As the presidential election approaches and Democrats vow to reverse many of the Bush tactics in the Global War on Terror – and John McCain flirts with the disastrous idea of giving terrorists access to the American judicial system – it's worth revisiting the days of the "law enforcement" approach to fighting terrorists.
Andrew McCarthy was the federal prosecutor who, against all odds, secured a long prison term for Omar Abdel Rahman, the "Blind Sheikh" who plotted the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. McCarthy's new book, Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad, recounts just how difficult that task was.
More importantly, McCarthy illustrates how it's almost impossible to foil terrorist attacks under the law enforcement model.
For the first time, McCarthy intimately reveals the real story behind the FBI's inability to stop the first World Trade Center bombing even though the bureau had an undercover informant in the operation -- the jihadists' supposed bombmaker.
In the first sentence of his hard-hitting account, the author sums up the lawyerly — but staggeringly incomprehensive — reason why the FBI pulled its informant out of the terrorist group even as plans were coming to a head on a major attack:
"Think of the liability!"
The first rule for government attorneys in counterintelligence in the 1990s was, McCarthy tells us, "Avoid accountable failure," Thus, when the situation demanded action, the feds copped a CYA posture, the first refuge of the bureaucrat.
Unfortunately, after radical jihadists with foreign support bombed the WTC, the point of the spear in the U.S. "war room" was merely armed with indictments. McCarthy sums up the book's recurring theme:
"There was a war on, alright. But not in that room. The war was right outside the window that looked out on the frenetic majesty of lower Manhattan. It may be impossible to clap with one hand, but a war can be fought by one side. Radical Islam was proving it. Inside the 'war room,' however, there was no war. There was legal strategizing."
In the weeks ahead, more jihadist attacks were planned, but they were foiled with the help of the undercover informant the FBI pulled out before the World Trade Center bombing. Still, nothing changed the paradigm at the Department of Justice. In fact, the Clinton administration went to great lengths to further separate intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
But it wasn't only legal impediments that kept America blind; there was no political will to recognize that radical Islam was at war with the United States. While the FBI reveled in kudos for the quick arrests after the WTC bombing -- the story of their failure before the bombing did not come out until the trial -- the terrorist cell, which had links with Osama bin Laden, was portrayed as a group of bumbling nutjobs who presented no real threat to the U.S.
Late-night comedians had fun with the terrorist who tried to get his deposit back on the rental van used as the bomb, and the government steadfastly ignored the emerging jihadist network.
McCarthy reveals the pattern began during the elder Bush's administration, when a member of Rahman's organization, Sayid Nosair, murdered controversial Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York City. The FBI infiltrated the Blind Sheikh's cell by having its informant, former Egyptian army officer Emad Salem, make contact while a spectator at Nosair's trial.
Still, the Bush 41 Justice Department publicly espoused the "lone gunman" theory even as Nosair was openly plotting further terrorist activities with the visitors he was allowed in prison.
It was at this time that it became the official U.S. position to proclaim that jihadists had "hijacked" Islam or are extremists who interpret the Qu'ran out of context to justify violence.
While such a view is politically easy and sounds nice and tolerant, McCarthy writes the problem was very little evidence supported it. He began to notice that while his informant, Salem, asserted that true Islam was peaceful, "there was not much depth to his conviction."
In contrast, the Blind Sheikh adamantly quoted his scriptures constantly and in depth. To his surprise, McCarthy found that
"the scriptures said what he [Rahman] said they said… it gnawed at me that the Blind Sheikh, who I wanted to see as a shallow, manipulative, homicidal maniac had what appeared to be a deep and very coherent — albeit chilling —understanding of his faith, the faith in which he was an internationally recognized authority."
The American intelligence community had an incentive to promote the marginal nutcase profile of the jihadists, McCarthy reveals; the CIA, too, had to "think of the liability."
While most conservative writers dismiss the notion that arming the Afghan mujahadeen against the Soviets had any blowback in the training of jihadis, and the CIA loudly proclaims its hands are clean, McCarthy notes the truth is far more complicated.
Still, McCarthy has no truck with the extreme Left's belief that bin Laden et al. were formerly "our guys," (something they charge about every thug who gets as much as one round of American ammo) and the Taliban were a U.S. creation. (Lawrence Wright, no conservative or shill for the CIA, does a masterful job of debunking these claims in The Looming Tower, the ultimate history of jihadism leading up to 9/11,).
McCarthy found that the CIA was antsy enough on the topic to take a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, approach that made it "studiously incurious about which jihadist was getting a U.S. visa."
Ultimately, McCarthy came up with a brilliant solution for the absurd fact that U.S. law practically required a successful bombing to get long prison terms for terrorists. He prosecuted Rahman under a statute of "seditious conspiracy" from the Civil War era -- the last time the United States faced a real terrorism problem.
If Willful Blindness has a weakness, it's that it's not so much a memoir as a commentary offered by a participant. McCarthy skillfully and comprehensively marshals his arguments but gives the actual story short shrift at times. That's too bad.
When McCarthy recounts his version of events, the book reads like a thriller. While Willful Blindness is fascinating, timely and important, it would have had a much more forceful impact had McCarthy made the narrative of what happened his primary focus, and still integrated every bit of his commentary into the tale.
He wraps up Willful Blindness by reminding us that even the horrible events of 9/11 did not make the scales drop from everyone's eyes or stifle the government's reluctance to label militant Islam for what it is.
Ironically, just as the book went to press, the State Department banned the word "jihadist" and other religious terms under the same old delusion that the terrorists are too marginal to merit using mainstream Islamic terms for them.
Willful Blindness is a superb reminder of just how little that approach accomplishes.