Building Up a False Sense of Security?

TIMES SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

The Pentagon is building up a force of 45,000 guards and sentries at scores of overseas bases as part of a five-year plan to defend against terrorist attacks on U.S. armed forces, according to service documents and military officers.

The initiative, a component of the new buildup of U.S. military bases in the Islamic world and throughout Asia, places more military police than ground combat troops on the front lines of the mobilization against terrorism.

But some military officials and counterterrorism experts worry that the new effort creates a false sense of security for overseas forces and may increase the vulnerability of both military personnel outside the bases and civilians in the United States.

Is the deployment of tens of thousands of guards, which requires extended activation of thousands more reserve troops, a "conventional response to an unconventional threat?" asked a military officer who served in counterterrorism and special operations before retiring last year.

The first potential problem with adding more guards and military police at overseas bases, another expert says, is that seized terrorist-training manuals stress that "we don't have to attack a tiger if we can attack a lamb."

Few in the military believe that Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations will undertake direct assaults against large U.S. bases. The threat is far greater to forces in transit, ships in civilian ports and U.S. service members and contractors venturing off base.

Indeed, earlier security measures at major bases probably explain the pattern of attacks in the last decade: In 1996, terrorists attacked the exposed Khobar Towers apartment complex rather than the more isolated and better protected air bases in Saudi Arabia. In 1998, U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were similarly chosen for their vulnerability.

In 2000, the U.S. destroyer Cole was hit as it was moored in Aden harbor in Yemen, not at the Navy's far more active base in Bahrain, where the security, according to Pentagon counterterror experts, was perhaps the best in the Middle East.

Civilians May Be at Risk

The principle applies even more strongly to civilian targets in the United States and abroad.

"Terrorists are adaptive adversaries who constantly look for ways to strike where their victims are most vulnerable," Brig. Gen. Jonathan H. Cofer, the Joint Staff deputy director for combating terrorism, told Congress last summer.

The second problem with the buildup in so-called force protection is that it wraps the armed forces in bureaucratic and labor-intensive procedures that reduce military flexibility by creating a hunkered-down bunker mentality.

"We are, in fact, our own prisoners of war," said the recently retired counterterrorism officer.

Those responsible for protecting American military facilities overseas face a mind-boggling set of warnings and "conditions," many of which seem to produce more confusion than protection.

"Force protection" is the Pentagon term for the full range of measures designed to safeguard soldiers from non-battle injury and death--from physical security and threat assessment to safe driving and preventive health practices.

As far as potential terrorist attacks are concerned, the Defense Intelligence Agency sets the "threat level" on a country-by-country basis.

Then, for each military facility within the country, the local commander establishes a Terrorist Force Protection Condition, or FPCon. The "condition" is based on the level of political turbulence in the country and any special alerts from the DIA.

FPCon was created in June 2001 to replace Threatcon, or Terrorist Threat Condition. The change was recommended by the Pentagon commission that investigated the attack on the Cole; commission members thought the old term might be confused with the terminology used by the DIA to describe countrywide threat levels.

Threat levels for each country are set on a scale ranging from low and moderate upward to significant and high. These are supplemented by FPCon's Normal, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta. In addition, each country gets a "level" designation to indicate the extent of criminal activity.

Thus, according to Pentagon documents, a "high" threat level is defined as "anti-U.S. terrorists are operationally active and use large casualty-producing attacks as their preferred method of operation. There is a substantial [Department of Defense] presence and the operating environment favors the terrorist."

FPCon Charlie applies at a base "when an incident occurs or intelligence indicates some form of threat action against personnel and/or facilities is imminent."

In the real world, this alphabet soup of technical jargon and warnings does not necessarily produce changes on the ground--either in security procedures or in individual conduct.

The difficulty of living under a continuous state of heightened alert is seen in public reaction to the spate of nationwide warnings from the Justice Department since Sept. 11; local officials and ordinary citizens complain that the warnings are so unspecific that they do little more than raise anxiety.

Moreover, for the military operating overseas, the buildup of combat forces and the assumption of active hostilities have had only minor impact on the formal alerts. Since Sept. 11, according to military documents, only Greece, Pakistan and Uzbekistan have been added to the high-threat list.

Few Attack Plots Foiled

If their own experts question the overall effectiveness of a massive buildup in force protection, why are senior military officials plunging ahead?

The answer lies in the continual failure of what all agree would be a better approach: specific, timely warnings from intelligence agencies about impending attacks.

There have been some claimed successes, cases in which authorities foiled projected attacks because of explicit intelligence triumphs.

On the whole, however, the obstacles to obtaining such information have usually proved insurmountable. Throughout the 1990s, intelligence services failed time and again to provide effective warning--from the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center to the Khobar Towers attack.

According to internal Defense Department documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times, in the weeks leading up to Sept. 11, there was no formal alert or notification to U.S. forces of an impending terrorist event.

The classified Joint Chiefs of Staff "Threat Level and FPCon Update" dated Aug. 27 listed five countries as having a "high" terrorist threat level: Colombia, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

FPCon Charlie was in effect for every country in the Middle East and Central Command domain except Bahrain, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which were all carried at FPCon Bravo. For the continental United States, the "baseline FPCon" was listed as "normal."

On Sept. 6, the Joint Staff issued a new list: Everything remained the same except for the FPCon for Qatar and Kuwait, which was actually downgraded from Charlie to Bravo.

A "worldwide caution" was issued Sept. 7 stating that "we have received unconfirmed information that terrorist actions may be taken against U.S. military facilities and/or establishments frequented by U.S. military personnel in Korea and Japan."

According to the caution, information received in May indicated that American citizens "may be the target of a terrorist threat from extremist groups with links to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization."

Nothing in all this set off alarm bells anywhere that made a difference.

Absent an effective warning capability in the intelligence agencies, military planners have seen no alternative to focusing on the defensive component of force protection--including the current buildup.

"Something has to be done that's visible," one expert said. "The increase in security has some deterrent value." But he also worried that terrorist organizations will merely refocus their efforts elsewhere, including the United States.

"The bad guys do have a tendency to adapt a lot quicker than we do," he said. "At this point we have the advantage. But we're going to have to continue to press it and not lose interest."

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William M. Arkin is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and an adjunct professor of the U.S. Air Force's School of Advanced Airpower Studies. He is a consultant to a number of nongovernmental organizations and writes military analysis articles as a special correspondent for The Times.

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