Decades Of Terror Blunders


The Secret History of

American Counterterrorism

By Timothy Naftali

Basic Books; 399pp; $26

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Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good An impressive rendering of U.S. counterterrorism efforts since the 1940s.

The Bad A focus on bureaucratic structure may not be to all readers' tastes.

The Bottom Line Fascinating detail on why needed reforms were neglected over the decades.

Timothy Naftali's revealing survey of America's fight against terrorism since the 1940s, Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, is an impressive and depressing book. In describing America's often feckless efforts, the University of Virginia intelligence expert cites memos and debates that could have been ripped from today's headlines yet are in some cases four decades old.

Exhibit A: After a rash of hijackings to Cuba, President Kennedy's Federal Aviation Administration chief, Najeeb Halaby, recommends voluntary arming of flight crews and posting of undercover federal marshals on flights. Fears of shoot-outs at 20,000 feet quash the plan.

Exhibit B: A 1976 CIA memo predicts a new trend, "transnational terrorist activity that is largely independent of -- and quite resistant to control by -- the state-centered international system." But the CIA doesn't think violence will rise, arguing that terrorists want to influence, not kill people.

What these memos show is that, contrary to what many people believe, September 11 didn't change everything. Concern at the highest levels of government about terrorist groups stretches back decades. But little was done. "An unbroken line of White Houses, Democrat and Republican, saw domestic security measures as a potential political liability," Naftali writes. Why? "There are no domestic constituencies in peacetime for longer lines at airports, more government intrusion into communications, and enhanced police powers," he says. Only bloody experience and the rhetoric of a war on terrorism could change that.

Blind Spot is an expansion of the work Naftali did for his former UVA colleague, Philip D. Zelikow, when Zelikow, now counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was staff director of the 9/11 Commission. Zelikow had asked Naftali to provide historical perspective on U.S. counterterrorism efforts to the panel staff. His book offers fascinating detail on why needed reforms were neglected -- though its focus on bureaucratic structure may not be to all readers' tastes.

Naftali's research reveals that Washington's worries about terrorism date all the way back to World War II. Of particular concern were reports that Otto Skorzeny, a notorious Nazi special-operations expert, planned to lead a terrorist campaign against the new governments of a liberated Europe. The goal: push them toward authoritarianism to restore order -- and pave the way for a Nazi revival.

The plot prompted U.S. intelligence to mobilize a counterterrorism corps. At that time the FBI was responsible for some foreign intelligence gathering. When the British offered to share wartime signals intelligence, they proposed Percy "Sam" Foxworth, an experienced FBI hand, as a contact. The idea was to transfer him to the new Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. But FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover nixed the idea since he didn't like Foxworth. Had an FBI agent taken the job, there might have been cooperation between the FBI and CIA rather than the rivalry that ensued.

Terrorism reached America's shores in the 1950s, when radical Puerto Rican independence activists tried to kill President Harry S Truman and opened fire in the House of Representatives. In the 1960s, Americans hijacked planes and diverted them to Cuba. But the incidents were dismissed as mere nuisances since the planes and passengers weren't harmed.

Later, when Palestinians started hijacking planes, taking hostages, and killing people -- for example, at the Munich Olympics, on the cruise ship Achille Lauro, in the Marine barracks in Beirut -- the U.S. finally began to view terror as a menace. Still, for decades policymakers continued to focus more on the Vietnam War, the CIA's domestic spying on Americans, and the Iran-Contra scandal than on terrorism.

There are wonderful nuggets in this tale of woe. For instance, in 1974, to get a seat at Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Yassir Arafat had his intelligence chief, Ali Hassan Salameh, pass info to the U.S. about the plans of radical Palestinians. Conveniently, these were Arafat rivals.

While Naftali explains in detail what everyone knows generally -- that U.S. counterterrorism efforts haven't been stellar -- the author also reports some successes. The U.S., with help from Jordan, Israel, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, created so much paranoia in the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization that it imploded. The U.S. also helped Peru track down the leader of the violent Shining Path terrorist group, Abimael Guzmán Reynoso, via his unusual taste in food and tobacco. The CIA and Peruvian officials figured out where he shopped, combed through trash bins to find the wrappers and his location, and nabbed him. If only we knew what C-rations Osama bin Laden likes.

By Stan Crock

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