"This is a different kind of conflict," said General Richard B. Myers,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Pentagon briefing in October. He was
speaking of the war on terrorism. "The closest analogy would be the drug war."
Since September 11, comparisons between the two wars have been rife: Both are
said to involve an elusive and resourceful enemy capable of inflicting tremendous
damage on the United States; both are cast as a long, drawn-out struggle that
requires concentrated efforts on multiple fronts; and both are led by a powerful
"czar" authorized to knock heads, challenge budgets, and mobilize resources.
Heaven help us. The war on drugs has been a dismal failure. Every year, the
federal government spends almost $20 billion to fight illicit drugs. It has
tracked planes in Peru, sent helicopters to Colombia, installed X-ray machines
along the Mexican border, and sent AWACS surveillance planes over the Caribbean.
Yet drugs continue to pour into this country. Cocaine today sells at record-low
prices and heroin is available at record-high purity levels. And despite the 1.5
million drug arrests made every year and the 400,000 drug offenders now in
prison, the level of addiction in the United States remains stubbornly high. So
to the extent that the war on terrorism emulates the war on drugs, we're in big
Is there another way? Over the past 10 years, I've studied the drug war on
various fronts: from the coca fields of the Andes to the smuggling zones along
the Mexican border to the drug-ridden neighborhoods of New York and Washington,
D.C. And that experience leads me to believe that the war on drugs offers
valuable lessons on how--and how not--to fight the war on terrorism.
Consider, for instance, the idea that in fighting terrorism we should focus on
its "root causes." Such an approach was succinctly described by Philip Wilcox,
Jr., the U.S. ambassador at large for counterterrorism from 1994 to 1997, in the
October 18 New York Review of Books. To respond to the attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon with military force, Wilcox asserted, would simply
generate more terrorism. Instead, he wrote, the United States should adopt a
foreign policy that "deals not just with the symptoms but with the roots of
terrorism, broadly defined." America, Wilcox continued, should seek to moderate
the "conditions that breed violence and terrorism" through efforts to "resolve
conflicts"--especially the one between Israelis and Palestinians--and through
"assistance for economic development, education, and population control."
A similar case has frequently been made with respect to both the production
and consumption of drugs. The world's poor, who cultivate drugs for export, need
better economic opportunities. And to reduce the level of drug abuse in America,
we need to address the socioeconomic conditions that generate it. Studies suggest
that drug abuse is especially prevalent in disadvantaged communities and that
programs to create jobs, provide housing, and raise the minimum wage could help
shrink the pool of potential addicts. Clearly, though, such programs would take
many years to bear fruit. In the meantime, drug abuse--and all its attendant
So, too, with terror. America does need to address the poverty and desperation
that fuel the fires of Islamic fundamentalism, just as it must overcome the
foreign-policy legacy that makes the United States a target. Yet solutions to
these problems may take decades to unfold--and in the interim, the Osama bin
Ladens of the world would be free to wreak their havoc. In the short run, a more
direct antidote is needed.
For some, that antidote is "going to the source" of the problem. Here, too,
there are clear echoes of the drug war. In the case of terrorism, the most
immediate source, of course, is bin Laden and al-Qaeda. But as President Bush has
said, the war on terror "will not end until every terrorist group of global reach
has been found, stopped, and defeated." And there has been general agreement that
a revived Central Intelligence Agency should be a principal policy instrument.
