A Defense That's Offensively Weak

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

March 10, 2005

In sports, the offense is more glamorous. It moves the ball, it scores, and everybody breaks out the high-fives. It's all about flash and glory.

Defense, on the other hand, toils in anonymity. It's about wrestling in the trenches, digging in your heels and fighting the opposition for every inch. The most important unit of the last undefeated team in the National Football League, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, was tagged the No-Name Defense.

Republicans understand the publicity advantage of a relentless offense. They had a flashy offense in W.'s two presidential campaigns and two wars, and in their war on the press.

In his 2002 pre-emptive doctrine, laying the groundwork for attacking Iraq, President Bush was reputed to have written the line, "We recognize that our best defense is a good offense."

W. successfully confused Americans by labeling the invasion of Iraq an offensive thrust in the war on terror, even though Iraq had played no role in the 9/11 attacks, had no ties with Al Qaeda and had no weapons to share with terrorists. But 9/11 was an emasculating blow, and the White House had to strike back at somebody.

What the administration doesn't acknowledge, as it crows about democracy blooming in the Iraqi desert, is that our defense against terrorists who want to attack here is full of holes, and that the war in Iraq may have made it even worse. Despite the promising election, the war has created more insurgents and given them a training ground. It has siphoned off attention, money and troops that could have been used to catch Osama, pursue Al Qaeda and secure our own country. And it has alienated not only many Arabs, but also allies who were eager, after 9/11, to help us fight Al Qaeda - even Italians are mad now.

Every time we turn around, some administration official charged with our protection is claiming that it will take three more years, or five more, to fix something that should have been put in place right after 9/11 - or even 20 years ago.

The F.B.I. has abandoned its latest computer follies: the $170 million effort to upgrade the bureau's computer system so analysts can accomplish such difficult tasks as simultaneously searching for "aviation" and "schools." Now it's going to take at least three and a half years to develop a new system. Bill Gates has been donating computers and software to poor grade schools; maybe he could take pity on the poor F.B.I. and donate a system that works.

One of the first big stories I covered was the homecoming of the hostages from Iran in 1981. Nearly a quarter of a century later, we still don't have good intelligence on Iran. The Times reported yesterday that a bipartisan presidential panel is set to report that the lack of American intelligence on Iran's nuclear capability is scandalously inadequate. Our intelligence on Iraqi weapons systems was so bad that we had to go to war to find out that Iraq didn't have any.

Our intelligence services are only now trying to recruit agents who speak Arabic and Farsi? Who didn't realize after the Iranian hostage crisis that it might be smart to invest in some spies who could infiltrate the places that were calling us Satan? President Carter lost an election because he didn't know what was going on in Iran, and President Bush still doesn't know.

Now that they've belatedly started to recruit Arabic speakers - after the military forced out more than 300 linguists considered important to the war in terror in the past decade because they happened to be gay - our intelligence agencies are not sure whether they're signing up the good guys or the bad guys. We can't get into Al Qaeda's inner councils, but has Al Qaeda gotten inside ours?

The Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday that about 40 Americans seeking jobs at U.S. intelligence agencies were turned away because of possible ties to terrorist groups. Paul Redmond, a longtime C.I.A. officer, said it was an "actuarial certainty" that spies had infiltrated U.S. security agencies: "I think we're worse off than we've ever been."

At the same time, dozens of terror suspects on federal watch lists have been allowed to buy firearms legally in our country, according to a G.A.O. investigation. No wonder Porter Goss, the new C.I.A. director, seems dazed and confused.

While the president and the neocons try to remake the Middle East to help future generations, can't they find a little time to remake our security to protect this generation?