Who Killed the War on Terror?

The U.S. government's most controversial post-9/11 policies died years before Osama Bin Laden did -- and for good reason


Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (L) and former Vice President Dick Cheney leave the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 10, 2011/Reuters

The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of Navy Seals last May marked a turning point in the fight against al Qaeda. But one thing it did not mark was an end to the War on Terror. That's because the War on Terror was already dead, abandoned by the very agencies responsible for implementing it after 9/11.

9-11 Ten Years Later

There are, of course, still terrorists plotting to kill Americans, and the U.S. continues to take aggressive measures to stop them. But it would be a mistake to confuse all counterterrorism strategies with the War on Terror. The War on Terror was based on the notion that Islamic terrorism represented a unified, ideologically coherent, and operationally centralized threat, demanding a singular and predominately military response. This notion was rejected by U.S. security officials long before the killing of Bin Laden. Indeed, it was abandoned well before the election of President Obama.

By the latter years of the Bush administration, the exceptional tactics that defined the War on Terror -- preventative detentions, pain-based interrogation, ethnic and religious profiling, and widely expanded domestic surveillance powers -- were either abandoned or dramatically scaled back based on overwhelming evidence that they were ineffective. Meanwhile, the actual wars initiated in the name of the War on Terror, in Afghanistan and Iraq, rapidly evolved into counter-insurgency and then counterterrorism campaigns as military leaders recognized that the U.S. was unable to replace theocrats and autocrats with stable, western-style democracies.

The War on Terror lives on today only as political theater. Policymakers, from President Obama to Members of Congress, continue to fear the accusation of being "soft on terror," and hence continue to describe contemporary counterterrorism efforts in martial terms. Congress continues to legislate War on Terror approaches that the security establishment, for the most part, hasn't asked for and, in some cases, has even explicitly rejected.

But while the political class remains stuck in the past, the security establishment has moved on. Virtually all of the progress that U.S. authorities have made in dismantling al Qaeda and countering terrorism has been accomplished in spite of, not because of the War on Terror. As we consider the future of U.S. counterterrorism after Bin Laden, we would do well to consider what we have learned from the evolving security response to the 9/11 attacks, and how those lessons might keep us safer in a world where the War on Terror may be over but the threat of terrorism still remains.

In many ways, the War on Terror ended because the American security state relearned forgotten lessons. Over the past four centuries, modernizing nation-states have become increasingly effective at securing their citizens' safety and allegiance through ever more refined and subtle means. Where sovereignty was once invested in a single monarch -- think Louis XIV's famous quip, L'État, c'est moi ("The state, it is me") -- gradually the state became all of us. Populations who were "subjects" beholden to state authority became "citizens" willing and empowered to defend it.

By granting increasing freedoms and privileges to their citizens, extending the bonds of trust and mutualism, and organizing public education campaigns around the notions of etiquette, civic duty, and love of country, modernizing states inspired their citizens to identify with the state and internalize its security interests.

This shift represented a dramatic evolution in the way states achieved security. Earlier brutal intimidation tactics -- publicly torturing and executing deviants in what social historian Michel Foucault dubbed "festivals of pain" -- gradually gave way to softer means of control like "panoptic" powers, which create the impression that one is always being observed, mostly by fellow citizens. The conventional reading of this shift has imagined that state's relinquished coercive security powers in response to citizens' rising demands for new political and economic freedoms, but this is at best only half the story. The evolution of our expanding freedoms has been inseparable from the development of state security practices that are both more effective and more humane.

Today, profiling, suspecting, and punishing wide swaths of society have faded from practice because states found it more effective to maintain the good will and allegiance of increasingly empowered citizens. States developed better tools to discern innocence and guilt on an individual basis rather than punishing whole villages. And as states learned more about individual psychology, they found they could get better information out of detained enemies by "befriending" them than brutalizing them.

Since World War II, states have also found that they can more effectively accomplish their international objectives using highly targeted military power, as opposed to large occupying forces. During WWII, all sides, including the U.S., deliberately bombed civilians -- think London, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima. Contrast such blanket, deliberate bombardments to the surgical bombings in Libya and the use of drones in Pakistan.

