For this month's Readers' Review: "Drown" -- the debut collection of short stories by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz. Twenty years ago, Diaz published ten heart-breaking tales about a fragmented family from the Dominican Republic finding their way in 1980s America.
As the U.S. enters its tenth year of war in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda remains a major threat. Understanding the recent European terrorism alerts and the evolving network of Islamic insurgents around the world.
- Eric Schmitt terrorism correspondent, The New York Times.
- Christopher Preble director of foreign policy studies, the Cato Institute; co-editor of "Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It."
- Peter Bergen CNN national security analyst, Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation; research fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security; author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Recent warnings of a strong risk of terrorist attacks in Europe heightened anxieties on both sides of the Atlantic. One poll showed almost one-fifth of U.S. travelers cancelled plans to Europe after the alert. But there's disagreement among experts about just how imminent a threat there is and what, if anything, the public should be told. Joining me in the studio to talk about the current threat posed by al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation. Good morning, Peter.
MR. PETER BERGENGood morning, Diane.
REHMEric Schmitt of The New York Times, welcome.
MR. ERIC SCHMITTThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute. Good morning to you.
MR. CHRISTOPHER PREBLEGood morning, Diane.
REHMAnd throughout the hour, of course, we'll be taking your calls, questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Eric Schmitt, let me start with you. How would you characterize the current threat of terrorism against Americans?
SCHMITTThe current threat right now, Diane, has been characterized in this latest scare as credible but not specific. That means U.S. intelligence officials and intelligence officials in Europe have determined there are probably cells that are operating, perhaps out of Pakistan, perhaps out of Europe, that could be plotting some type of attacks against Western targets in European countries such as Germany, England and France. Right now, this current threat does not extend to the United States, American officials say. But they also warn that, as we've seen in recent plots, it doesn't take much for that threat to hop across the ocean. This threat originated, apparently, from a German who was picked up in Afghanistan and interviewed at Bagram, a man named Ahmad Siddiqi.
SCHMITTHe talked about being trained by al-Qaida in Pakistan and talked about these kind of cells that were preparing an attack or attacks of some sort in Europe along the lines of the Mumbai-style attack -- that is gunmen taking over an event, rather than having some large explosions. The French have also detected a separate stream of intelligence that suggested there may have been cells coming up from North Africa or perhaps already in Europe. So there may have been multiple threats going out at the same time, multiple plots at different stages that were unraveling. But again, nothing that appeared to be imminent to authorities, but enough concern that the United States issued these alerts a little more than a week ago for travelers.
REHMNow, did that mean that the alerts were specifically in regard to Americans traveling in Europe?
SCHMITTThat was the warning State Department gave, of course. And what it was was they -- and they were very careful because the United States didn't want -- the administration didn't want to appear to be hiding anything if something were to happen. But on the other hand, they didn't want to alarm travelers who may have had plans. So it's kind of walking this fine line to say, okay, if you're traveling to Europe, take an extra precaution, look around, be aware of your situation around you. But we don't know of any specific threat against a specific place at a given time.
REHMEric Schmitt, he's terrorism correspondent for The New York Times. Christopher Preble, are we safer today from a major terrorist attack than we were even a few years ago?
PREBLEWell, you know, Diane, I'm asked that question all the time. And my response is that we were safer within a few hours of the first 9/11 attack because Americans had a different expectation, different assessment of events going around them. And that's why the fourth plane was brought down in Pennsylvania and not at the Capitol, the White House or some other building in the United States -- in Washington. In other words, we are all at a heightened state of alert, but I think there is a fine line. I think Eric fixed on this quite well. There is a fine line between being alert and being anxious and being anxious and being terrorized. And I think we're still, nine years later, trying to find that middle ground between prudence and caution and not overreaction, which hands to the terrorists the victory that they cannot achieve on their own, but they really require in order to achieve their goals.
REHMHow do you define overreaction?
PREBLETechnically speaking, you know, you use a statistical measure which is the value of a human life. And you measure your policies against the value of human life. That's how we measure environmental regulations and other regulations. But we have not used that technique. As a general rule, there have been some attempts to do that since 9/11. But it's politically difficult for the reasons that Eric pointed out, is that no administration, no senior official wants to have access to information like the information that George Bush had, supposedly, on the 9/11 and not communicate to the public information that then would, you know -- then after the fact, they would say, look, we were aware of this, and we made people aware of this. So don't hold us responsible, in effect, for not sharing that information with the public.
