The Fog of War

How can we tell if we're winning the War on Terror?

Shadow War: The Untold Story of How Bush Is Winning the War on Terror, by Richard Miniter, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 256 pages, $27.95

Fortress America: On the Frontlines of Homeland Security--An Inside Look at the Coming Surveillance State, by Matthew Brzezinski, New York: Bantam, 272 pages, $25

When the Department of Homeland Security released a list of potential terrorist targets in December, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) called it "an exercise in full employment for bureaucrats, rather than a realistic way to make the country safer." Who knew the nation's water parks and miniature golf courses were in danger?

Ah, goes the answer, but there have been no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11. Something must be working....

If you're tempted to throw up your hands in confusion, you're not alone. It often seems impossible to calculate whether the United States is winning its War on Terror. What constitutes definitive success? If something bad has not happened, does that mean that something good has?

Two recent books offer some intriguing, if very different, answers. On the micro level, Matthew Brzezinski's Fortress America examines the security and civil liberties implications of expanding the government's surveillance abilities. On the macro level, Richard Miniter's Shadow War tries to explain how the U.S. has prevented additional attacks. The books are not necessarily contradictory, but they do strike distinct tones. Fortress America reveals alarming gaps in our domestic security; Shadow War celebrates the government's apparent successes.

Miniter, an investigative journalist, is the author of Losing bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror. In Shadow War, he asks and attempts to answer three questions: "Where is Osama bin Laden? Why hasn't there been another terrorist strike inside the U.S. since September 11, 2001? Is President Bush winning the war?" Miniter focuses his reporting on the 911 days from September 11, 2001, to March 11, 2004, the date of the Madrid train bombings.

Miniter's answer to his first question isn't very convincing. He asserts that bin Laden may be in Iran, citing a pair of Iranian intelligence operatives who report that the terrorist entered Iran from Afghanistan on July 26, 2002. In tow, they say, were bin Laden's four wives; his eldest son, Saad bin Laden; and his sidekick Ayman al-Zawahiri. Supposedly, bin Laden's beard was trimmed in the style of a Shi'ite cleric and "he seemed to have put on weight." Miniter continues: "Bin Laden's new appearance may explain why neither he nor his deputy has appeared on videotape. They do not want to broadcast their disguises." Bin Laden himself cast some doubt on this theory with his pre-election videotape, released after Shadow War went to press.

But Miniter delivers some new and useful information about the migration to North Africa of Al Qaeda and related groups. According to Miniter, Sudan and other governments are soliciting terrorists. His most damning evidence is a Sudanese intelligence memo, of admittedly vague provenance, that outlines an agreement between the country's Muslim militias and Al Qaeda that "aims at providing assistance in their sacred war [in the] west of Sudan in return for certain support and security arrangements for them and those [Al Qaeda] members on the run."

The book's most compelling section addresses terror in the world's sea lanes. The thwarting of a 2002 plot to blow up American and British ships moving through the narrow Straits of Gibraltar was indeed an impressive victory; Miniter's account of how the Morocco-based terror cell was defeated is some of the best writing in the book. Readers will learn that Al Qaeda once controlled a fleet of 15 ships used to "smuggle terrorists, tons of explosives, and cartons of cash or drugs." But smaller, explosive-laden speedboats are probably a bigger threat to thousands of lumbering oil tankers and cruise ships. Miniter recounts the successful Al Qaeda attack on the tanker Limburg off the coast of Yemen, a country without a coast guard, while also citing the eventual capture of several of the terrorist planners.

Miniter's argument about why the U.S. has been spared a repeat of 9/11 is less successful. "In sum," he writes, "aggressive execution of the War on Terror--everything from aerial bombardment and covert operations to relentless counter-intelligence and patient police work--has kept the terrorists at bay."

Yet despite Miniter's list of Al Qaeda actions and the subsequent elimination of the responsible cells, it's hard to believe that the end of Al Qaeda or Islamist terror will occur anytime soon. As 2004 ended, the casualty count was around 1,400 U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and a large number of civilians worldwide. When bombings occur in places like Bali and Riyadh, Miniter says they're Pyrrhic victories for the terrorists. He likens the bombers to bees: They can only sting once and then they are blown up, or captured and forced to give up their cohorts. This may be true, but in the face of the current horrific car bombings in Iraq, where one or two suicide insurgents are killed along with scores of freshly trained Iraqi security officers, the numbers do not appear to favor our side. Nor does Miniter address the generation of terrorists now being trained. Instead, he asserts that Bush is winning the war.

Unfortunately, the book ultimately suffers from its partisanship, offering an essentially political argument that has become common in conservative circles: It scolds an allegedly left-leaning press for failing to cover events favorable to the Bush administration, and it hunts for ways to implicate Bill Clinton in today's problems. An especially outrageous claim is that Bush did not reveal his successes in the War on Terror in the months leading up to his re-election because he put "the nation's security ahead of political gain in an election with razor-thin margins." In fact, Republicans used the threat of another terror attack as a central reason to keep Bush in office.

Miniter's closing diatribe against the press also rings false. "We get only headlines, sound bites, and snapshots," he writes. "No record of victories, defeats, or draws." This critique would be more persuasive if the author's 12 pages of notes were not filled with attributions to most of this nation's major investigative newspapers. The story about the Al Qaeda fleet came from none other than The Washington Post.

Fortress America will not make nervous Americans sleep any better. Matthew Brzezinski, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine (and nephew of Jimmy Carter's national security adviser), set out to find this county's vulnerabilities while researching future security measures. In a post-9/11 world, Brzezinski wonders, "what would it be like living in a country bristling with technology and obsessed with security? Would we even want to live in such a place?"

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