The agency's ability to gather intelligence and to carry out covert operations,
it's said, makes it an ideal institution to combat terrorism. Writing in The Wall
Street Journal, Herbert E. Meyer, a senior CIA official during the Reagan years,
decried the agency's recent passivity and urged it to become more aggressive, as
it was under William Casey, his former boss. "We smuggled weapons to freedom
fighters throughout the world, we smuggled bibles into the Soviet Union itself,
and we mined harbors in Nicaragua," Meyer wrote. Such tactics, he asserted,
helped to bring about the collapse of communism and could vanquish terrorism,
David Ignatius, in a Washington Post column, praised the CIA's
Counter-Terrorism Center in Langley, Virginia, for its covert capability "ranging
from paramilitary operations to the sort of dirty tricks and political subversion
that can overthrow governments supporting terrorism." Even Seymour Hersh, who has
written so extensively about U.S. misadventures abroad, blamed the U.S.
government's failure to detect September 11 largely on a weakened CIA. Ruing a
1995 directive that discouraged the use of recruits with unsavory records, Hersh
wrote in The New Yorker that "hundreds of 'assets' were indiscriminately stricken
from the CIA's payroll, with a devastating effect on anti-terrorist operations in
the Middle East." In recent years, an unnamed senior general told him, "we've
been hiring kids out of college who are computer geeks. This is about going back
to deep, hard dirty work, with tough people going down dark alleys with good
According to the Post, the administration has already added more than $1
billion to the CIA's antiterrorism budget--much of it for new covert actions,
including the killing of specified individuals. "The gloves are off," one senior
official told Bob Woodward. "The president has given the agency the green light
to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable
pre-September 11 are now underway."
For those of us who have covered the drug war, this also sounds depressingly
familiar. For nearly three decades, the United States has attempted to fight
drugs by attacking them at their "source": the countries that cultivate, produce,
and smuggle them. Leading this effort has been the Drug Enforcement
Administration. In the mid-1980s, the DEA's main target was Pablo Escobar and the
Medellin cartel; together, they were said to control as much as 80 percent of the
cocaine entering the United States. In 1993, after years of wiretaps, spying, and
raids, the Colombians, helped by U.S. operatives, finally managed to corner and
kill Escobar. And the Medellin cartel disintegrated along with him.
Their demise did produce some short-term benefits. In the world of Colombian
drug traffickers, Escobar stood out for his brutality, and his death led to a
temporary fall-off in the number of car bombs and political assassinations. Yet
the vacuum left by the Medellin cartel was quickly filled by the rival Cali
cartel. So the DEA went after it. In a few years, it, too, was destroyed--and
quickly replaced by a host of smaller but no less efficient syndicates. What's
more, the campaign against the Colombian cartels created an opening for Mexico's
drug traffickers, who, newly enriched, formed violent syndicates along America'ssouthern border. Meanwhile, cocaine kept cascading into the United States.
The Terrorist Hydra
A similar result seems likely in the war on terrorism. The campaign against
al-Qaeda and the Taliban may be necessary as an act of self-defense. But
thousands of young fanatics throughout the Arab world are eager to become
martyrs, and every terrorist who's hunted down and killed is likely to be
replaced by others. Indeed, the covert actions undertaken against terrorist cells
abroad could themselves generate new recruits for the cause.
Furthermore, there's a limit to what the CIA can realistically achieve. It's
not easy for Americans to work undercover in the Middle East. And it's nearly
impossible for them to penetrate terrorist cells. In The Atlantic Monthly last
summer, Reuel Marc Gerecht, who for nearly nine years worked for the CIA on
Middle Eastern matters, described what it was like to walk through the Afghan
neighborhoods of Peshawar, Pakistan, where bin Laden does much of his recruiting.
Even in the darkness I had a case officer's worst sensation--eyes following me
everywhere. To escape the crowds I would pop into carpet, copper, and jewelry
shops... . No matter where I went, the feeling never left me. I couldn't see how
the CIA as it is today had any chance of running a successful counterterrorist
operation against bin Laden in Peshawar, the Dodge City of Central Asia.
More generally, Gerecht went on,
Westerners cannot visit the cinder-block, mud-brick side of the Muslim
world--whence bin Laden's foot soldiers mostly come--without announcing who they
are. No case officer stationed in Pakistan can penetrate either the Afghan
communities in Peshawar or the Northwest Frontier's numerous religious schools,
which feed manpower and ideas to bin Laden and the Taliban, and seriously expect
to gather information about radical Islamic terrorism--let alone recruit foreign
Add in the CIA's much-publicized dearth of agents who know the Middle East
and speak its languages and it's clear that the agency is many years away from
making any real inroads into the terrorist underworld.