REHMChristopher Preble, he is with the Cato Institute. And turning to you, Peter Bergen, how strong would you say these various al-Qaida groups and affiliated groups really are at the moment?
BERGENWell, I think, al-Qaida central is, you know, quite -- is not in a position to do a catastrophic attack on the United States, anything like what we saw on 9/11. We saw with the Najibullah Zazi case, which was the Afghan American who was planning to blow off bombs in the Manhattan subway. If he had got through, he probably would have killed maybe a couple of a dozen, three dozen, four dozen people, very similar to the London attacks of July 7, 2005. He was going to use the same materials, hydrogen peroxide. He had a number of co-conspirators, and that would have been, you know, a big deal but not a -- it wouldn't have changed our foreign policy if we'd had 50 people dead in the Manhattan subways.
BERGENSimilarly, if Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian, had blown up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit -- which was his plan -- he would have killed 300 Americans on the plane and a number on the ground as the plane crashed. That would have had a transformational, I think, effect on American aviation, international business, tourism, and would have been a big deal, would have been a bigger deal than Pan Am 103, which, after all, blew up, killing 270 people back in 1988.
BERGENIn a post 9/11 environment, a 253 blowing up is different from a Pan Am 103 blowing up. So while their abilities are constrained, they still retain some measure of sophistication. The 253 attempt, of course, was going to be -- was directed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is essentially an al-Qaida affiliate that acts very much in al-Qaida strategic goals without taking operational -- you know, there's no -- little operational contact between al-Qaida central and its Yemeni affiliate. But it's acting very much in al-Qaida-like manner. But I think those represent the outer limits of what their capabilities are, and some people would say, well, that -- you know, to me that is a big deal. Some people might...
BERGEN..say, hey, that's sort of a smaller deal. But the point is it's not 9/11 or anything like it.
REHMBut, Peter, help me to understand. There are an awful a lot of people who look at those attempted attacks and say, these guys didn't know what they were doing. And yet, you're using the word sophisticated. So which is it, ineptitude or sophistication?
BERGENLook, they are amateurs until they get it right. I mean, none of the people involved in -- few of the people involved in 9/11 attacks were brain surgeons. I mean, in fact, we know that none were. Mohamed Atta was probably the smartest. He did have a advanced degree from a German university.
REHMBut it was the coordination behind them...
REHM...that seemed to get it right.
BERGENRight. You know, I'm concerned, Diane, about the guy who built the bomb that was going to be -- was placed on Flight 253. That person is sophisticated. Maybe the guy -- maybe it was operator error by the guy on Flight 253. There was, of course, the passengers who were -- as Chris has alluded to -- you know, who basically, you know, tackled this guy. But whoever built that bomb, that is a sophisticated bomb. This is a bomb that gets through metal detectors without metal detectors registering. And that guy almost succeeded in killing the Saudi Deputy Minister of the Interior with a similar bomb. He isn't dead, as far as we know. In fact, I've talked to a number of officials who think that, unfortunately, that he's alive.
BERGENAnd presumably he's not sort of suddenly going to decide America was good, and blowing up planes is something that he's not interested in. I think he's going to continue, unfortunately, and that is a threat that's still out there. But broadly speaking, the threat is much, much lower. And I want to, you know, endorse something that Christopher said. I mean, our overreactions to even near misses are part of the problem. They know -- these guys know that if we get, you know, sort of get all excited and bent out of shape by a near miss, what's it going to...
BERGENWhat's going to happen when they actually succeed?
REHMPeter Bergen, he's CNN national security analyst and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Lauren from Cincinnati is writing to say, "The U.S. has so much policy to reaction versus pro-action. So much time, money, spent on shoe bombers -- should trains be prepared for anything that might happen?" Eric.
SCHMITTWell, certainly, I think -- I just was traveling on Amtrak between New York and Washington the other day. And they have -- Amtrak has personnel out there with dogs that go up and down the platforms, up and down the cars, and so I think they're aware of that. There's a big difference, though, in trying to screen people to get on airliners and screen people as they get on commuter trains or otherwise. That would just -- I think if we try to do that in this country, it would pretty much bring that kind of transportation to a halt. So you're having to make some judgments on how you assess -- how far you push that threat out. And I think what the American model is, is you try and get as much intelligence on the threat that's coming in.
SCHMITTAnd that means putting intelligence and working much more closely with operatives overseas in understanding a foreign threat. What's happened more recently, Diane, is that they have -- the threat is coming here, closer into the homeland. And as you get Americans who are becoming radicalized, it becomes much more difficult for American authorities to identify the individual actor than it is for a cell overseas.
