeared to be a solidly middle-class product of a successful first generation immigrant family.
Perhaps the seminal scholarly work to debunk the conventional wisdom that links poverty and lack of education to terrorism and insurgency is the 2003 article, “Education, poverty and terrorism: Is there a causal connection,” by Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger and his Australian colleague, Jitka Malecková. Surveying American white supremacists, members of the contemporary Israeli (right-wing) underground, Hezbollah fighters, and Palestinian suicide bombers, and using a variety of data and different methodological approaches, they concluded that not only is there little evidence for this causality but in fact persons with higher incomes and more education are more, not less, likely to join terrorist and insurgent groups.
Similarly, according to Ronni Shaked, the Israeli journalist and former Shabak (Israel Security Agency or Shin-Bet) intelligence officer and expert on The Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, best known by its acronym, Hamas, “All leaders of Hamas are university graduates, some with MA degrees. . . . It is not a movement of poor, miserable people, but the highly educated who are using poverty to make the periphery of movement more powerful.”
It would of course be wrong though to conclude that terrorist movements are populated exclusively by the financially comfortable and educated. Indeed, an inevitable bifurcation generally occurs across all terrorist movements whereby the top leadership and mid-level command strata are populated by the educated (or relatively well-educated) and financially well-off, while the majority of foot soldiers will be less educated and often from far more modest socio-economic backgrounds. A rule of thumb is thus that the larger the movement, the more diverse its members’ socio-economic and educational backgrounds.
Accordingly, the real importance and value of the New York Times Magazine story is less about what professions terrorists pursue than to present once again compelling evidence that poverty, lack of development, and stagnant economies are not the drivers or “root causes” of terrorism.
This is not to suggest that eliminating poverty, raising standards of living and education, and creating more employment opportunities may not contribute to reductions in the levels of terrorism by potentially draining the pool of would-be recruits; but rather that these measures in and of themselves cannot and will not on their own ever end terrorism.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” the late, great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed, “but not his own facts.” Although this quote is at least a couple of decades old, Senator Moynihan could easily have been referring to the ubiquitous Newsweek and Washington Post pundit, Fareed Zakaria.
I don’t know a commentator who has been more consistently factually incorrect about terrorism than Zakaria. He has persisted in the belief that the current wave of suicide terrorism directed against the United States by Muslim extremists is completely sui generis when in fact the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) regularly employed this same tactic against both civilian and military targets alike during the Vietnam War.
More egregiously, and consequentially, Zakaria persists in ignoring al-Qaeda’s direct responsibility for terrorist attacks in places as diverse as Istanbul in 2003, Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005. His column in today’s Washington Post perpetuates that myth.
Factual inaccuracies aside, the central argument of Zakaria’s column—that we overreacted to the September 11, 2001 attacks and thus have created a self-destructive “climate of fear”—is one that merits serious consideration and strenuous debate. But readers wishing to weigh this important point more carefully would do well to look elsewhere for evidence to support it.
“Does an organization that has as few as 400 members and waning global appeal require the permanent institutional response we have created?” Zakaria asks.
Terrorism, as I wrote in this same space some weeks ago, is not a numbers game—despite our attempts to turn it into one. And, while Zakaria may perhaps be correct that our current strategy of expanding overseas military commitments might be disproportionate to 400 or so terrorists; his perfunctory dismissal of the effects that even a handful of terrorists can achieve is completely misguided.
After all, just 19 terrorists changed the course of history on September 11, 2001. It took only four bombers to shatter Britain’s security on July 7, 2005 in London. And, of course, it was a lone gunman who assassinated the heir to the Hapsburg throne in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 and thus set in motion the chain of events that led to World War I.
Moreover, as Peter Bergen and I wrote on page 5 of the report for the National Security Preparedness Group titled, Assessing the Terrorist Threat, that was released on Friday,
al-Qaeda has always been a small, elite organization. There were only 200 sworn members of al-Qaeda at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and al-Qaeda’s role has always been as an ideological and military vanguard seeking to influence and train other jihadist groups.
Zakaria goes on to provide a scattershot list of six attacks since 2002 supposedly perpetrated by
smaller local groups, self-identified as affiliates of al-Qaeda, against much easier sites—the nightclub in Bali; cafes in Casablanca and Istanbul; hotels in Amman, Jordan; train stations in Madrid and London.
