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September 16, 2009

WOT: Where Are We Now?

I recently re-read the 9/11 Commission Report. I had first read it shortly after it came out, but at the time was more interested in the factual elements of the attacks themselves. This time, I focused on the events leading up to and after the attacks. Several things jumped out at me. I started thinking about where we are as a nation, nearly 8 years after 9/11, regarding the War on Terror. Are we better prepared now than we were to prevent or handle the next inevitable attack on our country?

One thing is clear. Those who wish us harm have not lost any of their hatred for the United States. They are waiting, planning, and preparing for the next opportunity to strike. They possess patience and long memories. Our prime challenge is not to forget the danger we face. We have a history of letting time blur our hindsight and foresight, slipping back into complacency born of national and global success.

In the final portions of the 9/11 report, it addresses several failures we made that made us vulnerable to the attacks. The first was ‘Failure of Imagination’. This to me is a prime example of the complacency I mentioned above. The feeling of “it can’t happen to me”, or that we assume that any attacks on Americans are going to take place on foreign soil. The report mentions a great example of this: despite evidence that the Japanese were looking at Pearl Harbor as an option for attack, there were also reports that they would attack US interests somewhere in Southeast Asia. So with the prevailing belief that the enemy wasn’t capable or wouldn’t dare attack us on our own soil, we chose to believe they would attack us elsewhere.

We couldn’t imagine that an entire anchored Naval fleet would be attacked on home soil, nor did we imagine that a commercial jetliner would be used as a weapon itself. Prior to 9/11, we believed nearly exclusively that terrorism conformed to certain rules—hijackings were done to achieve a goal (i.e.: a release of prisoners, ransom, etc.), or that the prime risk to airliners was someone planting a bomb on board. Information about new or improvisational tactics weren’t deemed credible. I see this as a failure to properly assess the enemy. We underestimated the commitment terrorists have to hurt us, as well as their capability to adapt and improvise. Three quotes from The Art of War come to mind, the first I think should be foremost in our minds as a nation: “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” The following quotes are chilling if looked at from the view of terrorists: “Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”, and finally “If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”. It appears to me that al Qaeda knows their Sun Tzu.

Another factor that became clear to me in the Report was the massive communications black hole that existed in the intelligence gathering and reporting agencies. I get that, at any given moment, there are millions of pieces of data flying around about possible terrorist threats to the US, and by and large most of them don’t amount to much. Data about threats can come in at so many different points through any agency: the CIA, the FBI, INS, ATF, what have you. A source could walk into an embassy in the Phillipines with what could be vital information, but it doesn’t necessarily get disseminated to everyone. Why can’t there be some kind of central database for intelligence blurbs, with relevant facts relating to the tip formed in keywords that could be entered by an agency as report of the contact? I know it’s simplistic, but if I can plug in a string of seemingly random words into Google and come up with results, an FBI agent in say, Denver should be able to search for a string like “attack, US, plan, building” and receive hits regarding information received from agencies stationed overseas. Some kind of centralized database could make tracking and anticipating future attacks easier because you never know who is going to be the guy to put two and two together and see an alarming picture.

Terrorists utilize fear to change their target’s behavior, seeking to employ panic reactions to force their ideological goals. The only way to take the teeth out of fear is to name it and understand it, turning it into a positive impetus where it can be managed and made to work for us. Manageable fear keeps people alert, keeps people alive, and keeps people thinking on their feet. When we get to that point, we can start to identify what is acceptable risk and are able to live without looking over our shoulders and changing how we do business. There has to be a way of naming our enemy without underestimating his potential, and at the same time getting the message out that he will not change us nor do we consider him an equal.

One thing I consider with pride as the most classic American traits is innovation. Throughout the last 233 years, if we don’t like the way something stands we go right on ahead and change it. America has never been afraid to stand up and say we want something different, better. We are a nation that has again and again pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. Because of this, I can’t think we’re not imaginative enough to outthink those bent on terrorism. We need to turn to and make Red Team thinking the standard—the most creative scenarios our own minds could come up with are going to be better by far than any they can come up with, I believe it to my bones. That is of course assuming we know our enemies as well as we know ourselves.

I’ll end with the famous quote from John Paul Jones aboard the Bonhomme Richard as he fought with the HMS Serapis at the furious battle of Flamborough Head, his ship on fire and crippled, in response to the British Captain asking if they would strike their colors: “I have not yet begun to fight!”