REHMAnd when we come back, I want to talk about those Americans who become radicalized. You've heard Eric Schmitt, Christopher Preble and Peter Bergen. Short break, right back.
REHMEric Schmitt of The New York Times, just before the break you mentioned homegrown terrorists. What do you mean by that? How are they grown, and what happens?
SCHMITTWell, these are Americans who are being radicalized in a various number of ways. And up until just about a year, a year-and-a-half ago, I think many people here in the United States thought that, you know, that we were immune from this, that there are problems in Europe or other places like that. But the United States, because of the melting pot effect -- immigrants integrating more successfully here in the United States -- we didn't have that effect. But this is -- it has caught up with us. And I think we've seen most recently with the shooting at Fort Hood -- Maj. Hasan, who's there -- the Zazi case that Peter referred to earlier. These are individuals who, for many different reasons -- there's no one single reason they're being radicalized.
SCHMITTIt could be that they are from the region. They travel back and forth as the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, did, living a normal suburban life in Bridgeport, Conn., but going back and forth to Pakistan, doing that. You have individuals throughout the United States, in so many of these cases, who are being radicalized by an American-born cleric named Awlaki, who's now in hiding in Yemen, an English-speaking cleric who's very charismatic, who is trying to basically play on the rifts that America is fighting a war against Islam -- this is the al-Qaida narrative -- and trying to exploit that with people here in the United States.
REHMAt the same time, I think, as you talk about homegrown terrorists, we should not forget the Timothy McVeighs of the world, who is certainly not an immigrant, certainly someone who grew up with everything that America offers, and yet himself became radicalized. Peter.
BERGENWell, no doubt. But, you know, Maj. Nadal Hasan also grew up with everything you could have. This is a guy who was a medical doctor. He's a major in the U.S. military. He was earning 90 grand a year. You know, on the face of it, you know, he was living the American dream. There are, you know, a number of American Muslims who have become radicalized, who aren't necessarily living the American dream. I'm thinking of people coming from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, some of who volunteered to fight in Somalia. And so, you know, I think, as Eric said, there's no one explanation for why people become radicalized. But it is a fact.
BERGENAccording to a count by the New America Foundation, there were 43 cases last year, convictions or cases of American citizens or residents in -- of jihadist terrorism-type cases. And that's the largest we've seen since 2009. Similarly, the Congressional Research Service has recently issued a report making a similar point. So the fact is that it's something a little bit different. The numbers are very, very small, but it -- you know, Eric mentioned the melting pot. We did think, I think -- and I include myself in that group -- who thought the melting pot would exclude large, you know, numbers of Muslim Americans embracing jihadist ideas. But unfortunately, it has turned out to be not the case.
REHMWhat does that mean?
BERGENWell, what does it mean? It means that -- I think one thing is is that a number of the people who, in these cases, 30 years ago would have joined the Weather Underground or the Black Panthers. It's just if you wanted to act out against the United States government, this is a way of saying, look, I'm doing it. I've got God on my side. I'm thinking of Jihad Jane, for instance, the allegations against her. She traveled to Europe to try to kill a cartoonist, who had painted an offensive cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. She's a high school dropout with several marriages under her belt, with nothing much, you know -- I mean, she was not living the American dream either. She's a Caucasian American from Pennsylvania. But I think that right now, this kind of ideology is a convenient way of sort of acting out against the U.S. government and also making you feel important, essentially, if you adopt it, that, suddenly, you got God telling you what to do.
PREBLERight. Right. I mean, there's a group dynamic when individuals are feeling themselves isolated, and then they find others who agree with them, even in a very general sense. I mean, gangs thrive for the same reason, right? And the issue for me has always been that in the United States, we are a more open society. And we do a better job of integrating and allowing people to participate in this dream of ours. And I think in Europe we saw a very different model play out. My great concern was that we were going to adopt the European model in the interest of security and lock down these communities and really drive this. We've done that to a point, but not nearly as much as the Europeans have done and have been doing for a long time.
REHMWhere have we done that?
PREBLEWell, we see the resistance and the rising hostility to Islam as a religion and the argument that this terrorism is rooted in religion and not in grievances, which people who cover this issue understand quite well, that it's not a religious question, per se. The religion is used to mobilize people and to knit together identity -- again, for people whose identities are as different as you can imagine. Again, think about this. You know, the case of Jihad Jane versus Zazi, I mean, they couldn't be more different. And so they find a new kind of unifying theme, which -- as most of us understand -- is really a gross distortion of Islam as it's understood by most Muslims.
