Early Warnings Ignored

By Schanzer, Jonathan | Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Early Warnings Ignored


Schanzer, Jonathan, Middle East Quarterly


September 11: A Decade Later

In its final report of July 22, 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (commonly known as the 9/11 Commission) charged that Congress had failed America. In the commissioners' judgment, Congress had "adjusted slowly to the rise of transnational terrorism as a threat to national security. In particular, the growing threat and capabilities of [Osama] bin Laden were not understood in Congress ... To the extent that terrorism did break through and engage the attention of the Congress as a whole, it would briefly command attention after a specific incident, and then return to a lower rung on the public policy agenda." Indeed, the commission was unequivocal about "Congress's slowness and inadequacy in treating the issue of terrorism in the years before 9/11."1

The commission was not alone in its indictment. Richard A. Clarke, former White House coordinator for counterterrorism under President Bill Clinton, asserted that "only after 9/11 did Congress muster the political will to strengthen the U.S. laws to fight terrorist financing and money laundering."2 Paul Pillar, a former CIA official, noted that congressional interest in terrorism merely mirrored the public's interest, spiking after major terrorist incidents but waning shortly thereafter.3

But these critics were not entirely accurate. One small group of congressmen was undeserving of these admonishments. Working under the obscure banner of the Republican Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, a handful of legislators consistently warned of jihadist terrorism for more than a decade before the 9/11 attacks.

TASK FORCE ORIGINS

The story of U.S. aid to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s is well known. As author George Crile detailed in his book, Charlie Wilson 's War, Rep. Charlie Wilson (Democrat, Texas) of the House Appropriations Committee championed an initiative to arm and fund these forces and repel the Soviet invasion.4

A lesser-known story was the supply of nonmilitary aid, thanks to the efforts of Rep. Bill McCollum (Republican ofFlorida). With the help of his chief of staff, Vaughn Forrest, McCollum airlifted medical supplies to El Salvador, Thailand, Cambodia, Chad, Angola, Vietnam, and other conflict zones. The success of these "McCollum Airlifts" prompted the U.S. Agency for International Development to request in 1985 that a similar program be developed for Pakistan.5

Forrest also found a legal loophole that enabled the Pentagon to give away military surplus goods as humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. He further discovered that Air Force reserve pilots could maintain flight proficiency levels by flying transport planes to Afghanistan.6

As McCollum's staff worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they cultivated a network of locals and expatriates, some of whom reported on radical, anti-Western elements,7 alerting McCollum to new dangers among the mujahideen.8

By the end of 1988, the tide of the war had turned. Amid heavy losses, the Soviets began to withdraw from Afghanistan, and by May 15, 1989, they were gone. McCollum, however, did not join in the celebration. In a Washington Post op-ed, he boldly proclaimed that "something has gone terribly wrong with the war in Afghanistan."9 Drawing from continuing reports on radicalism among the mujahideen, McCollum sought to warn the West. To this end, together with Rep. Duncan Hunter (Republican of California), the head of the Republican Research Committee, he created the ad-hoc Republican Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare.10

The aims of the task force were not immediately apparent. Congress did not fund it or provide it with offices. McCollum put Forrest in charge of the group and soon hired as its director Yossef Bodansky, apart-time academic from Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, who provided additional research.

In its first known report, issued on July 28, 1989, task force letterhead listed its members as Republican representatives Michael De Wine (Ohio), David O'Brien Martin (New York), Porter Goss (Florida), Jim Lightfoot (Iowa), Bob Livingston (Louisiana), JackBuechner (Missouri), John G. …

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