Six years later: What have we learned?

On the eve of the six-year anniversary of Sept. 11 and in the fourth year of the war in Iraq, what have we learned about fighting terrorism? Are we wisely spending our tax dollars? Is there “rhyme or reason” with respect to America’s counter-terrorism policy? Is there a policy?

Unfortunately, one of the results of early presidential primaries is that the candidates – many of them with legislative responsibilities – will be spending their time campaigning rather than legislating and overseeing administration policies.

Furthermore, the early primaries mean an enormously long time before the general election, which promises us vapid 20-second sound bites rather than genuine debate and discourse.

However, since the bad guys are out there, we must prepare a tough, substantive check list of questions to ask the presidential candidates in the limited time we have with them.
In answering the broad questions above, we must demand specific answers. The devil is always in the details. We are well beyond President Bush’s rightly maligned phrases: “We are winning the war on terrorism,” “Bring ‘em on” and “Mission Accomplished.” So where are we?

The answer is suggested by something I recently witnessed while standing in an airport security line. A 3-year-old boy traveling with his mother was subjected to the “blower.” The blower – an unpleasant experience for an adult – detects material required for making explosives. What does subjecting a 3-year-old to the blower unattended by a parent (his mother went through the blower previously) tell me?

It tells me that we have yet to begin risk assessment and analysis, identifying legitimate threats has not been begun and sophisticated cost-benefit analysis of counter-terrorism is apparently in its infancy. How dangerous is this? Very.

As long as 3-year-old boys are made to go through blowers at airport security lines, we clearly are not focusing our limited resources on genuine threats. Rather than develop sophisticated prototyping models, we only hear “you have been selected for a random search.”

Effective counter-terrorism can be based neither on 20-second sound bites nor subjecting young children to the blower. Minimizing the terrorist threat requires the following: dramatically improving our intelligence gathering and analysis ability (requires foreign language skills), understanding terrorist motivations and goals, developing terrorist prototypes (not ethnic-based profiling, which is both unconstitutional and ineffective) and developing sophisticated risk-assessment models facilitating cost-benefit analysis of counter-terrorism measures.

Until we develop these four measures, we will continue to subject children to blowers at the nation’s airports. Were Osama bin Laden to witness what I observed, he surely would have a good laugh. We need to wipe that smile off his face and get serious – and smart – with respect to counter-terrorism.

We have little, if any, time to waste; the dangers and threats of six years ago have been replaced by far more sophisticated terrorism. Be it cyber-terrorism or bio-terrorism, the terrorist imagination literally knows no bounds.

The determination and motivation to sacrifice for a cause drives terrorists the world over. Their motivation is matched only by their seriousness and sophistication. Measure their sophistication with ours and worry lines need to appear on our collective faces.

While politicians offer vapid generalities, the bad guys are planning the next attacks. It is not “if” but “when.” The time to address the four measures was yesterday; we can’t wait until tomorrow. Let us resolve to address them, honestly and intelligently, today. We can’t afford the inanity of subjecting 3-year-old boys to blowers at the nation’s airports.

Published in the Salt Lake Tribune, “Six years later: What have we learned?”

Cross posted from the National Security Advisors Blog.