Was Declaring War on Terror a Mistake?

The former British spy chief says al-Qaeda's attack should have been considered a crime, not an act of war

Bonner Sep 7 p.jpg

Director General of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller addresses delegates in Birmingham / Reuters

LONDON, UK -- Coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the former head of Britain's domestic intelligence service, which is popularly known as MI 5, has delivered an assessment that might be easily dismissed if it weren't for her credentials.

The attacks were a crime, a monstrous crime, not an act of war, Eliza Manningham-Buller said in a lecture broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday. It was a mistake to declare a war on terror.

The day after the attacks, she and other senior British intelligence officials flew to Washington at the request of President Bush. After meetings at CIA headquarters with exhausted officers from the CIA, the FBI, and NSA, the British team repaired to the British Embassy. "We were all in a reflective mood and talked late into the night in the garden about what had happened and what the next steps might be," Manningham-Buller said.

9-11 Ten Years LaterThat there would be a military response by the United States was inevitable, but among the Brits there was an agreement that the solution was in politics and economics, not the military. Even more intelligence gathering was not the solution, she said, somewhat surprisingly.

Her speech is worth reading, and absorbing, in its entirety.

A few highlights:

And I call it a crime, not an act of war. Terrorism is a violent tool used for political reasons to bring pressure on governments by creating fear in the populace. In the same way, I have never thought it helpful to refer to a "war" on terror, any more than to a war on drugs. For one thing that legitimizes the terrorists as warriors; for another thing terrorism is a technique, not a state. Moreover terrorism will continue in some form whatever the outcome, if there is one, of such a "war". For me what happened was a crime and needs to be thought of as such. What made it different from earlier attacks was its scale and audacity, not its nature.

During the question and answer period, Manningham-Buller was asked if she ever told President Bush of her intense disapproval of the phrase "war on terror."

She only met Mr. Bush once she said, and that was at a formal banquet at Buckingham Palace, during his state visit in November 2003. "That wasn't the moment to tell him what I thought," Manningham-Buller replied, bringing laughter from the audience.

Manningham-Butler joined the secret intelligence agency in the 1970s, specialized in counter-terrorism -- most agents at the time worked in counter-espionage, focusing on the Soviet threat -- and rose through the ranks to become head of the agency in 2002; she retired in 2007.

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Raymond Bonner is an investigative reporter living in London. He was previously a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

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