Candidates for the presidency should weigh in on what they would do to meet the increasing challenge of terrorism here at home.
MORE than 10 years ago, the 9/11 Commission determined that the American tragedy took place, at least in major part, because we ignored al-Qaida’s explicit declaration of war against the United States and because of serious defects in our intelligence system.
The director of the CIA at the time summed up the situation in midsummer 2001 as “the system was blinking red.” But no one predicted either the nature or the exact timing of the 9/11 attacks, so no real defenses were mounted.
U.S. actions and reforms after 9/11 are largely responsible for the fact that we have suffered nothing comparable to 9/11 for 14 years, a fact for which both administrations deserve credit. Still, these reforms have not prevented less elaborately planned but still horrific incidents like the San Bernardino attack and the Boston Marathon bombing. And those reforms do not guarantee against additional incidents or an even larger one.
So we face a challenge today both new and similar. While the San Bernardino attack could be inspired, rather than planned, by the Islamic State, that group claims that it has operatives in the U.S. ready to take action. In many respects “the system is blinking red” — but obviously with no more specifics available than we had in the summer of 2001.
So what do we do to defend more rigorously against the next such potential attack?
First, we should restore to the National Security Administration the right to practice its metadata programs. Remember that those programs involved collecting called- and calling-overseas numbers and data about their time, date and length. The notion that our intelligence agencies need basic information on whether terrorism suspects overseas have been corresponding with people in the United States is clearly and eminently reasonable.
Only when that information provided a warning of potential terrorist activity could our government seek court authority to gain access to the full content of those communications.
Second, Congress should make clearly valid and permanent the roving wiretap authority to account for replaceable cellphones, together with the “lone wolf” authority to target terrorist would-bes inspired by, but not under the command of, the Islamic State or al-Qaida.
Third, the administration should increase its use of its Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act statutory authority to collect intelligence against foreigners outside of the United States who have no legitimate claim to protection under our Constitution.
Finally, President Obama should use our intelligence assets more aggressively and act on them effectively.
All this may raise concerns about privacy rights.
Alan Charles Rand, a former member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, recently wrote about “the apparent absence of any political abuse of electronic surveillance.” His conclusion and the board’s advice should be given great weight.
But that is not enough.
In this conflict, intelligence is a defensive weapon only.
The 9/11 Commission’s first recommendation was to attack terrorists and their organizations where they lived. The commission said: “The U.S. Government must identify and prioritize actual potential terrorist sanctuaries. For each, it should have a realistic strategy to keep possible terrorists insecure and on the run, using all elements of national power. We should reach out, listen to, and work with other countries that can help.”
The principal sanctuary today is the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Some 200 Americans have traveled there to join. According to our director of national intelligence, James Clapper, some 40 of them have returned, numbers constantly increasing and all presenting real challenges.
We Americans will not destroy the Islamic State threat by “leading from behind” or delegating our duty to Vladimir Putin’s Russia or the ayatollah’s Iran. Nor have our occasional air attacks seriously undercut the Islamic State’s strength or its appeal. Only true U.S. leadership and military power can do that.
Such leadership could inspire effective assistance from France, many other NATO allies and from Arab states as well, many of which are more profoundly threatened by the Islamic State than we are. Doing nothing on our part would result in nothing being done.
For the next year, only President Obama can build this coalition and advance its cause. But each serious candidate for the presidency should be required to weigh in on what he or she would do to meet the increasing challenge of terrorism here at home.