Whether or not he intended it, John Kerry's much commented upon statement -- that terrorism should be reduced to a nuisance like prostitution or gambling -- has engaged the central issue of this presidential campaign. His statement was neither an accident nor as easily dismissed as many people have asserted. Rather, it reflects the institutional policy of the CIA, and is at the heart of the almost open warfare between the Bush White House and the CIA.
To give Mr. Kerry his due, let me quote his entire statement: "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."
Since the rise of modern terrorism in the 1960s-70s, the CIA has viewed terrorism as essentially a permanent fever to be managed. Sometimes it spikes, sometimes it subsides. It should not be moralized into a fight to the death, as with Hitler's Germany. This view was well expressed by the CIA's Paul Piller, currently on the CIA's National Intelligence Council and the author of the recent pessimistic National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq that was leaked to the New York Times last month.
Mr. Piller's prior writings on this topic were quoted by Mr. John B. Roberts II in a recent Washington Times article (Oct. 1, 2004):
"Mr. Piller criticizes as "simplistic" those who "think of terrorism simply as an evil to be eradicated." He writes that "overheated rhetoric" about weapons of mass destruction results in a "tendency to treat the whole subject of terrorism in terms of body counts and to focus not just mainly but exclusively on the number of people (and more specifically the number of Americans) whom terrorism kills or might kill." Mr. Pillar warns that this leads to a "tendency toward absolute solutions and a rejection of accommodation and finesse."
"If counter-terrorism is conceived as a war, " Mr. Piller writes, "it is a small step to conclude that in a war there is no substitute for victory, and thus no room to compromise." Mr. Pillar's prescription for counter-terrorism is "more finesses and, if not less fight, then fighting in a carefully calculated and selective way."
It is this pre-Sept. 11 view of terrorism institutionally still held by the CIA that John Kerry has bought into: Terrorism has always been managed. Military action will only inflame masses of Muslims. The risks of the latter are greater than the risks of the former. So keep the Pentagon and its big battalions out of the CIA's traditional covert management of terrorists.
And in buying into it, he has also bought the CIA as a political ally during this presidential campaign. Should he win the election, presumably he would re-institute the CIA's policy.
It was precisely President Bush's decision to declare and fight an actual, not a metaphorical, war on terrorism that so enraged the CIA and has led them to release damaging leaks against the president at key moments in the election campaign. This same view is held by much of the State Department's Foreign Service Officer corp. It is rumored that sometime in the next three weeks, they, too, will leak some damaging document or information against the president. And it is a fair guess, that Sen. Kerry will be primed to exploit that leak when it comes.
Thus, Mr. Kerry's Sunday statement was not merely a careless lapse of verbal judgment. It represents a considered view of the world, and would be likely to define his strategy in fighting terrorism should he be elected president. So it is fair to ask whether Sen. Kerry's and the CIA's view of counter-terrorism can stand the test of the post-Sept. 11 world.
As always in this discussion, the debate comes back to WMD -- what the CIA's Mr. Piller called the "overheated rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction" that drives policy to seek "victory" rather than "leave room for compromise ? accommodation and finesse." If that doesn't sound Kerryesque, I'll eat my chapeaux.
It may have been reasonable in the latter part of the last century to seek compromise and accommodation with the terrorists when they were armed only with pistols and hand grenades. But what would such a policy look like today when Islamic terrorists are seeking WMD with which to "teach" America a terrible lesson?
At the minimum such a policy would tend to drive us to withdraw from the world as instructed by bin Laden or his successors. Certainly we would abandon Israel. Probably we would abandon the Middle East oil fields to the control by the terrorist regime. Doubtlessly we would have to pay tribute (foreign aid) to beneficiaries designated by the terrorists in "compensation for our past abuses." We might well try to tamp down the export of our Hollywood, MTV culture to appease the terrorist's sensitivities. Perhaps we would have to offer special dispensations to Islamic Americans. Then, we would hope for the best.
We would then be managing terrorism in the way we manage prostitution or gambling. It would be a policy of live and let live. Of course, prostitution and gambling are "victimless "crimes. If the terrorists didn't want to be "accommodated," "finessed" and "compromised with," there would be victims -- American victims by the hundreds of thousands.