The Book Club

Multiple Intelligence

Dear Peter,

Have you noticed that our exchange is now featured at the top of the Slate home page? I guess that means we’re doing a good job, but it’s given me a dose of performance anxiety. I mean, how are we supposed to compete for readers with Jacob Weisberg’s brilliant discussion of Tinky Winky? Especially now that you have taken us, quite appropriately, into the sleep-inducing realm of intelligence methods and bureaucratic reform … Before explaining just which of our time-honored rights I think should be trampled by jack-booted agents of the national security state, let me parry your latest clever attempt to divide and conquer our authors.

You point out that during an exchange in the most recent issue of Survival (Britain’s version of Foreign Affairs), Jessica Stern criticizes exaggerated hype about WMD terrorism and says it caused an “overreaction and hasty decision” in the case of last year’s U.S. missile strike against an alleged chemical weapons plant in Sudan tied to Osama bin Laden. Yet Stern concludes her comment with this bouquet: “As Falkenrath makes clear, the risk of apocalypse is essentially nil, but the threat of terrorism with chemical, radiological, and biological agents is real and growing.” Falkenrath then responds, “Clearly, Jessica Stern and I are in substantial agreement about most issues within this debate. Indeed, I have benefited from her work on this subject in the past, and expect to continue to do so in the future.” I don’t see much light between them, or between either and Heymann, for that matter. (Falkenrath, by the way, ducks the question about whether the Sudan strike was justified, saying we don’t have enough publicly available information yet to judge fairly. True, perhaps, but a cop-out. Here I would invoke the old adage that “justice must be done and must be seen to be done.” The Sudan strike certainly violated the second condition, even if it might conceivably turn out later to have met the first.)

Say, I just realized how I could add spice and retain our ratings! Jessica will kill me for this, but inquiring minds might like to know that she was the real-life role model for the Nicole Kidman character in The Blue Room. Well, actually, in The Peacemakerbut who’s counting? (Tip for the Harvard University Press publicity department: Find someone to blurb the book as “pure intellectual Viagra!”) So who will portray us in the movie version of this debate? I claim Kurt Russell in Executive Decision, as the dashing think-tank wonk who goes straight from a black-tie function to a mid-air hostage rescue mission. (Wife again: “Yeah, right. Try Billy Bob Thornton in A Simple Plan. Besides, ‘dashing think-tank wonk’ is an oxymoron.”)

Anyway, back to terrorism. You ask how we can prepare for future Aum Shinrikyos, and whether an effective domestic counterterrorism campaign has to undermine our democratic freedoms. Good questions both.

In response to the first, I think Heymann puts it well when he notes that we need both “targeted” and “untargeted” prevention efforts. As he says, “The steps of targeted prevention are straightforward: isolate the target from the terrorists (or the terrorists from the target) or sabotage their plans; then arrest the terrorists as soon as you have exploited all the possibilities for determining their plans, associates, and supporters. The crucial ingredient is intelligence.” I agree with you that here we need more reliance on open as well as classified sources; more international cooperation, perhaps functionally differentiated; and some bureaucratic reform and restructuring within the U.S. intelligence community. Given the pathologies of the agencies involved, the last is certain to be a difficult and thankless task. I respect CIA Director George Tenet greatly, but I would not want his job.

As for “untargeted prevention,” Heymann notes that it has both short-term and long-term aspects. “In the short-term, the effort is to deny the terrorists materials, safe movement … and necessary information about access to the target.” Basically, you try to reverse-engineer a potential terrorist attack and figure out how to put up roadblocks at every step along the way. This makes it difficult for the terrorist to do his job alone, and forces him to seek outside assistance. “Longer-term untargeted prevention,” in turn, “is designed to deny terrorist groups that assistance by such measures as reducing the size of the overall pool of potential recruits …; discouraging or denying …opportunities to safely recruit from whatever pool is available; and reducing the group’s capacity to obtain material assistance from sympathizers.” My general take on the Heymann book: intelligent common sense, as advertised–but it would have been nice to see it delivered in tighter and better prose.

I’ve run out of space, so I’ll save until tomorrow my answer about which of our freedoms must be jettisoned, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the black helicopters.