Terrorists will strike America again
Americans should understand that preventing every attack is simply
an unattainable goal.
By Gregory F. Treverton
January 19, 2010
Obama administration's mea culpa over the failure to prevent the
attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day
is understandable but misses the point. Yes, the United States can do
better at catching would-be attackers; that will always be the case.
But the truth is that there is no absolute security -- short of
conceding victory to the terrorists by making it impossible for
foreigners to visit the U.S., hellish for Americans to fly and
difficult for all to live normal lives.
America's tolerance for
terrorism cannot be zero. Although we obviously aim to do as much as
possible, preventing every attack is an unattainable goal. The country
needs to steel itself for the near-certainty that there will at some
point be another major strike on U.S. territory.
Even if the
U.S. curtailed civil liberties to a degree most citizens would find
intolerable, sooner or later some suicidal terrorist would find a way
to manage a successful attack. The greatest threat may come from lone
wolves with scanty records, as is apparently the case with the accused
Ft. Hood shooter, or from someone who acts alone even if trained and
equipped by one of Al Qaeda's offshoots, as the would-be Detroit bomber
The Christmas Day episode highlights three critical points.
is how much progress U.S. intelligence has made. The 9/11 attacks were
blamed on a failure to "connect the dots." But foiling that plot would
have required not just creative leaps of foresight by intelligence
analysts, but also the political will to take draconian actions to
prevent a large-scale attack organized from abroad on U.S. soil
(something that hadn't happened since Pearl Harbor and was therefore
By contrast, Umar Farouk
Abdulmutallab and his alleged Yemeni helpers were on the U.S. radar
screen. Simply singling him out for a body search might have done the
job. The intelligence community certainly failed to connect the dots,
but at least this time it had the dots.
Christmas Day plot demonstrates that much of what passes for security
is a waste of time and money. It often seems designed more to bother
people than to prevent terrorism. The mass screening of departing
passengers in Amsterdam was, almost by definition, too little to catch
the "underwear bomber" and probably too much for his innocent fellow
Finding the right balance is terribly
difficult, but what's needed is less mass screening of all those
proverbial grandmothers. Racial and ethnic profiling is not only
provocative, it is also ineffective, because it produces far too many
"false positives" -- people subjected to secondary screening without
cause. Rather, what we need is more screening and profiling based on
intelligence to provide grounds for suspicion (which should have
included the would-be Detroit bomber) or on suspicious behavior (like
having no luggage or paying cash for the ticket).
public furor over the foiled plot shows that more perspective on
terrorism is essential. Terrorism frightens Americans because it seems
so random. But it does not kill many. In the five years after 2001, the
number of Americans killed per year in terrorist attacks worldwide was
never more than 100, and the toll some years was barely in double
figures. Compare that with an average of 63 by tornadoes, 692 in
bicycle accidents and 41,616 in motor-vehicle-related accidents.
another attack "intolerable" is wishful thinking, not making policy.
Some honest talk would be useful, so that when the next major attack
comes -- as it surely will -- we can respond rationally and not just
Soon after 9/11, I was seated at dinner next to
former Defense Secretary Harold Brown. I asked him how much of a threat
to the U.S. the attacks represented. His answer surprised me at the
time, but he was right: On a scale of 1 to 10, the Cuban missile crisis
of 1962 was an 8, he said; 9/11 was a 3. Those who lost their lives and
their loved ones suffered mightily, and, as with any disaster, the
psychological effect was magnified by the number of people who were
killed at the same time. But for the nation, it was a blow, not a
When it comes to weathering terror
attacks, the reaction of Israelis is instructive. After every bombing,
they clean up as fast as possible. Thus, life can go on and the
terrorists won't be given a victory. By contrast, Americans let fear of
terrorism stop life. So the terrorists win.
and intelligence apparatus can always do better. But it will never be
able to stop every terrorist plot -- a grim reality Americans need to
Gregory F. Treverton, a former vice chairman of the
National Intelligence Council, directs the Rand Corp.'s Center for
Global Risk and Security and is the author of "Intelligence for an Age
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