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?"

The result is a book that is expertly reported, though its proposals are somewhat debatable. The security model Brzezinski suggests America might implement is Israel's maximum-security state. The author travels to Tel Aviv with Offer Einav, a security consultant who thinks Americans are "novices at defending against terror." Like most Israelis, Einav knows what it's like to own a gas mask and to feel the next-door threat of a Hamas or a Hezbollah.

The difference in everyday security between the two countries is immediately apparent, from vigilant El Al employees who have no qualms about profiling passengers to Israeli children who practice chemical attack drills with the nonchalance of playing hopscotch. "A visit to virtually any mall or restaurant in Tel Aviv," Brzezinski writes, "started with a search outside the main entrance, where uniformed guards behind steel barriers patted down would-be customers, rummaged through handbags, and ran metal detectors over every entrant."

But as Brzezinski admits, comparing tiny Israel to the immense United States is like comparing apples to the Goodyear blimp. "New York's subway system carries almost as many daily riders as Israel's entire population," he writes. "El Al has a fleet of twenty-seven planes, against the nearly seven thousand commercial jets that fly America's considerably busier skies. Borders in Israel are measured in hundreds of miles, not tens of thousands. Everything in Israel is miniaturized when stacked up against the United States, making even the costs of trying to replicate the Israeli model stateside incalculable."

To adopt the entire Israeli model is simply not possible, but what is possible–and what Brzezinski would like to see–is measures such as limiting access to airport entrances and tightening the screening of passengers. To Einav, the United States is an easy target. "What if Al Qaeda hit a dozen shopping centers in different U.S. cities?" he asks. "I bet you Americans would demand security then."

Brzezinski reports we are narrowing the gap between our lax security and Israel's lock-down mode, and in doing so we are creating tension between civil liberties and national security. Basic freedoms should not be eroded, he writes, nor should Americans be abused in the "name of defending freedom from terrorism." The author also writes, however, that "as new terrorist scenarios arise, as new extremists crawl out of some cave brandishing new vehicles for mass murder, the government will have to react–and possibly overreact –quickly." Case studies of Muslims in America who disappeared into our prison system immediately after 9/11 demonstrate that the government did overreact, as the new secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, acknowledged during his confirmation hearings. They also show just how easily basic freedoms can be erased during a national crisis.

The threat of terrorism also opens the door for Orwellian surveillance. Use of the creepy technology known as "radio frequency identification" (RFID), implemented through transponder tags coded with information that can be tracked, is expanding. It sounds harmless and useful when applied in commerce to track shipments–some UPS drivers are required to wear RFID bracelets, or their trucks won't start–or in the livestock industry to monitor animals. But when the idea is broached of injecting the tags into political prisoners (as is rumored in China) or convicted sex offenders (as has been proposed in this country) to monitor their exact location, the potential for abuse is clear.

"All that was lacking was the political and social will to bring all this technological wizardry to bear in the war on terror," Brzezinski writes. "It wouldn't happen overnight or without another catastrophic incident, something that upped the ante and put America in the same survival mode [as] Israel: a nuclear detonation, a biological outbreak, a mass casualty event. But if the stakes were high enough, would we be more willing to accept life in a maximum security surveillance state?"

Equally disheartening is the author's visit to the offices of the Department of Homeland Security. At the time, the physical appearance of this $36 billion security nerve center had all the gravitas of a Jiffy Lube waiting room. "My own doubts about whether DHS had been dealt a bad hand were not dispelled when I announced myself on a clunky old phone that hung
next to its gray door," Brzezinski writes. The reception area "had a cheap suspended ceiling of yellowed acoustic tiles and was decorated with a badly mounted blown-up photo of Ridge walking with Bush, both striding purposefully toward the mutual goal of keeping us all out of harm's way."

Complaints of lack of money and equipment were rampant. What money was available was held up by bureaucratic snafus or oddly misdistributed. Quoting a Public Policy Institute of California study, Brzezinski writes, "Alaska and North Dakota get twice as much terror funding per capita from Washington as New York. Wyoming, at $61 per head, gets four times more than California."

Brzezinski concludes his often riveting book with the subject of money– or more precisely, the lack of dollars to guard our shipping ports and equip our first responders. He places the cost of ridding the world of Saddam "at well over $150 billion." His point is that resources are finite and, in contrast to Miniter, that Bush is mishandling the War on Terror. What is being spent to maintain the war in Iraq comes at the expense of "shortchanging domestic security." The clear implication is that we are still too vulnerable. So how does Brzezinski explain the lack of attacks on our ports and elsewhere? To him, it's a matter of when, not if. At that point, he predicts, "the urge to sacrifice the fundamental values that make America one of the world's freest societies will prove powerful."

Of course, calculating whether the U.S. is too vulnerable is much like calculating whether the U.S. is winning its war. What constitutes definitive invulnerability? What does it mean that something bad has not yet happened? Readers of these books may not get final answers to their questions about the U.S. response to terror, but they may be able to refine their calculations a bit.?