Voice

The Real Risks

Prison breaks, the embassy shut down, and an al Qaeda comeback all reveal one thing: we're still handling the terror threat wrong.

With each passing day, it becomes even clearer that despite what appears to be a very serious current terrorist threat, the greatest risks facing America come from our own misplaced priorities and mistaken assumptions.

As recently as late last week, I spoke with a very senior administration official -- one of the White House's best and brightest -- who forcefully described the significance of America's successful destruction of "core" al Qaeda. White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated this point in comments to the press on Monday. But two errors in that assessment have now become abundantly apparent. The first is obvious given that the current alert is reportedly due in part to communications between a still-active core al Qaeda led by Ayman al-Zawahiri and lieutenants in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The second and perhaps more important revelation is the enduring notion that al Qaeda could effectively be defeated (or the risks associated with it could be contained) by targeting its so-called core.

A large part of the threat associated with al Qaeda has to do with the fact that it is not a traditional hierarchic organization, operating with a structure that allows it to recover from even heavy blows, move to new locations, as well as reform and resume operations. Further, of course, as we see the by-product of the upheaval throughout the Arab world (in particular in places like Syria), extremists come in many forms with many allegiances, so targeting any one organization doesn't necessarily reduce the threat. On top of which, the spread of weak regimes and chaos in the region actually accelerates the recruitment of new fighters, the development of new organizations (such as al-Nusra in Syria), and a diffusion of risks that makes managing them even tougher.

The confluence of these last two factors is well illustrated by the fact that the alleged Zawahiri communication was with al Qaeda's new "No. 2" -- its leader in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser al-Wuhayshi. Formerly Osama bin Laden's personal secretary, Wuhayshi was imprisoned but escaped and moved to Yemen, one of the region's weakest states. He has since taken the reins of a steadily strengthening local operation with global aspirations. (Ibrahim al-Asiri, the 31-year-old Saudi master bomb maker who was behind recent plots like the underwear bombing and printer cartridge explosive device is reportedly also in Yemen and part of AQAP.)

Wuhayshi's escape from prison also happens to underscore yet another of our misplaced priorities. While America has engaged in an overly politicized and overly loud debate over the tragedy of last September 11 in Benghazi, there has been precious little discussion over a much more worrisome set of failures: the series of prison breaks at facilities housing dangerous extremists. This list most recently includes Abu Ghraib, a prison in Pakistan, and one outside of Benghazi. As a result of just these last three breaks, reports say nearly 2,000 extremists have been freed.

Where is the investigation into how this pattern of prison breaks was allowed to unfold, why it wasn't flagged earlier as a serious risk, and why there wasn't tighter security? Indeed, it could well be that while we have understandably focused on security errors at the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, lapses of greater consequence subsequently occurred.

Another set of misplaced priorities has been associated with the intelligence that led to the current alert. As noted in Shane Harris's recent FP piece, it is clear that the Edward Snowden revelations that produced such a firestorm in Washington did not eviscerate our ability to use intelligence to intercept terror plots. But the administration's decision to leak that intercepts were behind the current embassy shut-down alert also put U.S. sources and methods at risk. Though the decision to reveal the nature of the information undoubtedly was made after careful consideration, it underscores the inherent nature of the cat-and-mouse game that we and these extremists play -- communications and intercept techniques constantly shift and evolve. 

Of course, the greatest misplaced priority associated with our intelligence program is the notion that stopping terrorists is worth undercutting the basic privacy rights of U.S. citizens and our allies. Terror threats are limited, fleeting, and literally impossible to fully contain -- all reasons that should have never been allowed to undercut those other, enduring principles. It is important we are able to see and acknowledge this point, even when a current threat is looming.

