Skip to main content
In this broad condemnation of the Bush administration’s response to radical Muslim terrorism since 9/11, a retired CIA station chief and head of the Agency’s counterterrorism staff brings an intelligence professional’s perspective to bear on the nature of the terrorist threat we face and effective ways of countering it. — Ed.

by Haviland Smith

During the Cold War, American foreign policy was built on the twin bases of containment and alliances: containment of the Soviet Union and her allies and alliances with our friends in support of that containment. The critical element in the success of that policy was acceptance by both sides that the nuclear weaponry of the day would preclude any preemptive strike of one against the other. We called that MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction. An additional important element in that policy was the fact that our allies, and to a somewhat lesser extent the allies of the Soviet Union, were able to exercise constraints on the policies and activities of both of the principals. Say what you will, even with a couple of very close calls, that policy prevailed and the Cold War never turned hot.

The role of the intelligence community during the Cold War, as it is (or should be) at any given time, was to provide policy makers with finished intelligence designed to help with the decision making process. Whether or not the collection and analytical processes succeed, all the intelligence-producing organizations in the intelligence community are designed to provide that product.

The demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the accompanying threat of Soviet nuclear weaponry brought a close to that era. The events of 9/11 set us on a completely different path. Since that horrible moment, we have embarked on a totally new foreign policy of preemptive unilateralism and an equally new domestic policy of intolerance for dissent and of creating and maintaining fear and anxiety in the American public. The question for examination is whether or not those changes and these new policies serve us well in the ongoing struggle with radical Muslim terrorism.A Radical Revolution in Foreign Policy
Preemptive unilateralism represents a radical revolution in foreign policy. After a whole string of “reasons” for the attack on Iraq, we are now told that we needed to preemptively attack Iraq because they had the “intellectual capability” to create a nuclear weapon. Is that to be the basis for future foreign preemptions? The constraints placed on previous administrations by our Cold War alliances have gone completely out the window. The “unilateral” part of this new policy, as mirrored in our established refusal to listen to anyone about our plans for invading Iraq, has ruled out moderating counsel from any of our former friends and allies, leaving us almost friendless in today’s world. As we saw in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, it has been more important to the Bush administration to go ahead with its plans than to listen to its (former) friends and allies.

Although it is extremely difficult to sort out the true motivation behind that policy, what we have learned from the “kiss and tell” revelations of former members of this administration is that the decision to invade Iraq had been made well before 9/11. Given the fact that none of the litany of “justifications” (WMD, Iraqi ties to Al-Qaida, bringing democracy to the Arabs, etc.) for the invasion has held up to scrutiny, that decision would now appear to be based primarily on ideological imperatives.

For intelligence professionals, both active and retired, that raises the question of the role, if any, for finished intelligence in today’s foreign policy deliberations. The Bush administration’s disinclination to listen to counsel from the State Department, the unprecedented visits of the Vice President to CIA analysts, the creation of the Office for Special Plans in the Pentagon to “relook” old intelligence, and the willingness to listen to “Curveball,” a known fabricator, and Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraq National Congress, whose goal of overthrowing the Baathists in Iraq could only be achieved through misleading the United States into war, give a clear picture of an administration that was only interested in seeing intelligence that supported an already settled policy decision. The only conceivably worse basis for action would be if someone in the administration were listening to extraterrestrial voices!

Many past administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have made foreign policy decisions not only on the basis of the objective facts in the area under consideration, but also on the basis of their domestic political needs. It is difficult, however, to recall an administration that has so blatantly ignored objective realities as this one. As long as this is the way foreign policy is formulated, there will be little to no role for input from the intelligence community. However imperfect intelligence may be at any given moment or on any given issue, it does have a potentially constructive role to play in support of foreign policy. At minimum, intelligence deserves to be heard, not summarily dismissed.

Domestic Policy Problems
The administration’s domestic policy during this same period has been based solely on ensuring the “security of the American people.” That has brought us the Patriot Acts, wireless wiretapping, the abrogation of habeas corpus, torture, rendition, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. And those are only the things we know about! We have been given a color coded terrorist threat warning system and daily hammering on what constitutional rights Americans have to give up to be “safe.” Most importantly, this administration and its supporters in the Congress, the media, and the public have resorted to the worst kinds of character assassination and name calling to maintain the atmosphere of fear and anxiety they have so adroitly created. If you disagree with the policy they support, you are “soft on terror,” “unpatriotic,” or, even worse, a traitor. In short, dissent is intimidated — a process never approved by our founding fathers.

These are results that must gladden the heart of Osama bin Laden. He has to know that without our inadvertent complicity in the Middle East and at home in America, he would not have come out looking nearly as successful as has been the case. The facts are that we are on the verge of creating chaos in the Middle East, and that we can hardly look like a “shining city on the hill” to people who once admired us. What more could he possibly ask, and how much of the result stems directly from our own policies?

The Terrorist World Today
Our preoccupation with fundamentalist Muslim terrorism will probably last a generation or more. That gives us plenty of time to continue to make mistakes, or to get it right. Certainly today we have got it wrong, probably because, as a result of 9/11, which was essentially a paramilitary operation, this administration concluded that we needed a military response. Afghanistan was the first response. In many respects, it satisfied America’s domestic emotional and political needs as well as our regional Middle East and general foreign policy needs. Our big mistake was in not carrying it through to a more favorable conclusion when we shifted our attention to Iraq.

Unfortunately, the threat from this kind of terrorism cannot be successfully challenged militarily. There can be no conventional war with these people. Our military might is not mighty. The real struggle is for minds, and we are hardly addressing that issue.