What he neglects to add is that al-Qaeda had a prominent or direct role in most of those incidents. Nor were any the casual, almost spontaneous low-level attacks Zakaria implies. Each of them required considerable planning and often sophistication. And, perhaps most revealing, all but one entailed simultaneous, well-coordinated suicide attacks.
Ted Koppel, the former managing editor of ABC News Nightline and now a contributing analysts to BBC World News America, made a similar argument in yesterday’s Washington Post Outlook section. He did so both more persuasively—and accurately.
A diverse and more complex terrorist threat is the conclusion of a new report published by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group (NSPG) titled, Assessing The Terrorist Threat.
The NSPG is co-chaired by Governor Thomas Kean and Congressman Lee Hamilton, who had also co-chaired the famed 9/11 Commission. The NSPG seeks to carry forward the work of the 9/11 Commission by ensuring that the United States is adequately prepared to counter current and future terrorist threats.
The report was written by Peter Bergen and myself, with the assistance of fellow NSPG member Dr. Stephen Flynn and Ms. Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation.
It concludes that al-Qaeda and allied groups continue to pose a threat to the United States. Although it is less severe than the catastrophic proportions of a 9/11-like attack, the threat today is more complex and more diverse than at any time over the past nine years.
Al-Qaeda or its allies, we argue, continue to have the capacity to kill dozens, or even hundreds, of Americans in a single attack. A key shift, though, in the past couple of years is the increasingly prominent role in planning and operations that U.S. citizens and residents have played in the leadership of al-Qaeda and aligned groups, and the higher numbers of Americans attaching themselves to these groups.
Another new development is the increasing diversification of the types of U.S.-based jihadi militants, and the groups with which those militants have affiliated. Indeed, these jihadi do not fit any particular ethnic, economic, educational, or social profile.
Al-Qaeda’s ideological influence on other jihadi groups, Peter and I conclude, is on the rise in South Asia and has continued to extend into countries like Yemen and Somalia; al-Qaeda’s top leaders are still at large, and American overreactions to even unsuccessful terrorist attacks arguably have played, however inadvertently, into the hands of the jihadists.
Working against al-Qaeda and allied groups, fortunately are the ramped-up campaign of drone attacks in Pakistan, increasingly negative Pakistani attitudes and actions against the militants based on their territory, which are mirrored by increasingly hostile attitudes toward al-Qaeda and allied groups in the Muslim world in general, and the fact that erstwhile militant allies have now also turned against al-Qaeda.
Our main conclusion, however, is sobering. The conventional wisdom has long been that America was immune to the heady currents of radicalization affecting both immigrant and indigenous Muslim communities elsewhere in the West. We maintain that has now been shattered by the succession of cases that have recently come to light of terrorist radicalization and recruitment occurring in the United States.
And while it must be emphasized that the number of U.S. citizens and residents affected or influenced in this manner remains extremely small, at the same time the sustained and growing number of individuals heeding these calls is nonetheless alarming.
Given the succession of incidents during the past year or so variously involving homegrown radicals, lone wolves, and trained terrorist recruits, the U.S. is arguably now little different from Europe in terms of having a domestic terrorist problem involving immigrant and indigenous Muslims as well as converts to Islam.
In sum, the diversity of these latest foot soldiers in the wars of terrorism being waged against the U.S. underscores how much the terrorist threat has changed since the September 11, 2001, attacks.
In the past year alone the United States has seen affluent suburban Americans and the progeny of hard-working immigrants gravitate to terrorism. Persons of color and Caucasians have done so. Women along with men. Good students and well-educated individuals and high school dropouts and jailbirds. Persons born in the U.S. or variously in Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Somalia. Teenage boys pumped up with testosterone and middle-aged divorcees.
The only common denominator appears to be a newfound hatred for their native or adopted country, a degree of dangerous malleability, and a religious fervor justifying or legitimizing violence that impels these very impressionable and perhaps easily influenced individuals toward potentially lethal acts of violence.
The report is based on interviews with a wide range of senior U.S. counterterrorism officials at both the federal and local levels, and embracing the policy, intelligence, and law enforcement communities, supplemented by the authors’ own research.