However, many in Washington are already trying to use this asserted threat to justify the intelligence programs exposed by Snowden, as well as our other over-reactions to terrorism. Were there to be another attack, they would surely do likewise. There is a pattern here that we need to view dispassionately rather than with fear. The Patriot Act was an over-reaction. Building up the NSA surveillance programs was an over-reaction. And, it must be said, shutting down scores of U.S. diplomatic facilities is an over-reaction. We must protect our diplomats. But we also must avoid appearing to be cowed by terrorists (or those who would engage in political sniping back at home). And, of course, there are other choices than the wholesale closing of a massive cross-section of America's diplomatic capacity across the Islamic world. 

Other countries, other embassies, and other facilities are at constant risk of attack. Yet they choose to remain open. They harden defenses. They restructure facilities. They take lower-key precautions. And they make these choices to avoid producing panic and also because shutting down scores of facilities only makes other facilities the target. 

This brings us to the ultimate mistaken assumption -- that it is actually possible to win a war on terror. We can suffer defeats, to be sure. These come when we pursue the wrong targets, employ the wrong tactics, and fail to assess risks wisely. Indeed, we can lose such a war if we let terrorists set our policies, drain our resources, and mesmerize us with a shadow game that never ends, one that offers only illusory victories and leaves us distracted from our real needs and priorities, and the many greater threats we face. 

No, the only way to avoid losing such a war is to avoid framing it as such. We must protect ourselves -- but against not just the terrorists but ourselves and our terror. Cool perspective is more effective than all the drones, special ops, and surveillance programs we can muster. That is not to say we shouldn't be on guard or that we shouldn't strike hard against demonstrated threats and those who have conducted past attacks. We must. But we also need to get a grip -- to understand what elements of this we need to be prepared to deal with on a continuing basis, to prepare accordingly, and to focus on the real risks rather than simply those that cause the biggest hue and cry among the hysterics on Capitol Hill and in the American media.

SAID KHATIB/AFP/GettyImages

David Rothkopf

Declaring an End to the Decade of Fear

With U.S. national security policy under review, Obama has a chance to cement his legacy for the better. But will he take it?

We are at a watershed moment for U.S. national security policy. The changes being ushered in will almost certainly be viewed as a vital part of President Barack Obama's legacy. It is also undeniable that the president deserves considerable credit for orchestrating and accelerating some of them and accepting others as larger trends drove them along.

That said, how he embraces these changes moving forward and whether or not he has a coherent vision for maximizing their promise and benefits on behalf of the U.S. and the American people will color that legacy greatly. Indeed, they could make the difference between seeing the president as bowing to temporal and popular forces or leading them. 

We have come to what could be seen as the end of an ignominious period in U.S. national security history, one that might be called the Decade of Fear. And though it was the 9/11 attacks that ushered this period in, our response in the months and years afterward defined it far more than those blows ever could. At a moment when the United States could have seen the terrorist threat as being as limited and peripheral, we over-reacted -- grotesquely. 

We didn't react to the moment. We didn't seize it. We succumbed to it. 

Instead, we allowed our fear to drive the creation of a massive government security apparatus, huge expenditures, and reckless global programs. Compared to the number of people, groups, or weapons systems threatening us, our investment in our response to said threats redefines "disproportionate" in the annals of a government where excess has been a hallmark of our military-industrial complex. And that's saying something.

Gradually, this excess came to haunt us. War spending with its $2-3 trillion price tag exacerbated our national financial burdens at a time of great economic crisis. Our wars of over-reach and ideological hysteria damaged our international standing and incited political backlash at home. Recently, some of the secret initiatives launched to contain the perceived (but amorphous and largely illusory) were revealed to have risked not only American personal freedoms but also international relationships in ways that no terrorist could ever hope to achieve.

This in turn has finally created a reaction, a retrenchment, and, thankfully, a movement back to a more rational national security. President Obama was elected in 2008 in large part due to his commitment to winding down our two costly, distracting, and largely unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And since then Obama has guided his Defense Department to consider cutbacks. He has avoided some foreign entanglements (perhaps too assiduously). He has sought to put threats into better perspective (for the most part). Clearly, drone programs, the expansion of our offensive cyber capabilities, the conduct of special and clandestine operations, and the continuing expansion of the surveillance state have undercut his ability to claim authorship for this resetting of priorities.