What's more, unleashing the CIA could have many dire side effects. Just look
at its past: From the Congo, where the agency helped to assassinate Prime
Minister Patrice Lumumba, to Chile, where it helped to overthrow President
Salvador Allende, to Central America, where it worked with death squads,
America's covert operations often were ugly and often produced backlash. Our
current troubles in Afghanistan are partly an unintended consequence of the CIA's
secret program to arm the mujahideen there. Even with a worthy goal like quashing
terrorism, freeing the CIA to play dirty again seems likely to backfire.
If addressing the root causes of terrorism seems too vague and drawn-out a
solution, and if going to the source seems too difficult and dangerous, what is
to be done? Is there no alternative that offers more promise?
In fact, there is one--and the war on drugs can help point the way. My
research on drugs suggests that of all the ways to reduce drug abuse in America,
one stands out: cutting the demand for drugs through treatment. Where terrorism
is concerned, however, there is no equivalent of demand or of treatment to reduce
it. Any solution must take place on the supply side.
Here, too, there is a drug analogy. From watching police actions on a
drug-infested block in East Harlem and from interviewing police officers,
drug-enforcement agents, and drug traffickers, I concluded that domestic law
enforcement represents the best way to combat the drug trade. Far more than
stalking traffickers in Colombia or seizing drugs at the border, collaring
dealers on the street and dismantling local drug gangs seemed to reduce the crime
associated with drugs and to restore a sense of neighborhood safety. Mayor Rudy
Giuliani's campaign to squash drug dealing in New York City has in many ways been
shortsighted, for it has not been accompanied by a parallel campaign to reduce
the demand for drugs; but I have grudgingly come to believe that it has
eliminated some of the more egregious aspects of the city's drug trade. All in
all, the closer enforcement gets to the point where drugs do the most harm--the
street--the more impact it seems to have.
A 1994 study by the Rand Corporation supports this. Rand researchers compared
the cost-effectiveness of four different types of drug-control programs:
suppression at the source, interdiction along the border, domestic law
enforcement, and treatment of addiction. How much, they asked, would the United
States have to spend on each approach to reduce national cocaine consumption by 1
percent? Applying a mathematical model to the available data, the researchers
calculated that by relying solely on disrupting production at the source, the
United States would have to spend an additional $783 million a year; relying just
on interdiction, $366 million; on domestic law enforcement, $246 million; and on
treatment, just $34 million. The precision may be exaggerated, but the basic
insight is surely right: Treatment is the most cost-effective solution. Of the
three strategies for reducing supply, however, domestic law enforcement seems the
Might not the same be true with terrorism? There is no treatment analogy, of
course. But if our main goal is to prevent future terrorist attacks, wouldn't it
be more effective to concentrate our enforcement efforts here, in the United
States, instead of operating on the hostile terrain of the Middle East? In all
the talk about unleashing the CIA, it's often overlooked that the perpetrators of
September 11 had been living in this country for years. In detecting and rooting
out terrorists, shouldn't we tend primarily to our own backyard?
The Home Team
Emphasizing prevention at home would offer a number of advantages. First, it's
much easier to carry out undercover work here than abroad. Agents face fewer
hazards in San Diego, Trenton, and Boca Raton than they do in Beirut, Cairo, or
Peshawar. And we have many more resources here. In addition to the FBI and other
federal agencies, thousands of local police officers are working on terrorism in
cities across the country. In the drug war, the local police have led the way in
dismantling drug gangs, and they could make a similar contribution toward
uprooting terrorist networks. Furthermore, when it comes to obtaining
"HUMINT"--the critical "human intelligence" collected by investigative
agencies--the millions of loyal American Muslims living in this country would
seem a far more fruitful source than Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East.
