Monday, February 5, 2007

The Political Lower Rung

The failures of our intelligence agencies that came to light in the months following the attacks of 9/11 precipitated the largest re-organization of the federal government in fifty years with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Additionally, new laws were introduced to assist local, state and federal authorities and others to investigate and prosecute terrorists.  This rush of activity was a natural consequence of the dangers we faced and of our wholly disorganized approach to fighting the threat of terrorism, as exposed by the 9/11 Commission Report.

In analyzing those failures, one of the most instructive passages in the report appears on page 105, discussing what it terms the “non adaptation” of various legal and political institutions to fully understand the threat from radical Islamists. Turning attention to the role of Congress pre-9/11, the report states the following: “In the years before September 11, terrorism seldom registered as important.  To the extent that terrorism…did engage the attention of the Congress as a whole, it would briefly command attention after a specific incident, and then return to a lower rung on the public policy agenda.” 

In restating this passage my intention is not to single out Congress, but to highlight the “here today gone tomorrow” approach to dealing with this vital issue and to ask, what rung does the continued threat of terrorism occupy today?

For sure, there are many more law enforcement professionals dedicated to fighting terrorism, with a new sense of urgency and new powers to detect, track and identify ongoing threats to public safety.  And the FBI, CIA and U.S. Attorneys have done a spectacular job in stopping other 9/11 style attacks planned to kill Americans, both here and abroad. 

But what is the current state of terrorism related to our “public policy agenda?”  Measured by the current political discourse, which can only be described—politely—as bitterly partisan, the status of our public policy agenda appears to be slipping back to that lower rung.

Whatever one feels about the situation in Iraq, one thing is certain; failure there would mean a safe haven for terrorists to plot against America, uniting, in spirit, the Shia majorities in Iraq and Iran. No good would come of that.  President Bush’s plan to send more troops, while at the same time holding Iraq to a standard of progress, has been met with a storm of criticism, but no alternatives or constructive dialogue from those who oppose his plan.

Such dialogue by the critics of the new plan is mostly scathing denunciation of the President with nothing offered on what to do to avoid that failure or any sense of an understanding about the consequences that failure would have in the larger fight against terrorism. 

Take the new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Sylvester Reyes.  Until recently, he favored sending more troops to Iraq to stabilize the country and dismantle the militias until President Bush proposed the very same plan.  Now, hewing to a strictly partisan position, he says that we don’t have the manpower to send more troops.  In other words, he was for more troops before he was against it.

Similar partisan politics accompanied the renewal of the Patriot Act and other security initiatives aimed at rooting out terrorists.  These initiatives were enacted to correct the great failure of our intelligence agencies pre-9/11, the failure to “connect the dots.” 

But sadly, many of our leaders are unwilling to have a serious discussion of the issues and instead dismiss the President’s proposals outright, either because they have a frenzied reaction to anything the President does or because it advances a political agenda meant to exploit a weakened presidency.  But there is no Republican or Democratic way to achieve victory in our war against terrorism.  There must be a consensus.

As the new Democratic Congress convened, they have taken a position that the war against terrorism warrants the full implementation of the 9/11 Commission recommendations.  But it would be a mistake to simply enact those recommendations and then leave it at that.  That would amount to nothing more than a gesture, a tip of the hat from the new Congress that they are serious about engaging the terrorists.  More than a gesture will be needed; otherwise we can be certain that our fight to live in a terror-free world will return to the lower rung of public policy. That would have dire consequences for Americans everywhere.

“If the United States does not act aggressively to define itself in the Islamic world, the extremists will gladly do the job for us.” Those are not my words; they come from the 9/11 Commission Report.  The extremists are trying to do that job right now.  If they win, our fight against terrorism will be prolonged for many years to come.