This commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times on July 10, 2002.
Certainly, the tighter security imposed throughout the United States after
Sept. 11 is necessary, but no amount of security can protect us against unbridled
fear. We must remember that responding courageously and intellectually to terrorism
is far more effective than responding fearfully and emotionally.
We need to maintain a realistic sense of the threat that terrorists pose. Yes,
the odds that terrorists will strike someone, sometime, somewhere in the U.S.
are high. But the chances that any particular individual will be hurt or killed
in a terrorist attack are incredibly small--much lower than the chances of being
hurt or killed in a car accident. What can we do to reduce the terrorism threat?
An important objective is better intelligence about terrorists so we can prevent
Recent news reports said Congress probably will put off reorganizing the FBI
and CIA to achieve this objective until after it establishes the proposed Department
of Homeland Security. Agencies that served the nation well in the 20th century
need to adapt to the new reality of combating terrorism in the 21st.
Unfortunately, the American public must accept the reality that no amount of
adapting and improving can stop every terrorist attack--although improvements
can certainly stop many attacks, especially many of the largest and deadliest
Stopping terrorism is enormously difficult because the job of separating real
threats from false alarms is a great challenge.
The U.S. receives thousands of intelligence reports from various sources every
day, including numerous threats--few of which materialize. This is because when
not engaged in terrorist operations, terrorists talk almost endlessly about
possible attacks. Most of the contemplated attacks will never occur outside
the terrorists' own imagination. Add to this the intentional disinformation
spread by terrorists to create alarm and divert resources.
Inquiries into previous terrorist successes have pointed to the lack of tactical
warning and the requirement for more intelligence from human sources. The U.S.
capacity for technical intelligence is unsurpassed, but, despite repeated admonitions
over the last 18 years to get more human intelligence, we have found it difficult
to do so--and not because of a recalcitrant intelligence community.
Constraints imposed on domestic intelligence collection have moved us away
from preventive intelligence in favor of prosecution. The National Commission
on Terrorism and others have charged that restrictions on recruiting informants
have greatly weakened our human intelligence capacity, although the CIA says
the restrictions didn't have a major effect. And no matter how good our human
intelligence, terrorist groups are hard to penetrate. These are small circles
of fanatics, not often motivated by mere greed.
There have not been enough trained professionals and funding for our intelligence
and law enforcement agencies to do all we demand of them. For example, as the
FBI's responsibilities greatly increased in the last two decades of the 20th
century and its agents were stretched thin, fighting terrorism slipped down
the agenda of priorities.
On top of these difficulties, some argue that the intelligence community's
leadership has become increasingly risk-averse. Others argue that the political
leadership itself has not welcomed intelligence that would create awkward foreign
Congress and the Bush administration will need to look at these and other issues
as they work to respond to terrorism, not with fear but with effective and intelligent
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