Why Haven't We Been Attacked?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 7, 2008; 12:46 PM

As his divisive presidency winds down, President Bush is increasingly calling attention to something he hopes everyone will give him credit for: There hasn't been another terrorist attack on our shores since 9/11.

In his speech yesterday commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security, Bush made this point twice.

"When this department was established following the September the 11th terrorist attacks, it was hard to imagine that we would reach this milestone without another attack on our homeland," he said. Hearing no applause, he said it again: "For those of you who were here five years ago, you think back to that time -- I don't think we would have predicted that five years later there had not been another attack on us."

Such a statement requires an asterisk -- after all, in a still-unsolved attack shortly after 9/11, a half-dozen letters containing anthrax bacteria were mailed to media and government offices, taking five lives.

Nevertheless, Bush has a point. Especially given the widespread fear after 9/11 -- fear that Bush continued to stoke for political gain -- it's reasonable for Americans to feel fortunate that we haven't been hit again.

The relevant question, however, is why? Was it something Bush did? And if so, what? Should Bush's most controversial policies -- including the harsh interrogation of terrorist suspects, the warrantless spying on domestic communication, and the decision to merge 22 different government agencies into an often dysfunctional behemoth -- get any credit?

Yesterday, encouraging homeland security employees to "take enormous pride in the accomplishments of this department," Bush declared that the government has prevented "numerous" attacks. But he only cited two -- neither of which support his argument one bit.

"We've disrupted numerous planned attacks -- including a plot to fly an airplane into the tallest building on the West Coast, and another to blow up passenger jets headed for America across the Atlantic Ocean," he said.

The first of those, generally referred to as the Library Tower plot, should sound familiar. Bush has cited it in defense of his warantless surveillance program (see, for instance, this Feb, 9, 2006 speech) and the CIA's use of interrogation techniques most would consider torture (see, for instance, this Oct. 23, 2007 speech.)

But after the 2006 speech, it quickly became clear that he had overstated the gravity of that alleged plot. As Peter Baker and Dan Eggen of The Washington Post wrote, "several U.S. intelligence officials played down the relative importance of the alleged plot and attributed the timing of Bush's speech to politics. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize the White House, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the Library Tower scheme and whether it was ever much more than talk.

"One intelligence official . . . attributed the move to the administration's desire to justify its efforts in the face of criticism of the domestic surveillance program, which has no connection to the incident."

As for the trans-Altantic airplane plot, Bush was referring to the break-up in November 2006 of an alleged plot in Britain to blow up as many as 10 U.S.-bound passenger jets with liquid explosives. But doubts have been raised about whether the plotters were anywhere close to execution. Some apparently didn't have airline reservations, two didn't even have passports, and it's not clear that they were technically capable of assembling the devices in question.

Perhaps even more to the point, however, as Paisley Dodds reported last month for the Associated Press: "Joseph Billy, the FBI's assistant director of counterterrorism . . . said that U.S. officials would have been caught unaware without British investigators who discovered the plan."

An Alternative View

So why have we been free from a terror attack?

John Mueller, an Ohio State University political scientist and noted contrarian, argued in a 2006 Foreign Affairs article that "One reasonable explanation is that almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad. . . .

"Americans are told -- often by the same people who had once predicted imminent attacks -- that the absence of international terrorist strikes in the United States is owed to the protective measures so hastily and expensively put in place after 9/11. But there is a problem with this argument. True, there have been no terrorist incidents in the United States in the last five years. But nor were there any in the five years before the 9/11 attacks, at a time when the United States was doing much less to protect itself. It would take only one or two guys with a gun or an explosive to terrorize vast numbers of people, as the sniper attacks around Washington, D.C., demonstrated in 2002. Accordingly, the government's protective measures would have to be nearly perfect to thwart all such plans. Given the monumental imperfection of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, and the debacle of FBI and National Security Agency programs to upgrade their computers to better coordinate intelligence information, that explanation seems far-fetched. . . .

"A fully credible explanation for the fact that the United States has suffered no terrorist attacks since 9/11 is that the threat posed by homegrown or imported terrorists -- like that presented by Japanese Americans during World War II or by American Communists after it -- has been massively exaggerated."

Mueller offers several anecdotes to support his view, including this one: "In addition to massive eavesdropping and detention programs, every year some 30,000 'national security letters' are issued without judicial review, forcing businesses and other institutions to disclose confidential information about their customers without telling anyone they have done so. That process has generated thousands of leads that, when pursued, have led nowhere. Some 80,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants have been subjected to fingerprinting and registration, another 8,000 have been called in for interviews with the FBI, and over 5,000 foreign nationals have been imprisoned in initiatives designed to prevent terrorism. This activity, notes the Georgetown University law professor David Cole, has not resulted in a single conviction for a terrorist crime. In fact, only a small number of people picked up on terrorism charges -- always to great official fanfare -- have been convicted at all, and almost all of these convictions have been for other infractions, particularly immigration violations. Some of those convicted have clearly been mental cases or simply flaunting jihadist bravado -- rattling on about taking down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch, blowing up the Sears Tower if only they could get to Chicago, beheading the prime minister of Canada, or flooding lower Manhattan by somehow doing something terrible to one of those tunnels."

He concludes: "The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists."

Is Mueller right? Is Bush? As I've written over at NiemanWatchdog.org, there is plenty of reason for skepticism in the face of assertions Bush makes about the success of his counter-terrorism programs.

