- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

President Bush’s single best argument for his re-election is one he can’t make: We have not been hit by terrorist attacks in our precious America since September 11, 2001.

He cannot make the argument because an attack could still happen between now and the election. No array of measures, no matter how brilliantly conceived or effectively executed, can eradicate all the possibilities whereby the Islamic fascists could visit catastrophe upon us. Base your campaign on the record of prevention and your campaign could go up in the smoke of an attack that was not prevented.

But the record to date is in fact extraordinary. Al Qaeda terrorists, having scored so dramatically in 2001, must surely have felt Allah was with them. Their juices had to be bubbling, their minds focused, the hearts prepared for any suicidal savagery that would again deliver thousands of innocent Americans to their graves.

What was to stop them? Our previous responses to terrorist assault were reminiscent of the black-humor tale in which a man tracks down the killer of his family after many, many years of single-minded searching and, after definitively identifying the guilty party, simply says: “You had better watch that stuff.”

Mr. Bush, though, responded to September 11 with tough-minded competence, and while he has made mistakes both of omission and commission, there are successes to ponder, including two recent ones.

One of these derives from the friendship the administration forged early on with Pakistan, which is far more crucial in the war on terrorism than bringing either France or Germany to support us in Iraq. It has continued to pay off of late with the arrests of dozens of al Qaeda suspects and discovery of computer data about plans to attack financial institutions in the United States. Putting those institutions on alert, and thereby signaling the terrorists that we know of their plans, almost certainly means those institutions will escape attack.

Meanwhile, in Albany, N.Y., two men have been arrested for involvement in a deal to acquire a missile to be used in murdering a Pakistani diplomat. It’s not the first sting operation of this sort in the country; they have also taken place in Texas, New Jersey and California. As an official is quoted as saying, any would-be terrorists now have to worry about whether they are actually dealing with government agents.

The larger story abroad is that through such efforts as the war in Afghanistan and coordinated efforts with other nations, the United States has ended the training of thousands upon thousands of terrorists who were being dispatched all over the world, captured thousands of al Qaeda leaders and operatives, reduced the likelihood of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, destroyed terrorist sanctuaries and networks and confiscated funds the terrorists had hoped to use. Despite questions about the war in Iraq, it has been an important part of weakening terrorist prospects.

One estimate is we’ve now eliminated at least two-thirds of the al Qaeda leadership. We haven’t nabbed Osama bin Laden yet, but he has to be hiding out in a deep, dark hole or cave someplace, unable to communicate with anyone because, surer than anything, efforts to do so would be detected by the United States or its allies.

Within our own borders, we have broken up terrorist cells from coast to coast. Government agents have arrested dozens of terrorist suspects and also obtained dozens of convictions or guilty pleas.

The government has been able to do this partly because of the much-maligned Patriot Act, which, its critics keep insisting, lets the government go to the library to find out what books you are reading. As the act’s defenders point out, the act does not even include the word “library.” A debated section does let the government delay notifying a terrorist suspect under certain circumstances when a court has issued a search warrant, but the law also enables Congress to keep an eye on possible abuses. None has turned up so far.

There is more that has been done, and far more that needs to be done. But this much we know: We have stunned the beast, we have confused him, we have made it far more difficult for him to operate, and for three years, we have kept him from attacking us at home again. It is a large achievement for the Bush administration, though one unlikely to find its way into a political speech or ad.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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