Thursday, August 12, 2004

The Gathering Threat

Last night I watched a replay of the House Intelligence Committee's 9/11 Commission hearings on CSPAN. Testifying, were Ed Meese, some guy I've never heard of named Larry Thompson, and Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich was in great form, speaking knowledgeably and persuasively about the terrorism threat and the ability of the federal government to organize itself to effectively counter it. His enthusiastic endorsement of the Commission's findings, particularly for the creation of a National Intelligence Director post, eases some of my concerns that the Commissions recommendations were nothing more than bureaucratic paper shuffling.

However, most of his comments were aimed at trying to get the House members to understand the scope of the threat we face, and to inspire them to be more aggressive in taking preemptory action. The former history professor gave his sobering estimate that the war against terrorism would last until at least 2070. And he said it was to be a hard fought, bitter campaign throughout, with the potential for massive US losses. His opinion was that we're not doing enough at this time to identify and eliminate threats. In terms of resources needed to fight, he asked the Congressmen to look at the US government expenditures and societal reorganization during the first the years of the Civil War, the first years of American involvement in WWI, the first years of WWII, and the first few years of the Cold War. He gave actual time periods to study for each example (I forget what they were), and I assume he was referring to the higher costs associated with the uncertain beginning years of a major conflict, as opposed to those associated with the winding down of hostilities.

At one point the issue of circumscribed civil liberties came up and Gingrich's response was that it had to be a balancing act. He rhetorically posed the question, if there were reliable information that a terrorist nuclear strike on Washington DC was scheduled for inauguration day next January, would he favor the temporary retraction of all civil liberties in the country. Given the threat to the survival of the US government and the loss of over a million people, his answer was "unquestionably, yes". He then posed a counter scenario. In the course of steeling the country for the new threat, in the crafting of legislation and regulations, would he want protection of civil liberties for US citizens to be incorporated throughout? His answer again, "unquestionably, yes". He summed up by saying (I'm paraphrasing from memory), 'in protecting the very survival of civilization of North America, I do not want to lose the United States.' Which I interpreted as his desire to save the US Constitution during this dangerous, brutal, century long war.

Throwing more shock into the system, Gingrich reiterated that stateless terrorists aren't the only threat we face. He emphasized the need to keep an eye on the Russians and the Chinese. He made specific, repeated mention of recent Chinese research into electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weaponry. This report from the Heritage Foundation, summarizes the situation. And I'll never accuse Heritage of burying the lede after reading this opening sentence:

A nuclear-generated electromagnetic pulse "is one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk and might result in defeat of our military forces."

If our enemies acquire such a weapon, that is an entirely plausible outcome. It would happen with a low level nuke being detonated in the atmosphere above the desired target, be it our military overseas or the Continental US. Given the bomb's altitude, no individuals would be immediately killed, but all electronics would be permanently fried, thus eliminating our conventional war fighting advantages. The Heritage description of how it might occur:

A Scud-type ballistic missile launched from a vessel in U.S. coastal waters and detonated at an altitude of 95 miles could degrade electronic systems across one-quarter of the United States. A more powerful missile launched from North Korea could probably deliver a warhead 300 miles above America--enough to degrade the electronic systems across the entire continental United States.

Obviously, stopping the proliferation of this weapon is as important as stopping all of our favorite WMDs. But that may be even harder than we think it is (and none of us thinks it's easy). We may not be dealing with merely stopping individuals with bad faith and malicious intentions. State sponsored proliferation would be almost impossible to stop and I got the sense that Newt was strongly hinting the Chinese are suspect in this regard. The Heritage report includes this corroborating (or perhaps the original source) paragraph:

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the rise of powerful non-state actors, and the evolving strategic relationships with countries like China and Russia have made the threat more difficult to assess. In reality, the U.S. simply cannot rely on the old tools of deterrence to compel threatening regimes not to attack the United States or its interests. As demonstrated on September 11, 2001, the Cold War deterrent of massive retaliation does not work.

That last statement puts John Kerry's recent comments in bold relief:

Let there be no mistake: I will never hesitate to use force when it is required. Any attack will be met with a swift and certain response.

Concisely phrased, that is Kerry's position on the war on terror, massive retaliation as deterrent.

Say what you will of Gingrich's politics, he accurately describes the razor's edge our elected officials will have to face in the years to come. I was somewhat heartened to see that Gingrich held the rapt attention of members of both political parties during this hearing. Let's hope something got through to them. Unfortunately, my personal observations tell me our elected officials, especially the Democrats, are not up to the challenge.

Newt himself said, if there is another incident in this country, on a scale meeting or potentially far exceeding the horror associated with 9/11, the country will ramp up and reorganize itself for war. The key question is, can the government ramp up before that happens, and prevent that horrible incident from ever happening?

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