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

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'√Čtat, 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.


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.