REHMAnd speaking of distortions, Adam has posted a message on Facebook. He says, "I think the public is aware terrorism is a possibility, but also that politicians are shameless exploiters of potential threats for personal gain by overstating the risks from time to time." Eric, do you think that happens?
SCHMITTWell, I certainly think that was a criticism of the Bush administration, that they seized on these terrorist incidents, and to justify the harshest techniques that they were using -- whether it was interrogation techniques, prisoners that they were doing, whether it was some of the wire intercepts that they were doing as well -- basically saying, we'll do whatever it takes to safeguard this country. And anybody who doesn't agree with us is unpatriotic. I think those were some unfortunate words that were being used. I think the Obama administration is, you know, sensitive to that. Clearly, there were some questions, even when this most recent alert came up, where they're playing politics here to show that they'll stand up, you know, to actually show they're tough on terrorism, even if the threat isn't really there or not. I don't believe that's true, but I think that certainly is sensitivity that, I think, all politicians, certainly in the White House, have today.
REHMAnd, of course, that threat came from intelligence in Europe, did it not?
SCHMITTIt did. It came from multiple places. Again, it started, perhaps, with this interrogation of the prisoner at Bagram in Afghanistan. But then it was quickly corroborated by European intelligence sources, what you call signals, intercepts, communications intercepts the United States had. So there's a number -- there's never ever usually one single source. These are multiple sources of intelligence that support a particular threat analysis.
REHMI'm interested in the U.S. relationship with Pakistan and the extent to which a fear of another terrorist attack is motivating the U.S. to mitigate its actions and reactions to what's going on in Pakistan. Christopher.
PREBLEWell, you could have another entire show just talking about Pakistan, obviously.
PREBLEAnd I think that we've seen, quite dramatically over the last week or two, the tensions between the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan, the U.S. relationship with Pakistan and the relationship between those two countries. But the reality that Pakistan has been playing something of a double game is not news. It shouldn't be news. We've just seen it, I think, displayed a bit more dramatically over the last few days. So closing a key border crossing, which then opens up U.S. tankers to attack, I mean, it doesn't get more blatant than that, to be honest.
BERGENYou know, from the Pakistani side, I think they've been -- they think we've been playing a double game with them for many, many years. I mean, we, in their view, use them, rather adroitly, to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, then landed them with the Pressler Amendment, which meant that they suddenly were subject to a whole series of sanctions and basically washed our hands of the relationship. And the senior military leadership of the Pakistani government remembers this pretty well. And is something -- this is very much in the forefront of their thinking. So they see us as fair weather friends. And when their soldiers get killed by our attack helicopters, they get understandably pretty angry about it. And they have ways to make that anger felt, which, for instance, closing the borders to NATO convoys.
BERGENSo, you know, the relationship, I think, in the big picture is actually better than it has been, let's say, even three years ago because the Pakistanis, for their own purposes, have gone after the Taliban in a very major way. In Swat Valley and Waziristan, they've done serious military operations. And after all, the Taliban, you know, attacked the headquarters of the Pakistani military in a 20-hour firefight. The Pakistani military -- for their own reasons -- is now seeing the Taliban much, much less sympathetically. So our interests and their interests are more closely aligned than they've been. There's always going to be hiccups here.
PREBLEI would agree with Peter that our interests are aligned with the Pakistanis with respect to what's happening in Pakistan, and that it's true that they are more fearful and more aware of the potential threat to their own regime. But the fact remains that they are not -- they have not changed the position on Afghanistan. They are desperately afraid of a strong Afghanistan. And they're not -- I've seen no evidence that they're changing their behavior in terms of the safe haven that Pakistan serves for militants in Afghanistan.
REHMWell, considering militants elsewhere, what about Yemen? What about Somalia? What about Indonesia? How great is the threat of al-Qaida operatives working through those countries, out of those countries, and planning attacks here in this country, Eric?
SCHMITTWell, again, until the Christmas Day attack, the assessment by the U.S. intelligence community was that while these groups may pose a regional threat, they did not pose what's called a transnational threat. That is a threat to the United States directly. That all changed on Christmas Day when Abdulmutallab, the bomb strapped in his underwear, is on his flight to Detroit that Peter talked about before. So suddenly, there is at least one of these cells that has operational capability.
