One of the ironic but persistent dangers of our 24-hour cable news culture is that we often miss important information. We become fixated on the story of the moment whether ornot it is most significant.
Now that the smoke has cleared from Gen. David Petraeus’ bunker-buster testimony on the progress to date of the U.S. military surge, it is evident that we missed something that frantic week in September.
On Sept. 10, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Mike McConnell testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on “Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland: Six Years after 9/11.” While General Petraeus captured all the headlines, McConnell’s testimony should have prompted serious national reflection.
Drawing on sources such as this summer’s National Intelligence Estimate, the most authoritative appraisal of the U.S. intelligence community, McConnell took stock of the current terrorist threat.
The foremost menace continues to come, unsurprisingly, from Islamic terrorists — chiefly al Qaeda, whose “central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots,” McConnell said. However, the intelligence community believes al Qaeda has been somewhat hampered, now viewing the U.S. as a more difficult target. Still, McConnell said, “Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al Qaeda senior leadership since 9/11, we judge that al Qaeda will intensify its efforts to put operatives here.”
Al Qaeda is also intensifying its efforts to attack us “through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups.” And this job of connecting to other groups has only become easier in the information age. Even small bands of terrorists can easily connect with like-minded radicals in remote places with no need for large terrorist camps amenable to aerial surveillance and U.S. bombs.
But while al Qaeda remains the major threat, McConnell stressed that Lebanese Hezbollah (which has attacked Americans in the past) may be an increasing threat in the next few years, especially if we engage with Iran.
And just when we need even more international assistance with Iran and these terrorist groups, the DNI fears that “international cooperation may wane as 9/11 becomes a more distant memory.”
Finally, the DNI said, “al Qaeda will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.”
With the Bush administration’s intense focus on Petraeus that week, McConnell’s warnings can hardly be dismissed as election-motivated scare-mongering. Judging from McConnell’s testimony, the intelligence community has spent much of its precious time the last six years simply restructuring itself. It has implemented reforms in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 and executed recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, the WMD Commission and others.
So much time has been spent setting up the Department of Homeland Security, integrating agencies, lowering barriers for new recruits and, well, testifying before Congress, that one hopes there is time left at the end of the day for intelligence collection and analysis.
But there have been major accomplishments. Terrorist plots have been foiled; terrorist leaders captured or killed. And certainly reforms like the creation of the Terrorist Screening Center — which consolidates terrorist watch lists and gives support to U.S. law enforcement officials — and the intensive recruitment of first- and second-generation Americans constitute vital steps forward.
Civil libertarians and intellectuals often refer to a tension between security and civil rights. But a discussion of such a tension must begin with a candid assessment of the security threat Americans face.
One suspects that Petraeus stole our attention because his testimony affects the balance of power in the race for the White House. Unfortunately, for the same reason, Sept. 11, 2008, is even less likely to be what it should have been this year: a time of sober reflection on the current terrorist threat to America.
Logan Paul Gage is a policy analyst with the Discovery Institute.