With debt exploding, joblessness climbing, growth stagnating, and sharp tax increases looming, the economy has dominated the midterm campaign that finally ends on Tuesday. National-security concerns have flown under the radar.
For that, our much-maligned intelligence and law-enforcement agencies deserve credit. No, we can’t forget the massacre at Fort Hood: The failure to prevent it, despite neon warning signs, remains a monument to conscious avoidance (or, as I might put it, willful blindness). There have also been two near-misses: the attempted bombings of Times Square and an airliner over Detroit. In those cases, we were more lucky than good. But let’s not ignore the positive side of the ledger. We face enemies who are working day and night to kill Americans yet have largely failed to strike our homeland. Had they succeeded, terrorism would be atop the list of election issues rather than an afterthought.
It will not stay an afterthought forever. On Friday, two packages containing explosives were intercepted on cargo planes en route to the United States. President Obama announced that the targets were Chicago synagogues, and the source was al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — Osama bin Laden’s affiliate in Yemen. The alarming discovery capped a week in which the FBI disrupted a plot to attack Washington in a manner reminiscent of the atrocities in Bombay two years ago. Those were carried out by a Pakistani jihadist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the Washington case, the prime suspect, Farooque Ahmed, is also a Pakistani native, and he himself is much more interesting than his plot.
That’s because the plot appears to have been steered by informants after the government learned that Ahmed and another man (elliptically described as “an associate” in an agent’s affidavit) were trying to join a terrorist organization. More worrisome is that Ahmed, like Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber and another Pakistani native, is a young, naturalized American. Like Shahzad, he is in his early 30s, became increasingly radicalized while living in the United States, and acquired citizenship — making it easier for him to plot against us while living among us.
Even if our security precautions were better conceived, even if our agencies consistently performed at their maximum effectiveness (and ask yourself if you do that, or if anyone does that), the odds against continuing to prevent every one of these attacks, or even to dodge them, are too long. The suspect pool is too extensive, it is too easy for those who mean us harm to get here and stay here, the motivating Islamist ideology is too widely disseminated, and the necessary materiel is too readily available. It is little wonder that intelligence services report a noticeable uptick in the chatter that signals an imminent attack.
Eventually, our safeguards will fail. If they do, it will be the other chatter — about Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, the rest of the 2012 intrigue, and even the economy — that recedes from our attention. The uncongenial fact that we remain the target of very determined enemies will push its way to the fore. The new Congress, whether it is under Republican control or merely stronger Republican influence, will need to give our security a good deal more attention than it has received during the campaign.
Lawmakers might start by thinking about why our agencies sometimes fail. Their task has never been more difficult. A single attack takes few operatives and little financing to carry out, but could cost thousands of lives. Yet we demand that our agents not only prevent it but conspicuously respect our ever-expanding privacy zones while doing so, often denying them a view of the dots we nonetheless insist they must connect.
Agents must furthermore perform amid squabbles over whether terrorism should be treated as part of a war being waged against the United States or as a crime. I have strong views on that subject, and thoughtful people have contrary views they hold just as strongly. But let’s not kid ourselves. Investigations always suffer when beset by philosophical arguments about how they should be done.
This is a matter on which being right, while important, is secondary. The security mission goes on, regardless of the noise around it. As long as the debate is unresolved — and it’s been going on for a decade with no end in sight — we have to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with the mission. Those of us who think war criminals do not belong in civilian courts must nevertheless rally around the civilian prosecutions when they occur. Of course, we should strive to be persuasive in arguing about policy. The goal, however, is to stop the terrorists, not to win the argument over how they should be stopped. Even if we think there is a better way to do this, we want our agents and prosecutors to succeed.
Similarly, those who are passionate about civilian due process must not look at every case as an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of the civilian system. Again, the goal is to stop the terrorists, not win the argument. There is plenty of time after a war criminal has been apprehended to debate the forum in which his case should be tried — civilian or military court. But it is abundantly clear that imposing civilian due-process rules too early (Miranda, appointment of counsel, indictment, etc.) can fatally undermine intelligence collection at the most critical stage. Contrary to what some proponents of the law-enforcement approach seem to think, it would not betray their core convictions about the value of civilian trials to green-light aggressive intelligence collection and concede that some due-process protections designed for ordinary criminals are not a good fit for war criminals. It would be pragmatic, which is what they like to tell us they are.
As if matters weren’t politicized enough, agents are also being forced to persevere through stifling political correctness. From the command level, their marching orders make it taboo even to mention terrorism’s catalyst: a mainstream, fundamentalist strain of Islam that we gently call “Islamist” ideology. That makes factoring the ideology into their intelligence assessments impossible. But try outfoxing someone when you’ve been instructed not to consider his motivation, or are told to pretend that it is something other than what it is. It can’t be done. You don’t know whom to look at, where to look, or what to look for.
Reasonable, patriotic Muslims know this. Yet, rather than cultivating them, we’ve let Islamist organizations call the tune. That is suicidal. They don’t represent American Muslims; they represent the Muslim Brotherhood. For whatever reason, our government insists on doing “outreach” to people who don’t have our best interests at heart. It is said to be a gesture of “respect to the Muslim world.” I think it’s a futile gesture, but that’s neither here nor there. The salient point is that hearing them out doesn’t mean we have to listen to them. That’s been President Obama’s theory with Republicans. Why couldn’t it be applied to CAIR?
Our debate over the best counterterrorism structure must continue. But with the likelihood of attack surging, both sides need to remember that the debate is subordinate to the mission, and figuring out the perfect needn’t stop us from improving the good.
– Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.