Author asks: ‘Are we safer now?’
In the years since 9/11, have Americans become safer from terrorist attacks?
That’s “a good, important question,” as Villanova University political scientist David Barrett put it on April 2, when he spoke to about 150 people in Chico State University’s Bell Memorial Union. “Be skeptical of anyone who claims to know the answer,” he quickly added.
Barrett is a soft-spoken man given to dispassionate analysis and understatement, and his dissection of the issue of terrorism was objective and inclusive and highly credible for it.
Skepticism is warranted, he stated, because it’s impossible to know all there is to know about the U.S. government’s response, including its effectiveness. It’s also difficult to know what’s happening elsewhere, particularly in those countries that are breeding grounds of terrorists. And it’s also impossible to know how things have changed inside al Qaeda.
“We live in what political scientists call an ‘anarchic world,’ “ Barrett explained. “No one is in charge, and in such an environment, information is always imperfect.”
Barrett, who received his Ph.D. from Notre Dame in 1990, has authored two books, Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam Advisers (1993) and The CIA and Congress: The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy (2005) and edited a third, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam Papers. He has written widely in journals about America’s intelligence agencies. His lecture was sponsored by Pi Sigma Alpha and the Political Science Department.
The United States, he noted, spends $44 billion annually on intelligence activities whose “great purpose is to reduce uncertainty. But believe me, the knowledge the U.S. has about conditions around the world is imperfect. Therefore misperceptions are inevitable.” A good example, he said, was the recent overestimation of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
The best the nation’s 16 different intelligence agencies can do is provide “estimates” of situations around the world. These are compiled and edited into a “national intelligence estimate,” which Barrett said was the “most authoritative” estimate of the lot, though necessarily imperfect.
Last July, he said, the intelligence agencies produced an NIE that assessed and judged the threat to the United States. It found that, while American anti-terrorism efforts have “constrained al-Qaeda and made it harder to strike the U.S., and thwarted known plots,” the group is and will remain the most serious threat to our safety.
“I take the estimate seriously,” Barrett said, while acknowledging that many Americans may disagree, especially in the way of the failure to find WMD in Iraq. President Bush doesn’t help matters when he tries to convince Americans that the group al-Qaeda in Iraq is part and parcel of international al-Qaeda, rather than an autonomous, and relatively small, terrorist organization, and that Iraq is a central front in the struggle to defend against terrorism.
“My view,” Barrett said, “is that the war in Iraq has reduced our safety.”
What about our airports, ports and borders? The new Department of Homeland Security has spent billions of dollars to protect them, Barrett said, but there are “recurring stories of breakdowns at airports.” Undercover agents have been able to smuggle in bomb-making materials, air cargo is poorly screened, and restricted areas of airports aren’t secure. Ports are no better. “It does give one pause,” Barrett said, with typical understatement.
He cited Stephen Flynn, author of the books America the Vulnerable and The Edge of Disaster, as one of the most knowledgeable writers on the subject. Al-Qaeda, Flynn has written, is patient and will wait for the right opportunity. And the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made terrorists more determined to strike the United States.
A recent poll taken in four predominantly Muslim countries (Pakistan, Morocco, Indonesia and Egypt) shows that 80 percent believe the United States “seeks to divide and weaken the Islamic world,” more than 60 percent believe this country’s goal is to spread Christianity, and more than half approve of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
Interestingly, though only 30 percent have a favorable view of Osama bin Laden, “no more than 35 percent agreed that al-Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks.”
Overall, Barrett said, “I think the world has become more dangerous for the United Sates. There are more people who would attack us if they could. At the same time, I suspect the U.S. government has made it harder to attack us. … The government is doing some things right, but the world is a dangerous place.”