In the early 1960s, a French militant group—the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS)—sought to prevent Algerian independence and launched a campaign of terror and assassination that claimed some 2,000 victims. As Frederick Forsyth noted in his 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal, the OAS perceived France’s “vast bureaucracies” as a glaring weakness in national security, and that impression proved relevant for the USA 30 years after the book appeared.
September 11, 2016, marks 15 years since terrorists hijacked airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, claiming nearly 3,000 victims. Many questions remain, but there is no dispute that America’s “vast bureaucracies” were a major weakness in our own national security.
In 2001, the United States deployed multiple intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which conducts counter-intelligence. None of these agencies, with all their assets and massive funding, could stop a group of 19 terrorists, headquartered in caves in Afghanistan, from completing their mission of death and destruction.
Why that is so remains a matter of some dispute. Perhaps the CIA, FBI, NSA, et al. were not communicating with each other, and were too focused on guarding their bureaucratic turf. There is no dispute, however, that they failed. They can’t say they weren’t warned.
In the 1990s, Islamic terrorism mounted a surge, and in 1998 Osama Bin Laden and four other jihadists declared that it was God’s decree that Muslims should kill Americans anywhere in the world. That year, Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization carried out attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and wounding thousands.
Of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks, 14 were Saudi nationals, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) saw no red flags in their visa applications. According to some reports, various flight schools warned the FBI about the sudden interest in aviation on the part of Saudi students, but nothing came of it.
The attacks went ahead as planned. Six months later, the INS approved the student visas for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, who had crashed separate planes into the towers of the World Trade Center. Apparently no INS bureaucrat noticed that the pair had perished.
Response to the 9/11 attacks was largely bureaucratic. In November, 2002, President George W. Bush founded the Department of Homeland Security, which, as P. J. O’Rourke quipped, sounds like a failed savings and loan.
The DHS boasts a budget of more than $40 billion and employs more than 240,000 people. While nothing on the scale of 9/11 has happened on the DHS’s watch, terrorists inspired by radical Islam claimed lives in Orlando last June, San Bernardino in 2015, and Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.
U.S. intelligence agencies knew that army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan had communicated with a militant cleric, but they did nothing to stop him from fatally shooting 13 people, more than twice the number killed in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. President Obama called Hasan’s massacre a case of “workplace violence,” not even “gun violence,” one of the president’s favorite themes.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, also prompted the creation of the federal Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security. The TSA has succeeded in making air travel more troublesome, but it has failed to ensure the absolute safety of air travel.
When “red team” security specialists tried to smuggle explosives and weapons past airport checkpoints, they succeeded 95 percent of the time. The failure rate of TSA’s $200 million behavioral-analysis system for detecting actual terrorists passing through airports was even worse.
Vast bureaucracies are a weakness in national security. The OAS knew this in the 1960s, and contemporary terrorists know it too. That’s why, 15 years after 9/11, a scene from the film version of The Day of Jackal remains relevant. As Inspector Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) told Madame de Montpellier (Delphine Seyrig), “be in no doubt as to the seriousness of your position.”
Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow and Communications Counsel at the Independent Institute. He is author of Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry, and Bill of Writes: Dispatches from the Political Correctness Battlefield.