Terrorist threat or political hype?

Top Bush administration officials called the bust of arms dealer Hemant Lakhani last week a major blow against terrorism. Security experts are skeptical.

Published August 20, 2003 12:32AM (EDT)

When British arms dealer Hemant Lakhani was arrested a week ago and charged with plotting to sell portable missiles to terrorists who would turn them against commercial jets, the Bush administration portrayed the bust as a milestone in the war on terrorism. Top administration officials went before the reporters and, in solemn tones, described the catastrophe that might've been if not for the alert work of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agents. Bush himself offered a similar view when he met with reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

"The fact that we're able to sting this guy," the president said, "is a pretty good example of what we're doing in order to protect the American people."

Within days, however, a more critical view began to emerge among top national-security experts: The arrest of Lakhani and two alleged accomplices was welcome, yes, but its significance was being dramatically overstated by an administration on the defensive over its failure to capture Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and its struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq. By the critics' line of reasoning, the administration was exaggerating the significance of the Lakhani arrest just as it had the arrests last year of alleged "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla and the Lackawanna Six "sleeper cell" in New York. While officials were tipping off reporters in advance of the bust, they complained, the administration was continuing to resist substantive -- and expensive -- measures to protect commercial jets.

A terrorist who wants a shoulder-fired missile is not going to go to someone like Lakhani to buy one, says Vincent Cannistraro, former head of counter-terrorism for the CIA. "This was not a terrorist incident," he told Salon. "It did not involve the penetration of a plot or terrorist cell." He added: "This was a truly ludicrous situation ... hyped in advance by a Justice Department anxious to show success."

"This is not a huge victory in the War on Terror," agrees Charles Peña, director of defense policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. "This just shows that we can sting a guy, not a bad thing, but it does not make it harder for al-Qaida or other terrorists to get these weapons."

Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council director for European affairs in the Clinton administration and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, offers a blunt assessment of the arrest: "All hype." Daalder praises the Bush administration's success in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and killing or arresting numerous top al-Qaida leaders overseas, but he sees the administration's domestic approach as flawed.

"The administration has made homeland security a political issue. The president consistently uses terror for political gain," he says. "[U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft's Justice Department is all about hype and not reality."

Reports from the Department of Defense and other government agencies show that shoulder-fired missiles have hit at least 43 civil aircraft since the 1970s. Of these, 30 aircraft -- 69 percent of the total -- were shot down, leaving more than 900 air travelers dead. In an investigative report last year, Salon found that dozens of countries have produced hundreds of thousands of the shoulder-launched missiles, and that many of them have found their way to the black market. Jane's Intelligence Review reported in 2001 that the missiles are already in the hands of up to 27 terrorist groups.

And it seems certain that al-Qaida is among them. A Pentagon spokesman told Salon last year that U.S. forces in Afghanistan had captured 5,592 shoulder-fired missiles during operations to destroy al-Qaida. The terrorist group is widely believed responsible for a missile attack on an Israeli passenger jet in Kenya last November -- a case in which the missiles narrowly missed their target.

Lakhani, born in India but now a British citizen, was arrested last week at a hotel in Newark, N.J., and charged with offering to sell a sophisticated Russian SA-18 Igla missile to a man posing as a liaison to terrorists. Reports said that the suspect had first come onto intelligence radars last year when he began inquiring about the purchase of weapons on the Russian black market. Russian, British and American undercover agents then staged an elaborate setup, first selling an inoperative missile launcher and then busting him in Newark when he tried to sell it to a government informant posing a middleman for a Somalian terror group with ties to al-Qaida.

"Make one explosion ... to shake the economy," Lakhani allegedly told the buyer.

Obviously, analysts said, such an arrest may have saved lives, and it was a justified law enforcement effort to take a potentially dangerous group of arms traders out of commission. ""The president has made clear we are in an ongoing war against terrorism," said Christopher Christie, U.S. attorney for the district of New Jersey, said after the arrest. "Today the good guys won a battle in that war."

Ashcroft was even more effusive. "This investigation," he said, "shows that all agencies of the federal government and our international allies will work together tirelessly to keep innocent people safe."

In the 24 hours after Lakhani's arrest, experts on terrorism and politicians from both sides of the aisle pointed out the serious threat from these deadly accurate and easily transported weapons that the military calls MANPADS, for man-portable air defense systems. But, in America, a week can be an eternity. Between the blackout of 2003 and the continuing circus surrounding the California recall election, serious discussions about how to address this long-standing and growing threat quickly fell out of sight.

But, critics say, Bush administration officials who were describing Lakhani as a major arms dealer and suggesting that he had ties to terror groups appear to have been exaggerating. And they said flatly that the arrest did little to protect the U.S. commercial aviation industry and its passengers.

For many experts and members of Congress, the Bush administration's efforts in combating the shoulder-fired missile threat have been too little and too late; and in recent months, aviation security experts -- including some military and government officials -- have begun to question Bush's commitment to solving the problem.

Among the strongest advocates of the need to move quickly to protect the nation's airliners is U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. "After the attacks on Sept. 11, we cracked down on security at airports, searched every bag, put military police at airports, and shut down vulnerable airports until we knew they could be protected," he says. "We've protected our airports quickly, but when it comes to protecting our aircraft from shoulder-fired missiles, it is just taking too long." Israel and a number of other members of Congress have been pressing the administration to protect America's airliners since al-Qaida attacked an Israeli airliner just after takeoff from Mombasa, Kenya, using Russian-designed SA-7 missiles.

Shortly after the Mombasa attack, Israel joined Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in calling for $10 billion to equip commercial airliners with a new and highly effective laser system that the Air Force is beginning to install on its large, slow transport planes, the ones most similar to commercial jets. Administration opposition killed that proposal, as well as a much smaller effort initially proposed by Florida Republican John Mica, chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee. Mica's proposal would have provided the administration with $30 million to study ways of adapting military countermeasures into less expensive models for commercial aircraft.

But leaks from the administration's Interagency Task Force showed a preference for low-cost solutions, such as training people who live or work near airports to recognize a missile attack, regardless of whether those solutions offer any real level of protection. When pushed by Congress to take more concrete actions, the administration took two inconsistent approaches: The Department of Homeland Security decided that the solution to this threat lay in sophisticated countermeasures and the Defense Department rejected the need for countermeasures on civilian aircraft.

An aide to a key Republican House member says the administration's failure was a function of the budget cycle, noting that the process of preparing next year's budget began well before November's al-Qaida attack on the Israeli airliner in Kenya. But Leon Panetta, former chief of the Office of Management and Budget and later President Clinton's chief of staff, rejected that excuse: "That's bull!" If addressing the shoulder-fired missile issue were truly a priority for the administration, he suggested, the White House would have sent Congress an emergency supplemental budget request -- as it did to fund the war in Iraq.

"We use emergency supplementals to fund unforeseen emergencies such as wars, disasters and fighting fires," Panetta notes. "If the administration considered [defending against shoulder-fired missiles] critical to the security of our citizens no one in Congress would question an emergency supplemental."

Despite inattention on the part of the administration, Mica and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., recently secured a congressional commitment for $60 million for research aimed at defeating the shoulder-fired missiles. Though the budget is not yet official, and $60 million pales in the face of the estimated $10 billion to $18 billion needed address the threat posed by shoulder-fired missiles, both men see this initial funding as secure. While a welcome development, Byrd laments the delay in moving forward to protect the nation's travelers.

"With such agreement, I expect that the work finally will get underway," Byrd told Salon last week. "Unfortunately, because of White House obstinance earlier this year, the work is several months behind where it should be." Mica, the only member of Congress to hold hearings on the shoulder-fired-missile threat, told Salon that he is confident that he can move Department of Homeland Security to act "sooner rather than later." But he stresses that he wants to make sure that "we don't spend money on systems that won't work."

Adm. James Loy, chief of Bush's Transportation Security Administration, seemed to tell CBS News' "60 Minutes" in March that the effort to address the threat should be expedited. "I think the right thing for us to do is to continue the methodical study process that has been undertaken by the National Security Council, not with years of study to come, but with weeks of study to come." Now, however, it looks like the first fruits of the DHS's work will not emerge before 2006.

Until the administration's program gets up and running, and several years of research and development yield a sufficiently inexpensive solution to the portable-missile threat, the American public must rely upon the efforts of law enforcement to protect the nation's airliners. But even after the arrest of Lakhani, Byrd and others remain uneasy. "We cannot rely solely on law enforcement stings to protect air passengers from missile attack," Byrd says. "We must invest in defenses to help save lives now."

By Paul J. Caffera

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