Politics & Policy

Mishandling Terrorism

The law-enforcement mistake.

In his State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush identified the point at which America’s response to terrorism went so badly awry: the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Bush also explained what went wrong: That attack was treated entirely as a law-enforcement issue; “some of the guilty were indicted, tried, convicted, and sent to prison.” Following the speech, one National Public Radio commentator gasped that Bush seemed to be blaming former President Bill Clinton.

That is, indeed, where blame lies. After every terrorist attack that occurred on his watch, Clinton would condemn the perpetrators and vow to bring them to justice. Yet there was a Catch-22: by treating terrorism as a law-enforcement issue, Clinton practically guaranteed that it would be understood as a law-enforcement issue–and the critical question of state sponsorship would receive scant attention. In many respects, the U.S. legal system was, and still is, ill-suited to dealing with major terrorist attacks.

A very significant flaw crept into that system after Watergate, with serious consequences in the 1990s, when several major terrorist assaults against the United States were followed by stunningly early arrests. Post-Watergate reforms prohibited the FBI from sharing the results of a criminal investigation with the CIA or any other national-security agency. Thus, once the FBI arrested even one suspect in the 1993 Trade Center bombing, that arrest cut off the flow of information to other agencies. Six days after the bombing, Mohammed Salameh, a 26-year-old Palestinian, was detained for the remarkably foolish act of returning to a Ryder rental agency for his deposit on the van that carried the bomb.

From then on, the only purpose to which the FBI’s investigation could be put was the prosecution of Salameh. And as long as even one individual remained a fugitive–Abdul Rahman Yasin, who came to New York from Baghdad before the bombing and returned there afterwards, is still at large–that information could not be passed on to other government agencies.

The State Department’s counterterrorism office, for example, is charged with determining whether any given act of terrorism is state-sponsored. But since it didn’t have the results of the 1993 bombing investigation, how could it possibly make any such determination?

Individuals in the U.S. bureaucracies could have obtained copies of the voluminous documentary evidence that was put into the public record through the trials, just as any private citizen can: by going to the courthouse. But bureaucracies are dominated by routine, and that did not happen, as I learned after providing Ramzi Yousef’s fingerprints (evidence in the first Trade Center bombing trial) to an individual at the CIA’s counterterrorism center, when the FBI refused to share the prints with him.

Moreover, even as this information was not provided to agencies of the U.S. government, by law it had to be provided to the terrorist defendants and their lawyers, including Ramzi Yousef, the attack’s mastermind. In the worst case, Yousef may have managed to pass back to his handlers some of that information, allowing them to sharpen the methods by which they evaded U.S. detection in subsequent assaults.

Trials are narrowly focused. A prosecutor aims to secure convictions and maximal sentences for the defendants in the courtroom; pursuing the question of possible state sponsorship is rarely relevant to that task. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the accused a speedy trial. Yet the investigation into a major terrorist attack is a difficult, time-consuming task: After 9/11, it took authorities six months to learn that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (who is supposedly Yousef’s uncle) was the mastermind of those dreadful assaults. And that information came from the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah–information that would been unavailable if, following his capture, Abu Zubaydah had been arrested and read his Miranda rights, as regularly happened in the Clinton years.

Following the Trade Center bombing, Salameh’s lawyer wanted the speediest trial possible, lest the government discover yet more evidence against his client. The legal system, in its normal operations, provides for just that–it’s a defendant’s right. Thus the lead prosecutor, Gil Childers, has explained that even as the trial began–just seven months after the bombing–he was still sorting through the evidence against each defendant. He did not have time even to think about the question of state sponsorship.

Indeed, it is hard to conceive of a more confused and counterproductive system for dealing with terrorism. It created an extraordinarily easy way for a terrorist state to get away with the murder of Americans: just leave behind a few violent but witless dupes, to be arrested and stand trial (as I cautioned long ago, in an article explaining Iraq’s role in the Trade Center bombing). Post 9/11 counterterrorism legislation did reverse the prohibition on the FBI’s sharing of information, but the other problems remain.

Democrats, like Sen. Ted Kennedy, allege that Bush went to war in Iraq for “political reasons.” But war is not popular with Americans; they prefer peace, and it is an extraordinarily difficult decision to put at risk the lives of U.S. soldiers. Bush’s father made that decision as he went to war in 1991, against the counsel of many, including most Democrats, who advised letting sanctions force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

The younger Bush made a similar decision in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. From time to time, Bush defends that decision, affirming that his most solemn obligation is to protect the security of the American people. For the public really to understand that, however, the administration probably needs to explain at greater length just how poorly the Democrats have dealt with national-security affairs, and in particular, how thoroughly Clinton mishandled the terrorist attacks that preceded 9/11.

Laurie Mylroie is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Bush vs. the Beltway: How the CIA and the State Department tried to Stop the War on Terrorism. She can be reached through www.benadorassociates.com.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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