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Jewish World Review Dec. 24, 2002 / 19 Teves 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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The faltering war on terrorism | WASHINGTON Here's the good news in the war on terrorism:

  • So far there has been no repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And the government says it has prevented dozens of terrorist strikes.

  • American and other forces have driven the Taliban from Afghanistan, temporarily disrupting Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.

  • Our government at least is talking about organizing itself more efficiently to protect us from more attacks.

The bad news, however, is deeply distressing:

  • The government, using the new USA Patriot Act and other means, has compromised the civil liberties of Americansbeyond what's necessary to fight terrorism.

  • America is recklessly unprepared for the next attacks, which even many civil-liberties advocates believe are inevitable, and the Bush administration seems unwilling to resolve the tensions between paying for more security and cutting taxes to stimulate the economy.

  • Despite some Congressional hearings that resulted in a recent report, the government has made no comprehensive effort to understand exactly what happened Sept. 11 and what might have prevented it. A new commission to look into that has been forced to reorganize before it even started. It was to be headed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, perhaps the worst imaginable choice if the goal is a brutally honest critique of government failure to protect its citizens. But he has stepped down, as has former Sen. George Mitchell, who was to be second in command. The new chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, is a much better choice.

  • The government has paid little attention to finding ways to disable terrorism at its roots by identifying and removing its causes.

    Notice that the good news is mostly old - or no news at all. The exception is the recent creation of the Department of Homeland Security, but even there it's unclear when the department can begin to be helpful.

    "For the short term, I feel the creation of the Department of Homeland Security is a step backward," Stephen Schulhofer, a New York University law professor and author of The Enemy Within, told a recent seminar on terrorism and civil liberties sponsored by the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland.

    Because nothing like a repeat of the devastating Sept. 11 attacks has occurred in the United States - and because most of our lives have returned to something like normality - it's easy to overlook the bad news about the war on terrorism. That could be a fatal error.

    On the whole, civil-liberties advocates - even those who willingly call themselves alarmists - have not been successful in stirring up the public to oppose some of the questionable measures the government has adopted to fight terrorism. And yet those measures should worry us all.

    For instance, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the government rounded up about 1,200 U.S. residents - many of them young Muslim or Arab men - and held them without charges for months. Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies ( cnss), a civil liberties advocacy group, says that if another attack occurs, many more people may get thrown in jail without due process.

    "My basic worry," she says, "is that civil liberties will be sacrificed and it won't make us more secure."

    Already two American citizens, Jose Padilla, the alleged "dirty bomber," and Yasser Esam Hamdi, who fought with al-Qaida and was captured in Afghanistan, have been declared "enemy combatants" and denied basic legal rights normally available to citizens, such as access to a lawyer.

    Aides of Attorney General John Ashcroft, however, maintain that the Justice Department's efforts in the war on terrorism are warranted and legal. Whatever the department has done, says David Nahmias, counsel to the assistant attorney general of the criminal division, has been "fully in accord with the Constitution of the United States."

    But some of those approaches - and such proposals as the Total Information Awareness database being designed by the Department of Defense under the direction of John Poindexter, a former Reagan administration official - need to be watched carefully. That's because history shows us that the Ashcroft approach of cutting civil liberties corners now and explaining it away later is seductive to a government at war.

    As we worry about compromised constitutional freedoms, however, it's important to remember that the enemy is terrorism, not our own government, and to know that America is shockingly unprepared for the next terrorist attack.

    This was persuasively argued at the end of October in a Council on Foreign Relations report that got little media attention. (News of it appeared Oct. 25 on Page A-2 of The Kansas City Star, but there has been no follow-up story.)

    The study leading to this report was led by former senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart, but the task force included such members as former secretaries of State Warren Christopher and George Shultz, former FBI Director William Webster and former Goldman, Sachs Chairman Stephen Friedman, President Bush's choice to be new White House economic adviser.

    The conclusions (available at www.cfr. org) were alarming and remain unrefuted. Among them:

    • " ... local and state police officials continue to operate in a virtual intelligence vacuum."

    • " ... only the tiniest percentage of containers, ships, trucks and trains that enter the United States each day are subject to examination - and a weapon of mass destruction could well be hidden among this cargo."

    • "First responders - police, fire, emergency medical technician personnel - are not prepared for a chemical or biological attack."

    • "The homeland infrastructure for refining and distributing energy to support the daily lives of Americans remains largely unprotected to sabotage."

    Congress has not even authorized a promised $3.5 billion for state officials to meet their terrorism war obligations, so it's irresponsible for the president to try - as he said recently in a Louisiana campaign appearance - to make "sure that tax relief is permanent." This is especially so because it's unclear how to pay for what the Hart-Rudman report says we must do. More alarming is that a war with Iraq may produce even more terrorism against the United States.

    Equally irresponsible has been the failure to do a systematic, nonpartisan study of how and why Sept. 11 happened. What we know is piecemeal and without enough attention to the security lapses and other errors that might have at least alerted officials to the impending atrocity. Congressional hearings and media investigations have turned up part of thepicture, but so far there's no full accounting.

    Before Kissinger quit, James Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (, a constitutional liberties advocacy group, was convinced that the new Sept. 11 commission would produce "zero good ... by design," but now it looks more hopeful.

    There's no easy solution to terrorism. But simply trying to cut off the terrorists before they strike is only a temporary fix. For the long haul, it will be necessary to understand what leads people to become terrorists and to try to uproot those causes. Except for the president's welcome proposal to double the size of the Peace Corps and his occasional words about the glories of a free society, this matter is getting little attention.

    Our government - as well as private groups - should be analyzing, for instance, how the Palestinian-Israel conflict fuels international terrorism. Many other likely causes - from coddled religious radicals in Saudi Arabia to disinformation and misinformation spread by authoritarian governments - should be studied and responded to. The war on terrorism will never end as long as the soil in which terrorists grow exists.

    President Bush was right to warn us that this would be a long, difficult war. But he has been wrong not to call us to a clearer sense of sacrifice to meet the dangers. Instead, we've been asked to go shopping and live normally. Partly as a result, the war on terrorism is in trouble on several fronts, and no cavalry seems to be riding to the rescue.

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    JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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    Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved