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Showing your flag

Books | We're in for a long war against Islamic terrorists, says John Wohlstetter, with anger over the war in Iraq and the end of Europe raising the battle stakes

Issue: "Unify and conquer," June 14, 2008

Our cover date of June 14 is also the date of one of America's generally forgotten holidays, Flag Day. John Wohlstetter's The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us (Discovery Institute, 2008) is a solid example of a patriotic book that concisely and realistically explains what the United States needs to do to win a long war against radical Islam and to make less likely a terrorist strike during the next few years.

Wohlstetter is a Discovery Institute senior fellow and telecommunications expert who writes an issues blog, "Letter from the Capitol." He has long been concerned with the way that technologies make American living easier but also more vulnerable to those who hate it.

WORLD: You begin your book dramatically with an Iranian missile exploding over Kansas: The missile creates an electromagnetic pulse that fries 70 percent of the U.S. electric grid, and the American economy as well. Are you using a scare tactic, showing a likely reality, or camping somewhere in between?

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WOHLSTETTER: The scenario of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strike in the prologue of my book is based upon a report for Congress issued in 2004, from a panel chaired by Dr. William R. Graham, former Science Adviser to President Bush Sr.

WORLD: What is the U.S. government doing to reduce the likelihood of such an event, or to deal with it should it happen?

WOHLSTETTER: Homeland security has been stepped up. The Terrorist Surveillance Program and interrogation of detainees has yielded valuable intelligence to stop attacks. President Bush wisely exercised America's option to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. Ballistic missile defense advances can stop an EMP strike. Aegis missile defense cruisers could patrol America's coastline and shoot down missiles aimed at U.S. soil.

WORLD: Has the Patriot Act intruded on civil liberties?

WOHLSTETTER: The Patriot Act has not meaningfully intruded upon Americans' civil liberties. Were there any large-scale violations, the public outcry would be loud and long. Much that civil liberties groups allege is wrong. For example, closer cooperation between the Department of Defense and the FBI, attacked by the ACLU, is precisely the kind of cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement that the Patriot Act was designed to foster, by taking down the "wall" between the two realms that the 9/11 Commission found to be an impediment to preventing terrorist attacks. Any genuine large-scale abuse would have the press in full Abu Ghraib mode.

WORLD: Critics of the Terrorist Screening Center say it listens in on calls of ordinary folks.

WOHLSTETTER: The government is not spying on everyone's calls. There are about 500 billion total calls per year, if one adds together landline, cellular, and email messages. Between December 2003 and May 2007 the administration listened in on 99,000 calls, less than one in a million phone calls. The government does scan millions of dialed numbers, in order to detect calling patterns that suggest possible terror activity. But tracking such numbers (and, by implication as to future technologies, email addresses) was held constitutional by the Supreme Court in Smith v. Maryland (1979).

WORLD: Has the Iraq War made a big terrorist attack on the United States more or less likely?

WOHLSTETTER: Because of conflicting trends arising out of the Iraq War, it is impossible to ascertain with confidence whether the net probability of a terror attack against America is higher or lower as a result. On the downside, anger over the invasion of Iraq and the continuing war has surely spawned new jihadists around the globe. On the upside, jihadists who fight our military in Iraq are not attacking civilians over here. Which number is larger is not knowable.

WORLD: When has database mining helped to prevent terrorism-and if it is helpful, how aggressive should the United States be in pursuing that?

WOHLSTETTER: Very aggressive. Database mining is essential to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks. Screening call patterns, as noted above, is one benefit; without advanced computing techniques large-scale screening would be impossible. A biometric ID card would be equally helpful. Screening credit card databases, as is already done by credit card companies to detect patterns of fraud, would help identify terrorists; 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were later found to have been in financial databases. Frankly, all it would take is a single WMD attack that kills tens, let alone hundreds of thousands or millions, for concern over civil liberties violations to be put in proper perspective.

WORLD: You're concerned about "9/10" judges-why?

WOHLSTETTER: My concern with "9/10" judges stems from their inclination to confer full criminal law substantive and procedural rights on all detainees and defendants. They thus would give terror detainees more rights, despite their being unlawful combatants who do not even engage in the pretense of attempting to comply with the laws of war, greater rights than we have given to lawful combatants in prior wars. Worse, the risk of freeing ordinary criminal suspects, in terms of future harm they might cause, is far less to society than if we free a terror mastermind, for want of courtroom proof or compliance with intricate constitutional rights (many judicially created). The government wins 90 percent of ordinary criminal cases but only 30 percent of terror cases.

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