The Limits of Operational Counterterrorism

When I saw the cover of the Atlantic -- a bare lightbulb swinging on a cord and the headline "How to Break a Terrorist" -- I was afraid I might be in for another Mark Bowden "smacky-face" special. But, in a sign of how times have changed, while the subhead of Bowden's 2003 article on interrogations was "The most effective way to gather intelligence and thwart terrorism can also be a direct route into morally repugnant terrain. A survey of the landscape of persuasion," the newer story comes with a deck promising us "The inside story of how the interrogators of Task Force 145 cracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s inner circle—without resorting to torture—and hunted down al-Qaeda’s man in Iraq." And, indeed, it delivers and it's a pretty fascinating story in a whodunnit kind of way. Byron York offers up a decent quibble on the torture point (noting that the successful torture-free interrogation does involve threatening to send the guy to Abu Ghraib and letting reputation make that stand in for a threat to torture him), but the interesting political point here actually concerns Bowden's own seemingly conflicting feelings about the significance of his story:

Like so much else about the Iraq War, it was a feel-good moment that amounted to little more than a bump on a road to further mayhem. Today, Iraq seems no closer to peace, unity, and a terror-free existence than it did last June. If anything, the brutal attacks on civilian targets that Zarqawi pioneered have worsened.

Still, the hit was without question a clear success in an effort that has produced few. Since so much of the “war on terror” consists of hunting down men like Zarqawi, the process is instructive.

What I'd say instead is that you're seeing here the conflict between a great piece of narrative journalism -- the true story of hunting down Zarqawi -- and the desire to do an important piece of policy writing. It turns out that gathering intelligence to find Zarqawi, while an interesting process to read and write about, simply isn't something that's centrally important to the strategic mission. You wouldn't want to make a TV series about academics studying recidivism data and trying to construct a model so that sentencing policy can get maximum incapacitation bang for your prison-bed buck. Nor would an effort to draw up guidelines for reform of the parole system make for compelling drama. At the same time, the kind of thing you see in CSI, while making a better subject for episodic television, just isn't fundamentally the most important thing to a sound crime control regime.

If you want to take a serious bite out of crime, you're not going to make improved investigative techniques of that sort your primary focus. Crime is a macro-level social phenomenon that you don't solve by identifying and capturing X number of criminals. You do, of course, identify and capture criminals, but the question is always about the systemic impact of the law-enforcement apparatus on the crime situation, not "have we nailed this guy yet." Thus, Bowden's piece ends up with some of the grand irony of The Wire. We know Lieutenant Daniels and crew are smarter, better investigators than the rest of the hacks in the Baltimore Police Department, but the show also makes it clear to us that this is precisely irrelevant -- smarter, better detective work can't and won't solve Baltimore's problems any more than smarter, better operational counterterrorism will solve America's problems in Iraq.