Five Minutes With
On December 5th, Campus Progress hosted a live chat with Daniel Benjamin, former National Security Council counterterrorism official, former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, and co-author of The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right. Mr. Benjamin answered questions in real time about terrorism and national security, including: the terrorism implications of the U.S. staying in Iraq or withdrawing, which he discussed in his recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, the danger that anti-Muslim bias in the U.S. will hamper our anti-terrorism efforts, and the necessity of political reform in the Muslim world.
After years globe-trotting as a correspondent for Time and The Wall Street Journal, Benjamin went to the White House in 1994, first serving as a special assistant and speechwriter to President Clinton and later becoming a director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council (NSC). In these roles, Benjamin had an insider’s perspective on the War on Terrorism since before the term was even used. Now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), he has a new book with Steven Simon, a professor at Georgetown University and a former colleague at the NSC.
In The Next Attack, the pair tackle the questions of why the U.S. has not experienced another September 11th, why we are still at great risk for one, and, most crucially, what we can do to prevent the next one. Richard A. Clarke, who was Benjamin’s and Simon’s boss at the NSC, says “Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon were right about Al Qaeda in their top-secret analyses in the 1990s. Their last book explained it clearly to the public. Now, in The Next Attack, they tell us that it’s not over yet. This is an important contribution to a nation that is still all too vulnerable to another 9/11-like tragedy at the hands of the jihadists.‿
Here’s what critics are saying about The Next Attack:
“No one speaks more eloquently to this point than Mr. Benjamin and Steven Simon, his fellow National Security Council alum. They saw the Qaeda threat coming before most others did in the 1990’s, and their riveting new book, The Next Attack, is the best argued and most thoroughly reported account of why, in their opening words, ‘we are losing’ the war against the bin Laden progeny now.”
-The New York Times, 11/20
“In their last book, The Age of Sacred Terror, Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Simon looked at how bureaucratic infighting and a lack of urgency on the part of government officials contributed to the failure to prevent 9/11. This volume, a sequel of sorts, similarly draws upon the authors’ experience in counterterrorism and their inside knowledge of the national security apparatus, and it offers a grim cautionary lesson: ‘not only are we not attending to a growing threat, we are stoking the fire.’”
-New York Times Book Review, 11/4
“Anyone who cares about putting al Qaeda out of business should make time for this book….Written in clear and credible prose, The Next Attack is one of the most helpful, challenging goads to serious discussion of terrorism in recent years.”
-Washington Post, 11/4
The transcript of the chat session follows.
Daniel Benjamin: It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m ready to go.
August J. Pollak (Campus Progress): Okay, let’s start then!
Jim C. (Philadelphia, PA): There’s been a frightening lack of interest in combatting domestic terrorism. What are the chances the next big attack is from a domestic foe (extreme radical conservatives like the Oklahoma City bombers, for example)? What is being/should be done to stop these potential terrorists?
Daniel Benjamin: Good question. The threat is always there. After the Oklahoma City bombing, the FBI did a good job of penetrating the militia movement and other far right organizations, so I’m a bit less worried about this than I am about jihadist terror. The Bureau finds it easier to deal with the homegrown than the more exotic jihadists.
Evan Marshak (Cornell University): How can the U.S. government address Al Qaeda and Muslim extremists without vilifying the Muslim faith?
Daniel Benjamin: It’s tough rhetorically – especially because extremists will twist the language of those who try to describe the threat. But the U.S. also needs to make clear that it views as Islam as one of the world’s great faiths and that it recognizes that the overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose the jihadists’ views and their use of violence.
Mike Guerra (University of Rochester): Why is it that people think we’re safer under President Bush, when in fact we’re less safe according to the leaders of the 9/11 Commission?
