The Book Club

Apocalypse When?

Dear Gideon,

You say that whenever you think about the threat industry driving new and expensive government programs, you come back to Aum Shinrikyo. You are not alone. Even this old skeptic agrees they’re a scary outfit, but we should let our authors speak. And here I’m going to cheat, just a little, and introduce a British connection (but I’m allowed to–required to–aren’t I?).

I found Jessica Stern critiquing Falkenrath et al. in Survival, the quarterly journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies of London (Winter 1998-99). She wrote, “Until recently, the threat [of NBC terrorism] was entirely ignored; now it is attracting too much frenzied attention and too little careful analysis, inspired by the widespread conviction that the Aum Shinrikyo case proves that NBC attacks resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths are all but inevitable. Both attitudes are dangerous. The first has led to the underfunding of programs designed to prevent or mitigate the threat. The second is leading to overreaction and hasty decisions, some of which will harm international security.” (And then she cites the U.S. cruise missile attack on the aspirin factory, or whatever it was, in the Sudan.)

Well, of course, the Aum Shinrikyo case does not prove any pattern, or trend; it may not even indicate one. We really don’t know. So how do we best prepare against the rise of other such groups?

Adequate intelligence is one need. And we do know the CIA screwed up over Aum Shinrikyo. In hearings before Congress in 1995, the CIA admitted it had somehow missed the activities of the Aum, even though the event had been reported in the Japanese and European press and even in the U.S.-owned International Herald Tribune. This suggests that a new intelligence center for terrorism, as proposed by former CIA director John Deutch et al. in their Foreign Affairs article on “Catastrophic Terrorism,” is not only a good idea but a necessity. Stern suggests improving the international sharing of intelligence–after all, there are many more instances of international terrorism against the U.S. than instances of domestic terrorism.

But sharing intelligence is notoriously difficult. For one thing, national intelligence services hate to share on principle–the concept of the CIA sharing with the Israeli Mossad or the British SAS is one thing; the reality of it is something else. And the well-known barriers to domestic interagency sharing–the CIA with the FBI, which is fast becoming the lead agency for terrorism–have to be overcome.

As Heymann says, “All oversight [Congress and executive branch] depends upon the willingness of CIA officers in the field to keep their superiors, the local U.S. ambassador, and Congress informed.

Also, in general terms, for the most efficient working relationship between states, the U.S. would have to be prepared to swap, say, its superior technical intelligence from photo reconnaissance and “sigint,” or interception of radio and other signals, with what the Israelis are really good at, which is “humint,” or human agents spying on potential terrorists. Apparently, a U.S.-Israeli exchange of sorts is now happening, but up to what level?

Abroad, the extent to which U.S. agencies can gather human intelligence depends on cooperation of the host country, and on bilateral treaties. At home, we have to consider how intelligence agencies, in going after terrorist groups, might undermine our democratic societies. Again the most lucid of our authors is Heymann. “We must monitor organizations that urge political violence as a tactic and have the capacity to use it, but with an awareness that this effort will inevitably inhibit free speech and political organization at the borders of political discussion, and with a concern to minimize that inhibition.” Can that be done?