Taking a Page From the Cold War

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By Walter Pincus
Monday, February 18, 2008

Two U.S. intelligence officials, in public appearances last week, outlined plans to join the ideological fight against radical Islam, much as the CIA worked behind the scenes during the Cold War in the battle against the creed of world communism.

"How do we and our allies counter the ideology that supports violent extremism?" asked Michael Leiter, the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, in a speech Wednesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The goal, Leiter said, is "to prevent the next generation of terrorists from emerging," and one approach he suggested is "to show that it is al-Qaeda, not the West, that is truly at war with Islam."

Hours earlier, at a hearing on worldwide threats before the House Armed Services Committee, John A. Kringen, the CIA's deputy director for intelligence, spoke on the same theme, saying that while the United States and its allies have succeeded in "disrupting and dismantling terrorist organizations . . . the supply of people wanting to join those organizations continues and in some areas continues to grow."

There was no mention of any fallout from Iraq. Instead, Kringen said one of the underlying problems leading people to terrorist extremism stems from the alienation some Muslims feel from European and Western culture, which is difficult to control. But Kringen said, as Leiter echoed, there is a need to explain "what al-Qaeda's intent really is" and to use that to discourage people "from wanting to go down those paths."

Kringen then put the current ideological struggle "in the context of what we had to do within the days of the Cold War." Back then, the Soviet leaders set up the Cominform, an organization by which Moscow controlled communist parties throughout the world and, through them, the activities and propaganda of intellectual, artistic, labor and youth organizations that they established.

To meet that challenge, Kringen said the United States and its allies targeted "the soft side" of that conflict. The U.S. approach in the 1950s was to reach out to non-government organizations, including intellectual publications, labor unions and student groups, sometimes providing secret financial support, much as the Cominform did.

"I think over time we're going to need to build that kind of infrastructure," Kringen told the House panel, "because many times, it's not going to be what the U.S. government per se says, but the kind of interactions that they have through other people."

Leiter described the "global ideological engagement, referred to by some as the 'war of ideas,' " as "a key center of gravity in the battle against al-Qaeda, its associates and those that take inspiration from the group."

He described terrorist leaders who "aggressively employ messages related to current events, leverage mass media technologies and use the Internet to engage in a communications war against all who oppose their oppressive and murderous vision," adding: "We must engage them on this front with equal vehemence."

As acting director of the counterterrorism center, Leiter is hardly unconnected to the proposed ideological war. A little-publicized role of the director is to conduct strategic planning for the fight against terrorism for the entire U. S. government, a role in which Leiter reports directly to the president.

As Leiter put it publicly, the law creating the center "mandates that all elements of national power, not just the intelligence or military elements, be leveraged in the fight." President Bush approved the center's first strategic operational plan in June 2006, and though highly classified, it clearly includes a fight for the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide.

Last week, Leiter would not describe tactics but said the struggle against extremist ideology would be won "not by attacking religious or cultural traditions, but by highlighting the poverty of extremist thought, by working together with mainstream adherents of all faiths . . . and by using all elements of national power -- diplomacy, foreign aid, non-government organizations and the like."

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them tofineprint@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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