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Next Attacks May Be of the Cyber Kind

Prof. George Shambaugh

September 6, 2011 The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, School of Foreign Service professor George Shambaugh began his day preparing for his afternoon class. Plans changed once he heard news of planes crashing into the World Trade Center twin towers, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa. The professor quickly picked up his daughter from day care and headed home to watch the events unfold from news reports like so many other Americans that day. As the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 nears, the government and international affairs scholar takes a look at post-9/11 perceptions, the impact the events have had on security and foreign relations and whether the United States is prepared for the next attack.

How have the 9/11 attacks impacted our way of life, both positively and negatively?

I think the things that have improved are awareness of the global political environment. A great deal of the country remains uninformed about international affairs, but more people are somewhat informed and care about it more than ever before.

Despite some animosity towards Muslims and people of Arab descent, there’s also been a much greater integration in U.S. society of people of Islamic faith and people of Arab origin. Much more integrated now than before. That was a bumpy road, but I think 10 years later the United States has gotten to be a little more pluralistic. That I think is actually positive.

The downside, I think, is that terrorism and the threat of terrorism were used to promote a whole variety of different policies – some of which have been productive, some of which have not. But the attacks were used as the justification for action that, under closer scrutiny, may not have been implemented in the same way or implemented at all. The Patriot Act is an example of that.

We conducted a survey of perceptions of threat after 9/11. Many people said they didn’t fear for their personal security. If you ask about the likelihood of them getting involved with terrorist incident or whether people they know get involved, the odds were very small.

Perceptions of threat against the country were very high, and perceptions of risk to the country paralleled almost precisely what the Bush administration was saying at the time. So that cue they took from the President translated into the perception of threat to everybody. Not to me individually.

Was the Patriot Act effective in the fight against terrorism?

That act is filled with all sorts of policies. Some of them are fruitful and make us safer. The problem with using terrorism or counterterrorism as justification for action is that many policies went through without much scrutiny, and that has led to some costs in terms of liberty. This can be seen with the treatment of detainees in the facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

We still have prisoners in Guantanamo. The practice of rendition, or abduction and unlawful transfer of a person from one country to another, had to end. I would much rather see us put detainees in a maximum security prison in Illinois than to have them held in Guantanamo.

Do you think the United States is prepared to handle another attack?

In another study, people believed the United States’ preparedness for another attack are improving. They also believe we are better able to defend ourselves and that we are better able to respond should an attack occur.

In some ways I think we are. Most buildings are more fortified. Even if you look around Georgetown, the differences here are not very visible, but they are real. Before 9/11, you could not close off access to the university for vehicles. Now, you close a couple gates and indeed you can close off the entire entity.

Still, you can’t spend your entire life protecting against vulnerabilities. I actually think you have to balance that versus the cost of what would happen if an attack occurred. The cost of limiting your freedom of movement, the cost of putting limits on civil liberties begin to outweigh the cost of a building getting blown up.

The other thought is the next mode of attack likely is not a dirty bomb. It’s likely to be a cyber attack.

The biggest threat in a cyber attack is not the Pentagon, getting into the White House, State Department or some prime minister’s office. The biggest threat is corporate espionage. It is theft of intellectual property rights.

The driving force for the next era of counterterrorism policies will not come from civilians or the military, it’s going to come from the private sector. It’s going to come from companies worried about losing their intellectual property and losing their competitive advantage as a result. The competitive advantage, the intellectual property, is the one area in which U.S. companies still have an advantage.

Have U.S. relations with foreign countries improved?

I think we’re better off internationally than we were five years ago, I think we ebbed pretty deeply. We lost a great deal of credibility with the Iraq conflict. The bottom of that pit was when Colin Powell went before the United Nations and said “These aluminum tubes are actually all about nuclear processing” and it turned out to be a complete fabrication.

During that period, we lost good relationships all over the place. We lost credibility with our European allies, NATO and the United Nations. That was really our low point.

Since then we’ve actually begun to rebuild. Our relations with Great Britain have been stronger than they’ve ever been. Our relations with France have improved. Our relations with Germany have improved. Our relationships with the Arab world, especially with the rise of Obama, have actually gotten better. I think a good sign of that is not Obama’s first speeches in Cairo, but what’s happening in Libya.

If you listen to the people in Libya, the comments are that they recognize the support given by France, Great Britain, the United Stated and NATO. They did it, but they recognize that support and are thankful for it.

If you’re going to get involved in a conflict, that is what you want. The conflict in Libya didn’t become like the one in Iraq. There wasn’t that kind thought that we have to go in and have to be commanders on the ground. Flexibility is really something that makes the conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East fundamentally different. That’s a real sign of progress.


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