Dawn over Manhattan

Former Vice President Dick Cheney warned in an interview of a "high probability" that terrorist organizations will attempt a catastrophic attack, perhaps involving nuclear or biological weapons, on an American city. He also believed that the policy changes instituted by Barack Obama are making the enemy chances of success better. “I think they’re optimistic. All new administrations are optimistic. We were,” he said.

Cheney said “the ultimate threat to the country” is “a 9/11-type event where the terrorists are armed with something much more dangerous than an airline ticket and a box cutter – a nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind” that is deployed in the middle of an American city.

“That’s the one that would involve the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, and the one you have to spend a hell of a lot of time guarding against,” he said.

“I think there’s a high probability of such an attempt. Whether or not they can pull it off depends whether or not we keep in place policies that have allowed us to defeat all further attempts, since 9/11, to launch mass-casualty attacks against the United States.”

If Cheney’s language was dramatic, the setting for the comments was almost bizarrely pedestrian. His office is in a non-descript suburban office building in McLean, Va., in a suite that could just as easily house a dental clinic. The office is across the hall from a quick-copy store. The door is marked by nothing except a paper sign, held up by tape, saying the unit is occupied by the General Services Administration.

Cheney's assessment contrasts markedly with the picture recently painted by Glenn Carle in a Washington Post article. Carle, formerly with the CIA, believed that the threats to the US were really overblown.

I spent 23 years in the CIA. I drafted or was involved in many of the government's most senior assessments of the threats facing our country. I have devoted years to understanding and combating the jihadist threat. ... We do not face a global jihadist "movement" but a series of disparate ethnic and religious conflicts involving Muslim populations, each of which remains fundamentally regional in nature and almost all of which long predate the existence of al-Qaeda. ...

Osama bin Laden and his disciples are small men and secondary threats whose shadows are made large by our fears. Al-Qaeda is the only global jihadist organization and is the only Islamic terrorist organization that targets the U.S. homeland. ... No other Islamic-based terrorist organization, from Mindanao to the Bekaa Valley to the Sahel, targets the U.S. homeland, is part of a "global jihadist movement" or has more than passing contact with al-Qaeda. ... Al-Qaeda threatens to use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons, but its capabilities are far inferior to its desires. Even the "loose nuke" threat, whose consequences would be horrific, has a very low probability. For the medium term, any attack is overwhelmingly likely to consist of creative uses of conventional explosives.

The threat from Islamic terrorism is no larger now than it was before Sept. 11, 2001. Islamic societies the world over are in turmoil and will continue for years to produce small numbers of dedicated killers, whom we must stop. U.S. and allied intelligence do a good job at that; these efforts, however, will never succeed in neutralizing every terrorist, everywhere.

Why are these views so starkly at odds with what the Bush administration has said since the beginning of the "Global War on Terror"? This administration has heard what it has wished to hear, pressured the intelligence community to verify preconceptions, undermined or sidetracked opposing voices, and both instituted and been victim of procedures that guaranteed that the slightest terrorist threat reporting would receive disproportionate weight -- thereby comforting the administration's preconceptions and policy inclinations.

Here then, are two apparently conflicting assessments of the dangers faced by the United States. But their differences are more subtle than they seem. First, Carle doesn't deny the existence of terrorists, nor does he claim that there will never be another 9/11-sized attack again. He says, "the threat from Islamic terrorism is no larger now than it was before Sept. 11, 2001. Islamic societies the world over are in turmoil and will continue for years to produce small numbers of dedicated killers, whom we must stop. U.S. and allied intelligence do a good job at that; these efforts, however, will never succeed in neutralizing every terrorist, everywhere." What Carle denies is the existence of vast, organized Jihadi conspiracy in the Western sense. Some literature from within the intelligence community has suggested that long-term, low-level "cognitive warfare" represents a kind of threat that the CIA and other Washington bureaucracies are not equipped to recognize. They filter those elements of warfare out, and say, 'right, the enemy is a rag-tag bunch with a low technical capability and therefore we need not fear him'. Therefore it is possible that intelligence analysts can underestimate a threat, simply because it comes in a guise they are not inclined to recognize.

A close reading of Cheney's interview shows that while he believes it is likely that terrorists will make an attempt with WMD type weapons, he offers no fixed assessment of the likelihood that it will succeed.  He says, “I think there’s a high probability of such an attempt. Whether or not they can pull it off depends whether or not we keep in place policies that have allowed us to defeat all further attempts, since 9/11, to launch mass-casualty attacks against the United States.” Essentially both Carle and Cheney believe that more attacks will be made on America, but Carle seems to think the chances of their success are inherently slim while Cheney believes the likelihood of their success is greater under an Obama administration than an unspecified value before Obama's latest policy efforts.

But what is the true value of that probability? Its magnitude is really at the core of any difference between Carle's and Cheney's point of view. I doubt it can be quantified, except in subjective terms. At any rate, it is probably hard to do without a continuous assessment of specific enemy operations in progress. In this case an assessment based on general capabilities is not that helpful. I don't think the probabilities can be judged on general principles. We have to know the specifics to make a judgment. If you asked someone how likely it was that a score of men armed with box-cutters could take down two of the largest buildings in the world in the middle of New York City, most would say that the probability was very low. If you asked a naval expert what were the chances that eight battleships would be sunk by an untried weapons system in the middle of the most heavily defended harbor in the Pacific, he would say the probability was low.  If you asked Singapore Governor Thomas Shenton in on December 6, 1941 how likely it was that 30,000 men on bicycles could defeat 100,000 British and Commonwealth troops in a few weeks and take the Gibraltar of the East within two months he would have laughed in your face. In each case the probability of success was low based on a consensus view of capabilities, but on the basis of the specific details of the plans, the probabilities were quite high. In other words, we can't assess the chances of a WMD attack in the abstract. We have to know what they are up to before deciding whether it will work or not.

But if the probabilties of a successful attack are uncertain, the consequences of a terrorist success would be less so. Even without the Cheney warning, a new September 11 sized attack would have been devastating to the Obama administration. What Cheney is doing is upping the political ante.  From a political point of view, Cheney is ensuring that Obama had better make pretty damned sure another mass casualty attack doesn't happen, or face an electoral apocalypse. That doesn't answer any of the questions about what actually will happen in the future. The sad fact is that nobody can really predict that. We can only do our best based on imperfect information and see what happens.