Finally, concentrating on domestic law enforcement would avoid the types of
covert actions that have proved so costly and embarrassing in the past.
This is not to say that foreign intelligence gathering has no role. Jim
Dempsey, an analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington,
D.C., who previously monitored the FBI for the House Judiciary Committee,
observes that the FBI receives hundreds of tips every day about possible
terrorists and that it's impossible to sift through them all. In the case of the
September 11 hijackers, he notes, "nothing they did in the United States brought
them to the attention of U.S. agencies." To make sense of all the information
flowing into the FBI, Dempsey says, the bureau needs leads from abroad: "Through
either electronic or human sources or through liaison relations with foreign
services, you develop overseas the information that says that so-and-so is coming
to the United States."
Needless to say, a domestic antiterrorism strategy would raise some concerns.
"Unleashing" the FBI, for instance, could lead the bureau to engage in the same
type of domestic spying that so marred the tenure of J. Edgar Hoover. Although
the federal government does need expanded powers in this new era, the potential
for abuse of civil liberties is clear. Any domestic crackdown, then, would have
to be accompanied by vigilant oversight.
Another problem is the culture of the FBI. The recent string of scandals at
the bureau--from the Waco cover-up to the Wen Ho Lee investigation--does not
inspire confidence. And the bureau's reluctance to share information with other
federal agencies and with local authorities has hindered many investigations. In
the first case of anthrax to hit New York City, at NBC, the FBI did not
immediately inform the city about the letter that was thought to be
suspicious--an oversight that infuriated Mayor Giuliani. At a congressional
hearing in late October, Giuliani called for legislation that would increase the
sharing of information between federal and local law-enforcement agencies.
Such bureaucratic fragmentation has generated fresh ideas about new
institutional arrangements for fighting terrorism. Despite their qualms about the
new police powers legislated in the name of antiterrorism, even some civil
libertarians support consolidating federal intelligence efforts in a single
agency. Morton Halperin, a longtime leader of the American Civil Liberties Union,
told an October 16 forum sponsored by The American Prospect that he favored
creation of one agency that would be both more effective and more accountable.
Jack Riley, a counterterrorism specialist at the Rand Corporation, adds that
"when you start looking at where the gaps are in U.S. efforts to fight terrorism,
they are probably easier to fill here than overseas." The CIA could still supply
the FBI with foreign intelligence. As long as the two agencies continue to
function separately, however, it's hard for them to piece together a
comprehensive picture of how terrorists operate both here and abroad and
coordinate forces to confront them.
What is needed, Riley says, is a seamless new organization that brings
together counterterrorism specialists from these two institutions as well as from
other federal organizations. Investigators, intelligence analysts, financial
wizards, customs specialists, communications whizzes, immigration experts,
liaisons to foreign and local police departments--they all need to be joined
together in a new agency with one overarching goal: preventing future terrorist
attacks in the United States. In the end, Riley adds, we need "a terrorism
equivalent of the DEA."
My initial reaction on hearing this was to shudder. For in fighting the drug
war, the DEA has been singularly ineffectual. Despite the huge increases in its
budget and staff over the past 20 years, it has failed in its mission to reduce
the supply of outlawed drugs in this country. That's because the drug problem in
America is at heart a public-health problem--one that no amount of arrest and
prosecution can contain.
But terrorism is different. It's a highly lethal threat directed by
calculating criminals at America's very core, and it must be confronted with
every available weapon. The new Office of Homeland Security, whose duties seem to
encompass everything from stocking smallpox vaccines to bolstering airport
security, is too diffuse and weak to carry out the task at hand. For that,
America needs an entirely new and independent body--a Terrorism Prevention
Agency. And given the hopelessness of the war on drugs, frustrated agents from
the DEA could be assigned to it. At a new TPA, they might actually be able to do
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