 

But looking at the headlines of these last two weeks, it's hard to conclude that there isn't something big afoot -- creating an opportunity to make this not only a policy turning point but also one for the Obama presidency. Secretary Hagel is today beginning the process of making public the results of his strategic review that will focus on bringing defense spending back down to a peacetime footing. An unprecedented secrecy review will finally take a look at the grossly bloated secrecy culture of the U.S. government, its hidden costs in economic, policy and efficiency terms, and the measures needed to rein it in. On the Hill, the Snowden revelations promise some efforts at reform of the NSA and related surveillance programs. The president recently sent a clear message about his commitment to departing Afghanistan on or even before the deadline of the end of next year.

  

But whether or not the president and his top national security advisors will orchestrate these initiatives into a coordinated effort to reset America's national security footing, advancing national interests rather than hyperventilating in the face of every potential threat and theoretical consequence conjured by the Beltway Chicken Littles, remains to be seen. Will Obama be bold? Will he not just cut back but reallocate resources? Will he leave the process to the Hill and to external actors, offering passivity as the best alternative to hysteria?

The way to gauge this will be to watch how he manages the issues framed by the aforementioned headlines. If Obama were, for instance, to insist that Hagel's review be truly decoupled from industry and regional special interests (and begin the process of rationalizing America's defense structure so that it reflects our real needs), it would mean contemplating a world in which we spend, say, just 75 percent of the next 10 biggest national defense budgets worldwide rather than 100 percent of them. (This isn't a reach given that almost all of them are our allies and none threaten us with imminent or even conceivable major conflict in the next couple decades.) It also means insisting that the secrecy review move us away from the classification mania and a system that requires millions of people to obtain special clearance. It means not spending billions on protecting information that mostly -- by the estimate of top security officials with whom I have worked over the years -- already exists elsewhere in the public domain. It means building an intelligence apparatus that gives policymakers access to the information they need rather than one that artificially inflates the importance of information by needlessly classifying it -- thus making it harder to use. 

A coherent and truly (and wisely) transformational policy shift will also involve a clear, stated reversal on the policies associated with the creation of the surveillance state in which we live. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post did D.C. residents a big favor earlier this week when he courageously acknowledged the service Edward Snowden did for the United States ... and for the global debate on rights and privacy in the big data era. I have myself been too slow to recognize that the benefits we have derived from Snowden's revelations substantially outweigh the costs associated with the breach. It is time we move from the kind of Patriot Act thinking that overstates security threats to such a degree that we subordinate our basic freedoms to something more consistent with our historical systems of checks and balances. 

And with regard to Department of Homeland Security -- and I say this with only a slight hint of my tongue in my cheek -- this moment, when so many top spots in the department are vacant, might just be the perfect time to undo one of the biggest bureaucratic blunders of the Bush years and unmake the government institutions born of fear. I have spoken to no one in Washington ... including very, very senior officials of the Department of Homeland Security and the Directorate of National Intelligence ... who believes that creating those two enterprises did anything other than to create unneeded bureaucracy, expense, and inefficiency. And in so doing, they did not enhance security, they compromised it. (And don't worry, the key parts or functions of those agencies...the ones we need to combat whatever real terror threats actually exist...would remain.  They'd just be smaller and back in the entities from which they came.) If Republican budget cutters on the Hill were not also the biggest of America's fear-mongers, they would be leading their efforts toward fiscal probity by taking scalpels to Defense and chainsaws to the Department of Homeland Security and the Directorate of National Intelligence.

There are three years left in the Obama term. Whether or not he uses them to seize this moment and turn it into a coherent transition toward an efficient, effective, and focused national security apparatus -- one that we desperately need -- will play a large role in determining how history views his presidency.

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