Politics & Policy

Tuned to Fear

Richard Clarke predicts terrorist victory.

Former national coordinator for counterterrorism Richard Clarke continues to promote his version of a coming doomsday in this month’s Atlantic. Writing a fiction set in 2011, Clarke strings together every possible terrorist scenario that will befall the United States during the next six years. In his story, the United States suffers attacks from suicide bombers that cripple the American economy, causes massive casualties, and creates conditions to curtail civil liberties. In spite of the gloomy future Clarke predicts, he concludes in his last footnote that “there are still opportunities to avoid such disasters without sacrificing our liberties.”

Given Clarke’s credentials and former access to intelligence, his fiction should be critically examined. But we should take heart that Clarke has no specific information and his latest prognostication of impending doom is simply the result of his nightmares. Every scenario he presents is just that–a hypothetical driven by existing vulnerabilities, not terrorist capabilities.

While it is important to reduce vulnerabilities to America’s critical infrastructure, we should not conflate vulnerability and threat. Just because we can imagine an attack does not mean an attack will occur.

Aggressive U.S. counterterrorism efforts have resulted in significant accomplishments–al Qaeda is on the ropes. Thousands have been captured or killed and its top leadership has been relegated to producing propaganda for the Internet. FDR’s wisdom about fear should guide us, but fear is a hard thing to control.

Clarke’s terrorism hypothetical seems to be governed more by his worst nightmares than by the real capabilities of any terrorists. The lessons of Iraq teach us that it is not that easy, even for a country with substantial resources, to develop and conceal weapons of mass destruction. The only known chemical and biological attacks have been the 1995 sarin-gas attack in Tokyo and the 2001 anthrax letters in the United States, which do not constitute a trend in the use of weapons of mass destruction. While it is technically possible for non-state actors to manufacture biological weapons, it is overly simplistic to say that they will develop and execute a WMD attack.

If a biological attack were as easy as Clarke pretends, surely Tel Aviv or another Israeli city would have been the victim of such an attack. Palestinian militants could simply launch Katyusha rockets from territory they control or infiltrate infected individuals to unleash a plague upon Israel. The militants would not face any of the logistical challenges al Qaeda would face–infiltrating a terrorist cell into the United States, creating a support network, and executing a biological attack.

Likewise, Russian nuclear weapons must be more secure than we fantasize because there is no doubt a Chechen group would have been the first customer.

Yet Clarke’s thinking assumes that a fragmented terrorist group living on the run in the caves of Afghanistan can successfully develop and pull off a WMD attack. There’s a breakdown in logic–but hypotheticals underlie Clarke’s worldview.

Because we are trying to fill all the chinks in the American armor, it makes sense we fear another attack. But building national policy on fear makes no good sense. We will continually be chasing the next ghost of a threat. How many resources will be misdirected this way? And more importantly, how will this climate of fear affect American democracy?

While threats must be countered aggressively, we cannot let fear guide U.S. policy. Threats must be derived from something more than intelligence chatter, vulnerability assessments, or scenarios.

There has not been a second attack against the United States, but we should not declare victory against terrorism. We should continue to take measures to protect national security–decommission Russian nuclear weapons, destroy terrorist sanctuaries, and transform national-security institutions. But we should not be influenced by people like Richard Clarke who sell fear–creating the climate of terror al Qaeda wants.

Derek Reveron is the editor of America’s Viceroys: the Military and U.S. Foreign Policy, associate professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College, and a former intelligence analyst for the FBI.

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