Political Hay

Budgeting for Terror

Do kvetchers from the big cities have a point?

By 6.9.06

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Among last week's news stories, the budget for the Department of Homeland Security has received continuing attention. New York was notably unhappy at having its counterterrorism grant cut by 40 percent, while other states saw theirs increased. Politicians on both sides of the aisle weighed in -- vociferously.

The allocation cut, said Rep. Peter King, a Republican, "raises very serious questions about the judgment and the sincerity of the department and everything they do." "If they can't get something like this right," he asked, "how can we trust them to get anything right?"

"This administration's approach to Homeland Security can be summed up in one word: incompetence," said U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Astoria) "Earlier this year they were promising smarter funding. It goes to show you that you can't trust this administration to get anything right."

It makes for a near-perfect political storm. Local representatives get to claim national security interests while demanding more money from the federal government, which money will mostly melt away without accountability into the mystic arcana of municipal collective bargaining agreements. Pundits get to make snarky remarks about the relative value of terrorist targets, setting the Wisconsin Dells against the Brooklyn Bridge.

THE CONVICTION THIS PAST WEEK of D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammed reminds us that there have been no major organized terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11. It should also remind us -- no matter how much fun it is to argue over federal money -- how easy it would be for terrorists to reduce the United States to complete ineffectualness as a nation.

Imagine half a dozen crews of Muhammed/Malvo snipers spread out all over the country. Now imagine them given a little operational training so that, at the moment of maximum hysteria, they simply close the trunk of their Chevy Caprice and leave the area, lie low for a while, then resume operations a thousand miles away. Or imagine, as Tom Clancy did vividly in his latest novel, The Teeth of the Tiger, a crew of suicidal terrorists shooting up a modern suburban shopping mall with automatic weapons. Imagine that sort of attack taking place regularly.

It would be so easy, we should be asking -- in sessions full of whip-smart guys and gals in the intelligence sector -- why it hasn't happened. The Palestinians attack Israel this way. The Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Army Brigades used to do it in Europe. Why doesn't the wider terrorist world attack us in the same fashion?

THE SIMPLEST ANSWER MAY BE that Osama bin Laden doesn't want to. Would-be Islamic leaders have always cherished the Pan-Arabist vision of a Saladin uniting people across the Middle East with grand, heroic gestures. They need big, grand attacks that play dramatically on the world stage. They have to top what they did the last time.

Osama bin Laden is a drama queen. Post 9/11 history suggests we are fighting him -- insofar as he represents something worth fighting -- in exactly the right way. We have captured his guns, compromised his communications, frozen his money, killed his associates, and made it hard for him to travel. Once in a while, he issues forth from the border fastnesses of Pakistan with an ornate pronunciamento on something or other. We singe his robe with a Hellfire missile once in a while. Sooner or later, one of them won't miss.

Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the other terrorist organizations also don't follow the Palestinian example because, well...the Palestinians do it. The Arab world may make a big fuss about "the occupied territories" and "the oppressed Palestinian people," but that's just for foreign consumption. Within the Islamic crescent, the Palestinians count about as much as donkeys. And Saladins don't fight like donkeys.

SO WHO SHOULD GET MORE DOH MONEY? Washington, D.C. or Walla-Walla? The Empire State Building or Old Faithful? The Gateway Arch or North Dakota, where the empty plains stand guard over missile silos? Government being government, the funding won't make much sense, it will be wasted, the audit safeguards won't work very well, and politicians will complain it's not enough.

For my part, I'm thankful that our enemies have either: not realized how easy it would be to hurt us (unlikely); refused to fight us in an effective way because they've got their fantastic noses in the air (possible); have found themselves so busy fighting us overseas that they don't have time to hurt us here. Yes, I know President Bush says this all the time. Doesn't mean he's wrong.

The potentially random nature of effective terror also very strongly suggests the most effective programs will be the big ones: the massive data collection operations, the artificial intelligence analysis of action and communications and movement, and the rapid deployment of special assets when the dots cluster in a certain way.

Are we doing any of these things well? Well, we're doing them.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.