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On Point

The World Trade Center Attack 21st Century Pearl Harbor


by Austin Bay

In a series of coordinated, calculated and brutal attacks, terrorists slaughtered thousands of Americans. The terrorists used civilian aircraft as kamikazes to blast American centers of commerce and destroy global symbols of American power.

Here's what we, the American people, must understand.

Closing Wall Street, sealing off Manhattan, evacuating the White House, attacking the Pentagon -- these are terrorist victories. Toppling the twin towers of the World Trade Center is terrorist poetry for destroying America's world.

We must also understand that we were warned. The World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993. The CIA has thick dossiers on Osama bin Laden, his cohorts and other violent anti-American terrorist organizations. In 1998, in the wake of attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Clinton declared war on terrorism. That war, to say the least, was not prosecuted with any diligence. Cruise missiles fired at caves in Afghanistan were a media quick-fix. Our other responses were fragmentary and fleeting.

Terror kingpin Osama bin Laden warned three weeks ago that he would attack "American interests." Foreign-deployed U.S. Department of Defense and State Department personnel received special alerts.

Now, we witness the results of an extensive plan and a grand American intelligence failure, a "black September" brought to America's heartland.

Here's what the terrorists who engineered the attack will learn. The United States is finally awake. The terrorists now have their war on terror. They will lose their war.

President Bush's words are direct: "Terrorism against America will not stand."

His statement intentionally echoes his father's guarantee that aggression against Kuwait would not stand.

Yes, America's open society is vulnerable, but when challenged we are also very able.

Here is what we must do and will do:

The United States must pursue the culprits and destroy them. The American response must be reasoned, prudent and careful, but also relentless. The price for these attacks must be stiff.

Military responses must be focused. Special operations troops (Delta Force, Green Berets, Seals) will play a crucial role in any military response.

When the culprits are identified, however, nations who harbor them must know they, too, will suffer for that choice. If specific individuals, gangs or organizations are identified as the perpetrators, there is no reason Congress cannot declare war. The perpetrators would be open to counter-attack wherever they hide.

Our intelligence failure must be coolly assessed and refocused.

Unlike Iraqi tank armies, clandestine groups do not show up in satellite photographs.

Unfortunately, CIA "human intelligence" (HUMINT, i.e., James Bond spies) capabilities have eroded. In the 1970s, Ivy League schools kicked CIA recruiters off-campus. There is a lesson here -- a bitter one. Covert capabilities are key defense capabilities, and effective intelligence agencies are not created overnight.

Intelligence analysis must be radically improved. To his credit, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld addressed this issue in January during his confirmation hearings. America's "intelligence problem" was what kept him awake at night. The insight was there, the political horsepower to make the necessary changes was lacking. In the wake of this tragedy, the political will to revamp our intelligence capabilities genuinely exists.

Prudence means responding calmly as we make domestic political and social accommodations to this new reality. Detention camps for Japanese-Americans scarred the U.S. response to Pearl Harbor. That mistake will not be repeated.

America's democratic values must be protected. Repression is a terrorist goal. However, concern for civil survival must be balanced against protection of civil rights. Mature minds understand there is a dramatic difference between a repressive society and a disciplined society. Americans must become more disciplined as we lead our lives. My parents' generation shut off the city lights to deter U-boat attacks on coastal shipping. Patience as aircraft are checked and passengers examined isn't much to ask.

Likewise, international legal mechanisms need to be strengthened and international police agency cooperation fostered. Civil libertarians have reason to fear a "global police," but the "global village" cannot be held hostage to terrorists.

The war against international terror is one of the toughest America has ever faced.

War against terror requires leadership that is consistent, resolute, tenacious, persevering, relentless and personally courageous. A counter-terror war, waged against calculating radicals like Osama bin Laden, requires forceful and steady diplomacy. Such a war will necessarily play out in the cruelest shadows and corners of the globe, where targets are poorly defined, immediate goals fuzzy and mistakes a near-certainty.

Waging this war requires a national consensus to bear the responsibility of common defense and a commitment to common purpose.

It is a war we must fight -- and we will win.

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