Monday, September 11

President Bush plays Sherlock Holmes

Pundita is on vacation until September 16. The following essay, originally published in July 2005 as London bombings and President Bush plays Sherlock Holmes, has been abridged.

I see the term "war on terror" as shorthand for referring not to the methods of warfare or so-called terror organizations but to state sponsors of covert warfare. These states use mercenary armies specializing in asymmetrical warfare that passes as terrorism.

Bush came close to spelling it out when he okayed a speechwriter's use of the term "axis of evil." He was speaking of governments -- three, to be precise -- that fund and direct what are mercenary armies, although he was aiming the message at more than three governments.

Bush's naming of governments as an axis spreading terrorism was the outcome of a trend that he and his military and intelligence advisors identified after 9/11. Previous to that time, Western intelligence agencies were drowning in data about terrorist attacks, but with no way to organize the data to reveal meaningful patterns.

Along came Bush, the son of a US president who had been head of the CIA. So, unlike his predecessor, Bush actually read the intelligence reports that came to his desk. And (unlike his predecessor) he received an in-person report from the head of the CIA every working day. And he paid more attention to Israeli dossiers on terrorism than perhaps any previous US president.

From all that, Bush formed the idea that the concept of terrorism was outdated. At that time (early 2001) terrorism was seen as the means for an oppressed group to influence/topple a government via attacking the civilian population. But from what Bush was learning, it seemed that many terrorist acts were government sponsored.

That view up-ends the accepted definition of terrorism. Yet it also presents an efficient way to organize data about terrorism: Instead of trying to figure out from the past attacks where and when various terrorist organizations are going to strike next, see if the data points to a specific government sponsor.

That tentative view led to the Bush administration's ill-fated attempt to hit at al Qaeda via the Afghanistan Taliban regime. I'd say the administration was on the right track but a little late in the day -- 1998 would have been a better shot but then that was before the Bush administration. And bin Laden figured out that the Taliban were preparing to give him up.

After 9/11 Paul Wolfowitz had his assistants plug data on terrorist attacks into a software program called Analyst Notebook, which looks for connections between disparate data. The program massaged the data to reveal a clear pattern of government-sponsored terrorism.

Yet so entrenched was the idea that terrorism is a weapon against the state that intelligence agencies never made a concerted effort to connect terrorist acts with state sponsorship. Once they made that effort a completely different picture emerged. The new picture quickly rescued Western intelligence agencies from the hall of mirrors created by too much data and no coherent way to organize it.

And the revised view quickly led to successful interdictions of weapons and WMD material shipments. One such interdiction led to Libya folding up their WMD program.

So, while George W. Bush seems an unlikely contributor to the science of detection, he holds a place there, although it might take historians a century to get around to crediting him. He had considerable help but without his grasp of the issues and pushing the idea, the revised view of terrorism could not have come about and gotten a foothold in the US government.

This does not imply that all modern acts of terrorism are state sponsored. The "Battle of Algiers" type of terrorism, which is as old as resistance to a powerful oppressive government, will always be with us. But the global epidemic of terrorism, which is the target of the war on terror, can be traced to sponsorship by a small number of governments and/or factions within them.

Thus, the Bush Axis of Evil speech and the thesis informing the war on terror: take down the kingpins -- the corrupt regimes sponsoring terror armies -- to end the global epidemic of terrorism. Readers who lived through decades of rampant crime in New York City then saw Rudy Giuliani's strategy to go after the crime kingpins can appreciate the concept behind the war on terror.

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