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The Terrorist Watch

Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack

Book by: Ronald Kessler
Reviewed by: Jonathan Schanzer

Honoring Those Who Prevented Another 9/11

If you like Michael Moore movies, don’t buy Ronald Kessler’s newest book. It does not heap scorn upon President George W. Bush. It does not inspire panic over “spy programs” that trample Americans’ civil liberties. Nor does it sneer at American patriotism.

Kessler’s book celebrates the intelligence community’s successes. It is a series of vignettes (27 short chapters) praising the “unsung heroes” who have not allowed an attack on American soil since September 11, 2001. “Those who are fighting the silent battle against terrorism have produced an American success story,” Kessler concludes, despite the legions of critics alleging failures or abuse of power.

Drawing from interviews with intelligence professionals and administration officials, Kessler notes that by the end of 2002, the intelligence community had thwarted “about a hundred” terrorist attacks. By 2003, the CIA had “rolled up 3,000 terrorists” in dozens of countries. Highlights include: the capture of Abu Zubayda in 2002, the raid that yielded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on March 1, 2003, and the neutralizing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006.

So, why do many Americans treat this branch of the government like a redheaded stepchild?

The mainstream media is a big part of the problem. The Washington Post‘s exaggerated 2005 headline, “FBI Examines Records of Ordinary Americans,” misled many to believe that the FBI willfully violates civil liberties, instead of protecting them. The New York Times, for its part, all but ignored Osama bin Laden before 9/11, but “quickly became experts on how flawed” the intelligence community was in responding to al Qaeda.

Congress also got into the act. Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.) attacked the CIA’s inability to prevent 9/11 as “inexcusable” and “outrageous.” Never mind that Congress had slashed the CIA budget, leading to a 16 percent decline in employees, and a 25 percent decline in covert officers.

Kessler aptly notes 9/11 was not an “intelligence failure.” That would imply faulty intelligence. The problem was that the government – particularly in the 1990s – did not take terrorism seriously enough. CIA employees joked that when a small Cessna plane crashed into the White House in 1994, it was Director of Central Intelligence Jim Woolsey just trying to get President Bill Clinton’s attention.

In a new era of vigilance, President Bush wants daily counterterrorism briefings. He demands better intelligence sharing and coordination. Indeed, the National Counter Terrorism Center, established in 2005, now facilitates intel sharing where there was none before.

The ACLU, for its part, claims that Bush exploited 9/11 to gain wider powers. This is akin, Kessler writes, to saying that FDR “exploited the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor” to enter World War II. The Patriot Act simply provides the FBI “the same powers in terrorism cases that it already had in cases targeting drug traffickers, spies and mafia figures.”

As one NCTC analyst told me, the intelligence community, “is like an incredible hockey goalie. We’ve stopped every shot taken against us since 9/11.”

Jonathan Schanzer is the author of “Al-Qaeda’s Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror.”