Because with our remaining allies we have focused on Al Qaida, much of the leadership of that organization has been killed or captured. This has weakened the “center,” and power has flowed outward to the more dispersed elements of fundamentalist Muslim terrorism. There has almost been a McDonald’s type franchising of the movement. This has meant that more recruiting, planning, and implementation has devolved to local organizations. There is less central control and probably less central knowledge of what is going on around the world. That changes the target for us.

All organizations change as they age. In the 1940s and 50s Soviets were hardly ever seen outside their embassies, and when they were, they were clannish and seldom mixed with foreigners. As time went on and Soviet goals and personnel changed, they became more approachable and engageable. The dispersal of Al Qaida has hastened this same process for that organization. Now, absent continuing central control, attitudes are changing. There is increasing friction between the “old hands” and the young Turks about what sort of activity is appropriate. This is reportedly true in Yemen, and it presents us with some opportunities wherever it obtains. It was at this stage of ageing that the Soviet system, for a variety of human reasons, produced “flawed” citizens who were susceptible to blandishments from the United States.

Muslims range from brown-eyed, black-skinned straight through to blond, fair-skinned and blue-eyed. They are everywhere in East Asia, the Subcontinent, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Not only do they look different from each other, they are different. In the world of terrorism, they range from types like Al Qaida, who really are terrorists in the truest sense of the word, to groups who use unconventional warfare (terrorist tactics) in pursuit of their own freedom from repressive rulers. It is important to keep them separately in mind and not equate Chechens with Al Qaida. When we do that, we create all kinds of credibility problems for ourselves.Strategic Goals
Al Qaida has very simple strategic goals. They want to push us and our influence out of the Middle East and replace repressive secular Muslim regimes with theocracies.

American strategic goals are far more difficult to identify. It is simply too easy (and inaccurate) to say that our strategy is about oil. Sadly, we have lost our way in Afghanistan. Where our surge in Iraq seems predictably successful, our “strategy” of bringing harmony and democracy to a historically fractious “country” is daily more precarious. Our occupation of Iraq looks like a war on Islam and catalyzes Muslims against us, daily creating new terrorists. In fact, to say we have no clear-cut strategic goals may be more accurate.

Fundamentalist Muslim terrorists attack us wherever they can find us. At this moment they are working to kill us mostly on their turf or in adjacent parts of the world. The events of 9/11 notwithstanding, repeating that sort of operation here in the United States is no easy task. That is not to say that it will not happen, but the odds are not in their favor.

America’s tactics are different. Our public face to the world is a direct reflection of what we do and say. We are seen as cocky and arrogant: “Bring ’em on!” The puerile braggadocio with which we alternately dehumanize and belittle the Muslims may make some of us feel better, but is directly counterproductive to our goals for dealing with terrorism. Equating all Muslims with terrorism is not only inaccurate, but also demeaning and infuriating for mainstream, moderate Muslims.

We are viewed as hypocritical, duplicitous, and self-serving. When we push for democratic elections in the Islamic world and Hamas wins in Palestine, our emotional rejection of the results proves our hypocrisy to the moderate Muslim. The point here is that it matters what you say and how you say it, particularly when, through injudicious behavior, the only cause you hurt is your own.

A Strategy For America
At home, we need to stop the policies that lead to anxiety over terrorism and security. Perhaps we might even consider reinstating our civil liberties in the knowledge that doing so might invite another attack here. In this regard, we need to foster civil discourse by ceasing to label those with divergent ideas as “unpatriotic” or “soft on terrorism.” There are a lot of very smart Americans who know a great deal about terrorism and Islam. We might do well to hear what they have to say in a climate that doesn’t intimidate them. Personal attacks and defamation serve only to impoverish our search for the best alternatives.

Right now, we are sitting here in America pointing our finger at the Iraqis, Afghanis, Turks, Syrians, Pakistanis, and Central Asians and telling them what they have to do, while in many cases, we have lost the moral credibility to make such pronouncements. While we preach democratization abroad, we diminish democracy at home. As long as the world associates us with torture and renditions, we will have little credibility abroad. However, we do have the potential to once again become that shining city on the hill — a place that leads by example, by what it does and is, not by what it blusteringly says.

Our foreign policy today is not helping us. The key to success against fundamentalist Muslim terrorism is to minimize our enemies and maximize our friends. To do that we have to reestablish and strengthen our traditional alliances. The price for that will be to give them a say in what we do. That makes sense when their problem is identical with ours.

In this regard, we need to strengthen our intelligence liaison relationships. The best people to work against this target are the intelligence services of the countries in which they are operating. That is their home turf, and in the new “franchised” terrorist environment they are potentially far and away the most effective organizations to address those targets.

We need to soften the appeal of Muslim fundamentalism. To do that, we have to diminish the level of moderate Muslim indifference to that phenomenon. There are nearly 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. It takes only a tiny percentage of them to make major problems for us. The key to keeping those numbers down lies in the attitudes of moderate Islam.

In summary, it seems that just about everything we are doing in the so-called “Global War on Terrorism” is not helping. It is constantly claimed by Bush administration representatives that the techniques and tools to which so many Americans object (waterboarding, renditions, etc.) and which diminish our civil liberties, have spared us numerous terrorist attacks here in the homeland. Let’s just arbitrarily stipulate that that is true. Even if it is, it is only a tactical response to the threat. Optimally, it may stop the occasional attack, but it won’t solve the fundamental problem. We need a new strategy that deals with the weaknesses in this terrorist threat with a view to stopping the movement, not just the attacks. Without such a strategy, there will be no foreseeable end to this problem. End.


Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who was educated at Exeter and Dartmouth. After college, he served three years in the Army Security Agency as a Russian language intercept operator. After his discharge, he spent two years in Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA as a staff officer. He subsequently served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations, recruiting and handling agents or managing that process. His only ventures outside the Soviet operations arena were as chief of the counterterrorism staff and as executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.

Comments are closed.