There is no "war" against terrorism. What George W. Bush launched and Barack Obama insists on perpetuating does not qualify. Not if by war one means doing the obvious and checking a highly suspicious air traveler's underwear to see if explosives have been sewn in. If Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had put the stuff in his shoes, we would have had him because that was tried before, but our government was too preoccupied with fighting unnecessary conventional wars and developing anti-missile defense systems to anticipate such a primitive delivery system.
The explosives-laden underwear — worn by an airline passenger who had previously been flagged as a potentially dangerous fanatic, and who had paid cash for his ticket and had no checked luggage — was the terrorist's weapon of choice, one that could have blown a hole in the side of Northwest Airlines' Detroit-bound Flight 253 on Christmas Day, killing hundreds of innocents. But it is not a weapon to be effectively countered with the deployment of hundreds of thousands of American combat troops. Nor can it be stopped by the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of planes, subs and missiles in our arsenal of Cold War-era weapons, part of an annual defense budget that is higher in inflation-adjusted dollars than at any time in the past half-century.
In response to the Sept. 11 hijackers, armed with artillery that cost a couple hundred dollars at most, we threw money and, more importantly, attention at conventional military responses while neglecting the difficult police work and the intelligence evaluation and civilian-focused technology necessary to thwart homeland attacks.
Yes, there are evildoers out there that mean us harm, as President Bush declaimed. But they are often the products of the best of Western education who, as examples ranging from the lead Sept. 11 hijackers — the Hamburg group — to the elite University College London-educated engineer in the latest incident demonstrate, move more easily in urbane Western societies than in Afghan villages.
The technology that could help detect a sophisticated plane hijacker or suicide bomber has been largely botched in development and only halfheartedly deployed even when it is available. On Tuesday, a devastating report in The Washington Post revealed that the full-body scanning equipment hyped after Sept. 11, which might have detected the explosives involved in last week's incident, is still not in wide use.
As the Post stated, "A plan that would have helped focus the development of better screening technology and procedures — including a risk-based assessment of aviation threats — is almost two years overdue, according to a report this fall by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress."
So, screening equipment that can detect plastic explosives exists, but it was not used in this case and, as the GAO predicted, "TSA cannot ensure that it is targeting the highest priority security needs at checkpoints; measure the extent to which deployed technologies reduce the risk of terrorist attacks; or make needed adjustments to its PSP (Passenger Screening Program) strategy." As a result, the GAO concluded, "TSA lacks assurance that its investments in screening technologies address the highest priority security needs at airport passenger checkpoints."
The "systematic failure" in the nation's security that President Obama referred to Tuesday derives from the war metaphor itself and from the assumption, begun with George W. Bush's irrational invasion of Iraq and extended with Obama's escalation in Afghanistan, that terrorism is a military rather than a criminal threat. The terrorists are not rebel fighters rooted, as are the Taliban and the remnants of the Iraq insurgency, in their homeland struggles and subject to being defeated on conventional battlefields.
Rather, they are rootless cosmopolitans of violence, alienated from any stated homeland and free to move easily about the world, armed in almost every instance with valid passports, visas and money to exploit our inability to seriously evaluate our own intelligence data. They can count on our top government officials ignoring blinking red warnings, as the Bush White House did before Sept. 11, or the alarm of a well-connected and properly concerned Nigerian banker-father.
Preventing terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland has nothing to do with occupying vast tracts of land or winning the hearts and minds of backward villagers whom we falsely depict as surrogates of an evil empire, as we did in Vietnam and are now doing in Afghanistan. What is needed is smart police work to catch these highly mobile fanatics, and that begins with actually reading and then acting on the readily available intelligence data. It requires detectives with brains and not generals with firepower.
The ballooning of the defense budget after Sept. 11 has proved a great boondoggle for the military-industrial complex, which suddenly found an excuse to build weapons and deploy conventional forces against a superpower enemy that no longer exists. But our stealth fighters and bombers designed to defeat Soviet defenses that were never built are a poor match against a terrorist's stealth underwear.
Robert Scheer is editor of truthdig.com, where this column originally appeared. E-mail Robert Scheer at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Robert Scheer, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Webpage at www.creators.com.