It obviously makes sense to take precautions against future terrorist attacks. And reasonable precautions include surveillance of legitimate suspects, elaborate detection devices and an increased focus on non-proliferation. But if anyone, including the president, tries to make the case that warrantless surveillance, torture and massive spending on a bloated bureaucracy have prevented terrorism plots, they should be asked to prove it.

FISA Watch

In his speech, Bush also continued his nearly-daily drumbeat for retroactive immunity for the telephone and Internet companies that let the government spy on their customers without a warrant. (See Monday's column about why this matters.)

Paul Kiel writes for TPM Muckraker: "Despite recent signs that House Democrats will likely ultimately vote on a bill that contains retroactive immunity for the telecoms, negotiations on a final version of the surveillance bill remain ongoing. Dems, after saying that a vote might come as early as this week, now seem unclear when it might happen."

David Rogers and Daniel W. Reilly write for Politico: "House Democrats are preparing to send back to the Senate a modified FISA bill that reflects their best hope of a compromise on President Bush's terrorist surveillance program.

"After weeks of negotiations and no final settlement, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled Thursday night that she is ready to fall back on the strategy of 'ping-ponging' alternatives back and forth between the two chambers. This risks more stalemate but also could provide a path for a final resolution of the issue before lawmakers go home for their spring recess next Friday."

Iraq Watch

Walter Pincus and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "A new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq is scheduled to be completed this month, according to U.S. intelligence officials. But leaders of the intelligence community have not decided whether to make its key judgments public, a step that caused an uproar when key judgments in an NIE about Iran were released in November.

"The classified estimate on Iraq is intended as an update of last summer's assessment, which predicted modest security improvements but an increasingly precarious political situation there, the U.S. officials said.

"It is meant to be delivered to Congress before testimony in early April by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, according to a letter sent last week by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell to Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).

"Since the Iraq invasion in 2003, the intelligence community has been more cautious than the military and the White House in assessing political, economic and security gains in Iraq. And the war's progress has been a prominent issue in the presidential campaign."

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker plans to leave Baghdad as early as January, leaving the most critical U.S. diplomatic post not long after the top military commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, is expected to rotate out of Iraq."

U.S. Attorney Watch

Marisa Taylor writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "A longtime protege of President Bush told former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias that he was fired for political reasons and that he shouldn't fight his ouster, Iglesias says in a new book.

"'This is political,' Iglesias recalls Texas U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton telling him shortly after he was ousted. 'If I were you, I'd just go quietly.'

"Iglesias, a former U.S. attorney in New Mexico, is one of eight federal prosecutors whose firings triggered a yearlong controversy at the Justice Department and led to the resignations of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and 11 other Justice Department officials. . . .

"No one has determined who decided which prosecutors should be fired and why. Democrats say that must mean the White House was calling the shots, while the administration has said it demonstrates that the firings were blown out of proportion."

E-Mail Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "A private group told a federal court that the Bush administration made apparently false and misleading statements in court about the White House e-mail controversy.

"The group asked the judge on Thursday to demand an explanation regarding alleged inconsistencies between testimony at a congressional hearing last week and what the White House told a federal court in January. . . .

"In a sworn declaration, White House official Theresa Payton told the court on Jan. 16 that 'substantially all' e-mails from 2003 to 2005 should be contained on back-up computer tapes.

"However, at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Feb. 26, the panel's Democrats released a White House document that called that claim into question.

"E-mail was missing from a White House archive for the period of Sept. 30-Oct. 6, 2003 from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, the White House document states. The backup tape covering that seven-day period was not created until Oct. 21, 2003, raising the possibility that e-mail was missing from the earlier period. That time span was in the earliest days of the Justice Department's probe into whether anyone at the White House leaked the CIA identity of Valerie Plame. Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, was eventually convicted by a jury of four felonies in the leak probe."

Here's the legal memo from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Here is a transcript of the Feb. 26 oversight hearing, and my Feb. 27 column on the matter.

Poll Watch

Alan Fram writes for the Associated Press about the latest AP/Ipsos poll: "The number of independents and moderates satisfied with President Bush and the country's direction has dipped to record or near-record lows. . . . "Thirty percent overall said they approve of the job Bush is doing, tying his worst showing last month."That included positive marks from 22 percent of independents and 24 percent of moderates."

Press Corps Watch

Rachel Sklar writes on Huffingtonpost.com: "White House Press Secretary Dana Perino was on 'Fox & Friends' this morning and host Brian Kilmeade asked her when the last time was that she'd been asked about Iraq in the White House press briefing. Perino said, 'I don't remember having sustained questions about Iraq' (though she said that 'maybe there'd be a one-off') and said she hadn't had to respond to questioning on the Iraq war 'since probably early December.' Wow. Go get 'em, D.C. Press Corps!"

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the Bush-McCain hug; Jim Morin on John W. McBush; Ann Telnaes on Cheney's addiction to oil.

Late Night Humor

From last night's Daily Show with Jon Stewart: "Yesterday John McCain visited President George W. Bush to be passed the torch -- a torch that the president most likely broke and Krazy Glued back together, hoping no one would notice."

Jimmy Kimmel, via the New York Daily News: "McCain asked President Bush to endorse him. I'm starting to think that maybe the guy likes torture."

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