Along the Tracks

Monday, May 20, 2002

What to investigate

I’ve already given my opinion on how the investigation into our pre-9/11 anti-terrorism efforts should be conducted. But I am at least as fearful that what has been left out is any investigation into how the government responded in the hours, days and weeks after 9/11. Let’s remind ourselves of a few things:

  • Enemy in our midst. We knew who the 19 hijackers were within four days of the attacks. We also quickly learned they had drivers licenses, Social Security numbers, green cards, credit cards and other forms of identification which supposedly require checks of authenticity before issuance. Precious little has been done to improve enforcement on this front. In fact, a spokesperson for the Social Security Administration said it would be “too difficult” to have a system of verification for Social Security numbers so that a terrorist couldn’t produce a fake card and then get a legitimate driver’s license or credit card. The SSA needs an attitude adjustment.

  • No profiling members of the “peaceful religion.” We all heard it: “Islam means peace.” Well, obviously there are some Muslims who beg to differ - they want to kill us. It is another of those cold, hard truths that when 19 suicide hijackers are all young Muslim men, and the “20th hijacker” sitting in jail is a young Muslim man, you need to focus your efforts on young Muslim men. That is not to say all young Muslim men are potential terrorists; however, it is to say that NOmiddle-aged black men, 12-year-old white girls or 75-year-old grandmas with sewing needles are potential terrorists, and we shouldn’t be wasting our time strip-searching them. Let’s look at this another way: If all 19 hijackers had been pasty-white, red-headed members of the Irish Republican Army, would it make any sense for us to be searching young Arab men in an effort to avoid “profiling?” The naysayers point to people like John Walker Lindh or Richard Reid and say, “See, profiling would have missed them.” Actually, a quick glance would be enough to make me stay vigilant towards those two. Nevertheless, just because a couple don’t “fit the profile,” doesn’t mean the profile isn’t valuable. Profiling is one of many tools which can be useful in catching - and stopping - criminals. And let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. No one is saying “lock ‘em all up.” I’m just saying, let’s put our investigative resources to best use. That means focusing security checks on people who match the profile. Hey, I have long, brownish hair and a goatee, so I may very well fit the profile. If I was getting searched regularly, I would feel a lot better about security.

  • Anthrax. Contrary to some speculative reports, we are not much closer in knowing who sent the anthrax letters last fall than we were back then. The attacks showed how easily terrorists could take advantage of the confusion and high state of tension that followed in the month or two after 9/11. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the next attack - which will come - is a two-phase operation, with the first hit focusing on one type of target and utilizing one attack method, and the second taking advantage of some totally different vulnerability. We can only speculate what those attacks will be, and both could be equally horrendous. However, the anti-terrorism thinkers need to be much more flexible in weaving together the threats received and the vulnerabilities we have. If we become “focused like a laser” on one method - like we did with suicide air hijackings last fall - our response to a followup could be lethargic and misdirected, as was the response to the anthrax letters. Remember, the first case wasn’t even considered terrorism for nearly a week. And by the time we realized we needed to watch our mail, people were getting sick - and a few had died. The Daschle letter, and the number of exposures it caused, finally awakened the anti-terror experts to the danger of the material and provided some legitimate clues. This was over two weeks after the first anthrax report. Mail in the capital was halted, but not in time for several postal workers - who were never thought to be in jeopardy. Looking back, our poor preparation seems obvious, and we’d at least like to think investigators would be on top of an attack quickly today. But would they?

    What if several people in Toledo started coming into hospitals feeling generally sick and tests didn’t immediately indicate a disease or chemical. How many more would need to come in before the “unknown” illness was reported to the Centers for Disease Control? Eventually, they would discover the people had radiation sickness, perhaps in 24 hours. But in that much time, how many more would be exposed? And how long would it take investigators to discover the cause was a burlap bag of radioactive waste placed in a water main near where the city had been working earlier that week?

    I use this example not only to show how difficult it would be to stop this particularly type of slow-motion terrorist attack, but also as a set up. For, you see, once the FBI, along with state and local police, had swarmed on the scene to investigate, once the story took up the first 15 and last 5 minutes of every newscast in the country, once President Bush arrived to visit the sick in the hospitals, once the Justice Department put out alerts on several suspects in the case, and once Tom Ridge announced new security measures for every municipal water system in the country, then ... a gunman runs into an elementary school in Brooklyn and kills 40 kids.

    You see, not only do we have serious problems in intelligence gathering, compiling and correlating, but we also have major deficiencies in our methods of response which urgently need to be addressed. We can’t defend against every type of attack, but a coherent effort across the board, including intelligence, strategic thought, law enforcement, simple coordination between government services and implementation of a larger plan when an attack occurs would make the job of the terrorists that much more difficult.

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