Counterterrorism in Retrospect

In its final report last summer, the 9/11 Commission recounted the failures of the Clinton and Bush administrations to confront terrorist threats. Timothy Naftali's new book adds historical depth to that critique by tracing the development of U.S. counterterrorism policy since the end of World War II. Like the commission, Naftali -- a diplomatic historian at the University of Virginia who worked as a consultant to the panel -- focuses mainly on external threats to the United States and wonders whether the attacks of September 11, 2001, could have been prevented. But as an academic, he can more readily blame top policymakers and government agencies than the commissioners could. What others have termed failures of intelligence, he calls failures of policy.

Part of this admirably straightforward narrative was written, but not published, as a study for the commission. The author's involvement with the commission facilitated numerous interviews, and he obtained documents that earlier chroniclers of U.S. counterterrorism had not seen. The result is a rich chronological analysis that allows for comparisons across different administrations and demonstrates that the shortcomings of the country's counterterrorism policy are long standing. The book is not a simple story of Washington's persistent blindness to the threat. Naftali's survey shows how a more complicated pattern -- with some government officials stressing the dangers of terrorism and others then minimizing or ignoring them -- has hampered Washington's ability to develop an effective counterterrorism strategy.

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