Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism
by Timothy Naftali
Basic Books. 367 pp. $26.95
International terrorism, particularly the variety engaged in by transnational, militant Islamic networks, is the defining national-security problem of the modern era. But was it an avoidable problem? Have we, in effect, had a hand in creating this Frankenstein monster by nodding, winking, and consciously avoiding it for decades? And have we, as a libertarian society, been undone at critical turns by a recurring ambivalence about the need for competent intelligence collection—both at home and abroad?
These are the hard questions taken up by Timothy Naftali in Blind Spot, an engaging and impressively comprehensive history of American counterterrorism. Naftali, a scholar who has specialized in the 20th-century history of U.S. intelligence, outlines the metastasis of today’s terror threat, illustrating how, for nearly a half-century, American administrations subordinated the problem in favor of other exigencies, or committed themselves to managing rather than defeating it.
The roots of American counterterrorism, Naftali recounts, can be traced to the European theater of World War II, and particularly to the Allied intention of stymieing the efforts of German intelligence to blunt the Allied advance and, once defeat was inevitable, to sow the seeds of insurgency during the subsequent occupation. The Americans, neophytes at the craft of counterespionage, learned from British intelligence how to glean the secrets of hostile forces. This early history reverberates through all that follows.
Most critically, in midwifing U.S. counterintelligence, the British wanted the FBI to be in the forefront, and pushed for an experienced FBI agent to be placed in charge of a new unit of the fledgling Office of Strategic Services (OSS) that would specialize in foreign counterintelligence. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, however, vetoed the concept, leaving the mission to the OSS, which evolved into the CIA in 1947. Here, in Naftali’s reading, lay the seed for the often ferocious rivalry between the two principal U.S. intelligence agencies, and for the dubious division between domestic and foreign counterintelligence that would prove so harmful in the ensuing decades.
Similarly profound was another World War II-era decision. The OSS component dealing in foreign counterintelligence (called X-2) was very successful, particularly in discerning that the Nazis had no real stomach for a determined postwar insurgency. But it created resentment among the OSS brass, who coveted control over intelligence assets in the field. Consequently, the birth of the CIA spelled the dismantling of X-2 in favor of what today remains the basic chain of command: officers (generally with diplomatic cover) reporting to station chiefs, who in turn report to headquarters. This may avoid the modern bête noire of intelligence “stovepipes,” but it also detracts from the dynamism of the arrangement.
Building on this foundation, Naftali shows how much of our blind spot about terrorism is structural, stemming from an instinctive resistance to sensible security measures and a tendency to overreact to inevitable mistakes and excesses. Thus, for example, hijackings remained a menace in the 1960’s and early 1970’s largely because remedies like security screening and air marshals were, for years, unthinkable. Both government and the airlines calculated that it was better to endure the occasional plane being taken to Cuba than to risk crippling the industry with steps that might depress air travel.
This resistance to sensible security measures was compounded by the intelligence scandals of the Vietnam era, which included domestic spying on war protesters. The ensuing “reforms”—really, over-corrections—of our intelligence operations severely compromised the CIA’s effectiveness. They also induced the FBI to adopt protocols that prevented it from collecting even open-source information about persons inside the U.S. unless they were credibly suspected of connection to criminal activity or a foreign government. In due course, the supposed remedies led to the cataclysmic intelligence failures of the 1990’s and to 9/11. And yet, even as we continue to pay the price, our culture resists modest protective measures like the Patriot Act.
But misgivings about the necessities of good security and intelligence are only part of the story. Successive administrations have been even more reluctant when it comes to discouraging terrorist savagery. As Naftali correctly observes, “this is a struggle that we do not like to fight.” Not only do we still hotly dispute just how consequential terrorism is, we have regularly allowed other imperatives—meeting the Soviet challenge, ending the Vietnam war, the quixotic quest for Middle East peace—to sap any sense of urgency about the terrorist threat. During the cold war, policy-makers habitually viewed terror factions as pawns in the larger strategic chess game rather than as blights to be eradicated, or indulged the happy delusion that terrorists might be transformed into statesmen.
