In This Review

Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism.
Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism.
By Timothy Naftali.
Basic Books, 2005, 399 pp.

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.


Over the years, many analysts and influential U.S. policymakers, including presidents, have recognized the danger of terrorism, even if sporadically and incompletely. The fear that foreign terrorists might attack the United States dates back at least to the Ford administration. Ronald Reagan, who was determined to compensate for what he regarded as Jimmy Carter's weakness in defending U.S. interests during the Iran hostage crisis, came to office with terrorism at the top of his agenda -- the only president ever to do so. For both terms, he was preoccupied with securing the release of the hostages in Lebanon and, like his two secretaries of state, considered terrorism a major threat to U.S. power and prestige. By the mid-1990s, after the first attack on the World Trade Center, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Aum Shinrikyo attack on a Tokyo subway, President Bill Clinton also took the threat of terrorism extremely seriously, worrying in particular about the prospect of a catastrophic attack with weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Unfortunately, concerted action did not always follow awareness. Even when top policymakers saw the danger, Naftali suggests, their interest almost never prompted consequential policy changes. Presidents were hard pressed to sustain their focus on the issue; when they did, their initiatives were not always implemented by the relevant bureaucracies. Little came of the 1981 call by then Vice President George H.W. Bush to create an intelligence clearinghouse. In 1984, the Reagan administration issued National Security Decision Directive 138, launching a campaign to "send a strong and vigorous message" that the United States "will not tolerate terrorist activity." But according to Naftali, the routine operations of the CIA and the FBI went largely unchanged. In 1986, the recommendations of a vice presidential task force, which prefigured those of the 9/11 Commission, were also issued as a directive; in the end, few were carried out. In June 1995, President Clinton issued a presidential directive and promoted an expansive legislative package, but it was not until the U.S.A. Patriot Act that many of its recommendations were adopted. Awareness of terrorism and the commitment to combat it have reached unprecedented levels since September 11, but it remains to be seen how long this focus will last.


Naftali has several explanations for the U.S. government's past reluctance to make terrorism a priority and pay it systematic attention, many of them now distressingly familiar. Presidents and their advisers saw terrorism as a no-win issue politically since working to prevent it is a difficult task traditionally unpopular both with the public and with bureaucrats. The intelligence community lacked expertise. Bureaucracies resisted sharing information and quarreled over jurisdiction. The projected costs of boosting domestic security or intervening abroad were considered unacceptably high.

One major problem, according to Naftali's account, was crippling disagreement over the nature of the threat. Some in Reagan's entourage believed that terrorism was an artifact of the Cold War and that the Soviet Union was the main culprit; others did not. Gerald Ford downplayed the threat of terrorism after Richard Nixon had highlighted it, as did George H.W. Bush after Reagan, Clinton at the beginning of his presidency, and George W. Bush after him.

The Clinton White House at first sought to distinguish itself from its predecessors by treating terrorism as only one of several deadly transnational threats. And its successor was relatively inactive before September 2001 because it refused to accept the Clinton administration's conclusion that al Qaeda was a new, more dangerous kind of terrorist group. In the end, each administration's excessive concern with setting a new course seems to have trumped the nation's interest in continuity.

Small wonder, then, that for a long time other challenges seemed more pressing. Sometimes the competing issues were domestic. In the foreign policy arena, they invariably concerned traditional interstate relations and conventional military threats. In that environment, only two features could bump terrorism up to first-order status: state sponsorship, which turned terrorism into a tactic of traditional and recognizable warfare, or the possible use of WMD, which made the threat far too frightening to ignore. (A hybrid concern -- the prospect that a state might provide WMD to terrorists -- would also set off alarms in Washington.) But otherwise terrorism was often viewed as a nuisance that complicated the management of more important issues, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even today, some are concerned that terrorism may be taking a back seat to the war in Iraq.

A general aversion to risk taking also informed the decision-making of past administrations. Its causes were multiple. One lesson some observers undoubtedly drew from the Carter and Reagan administrations was that presidents who handled terrorism themselves risked serious embarrassment, if not political disaster. White House staffs preferred not to elevate the issue for fear of creating public expectations they could not meet. Avoiding blame became all-important.