Whatever Orwellian anxieties the new technologies of state security may incite, it is difficult to say - when touring the torture chambers of Venice or considering the pogroms of Eastern Europe, for example -- that the move to the use of softer and more sophisticated security powers does not represent a form of human progress. The turn back towards "the dark side," as former Vice President Dick Cheney described it after 9/11, required a deep forgetting and misunderstanding of the previous centuries' evolutions in state security powers.

As American security authorities abandoned the War on Terror, they moved in almost every instance towards more discerning and sophisticated practices. Where the War on Terror made blanket assumptions about the nature of the terrorist threat, objectives, and organization, security authorities today increasingly recognize the threat as disparate, decentralized, and motivated more by local grievances than the apocalyptic desire for a Caliphate.

Initially, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were very much "wars" as described and theorized by Carl von Clausewitz - featuring attacks on military targets with the goal of forcing capitulation. But the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did little to end terrorism and, in Iraq, dramatically increased it. The U.S. military quickly shifted to a more discerning counterinsurgency strategy, and today it is moving to even more focused counterterrorist operations.

The shift in the U.S.'s non-military security and counterterrorism tactics has been no less stark. One after another, the sweeping measures put in place after 9/11 have been discarded for more discerning policies. The Defense Department recognized the folly of the preventative detentions that filled the cell blocks of Guantanamo Bay Prison. Within months of sweeping up fighting-aged men in Afghanistan, military officials found that they had not only scooped up hundreds of innocents, but also that they had no means (i.e. evidence) with which to prosecute the guilty. They quickly transitioned back to pre-War on Terror battlefield detention protocols and gave trial authority over to local Afghan courts.

The FBI also unilaterally abandoned its War on Terror "Interview Project" within months of 9/11. FBI agents repeatedly complained to their superiors that the intimidating interviews targeting immigrants from Muslim-majority countries were generating few leads and undermining their ability to win the trust of potential collaborators. Finally recognizing that they were losing far more than they were gaining, FBI officials shut down the profiling program and refocused efforts toward fostering cooperative relationships with informants in Muslim communities.

The Transportation Security Agency has walked back from its own profiling policies as two would-be bombers - one Jamaican-British, the other Nigerian - were able to avoid heightened screening targeting Arabs and South Asians. Other programs, too, have been scaled back at the request of security officials. FBI Director Robert Mueller and U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Comey both threatened resignation as they held the line against counterproductive policies pursued by the Bush administration. And multiple NSA data-mining programs have been abandoned as independent reports, most notably from the National Academies of Sciences, concluded that they simply push terrorist activity further underground.

Perhaps most famously, the signature tactic of the War on Terror -- pain-based interrogation -- was rejected by the FBI, CIA, and military leaders and interrogators during the Bush years because it plainly did not work. "When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop," FBI interrogator Ali Soufan explains. "Most of the time they will lie, make up anything, to make you stop hurting them. That means the information you're getting is useless."

Torture defenders have repeatedly claimed that classified intelligence documents would vindicate the use of physically coercive interrogation techniques. But time and again, declassified documents have proven the opposite. Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times without providing any useful intelligence to his interrogators. It was only many months later, after a skilled CIA interrogator won his admiration and respect, that KSM offered the CIA a series of blackboard lectures on Al Qaeda's modus operandi. Another detainee subject to enhanced interrogation erroneously fingered thirty separate men as Osama bin Laden's personal bodyguard, then provided the "intelligence" that Saddam Hussein was planning to give weapons of mass destruction to Al Qaeda. That information, of course, turned out to be false.

In these and many other cases, authorities quickly abandoned the extreme measures some had imagined were necessary. To date, there is no credible evidence that any of the controversial and unprecedented policies adopted after 9/11 helped to foil a single terrorist plot or capture a single terrorist.

Presented by

Nick Adams, Ted Nordhaus, & Michael Shellenberger

Nick Adams is the director of National Security and Counterterrorism Policy at The Breakthrough Institute. Ted Nordhaus is the Institute's chairman, and Michael Shellenberger is its president.

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