What's Glenn Greenwald's Problem?

The outgoing Salon blogger can't seem to have an honest discussion without accusing his debate partners of malicious motives.

On Wednesday, Glenn Greenwald, the former Salon blogger now headed to the Guardian, and an avid tweeter to boot, fired off a 5,000-word salvo with the final post at his longtime Internet hangout.

Railing against the "sham industry" of "terrorism experts," Greenwald viciously attacked figures such as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross  and J.M. Berger -- analysts, he said, who had "built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism and can stay relevant only if that threat does." (Full disclosure: I previously interned for and co-authored work with Gartenstein-Ross.) The day's outrages meriting the special attention -- complete with mugshots -- were Gartenstein-Ross's tweets criticizing Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt and J.M. Berger's criticism of Middle East historian Juan Cole.

Greenwald levels several charges. He asserts that Gartenstein-Ross and Berger, like all "terrorism experts," protect their "lucrative" careers by slavishly hyping an establishment agenda that blows terrorism out of proportion, to ensure the War on Terror never arrives "at a final destination," and that their arguments must never threaten their "vested interests." He dismisses their defenders, who pushed back firmly over Twitter, for their "incestuous" cliquishness, demonstrated by their willingness to "pimp" each other's books or share dinner and drinks. Their work, says Greenwald, is "shrieking" in defense of a "personal cash train," meaning that each assessment must be motivated to ensure their "bread is buttered."

But Greenwald goes further than an ad hominem attack -- he rejects "terrorism" as a useful term altogether, arguing, along with scholar Remi Brulin, that the term terrorism is primarily "propaganda" for "justifying one's own state violence"-- especially of the American and Israeli variety -- rather than a possible subject of expertise.

But terrorism, as an activity of non-state groups, was originally a value-neutral or even positive term, and even today is not just a propaganda construct. Terrorism, as a term for non-state political violence, originates from the self-description of Russian radicals such as Sergey Nechayev in the late 19th century. More recently, jihadist strategist Abu Musab al-Suri's Global Islamic Resistance Call describes the "individual terrorism jihad" as a key pillar of jihadist theory. Infamous white supremacist screed The Turner Diaries features the positive and self-appropriated use of "terrorism" and "terror" as well. Even al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden once embraced the label, telling Al Jazeera, "[I]f killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists."

Still, buried in Greenwald's screed is an important point. As a field of study for anthropologists, historians, political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists, terrorism deals with a social phenomenon that is inherently subjective -- one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. It invites debate. But what Greenwald misses is that the best terrorism analysts -- a category to which Gartenstein-Ross and Berger certainly belong -- spend as much time arguing with each other as with anyone else. Gartenstein-Ross's thesis that al Qaeda is waging an effective strategy of attrition faces pushback from other terrorism analysts such as Peter Bergen and even Greenwald's derisively named "Patron Saint" of terrorism studies, Will McCants.

That so many terms and concepts are debatable hardly confirms Greenwald's case that terrorism experts are engaged in an ongoing sinister or craven effort to legitimize Western violence. It also recalls debates common to identifying any political "-ism" in social science, from fascism to liberalism to realism. No doubt terrorism is a problematic subject of inquiry, but it is still a subject of inquiry (many so-called terrorism experts in fact identify themselves as, say, political scientists or historians that specialize in terrorism, rather than disciples of "terrorism studies" per se), and those who study it extensively may offer insights others do not grasp.

Most bizarre, Greenwald assigns ill motives where honest disagreement might suffice: Gartenstein-Ross's views on terrorism could not come from honest opinion because of his professional affiliations. Greenwald asserts it is anti-intellectual to put questioning motive off limits. Fair enough. So too is it to wantonly assert that an analyst's motive is profit-based or deliberately misleading without any proof whatsoever (and the fact that Berger in particular is in the middle of a job hunt suggests he hasn't struck it rich quite yet). In any case, questioning motives cuts both ways: Many foreign-policy realists, including those Greenwald cites -- Zbiginew Brzezinski and Stephen Walt -- think the War on Terror is a distraction from proper great-power politics, and have their own incentives to refocus foreign policy away from al Qaeda. Does Brzezinski's Democratic affiliation taint his views? Does Walt simply want to see his realist clique returned to power, or sell more of his books? Hardly.

Obviously, with such a low evidentiary standard for proving an argument's bad faith, not simply substantive dialogue but even honest disagreement is impossible. Greenwald cites the "close ranks" of terrorism and national security analysts (he uses the terms interchangeably) as proof of incestuous intriguing, but if one declares an entire field or industry to be mercenary frauds, then of course the entire industry is going to respond negatively. Does Berger, who has extensively researched white supremacist and far-right terrorism and has become a significant voice in discussion of the recent attack against Wisconsin Sikhs, really depend upon perpetuating the War on Terror and ignoring white terrorism? When Gartenstein-Ross decries U.S. overreaction and counterterrorism profligacy as the key pillar of al Qaeda's strategy, who's lining his purse?

These bad-faith accusations are also supremely unhelpful because Berger and Gartenstein-Ross, along with many others within the fractious and argumentative online national security community, often advance criticism of national security policies that many critics of the war on terror -- including Greenwald -- might welcome. Via the logic of guilt by association, critics of targeted killing, opponents of torture, foes of threat inflation, are lumped in with policymakers and other analysts with whom they have vehement disagreements, and dismissed out of hand. While many commentators and non-specialists in terrorism saw invading Iraq as worthwhile, many terrorism analysts feared that occupying an Arab country of 25 million would be a boon to al Qaeda, and many today now question intervention in places like Libya and Syria by raising the threat of blowback.

Terrorism analysts would be the first to admit their field, despite what Greenwald characterizes as its "relentlessly incestuous" nature, is rife with disagreement on basic questions, such as what constitutes terrorism, what the role of al Qaeda affiliates is, whether the War on Terror is succeeding or failing, and whether drones strikes are effective. Berger and Gartenstein-Ross made strong arguments in what we can only assume is in good faith, but nobody, least of all terrorism analysts, accept their judgments as unimpeachable. But any counterattack that targets an argument's motives rather than its merits is unlikely to go far, and overbroad attacks on terrorism analysts as a class are unlikely to persuade them or change their behavior.

It is one thing, of course, to note that national security and terrorism are multifaceted, subjective, and controversial issues, and to disagree with arguments on the basis of merits and evidence. It is another entirely to assert that those who approach them differently must be engaging in avaricious mendacity. A degree of mutual respect and willingness to accept disagreement in good faith makes debate and dialogue possible, and makes humility and open-mindedness virtues rather than weaknesses. For those hoping that it's still possible to change someone's mind in the age of Twitter, it remains essential.



Alan Boswell's White Whale

Enough Project responds to criticism of its South Sudan advocacy.

Journalist Alan Boswell took to these pages in an article called "The Failed State Lobby" to malign certain human rights advocates including George Clooney and staff of the Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP). He characterized their efforts to end genocide and hold all parties in the Sudans accountable for mass atrocities as "morally charged and culturally hip do-goodism" in service of a "clear political agenda."

Like others who have gone before, Boswell is entitled to his opinion, but not his own facts. Rather than making a fact-based reportorial case, Boswell ends up indulging in the kind of moral indignation he claims to deplore.

He knocks his peers for allegedly giving the Enough Project "a free pass." They do this, he claims, by "frequently citing its version of events as objective, independent analysis," when he suggests, it is not. However, Boswell offers no examples of misreporting by anyone or any failures of objectivity on the part of the Enough Project.

Instead, Boswell besmirches an Enough Project Sudan policy analyst, implying that her prior role as a legal adviser to the government of South Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) inherently biases her toward the South. Providing legal advice to an entity or individual does not impute the values or beliefs of that entity onto a legal adviser. To insinuate otherwise in this, or any other, context is inaccurate and unfair. I know our policy analyst to be a fair-minded professional of integrity.

