by Austin Bay
Sometimes there's an uneasy connection between the thrilling
imagination and the dangerous possibility.
A few days ago, I listened to a radio interview with an
Iranian-born novelist whose plots explore the world of terrorist cells and
terrorist operations. All too frequently, his imaginative projections
(conceived to entertain) have borne an exacting resemblance to subsequent
terrorist crime and real-world tragedy.
U.S. military and intelligence agencies engage in the similar
kind of role-playing and imaginative speculation. They call it "thinking
Red." In war games, the United States and its allies are usually designated
"the Blue team." The opposition -- the bad guys -- wear Red. Thus "thinking
Red" means getting into the mind of the enemy in order to act like the
These war games and exercises are fictions with a specific
purpose, not predictions, but a means for analytically identifying:
- potential "enemy courses of action" (what an opponent might
do with a given set of material and human resources in a given situation or
- possible weaknesses in Blue (U.S.) strategy, offensive or
defensive military preparations, deployment of spies and intelligence
- potential Blue responses to correct these weaknesses.
The "wargaming" and "Red think" add to other types of risk
analysis conducted by defense agencies.
Of course, reality metes out astonishing and terrible surprises.
No one quite foresaw Sept. 11, with hijacked civilian airliners turned into
"strategic kamikazes" directed at symbols of American economic and political
power. However, one Hollywood movie had terrorists hijacking a Goodyear
blimp to deliver a nuclear strike on the Super Bowl. A dozen years ago, I
participated in a war-gaming project with an interesting wrinkle, a "nuclear
Cessna." The plane was rigged with a tiny nuke and flown by a suicide pilot.
Two decades ago, a young German flew a similar small plane into the Soviet
Union, evaded detection and landed in Red Square. The war-game "think"
behind the suicide Cessna wasn't outlandish.
"The German Conquest of England in 1875, and Battle of Dorking,"
written by Sir George Tomkyns Chesney in 1871, was for the British a
terrifying "future fiction." Chesney wrote the short pamphlet right after
France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In Chesney's odd tale, the
Prussians slipped by the Royal Navy and demolished an inept British Army.
Chesney's "made-up little story" led to several genuine British military
If a thriller novelist or war-gamer thinks of a particular
terrorist operation, I fear there's a decent chance (unfortunately) that a
dedicated terrorist has already tried or is attempting to execute it. U.S.
defense analysts have always mined fiction, Hollywood and military
literature for provocative capers. The next step in the process is to then
try to assess how U.S. intelligence and defense plans might handle such a
Of course, "real world" intelligence on impending terror
operations is the first line of defense. Afghanistan has been an
intelligence trove on Al Qaeda activities and methods, from training
procedures, to communications capabilities, to financial support. Several
reports indicate terror attacks in Malaysia and Pakistan have been thwarted
by the intelligence harvest.
Current, accurate intelligence is absolutely essential
information -- but putting it to good use requires imagination, and putting
it to best use requires political commitment.
Certainly, leaders can't support every farfetched theory and
fear. Circumstances, however, do change. For years, defense officials have
wrestled with the possibility of terror strikes on "critical civilian
infrastructure" in the United States. Commercial nuclear power reactors are
clearly terror targets, particularly those near airports. In a study issued
this week, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., pointed out that several other countries
have placed anti-aircraft defenses around similarly sited reactors. I know
for a fact U.S. military analysts considered this option decades ago. No,
deploying Stinger anti-aircraft missile teams around reactors doesn't
guarantee their defense. It does make a potential terrorist "course of
action" more difficult.
Power transmission facilities are also vulnerable. One civil
defense official said truck bombs detonated on major bridges was another
dangerous possibility. These are considered "targets of psychological
influence," like the World Trade Center.
And plotting their destruction -- in war games -- is one step
toward ensuring their protection.