Terror Turf Wars
Four years and seven months after al-Qaeda's attack on the American homeland, more is missing than Osama bin Laden. The Bush administration still struggles to agree on how to carry out its secret blueprint to fight the global war on terrorism.
The blueprint -- whose broad outline was approved in private last month at the White House -- commits the administration to concentrating its national security powers on defeating jihadist terrorism at home and abroad. But a series of internal battles that have been kept more secret than the classified document itself has delayed final agreement on who has the authority to carry out its most demanding responsibilities.
Resolving those divergences still preoccupies interagency drafting committees and the National Counterterrorism Center, even though President Bush originally asked his aides to move urgently to stage a revolution in the government's methods and structures for fighting a new kind of long war.
The story of the making of National Security Presidential Directive 46 is at one level a familiar tale of a Washington turf battle that pits diplomats, soldiers, spooks and new legions of terrorism experts in a scramble for resources and glory. The document is co-titled Homeland Security Presidential Directive 15 because it holds the newest Cabinet department responsible for preventing attacks on U.S. territory.
But the tale also suggests, more disturbingly, that the weak interagency coordination that contributed so greatly to the nation's lack of preparedness for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks continues to hamper the worldwide battle against al-Qaeda, its allies and offshoots. Bush's habit of setting grand designs and leaving overwhelmed subordinates to work out the details is exacting a large cost in this exercise.
Some officials involved in drafting the blueprint think it has the potential to shape national strategy as successfully as did NSC 68, the planning document that set the parameters for American action in the Cold War. Bush hinted last week in a speech that he takes that view. Others fear, however, that unless it mandates decisive action and clearly establishes responsibility for it, the new directive could come to resemble the quickly discredited counterinsurgency plans that Washington's best and brightest put forward in the Vietnam War era.
The outcome is still uncertain. But conversations over the past year with several participants in the review reveal that one iron law of the Washington bureaucracy holds firm: The devil is always in the details.
The quest for a master plan for counterterrorism originated in the need to update or change pre-9/11 laws, presidential policy documents and bureaucratic structures that treated international terrorism directed at Americans primarily as a law enforcement problem, not as a global struggle to be won on foreign battlefields with arms and ideas.
That review stretched over two years in one form or another and appeared to have been completed when NSPD 46 was formally adopted behind closed doors by the Bush national security team one week before the public release on March 16 of the administration's National Security Strategy. In fact, some crucial unresolved disagreements were simply passed over in the interests of a show of consensus on "a statement of aspirations," in the words of one participant.
The most contentious issues -- particularly how far the Defense Department should go in carrying out Bush's direct order to "disrupt and destroy" jihadist terrorist networks, even if they operate in friendly or neutral countries -- were left to be dealt with in annexes that are being negotiated by the departments of State and Defense and the CIA. An NSC spokesman declined to comment on the contents of the document or on any ongoing differences about implementation.
The struggle for control was absent in the emergency days after 9/11, when Bush gave the "disrupt and destroy" order to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. That was followed by an "AQSL Ex. Ord." -- a directive that bin Laden and 10 other members of al-Qaeda's senior leadership be brought to justice by all necessary means, "dead or alive," as Bush said.
That was the seed from which grew a broader plan of attack against al-Qaeda's networks, other jihadist bands and the jihadist ideology that loosely unites them. But as the extremist Islamic movement metastasized through the Middle East, Asia and Europe, Rumsfeld is said to have pushed for a presidential directive that would contain clearer definitions and authority for the Pentagon to carry out its "kinetic" missions abroad.