SCHMITTAnd I have to imagine that all the other cells, whether they be Shabaab in Somalia or the cell in North Africa which is known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb -- they're looking at them, going, we can do that. If we can find somebody with a passport and going to the United States, we can fit them -- we can find that bomb maker and just -- and do a little bit better job. So I think it's -- it may well inspire some of these other affiliates, who had only previously had regional aspirations, to take a shot at the United States.
REHMWhat about Osama bin Laden and the extent to which his life motivates others to continue to get involved? If he were not there, would that change, Peter?
BERGENIf von Stauffenberg had killed Hitler on July 20th 1944, World War II would have ended about a year earlier than it did. Certain people make a difference. You know, it's very hard to explain why the French marched on Moscow in 1812 without Napoleon. In fact, it's completely impossible to understand it. And it's impossible to understand 9/11 which bin Laden advocated against the advice of a number of his senior leadership within al-Qaida without bin Laden. Bin Laden runs al-Qaida. It's his organization. When you join it, you don't join al-Qaida. You pledge a personal oath of allegiance to bin Laden.
BERGENAnd we mentioned these regional affiliates, when they join al-Qaida, they don't say, I'm joining al-Qaida. They say, I am pledging my oath of allegiance to bin Laden. He's the leader of the organization. He's also the leader of the global movement. And again and again, we see people committing suicide. Often they'll say in their suicide note or suicide video that, you know, bin Laden is their hero. So, you know -- he's only 54, by the way, so he's got a few years left in him.
REHMPeter Bergen, CNN national security analyst and a fellow at the New America Foundation. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850. To Bedford, Texas. Good morning, Don. You're on the air.
DONHi. I just would like to know if it's not possible that al-Qaida is just flooding the system with bogus threats and lots of noise just to use up our resources and have people running down bogus leads and just laughing at us.
PREBLEWe address this on our book. There's a very famous quote attributed to Osama bin Laden, where he says, all we have to do is raise a flag on which is written al-Qaida. And they'll run to the point where that flag is raised, and we will bleed them into bankruptcy. I think he grossly exaggerates his ability to bleed us into bankruptcy. But clearly, that's part of the overreaction that I was talking about at the outset that they depend -- terrorist leaders depend upon countries like the United States and others to spend an enormous amount of time and energy chasing down leads, most of which will be false.
REHMChristopher Preble of the Cato Institute, he's co-author of the book "Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It." And thanks for calling, Don. Chris, I want to come back to you. How is U.S. counterterrorism policy failing?
PREBLEWell, I think that we have to focus on the few things that we know have had some meaningful effect on al-Qaida's central link. We announced this -- we discussed it through the outset of the show that Al-Qaida's central ability to carry out another 9/11 cell attack has been severely degraded, and I agree with that. And so, you know, the military action in Afghanistan in October and November of 2001 was instrumental in that. Cracking down on financing was instrumental in that, making it difficult for people to travel to these places under cover of anonymity and then return. That's difficult -- not impossible, but difficult.
PREBLEThe tradeoff then is how many people who are traveling to places that are suddenly suspect places -- like, Yemen or Pakistan, for example -- you know, mean us no harm and therefore are being denied entry into the United States or, you know, their travel restricted for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism. There is clearly a changed presumption on the part of the United States and U.S. policymakers, that we will catch some number of people who have no connection whatsoever to terrorism in exchange for catching a few that do. And I -- one of the key themes in this book is trying to recover a balance between security and liberty, which we have, I think, definitely given up some since 9/11.
REHMWould you agree, Peter?
BERGENWell, look, a number of things that happened -- some of the more egregious things that happened under the Bush administration have been reversed. And some of the things that have happened remain highly classified. So for instance, I -- it's still pretty unclear to me, the status of warrantless surveillance and the extent also to which the Obama administration has invoked state secrets on a number of these cases where matters have gone to trial. And so, there has been some continuities between the Obama administration and the Bush administration -- not least, Guantanamo is still open.
BERGENBut the -- actually, there was a big difference between the Bush first term and the Bush second term, to be honest. So that, the real change is the waterboarding, the kind of -- one of the most egregious coercive interrogation techniques were dropped over time partly because the Supreme Court found that these were not constitutional. And I think there was an understanding also amongst the intelligence community, and particularly the FBI, that these kinds of approaches were really un-American at the end of the day.
SCHMITTCounterproductive also, yeah...
