Cheney’s No Terrorism Expert

Daniel Benjamin, co-author of "The Age of Sacred Terror" (Random House, 2002), was on the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 1999.

The bottom half of any presidential ticket traditionally belongs to the campaign hit man, the guy who sticks the shiv in while the presidential nominee floats above the fray. With his recent charge that a vote for John Kerry could return us to the bad old days of feckless counter-terrorism and be a prelude to terrorist attack, Vice President Dick Cheney has redefined the role downward.

The Kerry campaign has called the remark out of bounds and divisive. That is true, but there are more compelling reasons to discount it, and to question whether its author understands either the terrorist threat or the fundamentals of effective counter-terrorism.

At the heart of Cheney’s assertion is the claim that Kerry would send us backsliding into a world in which terrorism is not treated seriously enough. The danger, Cheney said, is that “we’ll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind-set, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts, and that we’re not really at war.”


The comment is in keeping with numerous remarks the vice president and others in the administration have made over the last three years to the effect that the failure to prevent the attacks of 2001 was the result of handling terrorism as merely a law enforcement problem, and not, first and foremost, a military one. Since Sept. 11, the implication is, we have turned a corner, swapped tools and left behind -- dare one say it -- the “girlie-man” approach of the past.

But this is nonsense -- both about the past and the present. U.S. counter-terrorism efforts before 9/11 were obviously insufficient, as we now know, but not because the terrorist threat was treated as a law enforcement problem. Indeed, the methods that were used then are essentially the same ones being used now -- above all, a combination of intelligence, diplomacy and, yes, police work.

From the time Al Qaeda emerged in the 1990s, the central approach for attacking it has been to identify terrorists through signals and human intelligence as well as information from other intelligence services around the world. Security forces of the country in which the terrorists were located would then move in and capture or, if necessary, kill them. Information from these busts, whether “pocket litter” or computer files, would be used to find more operatives and dismantle cells.

Terrorists who were caught would either be tried by the country they were found in or sent to another country where they were wanted by the authorities. When the United States has had the evidence necessary for an indictment, terrorist suspects have been brought here to stand trial. But because that was true of very few of those who were apprehended, the ability to send them to countries that would try them greatly enhanced our effectiveness. Often, they were moved swiftly from one country to another with the assistance of the CIA in operations known as renditions. The advantage of renditions is that they prevent terrorists from exploiting extradition proceedings, which often slow the interrogation process and delay or prevent rapid takedowns of cells.

In the late 1990s, renditions became a booming business. Historically, the United States assisted in renditions with countries where we knew that the interrogations would be effective but not involve torture, though the Bush administration appears to have disregarded that boundary by sending a suspect, for example, to Syria.

Much has changed in the last three years to improve the effectiveness of U.S. counter-terrorism -- above all the galvanization of intelligence services around the world that now share our perceptions of the threat and work closely with us. But the fundamentals of catching terrorists has remained much the same. The overwhelming majority of major catches -- Abu Zubeida, Ramzi Binalshibh and the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed -- were all apprehended this way. So too was the Jemaah Islamiah operations chief, Hambali; the head of operations for Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri; and many of the other 3,500 terrorist operatives in custody around the world.

By contrast, only two top operatives have been killed by military means: Abu Hafs, Al Qaeda’s operations chief until November 2001, and Abu Ali al Harethi, a Yemeni operative, were killed through military means, specifically, a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone -- a weapon system devised for counter-terrorism by the Clinton administration.

There’s no question that armed force must be a part of the arsenal of tools in the fight against terrorism. I believe that any president would have used the U.S. military to invade Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks to end the world’s first terrorist-sponsored state.

The Bush administration is not the first to use force against terrorists. When President Clinton ordered missiles fired against Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 after the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, they were not carrying subpoenas. The strike against the Shifa chemical plant in Sudan was mocked at the time, but since then, an Al Qaeda defector has testified in federal court that the group was working with the Sudanese regime to develop chemical weapons, and it now appears that by destroying the plant the Clinton administration may have achieved what Bush has failed to do in Iraq: disrupt a terrorist effort to acquire a weapon of mass destruction.

By now, it should also be clear that military force has downsides as well. Although the U.S.-backed Karzai regime rules in Kabul, terrorists and Taliban continue to operate in much of Afghanistan. In Iraq, we have brought the targets to the killers and stoked the international jihadist movement, a fact painfully clear after the 1,000th American soldier was killed there last week.

It is surprising that anyone gives credence to the claims of Cheney, who has been a consistently unreliable witness on terrorism and national security issues. Many months after the FBI and the CIA had discredited reports that 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, Cheney disingenuously continued to repeat the allegation. As recently as Friday, Cheney continued to maintain that Iraq had a close working relationship with Al Qaeda, despite clear findings to the contrary by the 9/11 commission.

By distorting the present and revising the past, Cheney has managed to propagate a myth. Before Bush, he suggests, there was fecklessness; since 9/11 we have witnessed might and decisiveness. His argument suggests that the use of military force in Iraq has been effective in the war on terror and the tools that were already being used were not. The opposite is closer to the truth.