The Administration Gets It Half Right

Friday, July 30, 1999

The military spending increases contained in President Clinton’s proposed budget were a follow-up to his January pledge of an “aggressive response to terrorism.” Having done his homework, the president is promising many of the right things: to defend our embassies, prevent disruption of computer networks, and prepare communities for biological and chemical emergencies.

The president’s program is seriously flawed, however, by a disproportionate emphasis on criminal prosecution rather than prevention and an utter disregard of accountability for past failures. The best example of this is, ironically, the very case Clinton cited when in his State of the Union Address he promised to “defend our security wherever we are threatened, as we did last summer when we struck at Osama bin Laden’s network of terror.” An analysis of bin Laden’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa shows U.S. failures that have yet to be accounted for or repaired. America will be secure from terrorism only if the necessary measures are not only mouthed but also implemented.

Still, the president’s promises are on the right track:

  • His call for improved security of overseas facilities, and for other measures based on U.S. technological superiority, is welcome. We need the means “to detect and address a biological attack promptly, before the disease spreads,” including “detection units the size of a shoe box to rapidly identify hazards,” regional laboratories capable of working together for prompt analysis, and accelerated development of vaccines, antidotes, and diagnostic tools. Analogous measures for detecting and evaluating “cyberattacks” are also necessary.
  • The president is right that Congress must fund these efforts, as private-sector forces cannot reliably be entrusted with these critical measures of self-defense.
  • The president properly stressed the need for preparedness, noting the 1998 increase in funding to train emergency personnel and promising a further increase to $1.4 billion for protection programs. These programs, properly implemented, should build a stronger public health system since the dangers of and responses to biochemical accidents are the same whether or not deliberately inflicted.

Far less significant is the president’s boast that he has “tripled funding for FBI antiterrorist efforts” since 1993. It is good that the FBI is able occasionally to track down perpetrators and bring them to justice. But U.S. criminal law cannot prevent terrorist acts by individuals engaged in holy wars.

Nor is the interest in deterrence adequately served by the mere fact that the president is prepared to use force “against terrorists who harm our citizens.” Force is justified to prevent terrorist acts, either by preempting or deterring them. But it should not be used for symbolic demonstrations of the administration’s seriousness.

American criminal law cannot prevent terrorist acts by individuals engaged in holy wars.

That appears to have been the purpose for which American force was used in attacking bin Laden’s camp in Afghanistan. Even now, we are attempting to capture rather than to destroy the world’s top terrorist—a fact that reflects a fundamental error in the priorities of this administration, which continues to treat terrorism as a matter of criminal law enforcement rather than of national security.

But the most disturbing aspect of the president’s agenda is its failure to mention, and hence deal with, the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. His call for secure buildings comes some fifteen years after a panel on overseas security offered comprehensive recommendations on how to make embassies safe—advice disregarded by successive administrations and by Congress.

We now know, moreover, that the U.S. ambassador to Kenya wrote two letters asking for a new embassy or improved security and that her requests were rejected. The embassies in Kenya and Tanzania lacked not only the recommended 100-foot buffer zone but even a bomb alert mechanism, which would have saved at least some of the two hundred people killed and four thousand injured. The emergency system established to provide postdisaster support encountered chaos and delays.

Nor did the administration’s heralded increases in intelligence and law enforcement spending over the past three years prevent the bombings. Long before the bombings, bin Laden had openly declared his intention to attack Americans; conversations had been intercepted in which bin Laden was congratulated for the 1996 bombing of a U.S.-occupied facility in Saudi Arabia; and the U.S. attorney in Manhattan had secretly indicted him for soliciting the murder of Americans.

The threat became even more clear when individuals involved with bin Laden’s group informed U.S. authorities that a plan was under way to blow up the embassy in Kenya—but the officials responsible concluded the information was not credible. The intelligence failure on this score is as stunning as the CIA’s surprise at India’s nuclear tests last year, which India had threatened repeatedly and publicly, and most recently the failure to update mapping information in Belgrade, resulting in a missile attack on a building housing the Chinese embassy.

Before the American people can feel safe under the president’s latest proposals, therefore, we must know why—and by whom—specific opportunities that would have prevented terrorist attacks in Africa were missed. We are all entitled to be skeptical of promised programs for handling public health emergencies when, years after the government was supposed to have established a system to deal with foreign emergencies, so much went wrong.

The only way to ensure that the nation will be adequately protected is to hold accountable—if not legally, then politically—those who fail to achieve the ends they are assigned. Otherwise, Americans seem likely to continue to pay, with their lives, for the disparity between what the administration says and what it does.