Daniel Benjamin Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

National Security in an Age of Sacred Terror: Conversation with Daniel Benjamin, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., February 6, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Homeland Security

In the book you talk about errors of commission that the Bush administration committed in the war in Iraq, but you also list the sins of omission, so to speak -- the extent to which they have not addressed the issues of homeland security, because one of the lessons of 9/11 was that we could be attacked at home. What sorts of things have they not done that they should've done and we should be doing?

I can't do a better job on this than the 9/11 Commission itself. Its public discourse project recently issued a report card, and most of the grades were failing.

The fact is that in the first two years of its existence, the Department of Homeland Security had a remarkable aimlessness and a failure to set key priorities. The priority of the moment is to set priorities: what do we need to do, what do we need to defend, what systems do we need to harden? With the exception of transportation security, and to a certain extent bio-defense, the progress in all the other areas has been so minimal as not to be worth mentioning.

Even with transportation security, for example, the Inspector General of Transportation and Safety Administration, or maybe it was DHS itself, has found you can still easily get a knife onboard a plane. We are in the paradoxical situation where it's a lot harder to get on a plane, but it's just as easy to put an explosive in the luggage. Our ability to surveil and know what is in shipping containers remains very, very minimal. We continue to have a whole raft of at least 123 chemical plants which if attacked could put at risk populations of a million or more. You can go on and on.

I am entirely sympathetic to the notion that this is an enormously difficult, profoundly difficult task. I agree with that, but I think we lost a lot of time. Our critical infrastructure -- for example, the computer-driven systems that make our economy work -- is mostly owned by the private sector, and we still don't have the public/private partnerships necessary to protect it. At a more mundane or familiar part of the problem, we still don't know whether there are terrorists in the country or not. The FBI says no, but after 9/11 there's not all that much confidence in the FBI's verdict. So, there's an awful lot that needs to be done, and we don't have time to lose, and yet we've lost important time.

But what is the explanation for this failure? Is it incompetence, is it ideological blinders, or is it a paradigmatic failure, a failure to adjust to the need for a new paradigm about how to secure our national security?

It's a very good question, and I'm not sure we're going to know until we get to rummage through the documents of the Bush administration. There has certainly been a failure of leadership, because when you're taking on something as sprawling as homeland defense, you need a lot of White House leadership. You need someone to say this is the president's priority, go do it, and that has not happened. The administration has been largely wrapped up with Iraq.

It's a pretty good surmise that part of the reason that there hasn't been more energy going into homeland security is the administration's belief that you fight them over there, and that a certain amount of disingenuousness and political angling was involved in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. My own feeling is if you were really serious about creating an effective Department of Homeland Security, you wouldn't have made it as big, and you would've left out a lot more, because we know from corporate mergers that behemoths like this are very, very hard to get up and running. So, there are a lot of different things going on. In general, the administration has not been big on implementation in many of its different areas of activity, and the DHS story, I believe, is a particularly apposite one.

You also make the point that another area in which there has been a failure to perform is in the area of foreign policy and addressing what you call the narrative of the terrorists. I know that you and your co-author had a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times. Talk a little about that, because these video and audio messages that we get from the leaders of al Qaeda are very nuanced and sophisticated in their attempt to reach the audiences that they're addressing, and we have failed in responding to those.

When a surprise attack is a bit surprising, your instinct is then to sit down and think about your enemy. But when you're really knocked for a loss, it seems like all you can think about is yourself: "What's wrong with me that I didn't get this?" In some sense, I feel like we're still in the period of still thinking about ourselves, and we haven't yet broken out into the period where we're thinking about our enemy.

Whenever a bin Laden tape or a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri comes across, we take it as though they're talking to us. And to be sure, they enjoy yanking our chain, but first and foremost this is a movement that is seeking to establish itself as the leader in the Muslim world, and the first audience is the Muslim audience. When bin Laden offers us a truce people immediately start thinking, "Is he really offering us a truce? What would this mean for us, what would we do? How would it work for us?" Well, the truce that he offered was no different from what he's been offering all along, which is, "You get out of our lands, you stop directing these autocrats, you stop pulling the strings of the autocrats who plague the Muslim world, and then we'll think about some kind of co-existence." That's not a truce in the sense that both sides hold their interests in abeyance for a little bit. That's capitulation.

If you look at the broader message that bin Laden issued, he's actually role acting. He is saying, "I am such a magnanimous leader of the ummah, of the global Muslim community, that I could actually stop the fighting in Iraq, and I could stop the fighting in Afghanistan, if you were to behave appropriately." So, if anything, he's again putting on this mantle of leader and statesman, and in a sense, asserting this claim to the Muslim world.

But it really has much less to do with us, and it's not a serious offer. This is an organization that lives, breathes, and flourishes only insofar as it can kill Americans. I don't see them offering us a real truce, but it's the repeated inability to grasp what it is this group is about and its aspirations within the Muslim world that is so dispiriting.

Let me ask you one other question, because we want to look to the future and ask ourselves how can we build a political coalition at home to support the changes that are necessary in light of the insights that you and Mr. Simon come up with. In your concluding chapter, you talk about the coalition between the evangelical Christians and the religious right in Israel in supporting not the existence of the state of Israel but particular policies that may not work if we're concerned about the narrative that we want to give to the Muslim world. I guess the question is, what, down the road, do you see as a political base at home, in the United States, for building on the national security insights that you have in your book? Is that coalition going to be something that a political leader in this country can achieve?

Big question. I think that as we get closer to the coming election, and I hope -- this may be a hope and not an accurate case of prognostication -- that there will be people who can articulate a sense that we dug ourselves a big hole, that we need to undertake certain kinds of activities vis-à-vis the Muslim world; that the use of the military is not the best tool for carrying on the war on terror; that the war on terror, or the struggle against terror, whichever phrase you prefer, is, in fact, a high national priority; and that this is really a dangerous threat that we face.

I think that there is also room for building better bridges across the Atlantic and the Pacific to a whole host of potential allies who will share this view.  book coverThe problem is that right now, there is so much polarization going on in the American populace that there is a growing Islamophobia, there's a growing sense that enemies are to be killed and no distinction between the enemies who need to be killed, the extremists, and the vast middle, the vast world of moderate Muslims whom we absolutely need on our side in this struggle.

We have to hope that we will be fortunate in our leaders and find people who can articulate that as a political platform, because just having a few people who are writing it, and others who are reading it, isn't going to do it, and we do need to stop digging this hole we're in.

On that note, Dan, I want to thank you very much for joining us today for our program. I want to recommend very highly your new book, The Next Attack. Thanks again for joining us today.

It was my pleasure.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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