Earlier this month, Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer who served as deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats, published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post arguing that Americans, and certain Republicans in particular, vastly overstate the threat from al Qaeda:
We must not delude ourselves about the nature of the terrorist threat to our country. We must not take fright at the specter our leaders have exaggerated. In fact, we must see jihadists for the small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are.
The piece is interesting, but it left me worried, in part because it reminded me of Larry Johnson's infamous July, 2001 op-ed in The New York Times, in which he argued that Americans have nothing to fear from Osama bin Laden, and it followed by several weeks a Fareed Zakaria column that downplayed the threat posed by terrorism. I tend to grow concerned when right-thinking people all seem to be simultaneously agreeing that the terrorist threat is diminishing. Success in the war against terrorists, of course, breeds complacency, and so the question is, is this complacency justified? To answer that question, I turned to Daniel Benjamin, one of the smartest people I know on the subject. He is, with Steven Simon, author of one of the best books on Muslim terrorism, The Age of Sacred Terror. Here are four questions I asked him, and his answers:
Jeffrey Goldberg: Glenn Carle argued in The Washington Post recently that America has overstated the threat from al-Qaeda. He writes, "We have allowed the specter of that threat to distort our lives and take our treasure." Do you agree?
Daniel Benjamin: I've got a lot of respect for Glenn - he is a serious, highly regarded analyst. That said, we're not in exactly the same place on the dimensions of the threat. I don't fully agree, for example, with his assessment that "Osama bin Laden and his disciples are small men and secondary threats whose shadows are made large by our fears." 9/11 was an extraordinary event, and several of the key individuals involved are free to operate, so I don't think we can write them off that way. But I do concur that the nation has overreacted to a dangerous extent, particularly in the invasion and occupation of Iraq and in making the terrorist threat the lens through which we conduct our foreign policy. That has meant not only a huge waste of blood and treasure but it's also been counter-productive.