Last week, testifying on security threats against the United States before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, CIA director George Tenet laid out a blueprint for America's national security doctrine in the twenty-first century. Topping Tenet's list of principal threats was terrorism committed by Muslims.
"There is an intricate web of alliances among Sunni extremists worldwide, including North Africans, radical Palestinians, Pakistanis, and Central Asians...There's an infrastructure out there that is perhaps bigger than we anticipated," said Tenet. "We essentially have undertaken to systematically develop a strategic plan to attack this infrastructure."
Like many of his colleagues in the national security profession, Tenet paints a picture for Congress and the American people of a vast conspiracy of "Islamic terrorists" stretching across the globe; irrational fanatics who burn with rage at America and probe our weaknesses for a chance to strike.
Of course, that is the picture he must paint -- his agency's funding depends on it.
This is the dilemma of America's intelligence community. The Evil Empire has crumbled -- a development the CIA utterly failed to foresee. How will career spooks continue to justify their existence, in an America with no enemy looming outside its gates, no convincing threat to its survival?
Most attempts at creating a new bogeyman have fallen flat. The specter of North Korea simply doesn't resonate with the public. As for Iraq, most Americans were never fooled into thinking Saddam Hussein posed a threat to anything more than U.S. oil interests and our Gulf client states (and of course to his own people, but our sanctions policy proves we don't really care about that).
One faction of the American political and security establishment believes the "Islamic terrorist threat" is the perfect savior for their uncertain careers.
As Defense Week notes, some believe "the perceived growth in the threat has more to do with the fact that terrorism and the fear of unconventional weapons has become to the 1990s what the Soviet Union was in earlier decades, if not on the same scale: a sure fire way to attract cash to a program and to repel critical thought about how it is spent."
Congressional aides interviewed by the magazine said they were concerned that the threat is being overstated in the name of justifying and growing a $7 billion annual anti-terrorism budget. "You say, 'Terrorism,' and Congress coughs up cash," said one House aide.
The only problem is there really is no massive threat.
In testimony before Congress in 1998, Larry Johnson, former deputy director for counter-terrorism for the U.S. State Department, said: "Groups and individuals that advocate terrorism are losing support rather than winning adherents. Consider Osama Bin Ladin's fatwas that have called for Muslims to rise up and attack U.S. citizens and installations around the world. His fatwa has fallen on deaf ears...Bin Ladin's failed fatwa is a reminder that Muslims are not terrorists and they do not endorse his tactics."
Articulation of the new doctrine is often preceded by disclaimers purportedly distinguishing between ordinary Muslims and "Islamic fundamentalist terrorists." But for the doctrine's proponents, these distinctions are superficial. Pro-Israel author and self-described terrorism expert Steven Emerson recently referred to Turkey's PKK, a group of communist Kurdish nationalists, as an "Islamic terrorist group." And Tenet warns that terrorists will enter the Chechnya conflict "for Muslim reasons" -- note he did not say, "for Islamic fundamentalist reasons."
Congress should be used to the CIA crying wolf over the threat of terrorism from Muslims. "There is going to be tremendous growth in terrorism over the next decade or so, not only directed towards Americans but throughout the world," then-CIA Director John Deutch told the House Intelligence Committee in 1995, naming several Muslim groups as likely sources. Halfway through the time frame of Deutch's prediction, terrorism has steadily shrunk.
"How serious is the threat of international terrorism?" asked Ambassador Philip Wilcox, former coordinator for counter-terrorism at the State Department, in testimony before Congress last month. "Measured by the number of international terrorist attacks in recent years, the threat is declining."
No doubt there is a circle of Muslims who see the United States as the fount of evil in the world, and would use terrorism to attack it. The bombing of U.S. facilities in Kenya, Tanzania, and Saudi Arabia are proof. The U.S. obviously has a legitimate interest in seeing Bin Laden brought to trial, as do the families of the Africans who were killed in the blasts. But in reality, Muslim terrorists are so few, so isolated from the larger Muslim community, and their capabilities so limited that the threat could be effectively countered with simple measures like increasing security at America's under-protected overseas installations.
Unfortunately, says Wilcox, despite the conclusions of review boards appointed to make recommendations after the bombings, "adequate funds for safe embassies have not been made available because of overall limitations on State Department budgets."
Eroding democracy at home...
Meanwhile, America's national security establishment pushes Congress' "Islamic terrorism" button to demand and receive millions of dollars for a litany of programs that are disturbing in their threat to civil liberties, bigoted in their targeting of Muslims and Arabs, but dubious in their effectiveness.
A prime example is "passenger profiling," the practice of singling out airline passengers for intensive searches on the basis of secret characteristics supposedly common to terrorists (the government claims religion and ethnicity are not factors). Four years and over one hundred civil rights complaints later, the Federal Aviation Administration cannot point to a single terrorist incident averted by the practice.
