Fighting The Last War Is Always A Mistake: Lessons from Brussels and Paris
Make no mistake – the United States military is still an awesome fighting force. The men and women who serve have the best training, weapons, technology, intelligence and information ever assembled. You always have to be preparing for the next war. Can you imagine sending soldiers into harm’s way with musket loaders? Or World War II radio sets? Or no night vision? Unfortunately, there is a history of doing just that.
I have several professional ties to the Oklahoma City bombing case. Besides the fact both Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols both had contact with my mother when they left the US Army while stationed at Forty Riley, KS. She processed their paperwork. In addition, she lived at that time on Goldenbelt Boulevard in Junction City, KS – one mile from where McVeigh rented the Ryder truck from that was later used for the bombing.
The ANFO bomb (ammonium nitrate – fuel oil) was built near Geary County State Lake, 5 miles from the front porch of my boyhood home in Chapman, KS. After the bombing, Terry Nichols was located and arrested in Herrington, KS. On the news I see my former training officer from the Salina, KS police department – now Dickinson County Deputy Sheriff Bob Gardner – taking Terry Nichols into custody and frog-walking him to a waiting patrol car.
Later, I would help the FBI followup leads in SW Kansas where I was a detective. So why do I say all of this? Because it taught me a valuable lesson I used later in helping the US Department of Justice build their information sharing strategy after 9/11 – called OneDOJ. I was responsible for developing the Concept of Operations and System of Services. I got a lot of pushback to some of my ideas…initially. Here’s the lesson of Oklahoma City I used.
Indicators and Warnings
McVeigh bought two tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer within 30 days. Growing up in farm country, that’s a lot of fertilizer for someone who didn’t even look like a farmer (no farmer’s tan, no Pioneer seed cap, no t-shirt without sleeves). Even though law enforcement had known for a long time how easily a devastating ANFO bomb could be built and delivered, no one at a national level wanted to address the issue. Because it wasn’t…well…a popular issue. Apparently it still isn’t.
“Compared with some countries, the United States has relatively lax federal controls on the purchase of explosives” such as ammonium nitrate, the council’s more than 300-page report concluded in 1998.
The report listed options for tightening controls, such as licensing, permitting and tracking sales.
Fifteen years later, attempts to create such rules remain stalled.
We knew this was a problem, and yet 15 years later it’s still unsolved. A lot of time and energy was spent on why McVeigh did what he did, instead of how he did it. In Paris and Brussels, there were also indicators and warnings. To a great extent, they were much harder to see because of encryption and the use of burner phones.
But to focus strictly on a technology – like burner phones or encryption – is fighting yesterday’s war. After 9/11, no one was going to break into a hardened cockpit through the door. Those same hardening techniques prevented the pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 from re-entering the cockpit and preventing the crash into the mountains. Now the solution is the ‘rule of two’ – there must always be two authorized crew members in the cockpit to prevent a single person from taking control of the airplane.
That’s been the policy of the FAA since 9/11 – which was another example of fighting the last war.
Paris and Brussels
Where we have here is a failure of imagination. We couldn’t imagine using ammonium nitrate and fuel oil to blow up a federal building. We couldn’t imagine using 4 airliners to attack the United States. We couldn’t imagine using a bomb built into a show to bring down an airplane. We couldn’t imagine a bomb built into underwear. We couldn’t imagine using encrypted apps to attack innocent people in Paris. We couldn’t imagine using pre-paid phones to avoid detection in Brussels.
Yes – I know. There were voices warning everyone. But those voices were ignored, because those in power couldn’t ‘imagine’ this happening. So, the response is to now outlaw or regulate the tactics and underlying technology. That’s like outlawing ignition keys in cars because a drunk drive crossed the line and killed someone.
It doesn’t matter what the technology or device is. The recent introduction of a bill to stop the sale of burner phones without identification is fighting the last war. What happens when all the terrorists use Playstation or Xbox. Will we outlaw those? Turn gamers into outlaws?
The answer? Focus on the who.
You Can’t Defeat An Enemy You Can’t…Or Won’t…Define
The enemy is not the technology. Or why they did it. Or how they did it. Tactics, technology and objectives change. The one constant is who. The real enemy is political correctness, and the prevention of our intelligence professionals, law enforcement and military from focusing on the real problem.
The next successful attack will take advantage of a flaw in our security – a hole – a gaping hole. A hole we couldn’t imagine being there. What doesn’t take imagination is who our enemies are. That’s pretty clear,.