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Last Updated

27 Oct 2002

Source:  New York Times, October 26, 2002.


What Al Qaeda Learned in D.C.


Does everyone feel safe now?

There are good reasons why the sniper siege terrified Americans who were far from the line of fire, but they're not the reasons that have dominated the media babble. It's not that we all have relatives in Washington or knew a child slated to go there on a school trip. It's not that we were watching too much bad TV. Sure, cable dished out the story as if it were Gary Condit or shark attacks redux, with hapless CNN going so far as trying to add actors from CBS's "Crime Scene Investigation" to its already inept roster of profiling pundits. But however trivializing the style of presentation, the content was weighty. The reason that a USA Today/CNN poll this week found that the sniper was the second most highly watched news story in a decade, second only to 9/11, may be that Americans intuitively sensed that it could be the second most important story as well.

What made the story both scary and substantial was the mercilessness with which it exposed our permeability to a terrorist attack at home more than a year after 9/11 "changed everything." Whether this Muhammad was an Atta sympathizer or not, the fact remains that one or two gunmen were able to paralyze the capital of the most powerful nation in the world for three weeks, to the point of threatening the ability of citizens to carry out the most fundamental rite of democracy, freely walking into polling places on Election Day. Media critics complained that the sniper usurped more significant news stories like Iraq, Bali and Moscow, but in truth these are all strands of a single story. Each day that the sniper remained in charge was a day likely to embolden our foes, just as we prepare to expand the war on terrorism. "Even if the sniper isn't connected to Al Qaeda, he's showing our vulnerability," said John McCain when I spoke to him the day before the suspects were identified.

After the bombing in Bali, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, was moved to observe that it was "a wake-up call for the Indonesians." Are we sleeping through our own wake-up call? Relief that the killers seem to have been caught should not be confused with closure. We must not now forget that the failures of cooperation between federal and local law enforcement as the sniper piled up his kills were a replay of the turf wars between Rudolph Giuliani's cops and the feds after last fall's still-unsolved anthrax attack. The Pentagon, which may soon face the task of tracking down Saddam Hussein in a city of five million, made the mistake of tipping off the sniper of its air surveillance plans for the D.C. area. The syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin argues persuasively that the I.N.S.'s decision to release John Lee Malvo after his December 2001 arrest by immigration authorities was "in clear violation of federal law."

These are merely the leading indicators of a larger drift into complacency that is hardly limited to this one form of terrorism or a single city. Just how much so was cataloged yesterday by the Council on Foreign Relations, which released an alarming document with a most un-council-like title to match: "America Still Unprepared America Still in Danger." The report is the work of a bipartisan task force headed by Warren Rudman and Gary Hart and stocked with intelligence, military and foreign-policy heavies as various as the former F.B.I. superagent James Kallstrom, the Iraq hawk George Shultz and the former N.I.H. head Harold Varmus. "The next attack will result in even greater casualties and widespread disruption to American lives and the economy," they wrote.

The facts back up their fears. They found that the nation's 650,000 local and state police still have no access to federal terrorist watch lists. They found minimal surveillance of the potentially explosive cargo containers transported to and within the U.S. by ship, truck and train. (We seem to be making the unwarranted assumption that Al Qaeda's next attack will again be by plane.) Though President Bush told the nation this month that a single "Iraqi intelligence operative" could with one "small container" wreak havoc with chemical and biological weapons, we are largely defenseless against such an attack: "Police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel in most of the nation's cities and counties are no better prepared to react now than they were prior to September 11."

The report, which can and must be read at www.cfr.org, does offer fixes, some of them fairly quick, for the shortfalls. Stopgap communications equipment for law enforcement officers can be purchased off the shelf. Local emergency centers can hire retired medical workers to be on call should Mr. Bush's dire warning come true. But most of these recommendations include the verb "fund" -- as in, someone will actually have to pony up for them, and soon. "The states are in dire straits and the federal government has to step in," says Mr. Rudman, a fiscally conservative Republican. "We have to do something. Give up a tax cut, pay a surcharge, something. This is a damn war we're involved in. We can't expect all this to materialize out of the air." Yet there is not a leader in either party who has the guts to call for such a sacrifice from America's taxpayers. Thus the federal government has authorized only $92 million toward the estimated $2 billion needed to secure our ports, at which 21,000 containers arrive each day.

Mr. Hart says that what united the entire task force was the feeling that there's "no sense of urgency and we have slipped back into business as usual." For him and Mr. Rudman, it's djB vu. In 1998, they had been put in charge of a similar Defense Department task force initiated by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. In their January 2001 report, they foresaw terrorism on "American soil" leading to mass death; they proposed, among other possible protections, a department of homeland security. The Bush administration brushed off their recommendations, and the press, including The Times, largely ignored them, too. Even now, after 9/11 dramatized how prescient their findings were, the department of homeland security is still gridlocked in the Senate. Mr. Hart in part faults his own party's intransigence on civil service protections for what he considers an unconscionable delay.

Whether the new Hart-Rudman report will be ignored as the first was is as yet unknown. But the bizarre air of unreality in our public life right now doesn't fill one with hope. It's as if we can't seem to break the bad habits that led up to 9/11. In February 2001, the C.I.A. chief, George Tenet, testified before Congress that Osama bin Laden and his network were "the most immediate and serious threat" to the U.S. and that they were likely to stage "simultaneous attacks" producing "mass casualties." Few in government, including at his own agency, felt any great urgency about it then, and neither did the public. But did Mr. Tenet's parallel testimony of little more than a week ago have much more impact? Lest anyone forget, he said that Al Qaeda was "reconstituted" and "coming after us," fomenting a threat level as bad as that of summer 2001.

In Washington, though, the threat level remains frozen at yellow. The Democrats have gone home to decry the economy. The president is off campaigning, too, outdoing even his predecessor in money raised and days devoted to sheer politics. Poor old Charlton Heston could be found waving his rifle to cheering crowds, defending his Second Amendment rights ber alles, even as a man with a rifle was bagging human game in the capital. Neither the president nor Tom Daschle wanted to do more than ask for a study or "take a look" at the terrorism-fighting possibilities of ballistics fingerprinting. Just before Congress left town, a long-overdue 9/11 investigative commission was scuttled once more -- by the White House, according to John McCain and other witnesses. Is ignorance bliss? "You can't prevent a repetition of an act of terror unless you know all the events leading up to it," the senator says.

Speaking from his home state of Colorado, Gary Hart said, "The attitude is that it's not going to happen here." I had asked him if he agreed with my perception that terrorism seems a much less pressing threat when you talk to Americans outside the D.C.-N.Y. axis. "It's an East Coast problem, maybe a West Coast problem," he said, giving his take on the local mood. "And that's tragically mistaken. The next targets could be Denver, Cleveland, Dallas. The way you demonstrate a country's vulnerability is to attack it everywhere."

Certainly our enemies learned this month, as Mr. Rudman puts it, "how easy this kind of terrorism is to carry out." Did we?