War on Terror Hawks Can't Fail, They Can Only Be Failed

Questioning the claim that Americans now are more vulnerable to terrorism, and probing its implications

On Sunday, Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Mike Rogers, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, appeared on network television, where they announced that terrorists have gained ground in recent years. 

Among their claims:

  • We're less safe than we were two years ago.
  • Islamist groups are winning the minds of the disenfranchised in the Middle East and Asia.
  • There has been "a rise in fatalities from terrorist-related activities."
  • The enemy has "increasingly specialized and dangerous technology," including powerful bombs.
  • "Terror groups had already tried, on four separate occasions, to send these newer, more deadly explosives into the United States."
  • "Al-Qaeda as we knew it before is metastasizing to something different."

Got that? When it comes to terrorism, they say you're no better off than you were two years ago. As a result, these two legislators have declared recent national-security policy a failure, insisted on mass firings for cause in the national-security bureaucracy, and called for a new approach to counterterrorism.

Ha! Just kidding. Even though they think we're less safe now, and that the enemy is more dangerous, they favor continuing or intensifying current policy, and they aren't calling for any resignations at the CIA or the NSA or the Defense Department or the White House or anywhere else. The national-security establishment has really figured out how to sustain itself: If the risk of terrorism decreases, it proves that they ought to be given more power to continue their demonstrably successful policies; and if the risk of terrorism increases, it proves that they need more power to fight terrorists who are more dangerous than ever. Whatever happens, what's needed is to give the the people in charge more leeway and resources to do what they're already doing. It's never the case that someone needs to be fired, or that an agency ought to lose some of its discretion, or that American policy needs to be reformed because it is inflaming hatred and making us less safe in the long run. 

The self-serving nature of these claims ought to prompt more journalistic skepticism, as Marcy Wheeler argues. Vague claims that we're "safer" or "less safe" than two years ago deserve almost no deference, in part because the metrics by which those judgments were reached ought to be exposed to scrutiny, but also because there isn't actually a reliable way to know whether we are safer or less safe from terrorism than we were two years ago. You'll recall that both immediately before and immediately after 9/11, official judgments about how safe we were from terrorism proved wildly incorrect, and I don't see how it could be otherwise. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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