Daniel Benjamin: Do most people think we’re safer? I’m not sure. The polling numbers indicate an erosion in belief in the president’s handling of the war on terror. That suggests to me a decline in the number who believe we’re safer. The sad fact, however, is that too many people have become complacent because we haven’t been hit again. That’s dangerous. If the nation doesn’t recognize that the threat is growing, and that the radicals feel emboldened – including by killing Americans in Iraq – then we are headed for another disaster.
Carol Vaughn (University of Miami): 9/11 was certainly a seminal event, but it wasn’t entirely unexpected. What kind of attack did government, intelligence and military officials expect from Islamic terrorists?
Daniel Benjamin: I guess we’d need to break that down. In the White House, where I was working, we were worried about the full gamut, including WMD. If you read the 9/11 Commission Report carefully (including footnotes!) that is clear. In pockets of the rest of the bureaucracy – including at State, DoD and CIA – there was an appreciation that catastrophic attack, including by WMD, was possible. Most of the national security establishment, however, viewed terrorism as a third-tier threat. It took a major attack to convince them otherwise. This was part of the tragedy of 9/11 – that it was so hard to get people to wake up to the dimensions of the threat ahead of time.
August J. Pollak (Campus Progress): That actually ties in well with this next question…
Meghan Cooper (University of Buffalo): Terrorism, like murder or theft, isn’t really something you can have a war against (like the War on Terror). But it’s a pernicious and perhaps growing threat. What’s the right way to think about fighting terrorism?
Daniel Benjamin: Big issue. I spent three years as a foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton, and I can tell you that it was linguistically inevitable that we were going to have a war on terror after 9/11 – war is what American leaders declare when they want to show they are as serious as could be. That said, this struggle is one in which intelligence and law enforcement are the top tools for dealing with this enemy. There will be times when we need to use the military, but most of the time it is the wrong tool. Iraq, for example, shows how much damage using the military in the wrong circumstances can cause.
Yuriy Bronshteyn (University of Kentucky): Do you think Islamic jihadism will be the greatest threat to world peace 50 years from now? What do you think is our greatest hope of ending global jihadism in this century?
Daniel Benjamin: You’re testing my prophetic powers. The jihadist movement will be with us for a generation. It may well be the biggest threat throughout that period, but it’s possible that something else could come along. As it becomes easier for individuals and small groups to gain access to highly destructive technologies, a variety of super-empowered discontented types could arise. But, let’s put it this way: The jihadists are the biggest danger we face now, and I don’t see any competition in the near-term.
Bryan Collinsworth (Sarah Lawrence College): It strikes me that conservatives often defend the threat Saddam Hussein posed by taking it out of context. Only if you ignore loose nukes in the former Soviet Union, the crisis in Darfur, or Kim Jong Il in North Korea can you reasonably argue that we should be spending so many of our defense resources toppling a man who "would have tried to attack us again had sanctions been lifted and had he acquired the resources to do so." What should our real defensive and offensive priorities be, both in terms of keeping safe from terror and advancing global human rights?
Daniel Benjamin: That may be more than I can answer in an email. You are right about the overplaying of the importance of Saddam. I would also agree that securing loose nuclear material ought to be a lot higher on the priority list today. And I believe – as we argue in our new book – that coming up with a strategy to undermine the jihadist argument is vital. Right now, there is a war for hearts and minds on in the Muslim world, and, by invading Iraq, we unfortunately wound up on the wrong side. We inadvertently confirmed bin Laden’s argument that the U.S. seeks to occupy Muslim countries. Not a good idea, however benign we thought our intentions were.
Henry Shieh (Brooklyn, NY): How much progress do you think has been made with regards to recruiting American Muslims and immigrants from Muslim countries to serve in our security and intelligence services? Has there been any sort of concerted outreach on the part of the CIA/FBI, and is there even any kind of thinking towards this approach to get a base of language-trained and culturally literate analysts and officers out there to fight terrorism at its source?
Daniel Benjamin: My impression is not much. The CIA has been better about this, in general. Most observers believe the FBI still hasn’t "gotten it." One top FBI official, who we quote in "The Next Attack," said something to the effect of "Yeah, expertise in Middle Eastern affairs. I guess it would be nice if I had that."
