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  • Friday, September 08, 2006


    Five Years After 9/11: Will the Realistic Risk Assessment Please Stand Up?

    The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Opinion page on September 7, 2006 presented two op-ed pieces that seem to reflect markedly different understandings of the situation with which America is presented five years after the 9/11 attacks.

    At the top of the page is former House speaker Newt Gingrich who believes we need to prepare for an imminent World War III. Underneath Gingrich's piece is City Journal contributing editor Heather MacDonald who, while advocating increased intelligence to ascertain their actual capabilities, apparently believes we may be overestimating the capacity of Muslim jihadist terrorists to attack the United States.

    According to Gingrich, President Bush is faced with a parallel situation to that which confronted President Lincoln in the summer of 1862, i.e., "the dangers are greater, the enemy is more determined, and victory will be substantially harder than we had expected in the early days after the initial attack." Gingrich believes American survival is at stake and President Bush's strategies are failing because, among other things: "They do not define the scale of the emerging World War III, between the West and the forces of militant Islam, and so they do not outline how difficult the challenge is and how big the effort will have to be."

    Among other things, Gingrich recommends:

    1. "President Bush should address a Joint Session of Congress to explain to the country the urgency of the threat of losing millions of people in one or more cities if our enemies find a way to deliver weapons of mass murder to American soil."
    2. "Congress...should pass an act that recognizes we are entering World War III and serves notice that the U.S. will use all of its resources to defeat our enemies, not accomodate, understand or negotiate with them...."

    Compare Gingrich's apocalyptic view with that of MacDonald:

    MacDonald writes: "Since 9/11, it has been generally assumed that Islamic extremists have an almost infinite capacity to wreak large-scale destruction in the U.S....There is reason to think, however, that we may have overestimated Muslim terrorists' reach."

    According to Macdonald, "In assessing where the country is five years after 9/11, we need to begin by recognizing that security and intelligence reforms have made it much harder for an Islamic terrorist to get into the country and inflict large-scale damage....Nor is there evidence that terrorists abroad have any nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, or could obtain them in the foreseeable future....The domestic plots uncovered so far do not suggest that at present we face anything like an omnipresent, omnipotent enemy;....Yet the security-industrial complex continues to trumpet the notion that we are everywhere under growing threat...."

    So who is correct? Does WSJ's presentation of both opinions on the same page without an accompanying editorial expressing a preference for one over the other reflect some ambivalence on the part of the WSJ editorial board concerning this issue? MacDonald supports her opinion with quotes from anonymous former government counterterrorism experts and high-ranking intelligence officials. Gingrich does not cite any evidence to support his thesis that the U.S. is on the eve of World War III. Gingrich apparently believes his assertions are self-evident.

    Obviously, as Gingrich states, an enemy who believes in religiously sanctioned suicide-bombing is an enemy who, with a nuclear or biological weapon, is a mortal threat to our survival as a free country. The U.S. must obviously prevent such weapons from ending up in the control of factions or governments who would use or threaten to use them against the U.S. What is the U.S. government doing to accomplish this? What is the actual and realistic risk of such weapons going to the wrong people? How can the public obtain a clear answer to these question when the government refuses to disclose such information on national security grounds? Based on their record, which appears to be mixed at best, can we trust that those in charge of this are doing the right things? Whom do you trust in our government?

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