It’s not often these days that I am cast back to my childhood while sitting at the breakfast table reading the newspaper.
But it was difficult this particular morning to avoid being drawn back to the past as I read about Pastor Terry Jones’s plan to burn copies of the Koran this coming Saturday as part of his grotesque commemoration of the September 11th 2001 attacks and then the article on the opinion page of today’s New York Times, “Building on Faith” by Feisal Abdul Rauf, the chairman of the Cordoba Initiative and the imam of the Farah mosque in Lower Manhattan.
Pondering the two diametrically opposed messages conveyed by Pastor Jones’s odious publicity stunt and Imam Rauf’s considered and measured response to the controversy surrounding the building of a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan, I was reminded of sitting in the waiting room of my dentist’s office with my younger brother, circa 1964.
It was less the gnawing fear and imminent pain of the dentist’s drill that came so readily to mind than the children’s magazine that my brother and I amused ourselves reading while awaiting our respective fates. The magazine was called Highlights for Children and was the type of low-cost, pen- and ink-illustrated periodical that could only have existed in the “Leave It To Beaver” era of the 1960s that I grew up in.
Though Highlights for Children lacked the gloss and verve of the visually arresting, interactive Internet websites that appeal to children today, much less the spell-binding excitement of the variety of incomprehensible video games that are a fixture of contemporary childhood, it nonetheless effectively conveyed a simple, but important message.
Highlights commendably helped children grow up to become better people. It taught us to be literate and thoughtful, artistic and expressive, and most of all, to behave properly—not only by having good manners but most critically in being able to judge for ourselves right from wrong.
In its deftly subtle and mildly didactic way, Highlights provided us with a moral compass in the hope that we would always do the right thing—or, if on the odd occasion we didn’t, that we would still be patently cognizant of our transgression.
One of the more effective ways that Highlights inculcated this ethos in its young readers was via the monthly feature titled “Goofus and Gallant.” Written by Highlights’ founder and editor, Gary Cleveland Myers, and illustrated in black-and-white ink by Anni Matsick, the cartoon contained two side-by-side panels that depicted how each boy would react to the same situation.
Goofus was coarse, thoughtless, and impolite and hence invariably made choices that were not only wrong in any civilized moral universe, but that were also often hurtful to others. Gallant, on the other hand, was the paradigm of empathy, thoughtfulness, and consideration of others. He was thus a shining exemplar of the polite, well-mannered child—buoyed by the self-confidence and satisfaction of both being—and doing—good.
My brother and I used to laugh at these contrived situations and further irritate our mother by pledging to emulate Goofus. But the false bravado was a way of overcoming our fears of the dentist’s drill by pretending that we were tougher and more hardened than a nine year-old and a seven year-old could ever be.
I never imaged in adulthood, nearly fifty years later that I would again encounter Goofus and Gallant—nor experience the same gnawing fear and imminent pain that I once felt sitting in the dentist’s reception area long ago. But this morning I did.
Fear because there are still people in the world—who now sadly will soon include my fellow citizens of this great country—who would deign to burn books—not least the sacred texts of another religious faith. And pain because of the unbridled intolerance and unmitigated ignorance such a depraved act evidences.
Throughout the past nine years we have continually shown how we can be tough on terrorists and others who seek to harm us, yet remain faithful to the core, fundamental values of truth and justice, and of religious freedom and tolerance of other faiths that have always set America apart from other countries.
As we approach another solemn anniversary of the worst tragedy to befall the United States in our collective memory, we should embrace ever more tightly these inalienable lessons of September 11th and shun with unrestrained opprobrium those that demean and diminish us as both a people and a nation.
The incredible shrinking Washington Post continues to disappoint and surprise readers in equal measure.
Disappoint in that the once mighty front page and robust “Section A” (the main news section) have now been so filleted by financial cut back and retrenchment that a bare bones skeleton of its former grandeur remains.
The surprise is that in the newly news-starved “Section A,” the editorial page can still deliver a hefty punch: zeroing in on the most pressing issues of our time. Yesterday’s editorial, “Target: Americans—Should U.S. citizens who join forces with al-Qaeda be subject to drone strikes?” commendably addresses the legal and moral issues involved in the targeted assassinations of American citizens who become terrorists and, under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, enemy combatants as well. “U.S. citizens who take up arms against the country,” the editorial argued, “are enemy combatants and are indistinguishable on the battlefield from other belligerents.”