REHMPeter Bergen is author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader." And when we come back, we'll take more of your calls, questions. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMWelcome back. As we talk about terrorism threats, not only here in the United States, but around the world. Here's an e-mail from Steve who says, "Why does the TSA continue to screen using x-ray, scanners and pat-downs when it can all be defeated by the terrorist, simply placing the explosive in a body cavity? As a frequent traveler, it all just seems futile and a waste of resources." Peter.
BERGENA bomb in a body cavity wouldn't work. This was the conclusion of -- the first attempt to do an underwear bomb was in Saudi Arabia, August 28, 2009, the attempt to kill Saudi Minister Bin Nayef. And the Saudi did a very careful forensic investigation in -- with the Americans, and they concluded that the bomb, the underwear bomb, was actually in the underwear, exactly the same as it was on Northwest Flight 253. You couldn't light an explosive for reasons that I don't need to elaborate if it was in a body cavity. It needs some kind of initiator. And so when you saw the pictures of the 253 bomber, you saw his underwear. The bomb was just there in the underwear. So that's really the problem, which isn't to say that we can't -- that I can still get through a metal detector. But it's not on a body cavity. Right.
PREBLERemember that many techniques like pat-downs and things like that, you're -- you know, you're not really trying to catch the -- find the needle in the haystack. What you're trying to do is to raise the bar, make it slightly more difficult for a terrorist organization and terrorist operative to carry out their attack. So you create different layers of security. You create different levels of -- or barriers that they need to surmount and just kind of raise the cost and the difficulty for them. That's a lot of what we're doing today.
REHMAll right. To St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Tim.
TIMGood morning, Diane.
TIMMr. Preble, I was wondering if you could comment on the CATO Institute study that showed that since we started keeping statistics on deaths from terrorism, that each year, more people die from lightning strikes, peanut allergies and accidents between deer and vehicles. I mentioned the last, especially now since the deer are in rut, and probably there'll be more of those accidents. I was wondering if we need to have a heightened awareness in the country because of that.
PREBLEI alluded to this at the outset that if you use a purely statistical measure of the likelihood of being killed on a terrorist attack, 9/11 is an outlier, but barely an outlier. All other years, since and before, your likelihood of being killed by lightning strikes and other things, like drowning in bathtubs, are far higher statistically than your likelihood of being killed in terrorism. But what we need to understand is why people don't have an accurate assessment of the risks and the -- you know, 'cause they do not think like mathematical actors. We are not robots. And so there is something about terrorism that is somehow more fear-inducing and therefore causes people to demand a policy response that is not consistent with the statistics.
SCHMITTAnd, Diane, this gets to the question that we haven't spoken about, but it's a question of resilience and how the American public really reacts to these kinds of things. I think Peter alluded to it before, that if a failed bombing drew this kind of reaction on Christmas Day or in Times Square, what would an actual bombing -- compare that, for instance, to how the British deal with these incidents, how the Israelis deal with these incidents. I mean, these -- unfortunately, they have a lot more experience in dealing with terrorist attacks in these countries.
SCHMITTBut they also have much more experience in treating these terrorists as criminals and moving on, quickly cleaning up the debris, mourning their dead and moving on ahead and not letting it just be so damaging, not only the public psyche, but to their economy, travel and other things that are so important. That has -- that feeling now has not sunk in yet in the United States, and political leaders have not taken the steps, I think, to really try and push that through.
REHMI think there's also the question of just how well federal agencies have worked together. Is the CIA, is the FBI, is the TSA -- are they all sharing necessary information and making sure that we, as citizens, know the truth? Eric.
SCHMITTIt's a lot better than it was in 9/11, but it's hardly perfect right now. There are still many instances where agencies keep information to themselves. I think, particularly the FBI, while it's still better at sharing information with the CIA, still wants to protect certain information for the integrity of their cases. The CIA wants to protect their sources and methods overseas. Their database is all over the place, multiple, multiple databases that still don't talk to each other, even after 9/11, even after the 9/11 commission's recommendation. Again, the government is trying to deal with this, to try and improve the situation. It has gotten better, but there is still parochial interest at stake.
BERGENI'm glad that Eric used the world resilience because this is really the key. Terrorism doesn't work if people aren't terrified. I mean -- so, you know, it's very hard for politicians to say the following things 'cause they seem to be internally slightly contradictory. But here is the actual truth of the matter -- al-Qaida isn't 10' high. They're not going to do a 9/11 or anything close. United States government is doing a great deal to keep us safe. I mean, it's night and day compared to pre-9/11. By the law of averages, there will be another terrorist attack in United States. I mean, they will get one through, somebody inspired by al-Qaida's ideas. And so that is just the fact, and that's a sort of -- it's a difficult message for any politician to give. I think President Obama has hinted at parts of it but has never really given a terrorism speech so far that really identifies these three points.
