Commentary Magazine


Is a Terror “Spectacular” On the Way?

Is our domestic counterterrorism effort failing, and if so why?

We have not suffered an attack since September 11, which is obviously a critical indicator of success. Michael Chertoff, who heads the Department of Homeland Security, told George Stephanopoulos that he has no evidence of an impending attack on the territory of the United States. But news reports last week spoke of a secret warning by his department that al Qaeda is preparing a terror “spectacular” for this summer.

As always, the trouble is that Michael Chertoff, like the rest of us, doesn’t now what he doesn’t know. When it comes to terrorism, we cannot see around the corner. In this regard, there is a significant and little-discussed parallel between the latest plots uncovered in the United Kingdom and the planned attack on Fort Dix in New Jersey, uncovered back in May.

In both cases, the authorities were not on top of the problem. In New Jersey, the most striking thing about the planned attack was that it was averted not by successful police work but by an alert video-rental clerk. In the United Kingdom, the bombers actually got through.

In London, it was only technical incompetence in bomb-building that kept the plotters from successfully causing mass carnage. In Glasgow, bollards kept a Jeep Cherokee from penetrating the airport building. Hardening the target there proved to be a critical step in saving lives. Still, there was a complete absence of intelligence on the plot. Until they were caught in the act, the main suspects in the case were only dimly on the radar scopes of Scotland Yard.

Why? At this juncture, we are only confined to supposition; hard facts are not yet established. Could one possibility be that these presumably well-informed perpetrators maintained effective operational security, and avoided behavior, like engaging in telephone conversations and sending emails, that was likely to get them caught? And could this have anything to with the steady stream of news reports detailing many, if not all, of the counterterrorism techniques used by the authorities?

Last week, here in the U.S., a federal appeals court reversed a lower-court’s injunction (that had been stayed on appeal) shutting down the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance program. That program permits the interception, without warrants, of telephone and email communications where one party to the communication is located outside the United States and the NSA has a reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication is a member of al Qaeda or affiliated with al Qaeda.

The positive effects of last week’s reversal are limited, because the NSA program has already been modified and placed under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But the entire episode reminds us once again of the damage that was done by the program’s initial disclosure by the New York Times.

Aspiring terrorists, here and overseas, have been made well aware that they are facing highly sophisticated monitoring technology. They act accordingly. Is that one reason we are not learning about their identities and activities until their bombs are already in place?