Another abuse born of the new fear of Islam is the use of secret evidence in immigration proceedings. The practice allows the INS to indefinitely jail non-citizens accused of terrorism without disclosing to them or their lawyers the evidence against them, on the grounds that doing so would jeopardize national security. In all but one reported case, the victims of this practice are Muslims or Arabs. In cases where attorneys for the suspects managed to have the evidence declassified, the material has turned out to be things such as newspaper clippings and unsupported allegations from bitter ex-wives.
And in an ominous development, next year the INS will begin implementing a plan to track by computer the movements and plans of all foreign students and scholars on American campuses. The plan will eventually be widened to include computerized tracking of most aliens in the United States on long-term visas.
The INS explained its motivation for the plan, known as Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students (CIPRIS), in a handout distributed at a conference in 1996: "The involvement of former foreign students in the World Trade Center bombing and the homicide outside CIA headquarters have caused foreign students to have a higher profile within certain law enforcement circles."
For the actions of those two people, thousands of foreign students each year are losing their civil liberties: the law that authorized CIPRIS also suspended some protections under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The INS admits, however, that CIPRIS is not likely to improve security.
"No one is under the illusion that improvements in the accuracy and availability of student information is likely to make a significa,nt difference in our country's security," the agency says in the same handout.
Ambassador Wilcox testified that "a weakening of our democratic, constitutionally protected freedoms...in order to monitor, detect and apprehend terrorist suspects...would, of course, be a gift to the terrorists, whose values are profoundly anti-democratic." The irony is that Americans are taking a cut in their civil liberties for measures the government admits do not even work.
...Eroding American national interests abroad
The hysteria of people such as Director of Central Intelligence Tenet fuels tension and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. While leaders of America's national security community inflate minor threats like Bin Laden into a new Soviet Union, their sweeping generalizations and inflammatory rhetoric helps convince the Muslim world the United States has declared war on their civilization.
Even worse, people in Washington listen to these people, often with disastrous results. The Clinton administration is still hoping the world will forget about the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which it bombed on the advice of the CIA. The incident eroded America's credibility overseas -- the inevitable outcome of all decisions spurred by ideology, not by real intelligence work or a sound understanding of what our national interests are.
Its not surprising that those pushing the notion of Islam as the next Evil Empire tend to be those with national security or intelligence community backgrounds like the folks at the CIA. While many CIA agents are no doubt sincere and ethical, the agency has consistently been an embarrassment to the United States and a major argument against America's self image as a promoter of freedom and democracy in the world. After all, these are the people who brought the world Pinochet in Chile, death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador, and nun-raping Contras in Nicaragua.
Nor is it surprising to find that America's diplomats at the State Department tend to be more levelheaded in their dealings with the Muslim world -- after all, it is their job to smooth over rough edges in America's dealings with the rest of the world while promoting America's objectives. While they are not out to safeguard the interests of the world's Muslim population, they are pragmatic enough to realize that those interests and American interests often overlap.
"I've seen it suggested by some that the challenge of dealing with Islamism is one of the few remaining intellectual debates in U.S. foreign policy and that the goal of American policy over the last 18 years has been to contain the spread of Islamic movements and Islamist regimes," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ronald Neumann said at a Georgetown University panel discussion last September.
"As a diplomat who has been practicing his trade in this region for the past 26 years, I would strongly disagree with these simplifications. Whether or not a regime is religious is not the issue. There is no inherent conflict between Islam and the West...the idea of policy based on what people believe and think is fundamentally antithetical to basic American principles. We do not make policy on the basis of others' thought because to do so could be destructive of the ideas and values we hold dear."
Neumann's words sound very fair, and indicate that there are high-level U.S. government officials whose vision of Islam is more realistic than those of some of their colleagues; these officials should be cultivated by American Muslims.
But assuming Neumann is sincere, his voice is not loud enough -- the "Islam as the enemy" doctrine has taken root in his own department. If our national interests really lie in promoting justice in the world, then certain actions, or lack of actions, by the State Department are undermining those interests.
America was silent while Turkish generals force,d out a democratically elected pro-Islamic government. The State Department actively supports communists in Bosnia over the popularly elected SDA party, one of the only governments in the world that views Islamic work as positive, not threatening. Democracy takes a back seat to the "fear of Islam" doctrine, when democracy's result is political power for observant, unapologetic Muslims.
"Greater attention to the root causes of terrorism and political violence...and resolving conflict through diplomacy and other programs...will help reduce the threat of international terrorism to our country and citizens," testified Ambassador Wilcox. And, instead of encouraging or ignoring repressive regimes like those of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Turkey, and Egypt, the U.S. should work to improve conditions for Muslims in those countries.
Let's not undermine democracy overseas and at home out of fear of Islam. If we have won the Cold War, we should not create a new one for the sake of the careers or political goals of a few. Congress should not hand over the "peace dividend" to anti-democratic institutions like the CIA; instead, let's spend it to increase our understanding of other cultures and beliefs, and to promote justice in the world. The result will be a safer and more secure America.
Ismail Royer is the iviews.com Washington Bureau Chief