REHMDo you think he should?
PREBLEYes. I agree completely. Resilience is huge. I think the president has used that term from time to time. I think John Brennan has also spoken about this and spoken quite candidly and honestly about it. But the -- you know, in that context, one of the most damaging words is existential, as in existential threat, as though terrorism is going to end civilization as we know it, which is absurd on so many levels. And yet, still, there's still a number of people, including respective politicians, who use that term. And I think whenever they do, it's incumbent upon those of us who study this and journalists who cover them to point out that that's just false.
REHMOf course, the ultimate attack could be a nuclear one...
REHM...placed in the wrong hands, seeking to annihilate it, our society as we know it, Eric.
SCHMITTIt -- that's true. And that's still a major concern of many people in the government just because of the extraordinary impact it would have on our society and our economy. And, no doubt, there is an arm of al-Qaida that's still pursuing this. But it's becoming increasingly difficult, as I think my colleagues have pointed out, for them to plan and pull something like that off. That's why, I think, you're seeing this more complex but more diverse set of kind of attacks that have a lower threshold. I think you've got a two-track system here where al-Qaida is still pursuing its ultimate goal. I don't think Osama bin Laden has given up on that to obtain nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction and use them. But in the meantime, they've gotten -- they've become realistic. They said, okay, we can't do that right away.
SCHMITTBut in the meantime, we'll take advantage, we'll be very opportunistic when we have somebody who comes along, who gives us access to the West and the United States. And we can harm them in such a way -- that's why they keep going after the airlines over and over again. If they feel they can bring an airliner down, it would still have a very damaging effect on the economy and people's confidence in their ability to travel.
REHMAll right. To Jacksonville, Fla. Good morning, Sherrie. You're on the air.
SHERRIEGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
SHERRIEI've enjoyed listening to this this morning. But I think it comes down to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. At what point are we going to let this word terror keep us from going outside? The sky is not falling. In Florida, yes, there is lighting strike, and we're all aware of that. But when it comes down to the point where I have to be strip-searched and everyone else to get on to a plane or car -- any kind of public transport -- I think that Americans need to stand up and say, look, we are not going to be terrorized. We are in democracy, and we are not going to let people in this world, that are basically jealous of our freedom, keep us inside. And I'll take my comment off the air. Thank you.
REHMThanks for calling. Chris.
PREBLEI love that sort of energy, and I would hope that we'd see a similar sort of energy again when any politician or aspiring politician attempts to use the fear of terrorism as a political tool because the response -- the appropriate response among voters and constituents is, stop terrorizing me. You're doing the work of the terrorists for them. We are a resilient society, and we will survive.
REHMHere's an e-mail from James in Baltimore who says, "How many times have we heard these kinds of threats right before election time? Didn't the Bush administration raise the threat right before the 2004 election? This boy who called wolf syndrome should stop." Eric.
PREBLEWell, I think we discussed this earlier, and this is a concern. The former Homeland Security Advisor, Tom Ridge, has raised this in his book a few years ago. He felt the threat alerts may have been elevated artificially for these kinds of reasons. And this was one of the main criticisms -- and leveled against the Bush administration -- was, as Chris said, they were using terror to terrorize their critics.
PREBLEThe timing of the release of information pertaining to the plot to bring down airliners from the UK to the United States has also, I know, been a point of some contention between U.S. counterterrorism officials and the Brits, who question whether or not that that plot needed to be announced when it did, and that it could have allowed to play out a little bit longer and perhaps catch a few more people in the web that British counterterrorism officials had laid. I don't know. Maybe Peter and Eric have anything to add to that.
BERGENI just -- let's talk about the State Department alert that just came out 'cause it's the most recent. I mean, I think that there was nothing to do with politics here. These guys were in a very difficult situation. They had an enormously convincing threat spring from Ahmed Siddiqui, who Eric had mentioned earlier in the show. And the stand here should be, if I have information that I would tell my own family, hey, you should be looking around. If I'm an intelligence official, then that information should be known to the American public. And, you know, they're going to get quick heat, probably, when they do any alerts. They know that. But this one I think that they felt that they had information that needed to be out there. I don't think there was anything political involved. By the way, this is not -- terrorism is not something that works very well for Democratic administration as a sort of an electoral theme. It doesn't make any sense. They would be political motivated.
