New Consensus on Terrorism

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 12, 2008 | Go to article overview

New Consensus on Terrorism


Byline: John McLaughlin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

One of the major tasks for our next president is repairing the frayed consensus on how to deal with terrorism.

In the years immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism was unchallenged as our premier national security issue, and there was minimal controversy about how to handle it. As the nation's No. 2 intelligence official, I heard broad agreement in the executive branch and on both sides of the aisle in Congress that could be summed up as: Never again, whatever it takes.

Controversy about all aspects of terrorism has grown markedly in the last three years, however, and a new administration will have to wrestle with at least four sets of issues to maintain forward momentum.

First, all experts agree al Qaeda has established a sanctuary of sorts in Pakistan's tribal areas, but they differ sharply over what that means. Specialists such as Georgetown University's Bruce Hoffman and most government experts argue that al Qaeda's capacity for catastrophic attacks remains intact - a view this author shares.

Other well-credentialed experts, such as sociologist Marc Sageman, say their research shows al Qaeda has evolved into a leaderless group of radicals no longer capable of atrocities on the scale of Sept. 11. Still others such as Lawrence Wright, author of a landmark book on the Sept. 11 terrorists, point to growing criticism of Osama bin Laden by influential Muslim clerics and al Qaeda's declining opinion poll support in places such as Pakistan.

In short, there is now a genuine argument under way about just how great and immediate are the dangers terrorists pose. Adding to this blurred picture is the public's fading memory of Sept. 11; the latest CNN poll shows fewer Americans expecting another terrorist attack - about 35 percent - than at any time since Sept. 11, when the figure was around 60 percent.

Second, controversies over issues such as interrogation and electronic monitoring have eroded the consensus about the proper mix of tools to use in combating terrorism. Some of the bitterest disagreements about electronic monitoring are merely papered over in the bill that Congress passed under extraordinary political pressure this summer after more than two years of partisan wrangling.

Meanwhile, the so-called torture debate has yet to produce consensus on some of the more contentious underlying questions: What is the most effective way to gain detainee information in a timely, legal and morally acceptable way? …

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