A few rounds of the Blame Game are to be expected as the commission investigating the run-up to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, wraps up its work.
Certainly, when four commercial jets are hijacked and used as missiles to kill 3,000 innocent people in less than an hour, there is ample blame to go around.
But one recent claim — that the Bush administration was so focused on missile defense (search) that it overlooked the more imminent threat of terrorist attack, that its security strategy emphasized the wrong defense against the wrong enemy — can't go unanswered.
This new line of criticism emerged after a report in The Washington Post that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice planned to give a speech on 9/11 that would "promote missile defense as the cornerstone of a new national security strategy and contained no mention of al Qaeda, Usama bin Laden or Islamic extremist groups."
This may be hard for those blinded by partisanship to grasp, but a nation can pursue two objectives simultaneously. The administration is working on homeland security, counter-terrorism and, yes, missile defense. And rightly so. Today, America can't defend itself against even one ballistic missile, thanks to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (search) — the Cold War-era agreement with the Soviet Union, since renounced by President Bush, that stalled development of a missile-defense system.
The ABM Treaty, backed by some of the very people now ripping the administration, worked on the theory that vulnerability was a virtue, that our capacity to retaliate would keep our enemies at bay. This strategy was always questionable. Now that our principle antagonists are extremists who represent no state against which we could retaliate and who place no value on their own lives, it is downright irresponsible.
America now is working — as it should be — on land- and sea-based missile defense systems, and the first elements of a land-based system will be operational before this year ends. The progress comes not instead of addressing the terrorist threat but because of it. Missile defense is an extension of homeland defense.
If 9/11 proved nothing else, it pointed out the length to which our enemies will go to harm us. The operation that climaxed that day in balls of fire in Virginia, New York and western Pennsylvania took years to plan. It costs hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of dollars. It was carried out by an organization run by a scion of one of the world's wealthiest families who, in turn, can tap billions more in support from like-minded people.
Remember that when you hear that terrorists don't have the means to acquire ballistic missiles. And remember something else Rice planned to point out that day — the "stubborn and extremely troubling fact that the list of states that sponsor terror and the list of states that are seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction overlap substantially." Iran and North Korea, for example, have longstanding relationships with terrorist organizations.
Also, remember that the most-plentiful ballistic missiles are smaller, shorter-range weapons that can be fired from tiny boats off the U.S. coast. An expert commission, chaired by current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, warned of this threat as early as 1998.
The argument that terrorists won't ever get their hands on weapons of mass destruction (search) is exceeded in silliness only by the argument that President Bush's attention to missile defense invited the attacks of 9/11. As Rice planned to bring up that day, we spend twice as much on anti-terrorism as we do on missile defense. Besides, the deadly plan that culminated on Sept. 11 was hatched long before President Bush took office. Certainly, al Qaeda's ire wasn't sparked by President Clinton's tepid support of missile defense.
For that matter, on what basis does one claim that because the national security advisor planned to give a speech endorsing missile defense, the administration was ignoring all other threats? Even the excerpts of the speech obtained by The Post belie this. "And yes, these new threats also require us to pay attention to other means of delivery besides missiles," the text of the speech says. "We need to worry about the suitcase bomb, the car bomb and the vial of sarin released in the subway." Those are terrorist threats.
All Americans should welcome an open, frank discussion about how the terrorists pierced our security on Sept. 11 and what might be done to prevent future attacks. But a circular firing squad does no one any good. We must remember that the enemy is the terrorist organization that attacked us, not the hard-working Americans who try to prevent such attacks.
Baker Spring is the Kirby research fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.