REHMAll right. To East Avon, N.Y. Good morning, David.
REHMGo right ahead, sir. What happened? Did we lose David?
DAVIDAm I still here?
ANNOUNCERYeah, go right ahead, sir.
DAVIDOkay. I just wanted to jump right into it. The greatest security in our nation are the citizens and patriots. You know, when they call their agencies with the badges about foreign-speaking individuals at the airports, they were shunned, compromising everything their security stands for. Then we had an administration, that over the 21st century by going after one man and his gang, by bombing countries because they believe. But no one said anything about knowing.
DAVIDA war on terror when war is terror in itself, the good and the bad guy, it's ugly. It's obscene, and it's evil. And then there's this Underwear Bomber. We have an attorney out of Detroit was on the plane at the time -- or he was boarding the plane, and he watched what turned out to be one of our own agents leading this young man through their lines. And when they got to Detroit, he spoke up about it. I believe -- well, his name is Kurt Haskell, if you ever want to check him out. And he watched this young man being led through security, and it turns out to be one of our own agents that let him on. So, you know, what is going on? I mean, this thing seems to be -- or what are they calling it, false flags?
REHMAnybody know anything about that? Eric. Nothing.
SCHMITTI'm sorry. I'm not sure what the caller was referring to. But I think we've touched on a lot of the issues about both the deterrent factor of how you screen people getting on these aircraft. This individual, of course, there was a whole issue of he was boarding aircraft in Europe. And this gets into the whole issue of, how far in advance do American officials have the names and passenger information of this? This has been a sticking point (unintelligible) .
REHMEric Schmitt of The New York Times. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to Manistee, Mich. Good morning, Madeleine.
MADELEINEYes, Diane. I want to thank you for taking the call. But I want to comment that I think all of this could have been avoided if they'd gone back, and we didn't have these mega corporations. If they had enforced the Sherman Antitrust law right along, we wouldn't be involved in any of these things in South America or anywhere in the world. The people would hate us if we had individual companies, like our own slaughterhouses in our own townships.
REHMAll right. Madeleine, I think that your comments, while clearly heartfelt, are somewhat off-target here. Thanks for your call. And let's go to Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Ahmed.
AHMEDGood morning. My question is really about al-Qaida. (word?) I heard your guest saying, al-Qaida is certainly more, or has been really, degraded too much. But every time we hear something said al-Qaida, it is like a universal blanket that has been used by everyone. If I don't know, I quote al-Qaida or not. My question to the guests.
SCHMITTWell, I think we've talked about al-Qaida as an operation organization, how its ability to launch and plan big attacks has been degraded. That said, its ideology has continued to spread. And I think bin Laden's goal of seeding that throughout the world so that al-Qaida -- he can be an inspirational figure. People can draw on being radicalized from wherever source it may be. That is his ultimate goal, is to decentralize this as much as possible, I think.
SCHMITTSo in that sense, I think, al-Qaida remains a very dangerous type of organization (unintelligible)
REHMOne last question from Dennis in Morrisville, N.C. "Does the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan lessen the threat of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil or increase it?" Chris.
PREBLEI take the latter. I think, certainly, the case -- we've seen evidence that the war in Iraq was used as a mobilizing force, which Eric alluded to, why this ideology has persisted. And I think it's becoming that way in Afghanistan as well.
REHMDo you agree, Peter?
BERGENYou know, we weren't occupying Afghanistan when the most catastrophic terrorist attack in modern history was launched at us from Afghanistan.
REHMAnd how do you see it, Eric?
SCHMITTI tend to agree with Chris. I think that it has been used as a propaganda vehicle. It certainly was in Iraq. And I think it's being done so to some extent as well in Afghanistan. As long as there are American troops in these places, the narrative can remain the same. United States is at war with Islam, and that is the counter -- that's the counter-narrative we have to come up -- the United States has to come up with.
REHMSo your message to everyone who's listening this morning in regard to the threat of terrorism, Christopher?
PREBLEResilience. I think we've -- we all have come back to that term. I think it's a very important one, that we are an incredibly strong and vibrant society. And we can survive this without having to change what we are, to give up essential freedoms. That's the point I'd like to make.
SCHMITTI think as the threat grows closer to the homeland, we're going to be faced with making more difficult choices between security and civil liberties.
BERGENI think we might look back on this era as a time of great peace and prosperity compared to other periods of our history.
REHMPeter Bergen and Eric Schmitt, Christopher Preble, thank you all so much. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is email@example.com, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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