As Boswell concedes, the Enough Project does not turn a blind eye to human rights violations, and it is not blindly pro-South Sudan. For example, Enough called the Republic of South Sudan (RSS) to account for failing to do enough to protect civilians from anticipated intercommunal violence in South Sudan's Jonglei state in August 2011. In a January 26 report, Enough wrote: "The RSS made no systematic sustained effort to facilitate negotiations to return the people abducted and livestock stolen in the August attack. The government did not reinforce and bolster its security forces deployed between and among the communities to serve as a buffer and protect civilians. Nothing was done about the general disempowerment and deprivation felt by the youth of both the Lou-Nuer and Murle communities."

Nevertheless, Boswell complains, "Enough's policy papers are filled with calls for punitive measures toward Khartoum and greater engagement with Juba." He implies that it is wrong to call for the international community to increase its engagement with South Sudan, the world's newest nation, in order to improve its human rights record; and that it is wrong to suggest further sanctions against Khartoum, aimed at improving the record of a notorious human rights violator.

Then Boswell assails Enough Project Co-founder John Prendergast for having the temerity to recruit celebrities to help generate media attention in the service of ending genocide and mass atrocities -- as if this were a bad thing. "Prendergast's biggest catch of late is George Clooney," Boswell sneers, "who has made Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir something of his own personal white whale."

But Herman Melville's white whale, Moby Dick, is a poor metaphor for what drives Clooney, who is a thoughtful and dedicated humanitarian. Clooney has traveled to the region six times, got malaria twice, and recently entered a conflict zone with Prendergast at the invitation of South Kordofan's Nuba people. There he filmed, among other things, evidence of war crimes. He has not only put his body on the line, but put his money where his mouth is by co-founding and financing the Satellite Sentinel Project.

And let's take a moment to consider Boswell's misplaced metaphor. To Captain Ahab, Moby Dick embodied evil and a reason for reckless revenge, for the creature had taken Ahab's leg. But the novel's narrator, Ishmael, suggests that the way in which one perceives the whale's whiteness reveals more about you than the whale.

So it is with Boswell, who naively suggests that Prendergast and Clooney, in cooperation with others have run a "bizarre moral campaign" grounded in "moral idealism" that in turn has somehow driven U.S. foreign policy on the Sudans for a generation. "But the activists made a critical mistake," he asserts, without evidence. "They seemed to think the SPLM rebels represented a virtuous mirror image of Khartoum's evils."

"Clooney's eyes in the sky have visually confirmed several events on the ground," Boswell concedes, dismissively. He fails to mention that these events include apparent mass graves at eight sites in Sudan, the government of Sudan's indiscriminate bombardment of civilians, Sudan's blockade of humanitarian relief to civilians facing near-famine conditions, and evidence of military escalation by both sides in the disputed border region of Abyei. "But, its satellites also have a clear agenda: Read through the group's reports," he advises. He then claims, offering no evidence, that SSP does not provide "comparably critical scrutiny" of the forces of both nations. In fact, that is exactly what SSP does -- although what SSP learns does not always lead to comparable evidence of criminality.

Boswell seems unable to accept that there is no controversy about the disproportionate scale of Khartoum's operations and that it continues to live up to the reputation it earned while committing horrific crimes against humanity in Darfur -- for which four of its leaders have been indicted by the International Criminal Court.

Boswell's method is transparent: He smears those who seek forensic evidence of war crimes, by eliding the facts instead of reporting them. He then posits a false moral equivalence between the Sudans.

Boswell's unsupported accusations notwithstanding, SSP has since its launch in 2011, focused on both southern as well as northern-aligned forces, and documented, among other things, evidence of looting by South Sudan's army in the border area of Heglig. If Boswell had really been reading how SSP handles reporting on the southern side, he might have noticed that on April 23, 2012, SSP cited Boswell's own reporting for Time magazine as part of its documentation of evidence of possible war crimes.

Although Boswell gets his facts and his white whale metaphor wrong, there is a Melvillian simile that applies. So quick is Boswell to jab at Clooney and fellow human rights advocates that, like Captain Ahab, he becomes entangled and upended by his own harpoon.


I fully stand by my reporting. I don't see anything here that substantively challenges the facts of my report. Anyone who is interested in my full reporting from the ground can read my regular stories on and, or on Twitter at @alanboswell. Anyone wishing to raise factual issues about my work are welcome to email me at My report addressed an important policy question, and I hope the debate on the policy side of these issues continues.

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