September 8, 2011

September 8, 2011 | Commentary on Terrorism

Homefront Heroes

The shoe bomber, the underwear bomber and the Times Square bomber all had one thing in common: luck -- bad for them, good for us. Richard Reid’s sweaty feet dampened the fuse on his sneaker bomb so it wouldn’t light; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab set fire to his crotch;  Faisal Shahzad botched his bomb-building.

Besides those bungled attempts, at least 37 other terrorist plots aimed at America since 9/11 were stopped long before a fuse was lit or a trigger pulled.

Washington isn’t always a washout. When it comes to making America a harder target for terrorist attacks, the feds have got it more right than wrong.

After 9/11, FBI Director Robert Mueller swore that he’d turn the bureau into a terror-fighting organization -- and he did. More than 100 Joint Terrorism Task Forces now pepper the map, every day probing likely leads. More than a few of the 40 known plots have been foiled by G-Men sleuthing in cooperation with state and local authorities -- often with tips from overseas tossed in by the CIA or the US military.

The FBI has come a long way. Mueller inherited an information-technology system that couldn’t match a Commodore computer. The wall between intelligence-gathering and counterterrorism investigations was sky-high.

The oft-maligned Homeland Security Department also has done its fair share in policing real threats. In fact, it was Homeland Security, not the FBI, that apprehended the would-be Times Square bomber on the tarmac at JFK as he tried to flee the country. DHS also provided leads that helped nail David Headley, an American who helped plan the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, and unearthed clues that led to the arrest and conviction of Najibullah Zazi, who plotted to bomb the New York subways.  

Why are these departments soldiering on so well? Taking down the wall between intelligence collectors and investigators has made all the difference. As one senior NYPD counterterrorism official acknowledged, by far the most useful “actionable” intelligence the department gets has come from interrogations -- and 90 percent of those took place “outside” America.

Translation: Information gleaned from Gitmo detainees, clues rooted out by the US military in operations overseas and the yields of CIA covert actions are now flowing into the hands of investigators and proving extremely useful.

Putting the right tools in investigators’ hands also has proved highly effective. The authorities granted in the Patriot Act had been on the books long before 9/11, but only to help law-enforcement agencies go after the Mafia and child pornographers, not terrorists. Putting these tools in the FBI’s hands materially aided in thwarting some of the 37 plots.

Nor has the Patriot Act been the assault on liberty that the ACLU has claimed. It’s worth noting that the law never has had a significant constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court. Contrast that record with ObamaCare, which is on track to go from signing day to the high-court calendar in less than two years.  

Also making a difference is the plethora of work done to thwart “terrorist travel,”  from consolidating the Terrorist Watch List to scanning passenger manifests for tourist terrorists. 

Noticeably not on the list of developments that have made the home front safer are the “overkill” requirements that bureaucrats and politicians imposed so they can say they’ve done something about the terrorist menace.

Among these pointless exercises are the strip-search-grandma approach to airport security, the congressional mandate requiring DHS to peek into every cargo container shipped here and the pork-barrel-based homeland-security grant program.

It’s hard to argue that any of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on these programs has materially contributed to thwarting any known plot aimed at the United States. 

The tragedy is that while Washington has wasted tons of money on these feckless “feel good” programs, key homeland-security components have gone begging -- especially the Coast Guard, now floundering at sea with ships old enough to collect Social Security. 

Now that the post-9/11 spending spree is ending, Washington’s challenge will be to keep what works, fix what’s broken and stop spending precious security funds on politicians’ pet projects.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. 

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Related Issues: Terrorism

First appeared in The New York Post