Playing Defense Is Totally Fine

The U.S. has built many layers of protection against attack, and toughness doesn’t require endless war.

Secret service agents.
Jim Watson / AFP / Getty

About the author: Luke Hartig is a fellow at New America and the president of National Journal Research. He served as the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2014 to 2016.

If you’ve turned on any cable-news channel or opened any newspaper or magazine since most of Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last month, you can see a clear narrative emerging: The terrorists are returning, and they will attack us. This chorus is coming not just from media commentators or the partisan critics of President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from the country; Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley are now sounding the alarm, as are two top intelligence officials in the Biden administration. Depending on whom you listen to, the U.S. military’s departure will offer morale boosts or new havens to al-Qaeda and ISIS. By some accounts, al-Qaeda may end up even more powerful than it was on 9/11. Strikes from “over the horizon”—if we can gather sufficient intelligence—and a renewed strong CIA presence in the region are the only things that supposedly may save the United States from an attack. Not even the horror of the military’s disastrous final strike in Kabul, which raised grave questions about the drone program’s tactics and effectiveness, could dampen the drumbeat for constant military pressure to keep the threat at bay.

I have not seen the latest classified threat reporting, so I can’t comment on the current threat or how it compares with other terrorist threats I have tracked in my career. Perhaps al-Qaeda is regenerating rapidly after years of devastating losses—though I’m skeptical. What I do know is that in the current debate, the dangers of global offensive operations are underappreciated, and America’s defenses are underestimated.

It’s okay to play defense against terrorism. That’s because we have gotten really good at defense. As the U.S. military has fought seemingly endless overseas wars, other parts of the government have simultaneously built a layered defense that has arguably been far more effective than military operations at keeping the country safe.

Consider just a few of the biggest post-9/11 reforms. The U.S. government established the Department of Homeland Security, federalized aviation security, and nearly quintupled homeland-security spending. For all the jokes that travelers make about the TSA, the agency has quietly developed procedures and technologies to detect explosives anywhere a terrorist could hide them—in luggage, liquids, electronic devices, shoes, even underwear—and made it far harder for terrorists to board an airplane with a false identity.

The FBI has completely reinvented itself as a national-security agency and dedicated thousands of agents and analysts to the mission. It has worked closely with state and local law enforcement, which have made their own investments in counterterrorism. As a result of such efforts, the federal government has successfully prosecuted nearly 700 international terrorism cases. Countless more terrorist suspects have been deported or extradited to other countries for prosecution. The FBI assesses that America’s greatest terrorist threat today comes from lone actors—both those inspired by al-Qaeda and ISIS as well as those motivated by white nationalism or other racial or ethnic animus. The agency has thousands of open investigations into a threat that by definition cannot be disrupted with overseas military operations.

The U.S. government now includes a cabinet-level Director of National Intelligence. It also has a National Counterterrorism Center dedicated to tracking terrorist threats and preventing the kinds of lapses in intelligence sharing that contributed to 9/11. The U.S. intelligence community works closely with its counterparts around the world, and has stopped several major plots by doing so. The 2006 al-Qaeda plan to bomb several airliners using liquid explosives was thwarted when British authorities, which had been monitoring the plotting with U.S. intelligence for months, arrested 24 suspects before they could strike. Two plots by an al-Qaeda offshoot to target passenger and cargo aircraft were reportedly disrupted via U.S. cooperation with Saudi intelligence.

The international community has also united to prevent perhaps our most worrisome threat, nuclear terrorism. Beginning in the 1990s, governments have secured large quantities of loose nuclear materials and intercepted two dozen questionable shipments of nuclear material. Tens of thousands of radiation detectors have been distributed across the United States, including fixed sensors at ports of entry and mobile sensors that can be deployed to special events or in response to specific intelligence.

International law-enforcement cooperation through Interpol and other mechanisms has been strengthened, allowing for the sharing of information on terrorist suspects and improved tracking of terrorist travel. After tens of thousands of terrorist fighters surged to Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015, a United Nations–backed multinational effort reduced this flow to a trickle by emphasizing information sharing, law enforcement, and passenger tracking. Turkey’s efforts to prevent terrorist transit, including by securing its border-crossing points with Syria, allowed it to deport or deny entry to nearly 6,000 fighters in 2015 and 2016.

The private sector has invested in security to protect crucial infrastructure. Social-media companies have worked with the government to shut down terrorist propaganda by removing millions of pieces of content and purging millions of accounts in recent years. The financial sector has adopted reforms, bolstered by government enforcement mechanisms, that tightly limit the ability of terrorist groups and their backers to finance a global set of operations like they did before 9/11. All U.S. airlines have installed armored cockpit doors to thwart hijackers. Metal detectors screen us all before sporting events and concerts.

These are only a few examples of how our government and our society reoriented themselves after 9/11. These defenses are demonstrably imperfect. But a complex terrorist attack presents various points at which it might be disrupted, and this interconnected net of defenses is designed to do just that. Further, even if the benefits of each individual bit of security are incremental, they add up to substantial layered defenses. There are areas for reform, to be sure, but we have to acknowledge that the system the U.S. has painstakingly built has kept us safe.

None of this is to dismiss the international terrorist threats we face. I have worked on counterterrorism issues at the Pentagon, the White House, and a think tank for more than a decade. I have sat in meetings about a terrifying stream of terrorist plots against the United States. And I have provided advice about drone strikes and military operations targeting the very terrorists who would do us harm.

But many people in these forums—both inside government and out—seem to believe that relying on our defenses is insufficiently tough, that we must not be complacent when faced with a threat that we’re told is always metastasizing and always potent, no matter what we have done to defeat it. The world’s indispensable power is supposed to shape global events, the argument goes, not react to them.

This is a dangerous mindset, a kind of macho approach to foreign-policy making that helped unleash and sustain a 20-year war in the first place. The notion that the U.S. should tolerate no risk, and that military operations overseas will help eliminate risk, has led us to fumble our way through one conflict after another, messing with local dynamics that we don’t understand and perpetuating the chaos on which terrorists thrive.

Far from showing weakness, relying on our defenses as the option of first resort could actually strengthen us as a nation—by allowing us to invest in other national-security challenges and freeing us from the strategic and moral compromises we have made over the past two decades to implement our counterterrorism operations.

Extremists will always be drawn to al-Qaeda and ISIS, and those groups will probably never give up trying to attack us. And yes, there will be times when all else fails and we must use military force to stop the most dangerous plots. But we can be both safe and strong without constantly bombing suspected terrorists thousands of miles from America’s shores, if only we trust our defenses to do what we designed them to do.