Information is fast developing on the terrorist attack on the United States, and police have taken several people into custody. There is talk, although none from official government sources, of rather imminent military action.
In response to the terrorist attack, some U.S. military strike is soon expected. Once the evidence is clear, says William Taylor, a top Washington strategist, the United States can effectively retaliate. The question is how to do it? "We do have capabilities," he said, "but where do you direct them? Are they Tomahawk cruise missiles off ships? Air strikes by B-2 bombers? Fighter attacks? Is this a kind of retaliation that demands special forces, a surgical seizure of whatever terrorists we identify. We have got capabilities, a whole range of them. But the intelligence required to make the decision is what is key right this minute."
A former senior executive at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mr. Taylor says beware of that old army slogan: "Do something, even if it is wrong." We do not want to be wrong, he warns, since there are many potential enemies besides Osama bin Laden. Dozens of North Africans, for example, have been arrested in Europe for planning terrorist acts against the United States.
"You cannot afford to do something and have it be wrong," he said. "Do we have more than probable cause to suspect a particular organization? Do we have the intelligence to tell us where its headquarters and leadership are? Do we have a way to strike and retaliate without enormous civilian casualties? To lash out without knowing what you are doing would be a terribly dumb thing to do."
U.S. intelligence, of course, is now in question. Some analysts say it has failed spectacularly in the case of the terrorist attack. One criticism is the CIA is prevented from recruiting anybody with a record of human rights violations. That would effectively eliminate anyone who could get close to bin Laden.
But Joseph Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of Government, cautions against expecting too much of intelligence. We hear about its failures, he says, not its successes. For example, terrorist attacks planned during the Gulf War were apparently thwarted. So, too, were planned assaults at the time of the Millennium. "It is not as though intelligence fails all over," he said. "But even if intelligence is pretty good, I suppose, if there are 100 attacks planned, it is not enough to get just 99. So a one per cent failure rate can lead to the disaster of the type we have seen."
Robert Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations says more attention must be paid to home defense. A review is needed of how our government is organized. "In order to deal with these kinds of threats, you need to have a whole different kind of integration of things like the federal emergency management agency, the FBI counterintelligence, the national guard a whole range of agencies that need to be working together in a counter-terrorist manner," he said.
Even vigilant counterintelligence will not suffice, says Mr. Taylor, if U.S. policies continue to alienate people around the world. "In a time when the United States does not enjoy a terrific reputation for internationalism, when we look like we are unilateralists, and we will do whatever we need to do for the United States, no matter whose interests we trample on," he said.
Joseph Nye says the terrorist attack should not force the United States off course in its foreign policy. "What is extremely important is that we be fair and evenhanded in our policies in the Middle East, and we try to continue to have a peace process, which we need to push despite the problems in the area," he said. "Equally important at home, we do not want to get into a syndrome of being suspicious of people because of their Arab origins or because of Islam."
Mr. Nye adds that, even if the United States withdrew its troops and retreated to its borders, its power and influence would still make enemies. There will always be people who hate us for what we are.