Confronting Terrorism with Academia

On Feb. 25, the History Department hosted the inaugural lecture in the John O’Sullivan Annual Lecture Series by having Doctor Timothy Naftali speak on the history of American counterterrorism and anti-terrorism operations.

Doctor Naftali, from the University of Virginia, is a specialist in counterterrorism history and Soviet policy. He is the director of the Miller Center at UVA, working on the Presidential Recordings project. The project transcribes the recordings of four U.S. presidents focusing mostly on Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Some of these recordings can be heard at the project’s website,

Dr. Naftali has written several books, including one on Nazi war criminals and another on Soviet policy and reactions during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. That book, One Hell of a Gamble, written with Russian historian Alexander Fursenko, is regarded as one of the most important books ever written on the subject because of the unprecedented access they had into Kremlin minutes and transcripts of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Dr. Ken Osgood, a Cold War history professor at FAU, said that One Hell of a Gamble, “is the foremost book on Soviet dealings during that period. When the book came out, historians were giddy to see what had never been available before.”

However, Naftali spoke on an issue concerning his forthcoming book Blindspot: The Secret History of U.S. Counterterrorism Operations. The book deals with operations involving the predecessor of the CIA up to Sept. 11, 2001 and what the future holds for American anti-terrorism efforts.

“We’re very good at counterterrorism over the years,” says Naftali, “but terrible at anti-terrorism, which involves protections like homeland security.”

That was the focus of most of the lecture. The UVA professor broke down counterterrorism operations that began with the rise of Yassir Arafat in the 1970’s. He discussed at length what undertakings Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have taken to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States and to neutralize threats abroad.

One particular terrorist organization Naftali discussed was the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), which he described as “one of the most violent terrorist organizations” and Nidal as “the most violent terrorist in the world before the rise of Osama bin Laden.”

Through a series of counterterrorism operations, the United States was able to effectively “neutralize” Abu Nidal over twenty years, and make him completely ineffective by the time he died in 2002 in Baghdad.

Another issue Naftali discussed was the sharp criticism the Clinton Adminstration has garnered since 9-11. Many critics note that Clinton failed to capture Bin Laden and did little in terms of anti-terrorism during his eight years in office. However, Naftali argued that these condemnations were unwarranted. “There were limits as to what counterterrorism could achieve. To kill bin Laden the US needed sources close to him,” he said. Clinton did not have these resources. Furthermore, “Clinton had tried to improve US domestic security — indeed implementing some of what Vice President Bush’s task force had recommended in 1986, but he ran into determined opposition from Congressional Republicans.”

Naftali spoke to a large crowd of students, teachers, and senior citizens who came to hear about a critical issue that affects all Americans. Naftali’s book, Blindspot , will be out in May.