The Evolving Threat: Tipping the Scales

Tom Warwick

This entry is part four of an ongoing series on the evolution of America’s response to terrorism.  Read Part three here.

 Less than a year after the attack on the USS Cole four domestic flights were hijacked by Al-Qaeda operatives, and the United States’ policy concerning global non-state terror was questioned and eventually crafted into its present form.  The last remnants of the law enforcement centered response were seen in the address given by President George W. Bush on the night of the attacks. President Bush began his remarks by explaining that the United States had been attacked, he then described what the Federal Government was currently doing.  Throughout the speech, President Bush made repeated references to bringing those responsible to justice with specific reference to law enforcement. “The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts.  I have directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice.” The speech itself was very short (President Bush would give a longer one to a joint session of Congress later) but it was interesting that the President made reference to law enforcement resources, but not to the military.

In the days after the September 11th attacks, Congress begin to formally review the nation’s policies regarding terrorism and, with the benefit of hindsight, tried to identify the weaknesses of the past.  Among the first of these new assessments was an investigation undertaken jointly by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees into how that intelligence community, which includes segments of the military, has responded to past terrorist attacks.  The Joint Inquiry Staff began their report by warning the members of the Joint Intelligence Committee that the US was dealing with a “new breed of terrorism.”  The JIS described post-Cold War terrorists as groups who operated loosely and without state sponsorship; as organization who were patiently putting years of planning into an operation; and, unlike terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army or the Palestine Liberation Organization who “wanted a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening and not a lot of people dead,” these new groups put an emphasis on mass casualties (JIS, 2002). These new terror groups “don’t want a seat at the table; they want to destroy the table and everyone sitting at it” (JIS, 2002).

The same Joint Inquiry Staff report would become the first official document to advocate for the abandonment of law enforcement as the primary tool for counterterrorism.  In their report the JIS outlines the “costs” of “heavy reliance on law enforcement,” these costs include: ineffective deterrents, competing interests, and limited jurisdiction (JIS, 2002). On the first cost, ineffective deterrents, the JIS noted that while “prosecutions can take terrorists off the street,” it is “easier to arrest underlings than masterminds” (JIS, 2002). This ultimately means that the people who are responsible for planning the attacks and are the ultimate decision makers could be “thousands of miles away when an attack is carried out” well out of the reach of law enforcement (JIS, 2002). Additionally, to the “highly motivated” terrorist who carry out the orders and are often willing to give their lives, imprisonment is hardly a deterrent (JIS, 2002). The second cost, competing interests, refers to the inherent tension between the way information is collected by a law enforcement agency versus the way it is collected by an intelligence agency.  In many cases information gathered by the intelligence community would not only be inadmissible in a trial, but could even hinder an entire case (JIS, 2002).The last cost, limited jurisdiction, refers to the FBI’s inability to take actions in foreign countries. The JIS’s report points out that in the case of al-Qaida all the “FBI can do is arrest and prosecute, they cannot shut down training camps in hostile countries” (JIS, 2002). The report quotes one FBI agent as comparing the situation to “telling the FBI after Pearl Harbor, ’go to Tokyo and arrest the Emperor’” (JIS, 202). A military solution is necessary because “the Southern District doesn’t have any cruise missiles” (JIS, 2002).

While reports, such as the one discussed above, provided justification for the policy shift, the real moment when the military option became the primary response came a few days after President Bush’s address, with the passage of a Joint Resolution from Congress.  The Resolution authorized the use of military force against those who “are responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.”  The Resolution declares that the “United States exercises its right to self-defense” and that the acts on 9/11 “continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” The Resolution empowers the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons, he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future attacks of international terrorism against the United State by any such actions, organizations, or persons.” This Resolution is the turning point in the law-enforcement vs military debate: from this point forward the employment of the military and special weapons would be the primary policy response.

Read the next part of this series here.

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