Citing specifically the case of Anwar al-Aulaqi, the New Mexico-born, firebrand Muslim cleric and senior al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operative, the editorial continued to explain that
The political, legal and moral calculus of addressing the threat posed by an American enemy combatant such as Mr. Aulaqi changes when he is located outside a recognized war zone. The discussion should be -- and we trust would be -- dramatically different if he were residing in an allied country willing to use lawful means to capture and turn him over.
But when a target is hiding in a lawless state or in one which refuses to cooperate in his apprehension, other alternatives must be considered, including targeted strikes. The decision to target an American must be a last resort, used only when other lawful means of apprehending the person are unavailable or too dangerous to pursue. Such decisions should be approved by the president, and the bipartisan leadership of congressional intelligence committees should be notified in advance.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), however, disagrees. And, last week on behalf of al-Aulaqi’s father, sued in U.S. federal court to contest the legality of assassinating the younger al-Aulaqi. The ACLU maintains that, regardless of the 2001 Authorization, it “would be unconstitutional for the government to carry out such a strike against an American, especially one located outside a recognized war zone.”
The case will soon be adjudicated and doubtlessly appealed, perhaps to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, the Post’s editorial writers offer their own, not unreasonable, opinion that
U.S. citizens do not lose all their constitutional rights when they head overseas, but they also cannot use their citizenship as a shield when they join enemy forces with the intention of carrying out violent attacks against the country or its interests.
Despite the compelling logic of that statement, it is nonetheless difficult to contemplate all this without some niggling sense of unease.
Let me first be clear that I am not opposed to killing known terrorists who themselves are indisputably up to their elbows in bloodshed or who have inspired and motivated others to violence. This is especially true when they cannot reasonably be captured or apprehended without putting the lives of others—innocent bystanders and ordinary passersby, U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement personnel, or those of America’s allies, at grave risk.
Al-Aulaqi himself of course has already been directly implicated in several terrorist crimes. He played a pivotal role in the radicalization of Major Nidal Hasan, who shot to death thirteen persons and wounded over forty others at Fort Hood, Texas last November. He has also been closely linked to Umer Farouq Abdulmutallab, who attempted the mid-air bombing of a North West Airliners passenger jet on Christmas Day. Faisal Shahzad, who in May attempted to detonate a vehicle packed with explosives in New York City’s Times Square, has also cited al-Aulaqi’s influence.
The history of the war on terrorism, however, is still being written. Too often during its first nine years, the U.S. government has acted in a similarly bold way—arguing that, in the absence of any other viable options, there was no alternative. Our leaders, accordingly, made choices or issued orders that—however good their intentions or reasonable their decisions seemed at the time— nonetheless have come back to haunt us.
For instance, consigning enemy combatants—terrorists captured on the battlefield and even further afield—to America’s 21st Century version of Devil’s Island at the U.S. Naval Guantanamo Bay, Cuba facility—seemed a great a idea back in 2002. But, today, when we are juridically still struggling to resolve the status of the few hundred or so remaining prisoners incarcerated there—and are unable to close the prison despite widespread agreement on the desirability of doing so—that decision appears in retrospect as problematical as it is now a political millstone hanging from the Obama Administration’s neck.
In other words, in the legal terra incognita that is the war on terrorism’s ineluctable domain, the U.S. still has not come to grips with the inherent ambiguities, amorphous dimensions, and messy legalities of 21st Century warfare. As we have repeatedly seen, some decisions taken in defense of our nation and its citizenry, have had unpredictable consequences with discomforting implications—and distinctly undesirable repercussions.
Accordingly, empowering the President of the United States to order the execution of American citizens is sufficiently far-reaching to require further exploration and explication. When, at similarly critical past junctures in the war on terrorism, we have failed to pause and engage in the detailed public, legal and moral discourse and serious consideration that such weighty issues merit, the outcome has not always been to our benefit.
By elevating this issue to its editorial pages, the Post has initiated this process—and thereby done our nation a great service.