Denny McDonough: To what extent do you believe the U.S. War in Iraq is exacerbating anti-American sentiments among Muslim people in the Middle East ?
Daniel Benjamin: Polling indicates that it has done that to a remarkable degree. Statistically, it would be difficult for the U.S. to be less popular, for example, in Jordan and Pakistan, two key allies.
Amye G. (Wesleyan University): What do you feel is a huge misconception that people have (regardless of poltical ideology) about the war in Iraq and the fight against Islamic terrorism? What should people (progressives in particular) keep in mind as they draft alternative solutions to fighting terrorism?
Daniel Benjamin: Hmm. That we can any longer make a profound difference in the future of Iraq. I’m against a rapid drawdown because we don’t want to feed the myth of the American paper tiger. But balancing all the factors, I’m not sure we can do more than delay a civil war if- and it’s an if – there is going to be one.
As for the second question: Progressives shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking there is any way to coax the jihadists into behaving – there isn’t. We need to work hard to put them out of business. But we also need to do what the administration isn’t: finding a way to appeal to the moderates of the Muslim world and a way to isolate the extremists.
D. G. (Macalester): How vulnerable do you believe our nation is to another large scale terrorist attack similar to 9/11?
Daniel Benjamin: Very. See the new report issued today of 9/11 Commission – now they call it the Public Discourse Project. We’ve got enormous vulnerabilities, and the administration has not followed through on many key homeland security efforts.
Amanda A. (University of Texas): As terrible as 9/11 was, it was relatively small compared to the probable scope of an attack with a nuclear weapon. How portable is a nuke nowadays? What would the size and weight of such a weapon be, and what form would it take? What logistical steps would terrorists have to take to smuggle a nuke into the U.S. and explode a weapon, and how plausible is it that they could do so?
Daniel Benjamin: You’re right about scope. Much worse attacks are possible. Even using conventional weapons against, say, a chemical plant, much more harm could be done. I’m not a nuclear expert, but my understanding is that a device could be fairly small – certainly portable by one or two individuals. It would not be easy to smuggle one in, but given the right kind of packaging in a container on a ship – we only inspect still a small portion – it could be done. Remember that a couple of years ago the government got spun up by just such a threat regarding New York.
Todd Hill (North Lake College, Euless, TX): Do you think our military, with the ongoing war in Iraq, and the practically non-existant war on terror, is less ready and less capable of handling some of the largest threats to our country in the 21st century? For example: Iran, North Korea, or even China ? Have we damaged the long-term effectiveness of our military?
Daniel Benjamin: We’ve exhausted our reserves, and Iraq has certainly taken a toll on the Army and Marines. I don’t think we’ve necessarily damaged the long-term effectiveness yet, but the wear and tear has been great.
August J. Pollak (Campus Progress): Okay, this will be our last question:
John Neurhor (Ithaca College): In your opinion, did hawks in the White House really think that fighting a war in Iraq would help fight terrorism? Were they justified to some extent?
Daniel Benjamin: They really believed it. They really believed that the demonstration effect of U.S. arms would stop people from challenging us, they thought that Iraq was involved in jihadist terror, and they thought that fighting them over there would mean we wouldn’t have to fight them here. They were wrong on the first count (terrorists don’t find shock and awe shocking), the second (Saddam and al Qaeda had no collaborative relationship, as we argued in our first book, The Age of Sacred Terror) And about third, well, you do need to have a forward strategy. But you have to recognize that the terrorists will still try to strike where you aren’t (Europe, the U.S) and that the wrong forward strategy – invading Iraq – will increase the number of terrorists, undermining the value of fighting them over there. So low marks all around.
Many thanks for tuning in. All the best,
August J. Pollak (Campus Progress): Thank you very much to Daniel Benjamin for joining us tonight. His book is "The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right," and is available in bookstores now!
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