Tools against Terror: All of the Above

By Chertoff, Michael | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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Tools against Terror: All of the Above


Chertoff, Michael, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


With the impending inauguration of a new President, now is an opportune time to assess whether the homeland is safer today than on the morning of September 11, more than seven years ago. It is also a fitting time to discuss the implications of that assessment for our long-term strategy against terrorism. Simply put, if indeed we are safer, then as part of any future legal or policy strategy, we must continue to improve our deployment of the various tools, from law enforcement to the military, which have ably served the country against our foes.

Are we safer today than we were on 9/11? When confronting this question, there are two opposite extremes that must be avoided: on the one hand, hysteria and fear, and on the other hand, complacency and an almost blithe disregard of the threats we face. "Hysteria" refers to rhetoric of the following sort: "Here we are, seven years after 9/11 and lo and behold, al Qaeda still exists, Osama bin Laden remains at large, and terrorists continue to plot and commit atrocities in various places. Nothing we have been doing has worked. Everything is a failure. We are no safer now than we were then." Obviously, such statements glaringly omit that, as of the date of publication, there have been no 9/11-style strikes on the country since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were launched on that fateful morning. This fact can hardly be attributed to sheer luck or coincidence.

The United States is indeed safer today, and the reason is clear: Since 9/11, this nation and its overseas friends and allies have acted decisively to enhance their own security and the security of freedom-loving people across the globe. Our armed forces have destroyed al Qaeda's original headquarters and platform in Afghanistan. The United States has dramatically improved its intelligence capabilities abroad. Moreover, the United States has captured and killed terrorists, both leaders and foot soldiers, on nearly every continent. We have developed exceptionally strong partnerships with allies in sharing information and combining efforts to deal with terrorism. We have built a new Department of Homeland Security to prevent dangerous individuals and items from entering the country and wreaking havoc and destruction upon its people.

Today, al Qaeda no longer has a state sponsor, as it did when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan before September 11. Consequently, al Qaeda neither owns nor has free reign over an entire country anymore. Much of its original leadership has been brought to justice in one way or another.

Al Qaeda is also losing in Iraq, which General David Petraeus has called the "central front" of terrorism. (1) It is losing in part because the Sunni tribes have rejected the al Qaeda fighters and their ideology of extremism, instead partnering with the United States in our "surge" against this terrorist death cult. (2) Additionally, al Qaeda has suffered an overall loss of its reputation, even in the communities it seeks to influence. Its repeated attacks on innocent Muslims have sullied its image across the Islamic world. When al Qaeda blew up a wedding party in Amman, Jordan, more than two years ago, it sparked an intense backlash in that country and elsewhere. (3) Its more recent attacks on Algerian schoolchildren resulted in bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, actually being confronted in an Internet chat by indignant Muslims and challenged to justify the slaughter of these civilians. (4)

Here at home, because of the founding of the Department of Homeland Security nearly seven years ago, the United States has greatly increased its ability to keep terrorists and other lethal individuals out of the country. Seven years ago, America did not have the biometric or fingerprinting capability, analytical capacity, secure identity documentation regimen, or man power it now has at its ports of entry. (5) The same is true regarding America's borders. The nation has dramatically expanded its Border Patrol and has installed new technology and infrastructure, including a border fence, that will further protect the homeland from those seeking to do it harm.

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