I argued repeatedly before 9/11 that in fighting militant Islam, the United States was battling not just crime but a military enemy; and that the military and intelligence forces should be brought to join law enforcement in defeating it. For example, I made this point in 1998 and in May 2001:
In conceptualizing the Al-Qaeda problem only in terms of law enforcement, the U.S. government misses the larger point: Yes, the operatives engage in crimes, but they are better thought of as soldiers, not criminals. To fight Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups requires an understanding that they (along with some states) have silently declared war on the U.S.; in turn, we must fight them as we would in a war.
I repeated the same argument in an article that I wrote on 9/11 itself. Even after that date, I continued to make this point (for example, in "War, not 'Crimes': Time for a paradigm shift"). At the time, I missed that the momentous change I was calling for had in fact been taken on 9/11 itself, when President Bush in his speech to the nation that evening declared a "war against terrorism." The quickest, most palpable evidence of this change was the passing of the USA PATRIOT Act on Oct. 24, 2001, which pulled down the "firewall" between the law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Now, for what appears to be the first time, an official of the U.S. government has offered a critique of pre-9/11 policy along these same lines. Here are the introductory remarks by Douglas Feith, under secretary of defense for policy, in a press conference today, in which he recalls what he and some other Department of Defense officials were thinking as they flew from Europe to the United States the day after 9/11:
President Bush's statements even then showed that he thought of the attack, in essence, as an act of war rather than a law enforcement matter. Now, this point may seem unremarkable, but think back to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and to the attacks on Khobar Towers in 1996, on the U.S. East African embassies in '98, on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000. When such attacks occurred over the last decades, U.S. officials avoided the term "war." The primary response was to dispatch the FBI to identify individuals for prosecution. Recognizing the September 11th attack as war was a departure from the established practice. It was President Bush's seminal insight the wisdom of which I would say is attested by the fact that it looks so obvious in retrospect.
He's right; that was a huge step. Now the remaining one is to change the nomenclature from "war against terrorism" to "war against militant Islam." (November 13, 2003)
March 17, 2004 update: Richard Cheney offered a full and candid explanation today of what was wrong with the pre-9/11 approach:
For many years prior to 9/11, we treated terror attacks against Americans as isolated incidents, and answered - if at all - on an ad hoc basis, and never in a systematic way. Even after an attack inside our own country - the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, in New York - there was a tendency to treat terrorist incidents as individual criminal acts, to be handled primarily through law enforcement. The man who perpetrated that attack in New York was tracked down, arrested, convicted, and sent off to serve a 240-year sentence. Yet behind that one man was a growing network with operatives inside and outside the United States, waging war against our country.
For us, that war started on 9/11. For them, it started years before. After the World Trade Center attack in 1993 came the murders at the Saudi Arabia National Guard Training Center in Riyadh, in 1995; the simultaneous bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in 1998; the attack on the USS Cole, in 2000. In 1996, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad - the mastermind of 9/11 - first proposed to Osama bin Laden that they use hijacked airliners to attack targets in the U.S. During this period, thousands of terrorists were trained at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. And we have seen the work of terrorists in many attacks since 9/11 - in Riyadh, Casablanca, Istanbul, Mombasa, Bali, Jakarta, Najaf, Baghdad, and most recently, Madrid. Against this kind of determined, organized, ruthless enemy, America requires a new strategy - not merely to prosecute a series of crimes, but to fight and win a global campaign against the terror network.