Our terrorist foes are practicing a technique employed by the great Confederate cavalry leader Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. It worked for him, and it’s apparently working for the terrorists.
Forrest, on several occasions, would arrange for a Northern prisoner to overhear him and his staff making plans for an attack. Later that night, Forrest’s men made sure the prisoner escaped. Thinking he had valuable information, the prisoner would make straight for his command and tell his commander about Forrest’s plans. The Northern Army would then move to ambush Forrest, who would, of course, strike at a different location.
The tips about planned attacks against the New York subway and the tunnel in Baltimore are probably disinformation. It’s very easy for al-Qaida leaders to tell their underlings that such-and-such attack is planned on a certain date. Should these underlings fall into our hands, either because of bad luck or with a little help from their bosses, they are squeezed, and they squeal. Then they are given lie-detector tests. They pass because they believe what they were told.
It’s also true that some of the CIA’s sources might actually be double agents whose job is to spread disinformation. Our CIA has always been essentially a white, Ivy League, upper-middle-class agency that has a devil of a time evaluating people from different cultures.
When the information is passed along, American leaders are confronted with a dilemma. Aside from New York City’s own little CIA, most local politicians don’t have any means whatsoever to evaluate foreign intelligence. If they are told by the feds that the information is credible (remember, the guy passed the lie-detector test), they have no choice but to employ the time-honored practice of CYB — cover your backside. No politician can afford to ignore a "credible" threat on the off chance that if he did ignore it and an attack actually took place, his career would be over. It is always better to err on the side of caution. I would do the same thing.
This causes a lot of expense and disruption, and also shakes people’s faith in their leaders and in their intelligence agencies. The old "cry wolf" syndrome begins to insinuate itself into people’s consciousness. It’s like those people who evacuated for hurricanes that ended up going somewhere else. They grow skeptical about official warnings. Furthermore, the reaction itself provides the terrorists with information about our resources and how different government agencies will deploy them.
Al-Qaida’s direct attacks against the U.S. have been few and far between. There was the first attack against the World Trade Center, then the two embassies in Africa, the attack on the USS Cole and finally the 9/11 attacks. That’s four in about 10 years. That’s why you should not take much comfort when you hear people say, "Well, it’s been four years since 9/11, and we’ve been safe (excluding those Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan)."
Chances are, if and when we are attacked, it will be in some place and in some manner we don’t expect. The key advantage the terrorist has is that he gets to choose the target, the time and the manner of attack. No one can guard all the possible targets all of the time against all of the possible threats.
After the Bush administration leaves, we’d better replace it with one that has the brains and the fortitude to tackle the political causes of terrorism. Otherwise, Osama bin Laden might well bankrupt us with a lot of phony threats and a few real attacks.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.