Before 2001, even the military establishment was reluctant to use force in response to terrorism. After 1998, even when the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the Pentagon resisted using Delta Force to capture him. As Naftali notes, memories of the failed rescue operation in Iran in 1980 discouraged other such interventions. Even under Reagan, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger had put a brake on the ambitions of Secretary of State George Shultz. The fear of public disapproval made presidents gun-shy. The Reagan administration, for example, did not repeat the 1986 bombing raids against Libya partly because it did not think the public would tolerate it. Likewise for Clinton after the United States attacked suspected terrorist bases in Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998.

A slew of public scandals, some linked to terrorism, others not, also inhibited the government. Various efforts to check abuses of power by the government reduced its leeway to fight terrorism. The 1975-76 Church Committee investigations reined in the intelligence agencies and made them wary of covert operations. In the aftermath of the Iran-contra affair, the role of the National Security Council (NSC) staff was diminished, and the implementation of the counterterrorism recommendations put forward by the vice president's task force was complicated. The controversy surrounding the FBI's 1988 investigation of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador restricted domestic intelligence gathering. Even the Monica Lewinsky scandal had an adverse effect on Clinton's antiterrorism policies. There is no evidence that the retaliatory strikes in Sudan in 1998 were meant to divert public attention from the president's domestic problems. But Clinton and his advisers became particularly sensitive to the charge and to media criticism. The result of the scandal was to reinforce a preexisting tendency to avoid risk. Since September 11, the opposite has become true: the Bush administration is now perhaps too willing to break the rules and use force preemptively and unilaterally.


Institutional wrangling, Naftali aptly shows, came to shape counterterrorism strategy more than it should have, to the detriment of efficiency and long-term planning. As the White House tried to maintain control of terrorism policy, it would bypass routine channels, sometimes with poor results. During quiet periods, principals would downplay the warnings of midlevel officials with valuable experience and information; during crises, they would continue to ignore the specialists and handle matters themselves. (When U.S. hostages were seized in Iran in 1979, for example, the State Department's counterterrorism office was brushed aside.) People with less expertise and greater political inhibitions thus often became responsible for formulating the response, and terrorism was once again relegated to the back burner when the crisis ended. It did not help that the State Department and the CIA preferred to treat terrorism as an offshoot of regional politics to be handled by area experts; back then, specializing in counterterrorism would not have boosted anyone's career.

Tensions between the CIA and the FBI, the NSC and the State Department, and the State Department and the Federal Aviation Administration hampered the progress of the interagency working groups charged with formulating counterterrorism policy. The communication failures reported by the 9/11 Commission predated the Clinton and Bush administrations; Naftali's account makes clear from the outset that they were often the unfortunate side effects of petty turf wars. The history of U.S. counterterrorism efforts is replete with the creation of new bodies and institutional overhauls. But as the number of relevant players grew, so did overregulation, friction, and poor coordination. Extensive reorganizations now under way are designed to correct these deficiencies, but they could add an unwelcome layer of bureaucracy.

In the end, as Naftali shows, such obstacles blocked the development of an integrated and consistent response. Most administrations simply reacted to events even as they called for more constructive policies. They appear not to have considered the consequences of counterterrorism strategies for the United States' many other interests. And they failed to anticipate the lasting implications of other foreign policy decisions, such as admitting the shah of Iran to the United States, accepting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, retaliating against Libya in 1986 for a terrorist attack in Germany, and sponsoring an Islamic fundamentalist insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Even now, the U.S. government may still be lacking a comprehensive long-term view. Its focus on the war on terrorism may be undercutting its interest in promoting democracy abroad, for example, and the war in Iraq seems to have reinvigorated anti-U.S. terrorism.


Naftali admits that the U.S. government has done some things right, such as containing the Abu Nidal organization in the 1980s, preventing Iraqi terrorism during the 1991 Gulf War, and disrupting various millennium plots. But the reasons for these successes are not always immediately clear. This is a serious gap, because accounting for the occasional success could shed light on what the U.S. government might or should have done differently in cases where it failed. It would be instructive to learn, for example, how the United States might have dealt more effectively with Hezbollah. Naftali also seems to contradict himself by repeatedly faulting the government for not doing more to increase homeland security while also admitting, in his conclusion, that before the 1990s the principal terrorist threat was, in fact, to U.S. interests abroad.

