Who Killed the War on Terror?

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Immediately after 9/11, policymakers and security authorities concluded that the U.S. was faced with an unprecedented and exceptionally dangerous new enemy. But with the benefit of hindsight, it turns out that al Qaeda was not so exceptional after all. It adopted timeless strategies that terrorist groups -- from the New Left Baader Meinhoff group in Germany to the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland -- have utilized throughout history. And the strategies that have proven effective in destroying al Qaeda are the very same that have proven effective in past counterterrorism efforts.

Dick Cheney, former CIA director Michael Hayden, and others have insisted that the killing of Bin Laden vindicates their War on Terror. But the facts of the Bin Laden investigation suggest otherwise. Indeed, tracking down Bin Laden was arguably possible only once the security establishment abandoned War on Terror tactics and focused on long-proven, largely uncontroversial, and more discerning approaches -- relying on, tips, informants, and focused surveillance, not torture, illegal wiretapping, or a military occupation. And when military force played a decisive role in the raid on Bin Laden's compound and the drone-strike on his key operational lieutenant a week later, its use was highly targeted -- clearly different than the blunt War on Terror approaches initially used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But with Bin Laden in a watery grave and the tenth anniversary of 9/11 fast approaching, we must do more than simply take stock of what has worked and what has failed in our efforts to thwart terrorism over the last decade. The worst mistakes and abuses of the War on Terror were possible, in no small part, because national security is still practiced more as a craft than a science. Lacking rigorous evaluations of its practices, the national security establishment was particularly vulnerable to the panic, grandiosity, and overreach that colored policymaking in the wake of 9/11.

To avoid making those sorts of mistakes again, it is essential that we reimagine national security as an object of scientific inquiry. Over the last four centuries, virtually every other aspect of statecraft - from the economy to social policy to even domestic law enforcement - has been opened up to engagement with and evaluation by civil society. The practice of national security is long overdue for a similar transformation.

Maintaining the nation's security of course will continue to require some degree of secrecy. But there is little reason to think that appropriate secrecy is inconsistent with a fact-based culture of robust and multiplicative inquiry. Indeed, to whatever partial extent that culture already exists within the national security establishment, it has led the move away from many of the counterproductive security measures established after 9/11.

Yet, in the ten years that Congress has been debating issues like coercive interrogation, ethnic profiling, and military tribunals, the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which have all the proper security clearances to evaluate such questions, have never established any formal process to consistently evaluate and improve the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism measures.

Establishing proper oversight and evaluation of the efficacy of our security practices will not come easily, for the security craft guards its claims to privileged knowledge jealously. But as long as the practice of security remains hidden behind a veil of classified documents and accepted wisdoms handed down from generation to generation of security agents, our national security apparatus will never become fully modern.

In a world in which efforts to attack Americans are ongoing, developing a formal capacity for critical evaluation is as urgent as ever. Such capacity will not guarantee that we will avoid all future security failures, or the cruder and less effective responses they tend to provoke. But it will give the security establishment the tools it needs to improve its practices and resist impractical, unproven, and downright dangerous policies. Lacking those tools, the next high profile attack could well inspire another forgetting of history, another War on Terror, and another danger-filled decade spent relearning old lessons about how to keep our people safe.

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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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