Is America losing the "War on Terror"?

From the July 14 L.A. City Beat, columnist Andrew Gumbel's "This is London" explores what the London bombings say about American efforts to battle terrorism...

One might have been forgiven, before the abrupt horror of last week’s bombings on the London transport system, for thinking the Bush administration had all but forgotten about its war on terror. The White House has been so distracted in recent months – by Social Security, by the growing morass in Iraq, by Terri Schiavo, by John Bolton and Priscilla Owen and the looming battle over the Supreme Court – that a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that only half the electorate still considered President Bush an effective fighter against terrorism.

That’s an astonishing sea-change for an administration which won a second term largely on the basis that the voting public felt safer in its hands. Whatever happened to those color-coded alerts, which used to be flashed along the bottom of our television screens with such drumbeat regularity? Where are the cabinet officers who used to warn us in grave tones every few weeks that they had received word of a threat of a maddeningly non-specific nature?

Could it be that Al Qaeda has simply given up its ambitions to attack Americans on their own soil after last November’s presidential election? Hardly. Or is it rather that the Bush administration has given up – that, having exploited all those warnings and orange alerts to win reelection, it has no further use for them?

There is nothing pleasant about ascribing such chillingly cynical motives to a government on a subject as elemental and important as the safety of its citizens. But it is also impossible to get around, especially when – as the bloodshed in London so graphically illustrates – the threat of attacks on civilians in just about any high-profile location remains as vivid as ever.

Like many people, I took the London bombings very personally. London is my city. I’ve been on all the underground trains that were hit. I know how asphyxiatingly crowded they can get at rush hour, can imagine the abject panic that must have set in amid the helplessly mashed walls of human bodies as soon as the bombs exploded. When I heard about the bus in Tavistock Square, I could conjure up in my mind the square’s understated brick buildings, the tree-filled park, the squat little statue in the middle celebrating Mahatma Gandhi and his espousal of nonviolence.

People on this side of the Atlantic understand very well, I think, that this was more than just an attack on London, in the same way that many people around the world instinctively felt that the destruction of the Twin Towers was more than just an attack on New York. Such undirected brutality, such killing for the sake of killing, is an affront to human civilization as a whole, and needs to be resisted with all the solidarity and sense of common purpose we can muster.

The Bush administration, of course, has chosen another path. Not only has it divided the world and its own electorate. Not only has it been deceptive and exploited people’s fears for political gain. It has also been singularly lousy at doing the one thing one might reasonably have expected, which is to do everything in its power to minimize the risk of another attack within the United States.

Aside from pumping up airport security and reorganizing the bureaucracy in Washington, the administration’s record is largely one of failure – failure to institute an effective container inspection system at Long Beach and the country’s other major ports, failure to speed up the process of securing loose nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, failure to provide state, county, and city authorities the funds they need to institute their own local counterterrorism programs.

Perhaps most insanely, the USA Patriot Act distributes federal counterterrorism money according to the logic of the electoral college, not on the basis of need. So Wyoming is swimming in federal money – more per capita than any other state – while Manhattan and L.A., where an attack is several orders of magnitude more likely, are gasping for it.

The Bush administration has spent way more money on tax cuts and the war in Iraq than it has on counterterrorism. (Of course it argues that the war in Iraq is counterterrorism, but if the White House’s fight-them-there-so-we-don’t-have-to-fight-them-here line looked dubious before the London bombings, it looks downright absurd now.) Until this week, in fact, when the Senate decided to reexamine the question, the administration was proposing spending just $600 million on safeguarding the nation’s ports, mass transit systems, bridges, railways, and energy facilities in 2006. That’s roughly what the country spends every two to three days in Iraq.

Law enforcement, meanwhile, shows no indication of having any more of a clue than it did in the fateful summer of 2001. Six of the seven members of the alleged sleeper cell in Lackawanna, outside Buffalo, were pressured into guilty pleas and lengthy sentences before the weakness of the case against them could be exposed. It appears to be a similar story in Lodi, where the FBI’s initial wolf-crying about a plot to attack hospitals and supermarkets has not translated into a single indictment on a terrorism-related charge. There are serious grounds for doubting whether the Pakistani terrorist training camp mentioned in an FBI affidavit even exists.

Ice cream salesman Umer Hayat and his son Hamid are being held on the distinctly unspectacular grounds that they lied to investigators, while three other suspects, including two local Muslim clerics, are being held on relatively minor visa violations.

Expert after expert has come forward to characterize those caught up in the FBI’s net as a bunch of amateurs – people with distasteful views who keep bad company, perhaps, but hardly guerrilla fighters so fearsome they need to be apprehended rather than kept under surveillance even before any specific plot has actually been hatched.

The Lodi arrests, in fact, smack of politicization. The FBI acknowledged it had been watching the suspects for a long time and has yet to give a convincing reason why it made the arrests when it did. Can it be a coincidence that the story erupted just as Congress was debating whether or not to renew the Patriot Act, as the FBI and the Bush administration have been urging?

I recently spoke to Tim Naftali, a national security expert and consultant on the 9/11 Commission whose recent book, Blind Spot, recounts the patchy history of U.S. counterterrorism since World War II. He didn’t think it remotely implausible that the FBI, looking for an eye-catching counter-terrorism case to bring to public attention, simply looked through its surveillance files and pulled out the most promising one.

Naftali also argued that the sleeper cell problem is a particularly tricky one. The evidence of 9/11 – Al Qaeda members risking exposure by coming in and out of the country and traveling all over it – suggests that in 2001, anyway, Al Qaeda didn’t have a sleeper cell in the United States worth a damn. Has that state of affairs changed? Given the absence of attacks here since 9/11, perhaps not. Then again, the considerably better prepared law enforcement authorities in London and Madrid were caught out by groups whose existence they had not even clocked.

The point is that the United States urgently needs to take proper stock of the real risks, which indubitably exist, and discard all the deceptive political flummery that serves only to confuse and divide people. 9/11 could not have been a louder wake-up call, but President Bush chose to expend the bulk of his office’s resources on defeating Saddam Hussein and John Kerry instead of Osama bin Laden, and the country fell back to sleep. The London bombings should jolt us awake all over again. Some of the administration’s actions in the immediate wake of last Thursday have actually seemed quite reasonable. Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security director, explained in admirably cogent fashion that he had no intelligence concerning any particular threat but was raising the alert level for mass transit systems anyway. It was the first official pronouncement that I remember since the onset of the war on terror that was free of the whiff of political bad faith. Will the White House be able to keep this up? Like a drunkard going on the wagon, we need to hope and pray and embrace our new sobriety one day at a time.

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