Face Terror with Better Spying, Not Moats of Fear


Jul 10, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on July 10, 2002.

A key goal of terrorists is to undermine confidence in our security, our economy and ourselves. The most powerful weapon in the terrorist arsenal is fear.

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 their attacks.

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 ones.

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 policy problems.

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 countermeasures.

Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit policy research and analysis institution that has been studying terrorism for more than 30 years

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