Naftali also overstates just how mired in antiquated views some administrations were. He accuses both the Clinton administration and the early George W. Bush administration, for example, of being trapped in the conceptual framework of the 1980s. They continued to see terrorism mainly as a state-sponsored activity directed at U.S. interests abroad and excluded using force other than surgical air strikes to respond to it. The charge, however, is not entirely fair. As Naftali acknowledges, the Clinton administration did recognize that al Qaeda was a novel organization and that attacking the U.S. homeland was bin Laden's great ambition. It also considered reprisals other than limited air strikes, and did so more and more intensely as the number of terrorist attacks and warnings grew between 1998 and 2000. It even authorized covert operations to capture bin Laden. On the other hand, as Naftali points out, Washington never seriously considered invading Afghanistan or firmly pressuring Pakistan. Still, even if in retrospect it appears that the Clinton administration may not have done enough, it was clearly moving in the right direction.

Focusing on the recurrent shortcomings of U.S. counterterrorism policy, as Naftali's book does, might also obscure the unpleasant but unavoidable fact that terrorism is a problem more intractable than one would like to think. Naftali's history of U.S. counterterrorism demonstrates clearly that reform was in order well before September 11. Yet there are limits to the possible. The right reform cannot solve the issue altogether. Even a major institutional overhaul would leave formidable obstacles in place, the greatest being that terrorism is inherently difficult to combat.

For one thing, terrorists are elusive. Not only are accurate warnings rare, but Washington is often stymied because analysts are unable to assign responsibility for particular attacks in time to punish the perpetrators. It did not respond more strongly to the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 partly because it had trouble pinpointing responsibility fast enough or with enough certainty to convince audiences at home and abroad of the need to attack. While the government is acquiring compelling evidence, crises pass and political circumstances change. By the time the Clinton administration was ready to blame Tehran for the Khobar Towers attack, for example, Iranian moderates had gained ground in Tehran, making it imprudent for Washington to risk upsetting the new, fragile balance of power there.

Terrorists have also proved to be dangerously adaptable and opportunistic. Each time the government develops an effective response to a particular tactic, such as hijackings, terrorists work around these defenses, such as by plotting midair bombings. When it became more difficult to smuggle bombs aboard planes, terrorists turned the planes themselves into weapons. The United States is a rich target with many weaknesses to be exploited. If one soft spot is shielded, another spot becomes more vulnerable. Meanwhile, a singleness of purpose streamlines the work of terrorists.

None of this is to say, however, that fatalism is the appropriate response. As Naftali's book demonstrates, it can be a source of willful blindness. On the one hand, if policymakers believe that they have no solutions, they will be tempted to avoid the issue altogether. On the other hand, frustration can lead to excesses that violate both policy and law, as did the arms-for-hostages deal in the 1980s. Instead, Washington needs to define terrorism realistically and develop a range of policy alternatives to counter it that are informed by both past successes and past failures.

In Naftali's view, the Bush administration's reliance on a "politics of fear" has stymied a mature national conversation about counterterrorism. He urges the government to keep terrorism at the forefront of its concerns and pursue a pragmatic foreign policy while helping the public put the threat in perspective and evaluate the difficult tradeoffs between national security and civil liberties. He also recommends that intelligence analysts develop deeper expertise and anticipate threats rather than simply react to them.

Although these suggestions are sensible, not all are practical. Naftali is right to insist that the government should expand its analytic capabilities by training personnel in the languages, cultures, and histories of the world, as well as in counterterrorism. The intelligence community also needs efficient information management; errors have often been the product of too much, not too little, information. But it is not at all clear how the American public can weigh security against liberty when even the government does not know whether its counterterrorism measures will improve security or how much they will undermine civil liberties. Likewise, how can the government mobilize support for its counterterrorism policies without also seeming alarmist by reminding the public of the constant threat?

Naftali, the U.S. government, and the public need to squarely face the fact that there are no easy solutions to terrorism. Preemption is no magic bullet. Tactical success may transform the threat without ending it. As the United States has made progress in destroying the al Qaeda network, autonomous local groups have taken up the struggle. Washington needs to understand that although its best efforts can reduce terrorism, they will not eliminate it. Counterterrorism cannot be allowed to slip to the periphery of vital U.S. interests. Yet the global war on terrorism must remain only a part, not become the whole, of the United States' role in the world.

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  • Martha Crenshaw is Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor of Global Issues and Democratic Thought at Wesleyan University.
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