In this connection, as Naftali deftly sketches, a tension has long existed between high-level government leaders and mid-level bureaucrats. The former have tended to focus on the big-picture items: missile defense, stability in strategically important regions, the emergence of China’s military-industrial complex, and the like. The latter, with whom Naftali’s sympathies lie, have more accurately perceived worrisome trends and brought them to the attention of their higher-ups, who just as regularly have ignored them.
Sometimes the tension has led to a kind of kabuki dance. With those for whom terrorism is inevitable but manageable—Naftali homes in on two National Security Advisers, Henry Kissinger under Nixon and Zbigniew Brzezinski under Carter, and on Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger under Reagan—the tendency has been to advise the President to ignore or distance himself from the issue. The prevailing political wisdom seems to have been that a President would have little to gain from expending capital on non-strategic threats, but much to lose if a deadly attack occurred after he had publicly associated himself with counterterror efforts.
To compound matters, mid-level officials themselves have had conflicting motivations. Naftali cites several, including Rudolph Giuliani as an assistant attorney general in the Ford era, John Poindexter as Reagan’s deputy National Security Adviser, and Richard Clarke, whose status as counterterrorism coordinator waned from the Clinton to the current Bush administration, who were impelled to push the issue onto the plates of their skittish principals partly out of a sense of dread, but partly out of a need to elevate the prestige of their own portfolios.
Whatever its source, and however complicated its dynamics, the national ambivalence over counterterrorism has had dire results. Failures to respond to atrocities, whether out of fecklessness or miscalculation, have bred more atrocities.
In March 1973, for example, Yasir Arafat ordered the murders of two American diplomats in Sudan. This was an act of war—yet, by autumn, Nixon and Kissinger had convinced themselves that, because the PLO seemed to exhibit restraint in the Yom Kippur war, Arafat might be a “moderate” after all. Back-channel communications were therefore opened, and they remained open even after one of Arafat’s factions slaughtered 21 schoolchildren in the Ma’alot massacre the following year. For the next quarter-century, as Arafat’s hands grew ever bloodier, American administrations continued enabling him.
Analogously, Hizballah guerrillas murdered 241 American marines in their barracks in Lebanon in 1983. Retaliation was called off, principally by Weinberger—who, Poindexter told Naftali, worried about such possibilities as a misfire of Tomahawk cruise missiles; the Syrians, he feared, might retrieve the missiles, with their then-new technology, and hand them on to the Soviet Union for reverse-engineering. The Reagan administration likewise failed to respond to Hizballah operations, including the murder of a U.S. seaman during a 1984 hijacking; naturally, the terror organization only became more audacious. As for the ineffectiveness of the Clinton administration in responding to al Qaeda’s attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000, that is a twice-told tale.
Compounding our lack of a stick has been our all-too-quick readiness to extend a carrot. While much is made rhetorically of the boast that we do not negotiate with terrorists, history, as Naftali demonstrates, is replete with just such bargaining. In fact, it was official American policy until 1973, when Nixon (in a fit of pique, according to Naftali) first announced the “no negotiation” policy. But the new stance did not prevent such egregious misjudgments as Reagan’s efforts to buy peace with Hizballah by arming its sponsor, Iran, or Clinton’s determination to compel Israeli concessions to Arafat as the intifada raged.
The salient question raised by a book of this kind is whether the exhaustive, laser-like focus on a single subject distorts its dimensions. September 11 was a liminal event. Its prism cannot but magnify prior missteps that, in the facility of hindsight, now appear as clear danger signs. But would a greater American effort at counterterrorism have been worth it if it had detracted from, say, defeating the Soviet Union? It is impossible to say for certain.
Nonetheless, Timothy Naftali convincingly demonstrates that, at each step of the way, more and better was possible. For that reason alone, his study should become essential reading as we chart the way forward.