The Permanent Counterterror War

After the 9/11 attacks, the United States lurched off in pursuit of an unattainable goal, perfect security for the American people. Along this bloody route, the nation lost sight of a crucial question: what American actions are generating the fury that fuels the terrorism, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Feature articles over the last few days in the Washington Post and New York Times demonstrate how counterterrorism as practiced by the United States is subject to contradictory forces and trends.

A series in the Postdescribes how the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism has become an increasingly institutionalized killing machine that appears destined to operate indefinitely against a continually replenished list of targets.

On patrol over Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Joshua S. Martinez looks out the side door of a UH-1Y Venom utility helicopter. (Defense Department Photo)

A piece in the Times describes a backlash over the monetary expense and compromises to privacy and civil liberties, a backlash that seems strong enough to force changes in counterterrorist programs. The different directions implied by this reporting reflect how the nation has failed to assimilate some basic principles about terrorism and measures to counter it.

One of those principles is that terrorism is not something with a beginning and an end. It is instead a tactic that has persisted throughout history. And yet the notion of a beginning and an end persists in thinking in this country about terrorism.

The counterterrorism machine has gotten cranked up to run in ways that would not be acceptable to most Americans if it were to run forever, and yet there is no evident point at which, once turned on, it should be turned off. It was inevitable that a backlash would set in.

Related to this point is the prevalent, and equally mistaken, notion that fighting terrorism involves wiping out or incapacitating some identifiable set of people: “the terrorists.” That is the idea behind the hit lists and target matrices.

The Post‘s series depicts a U.S. counterterrorist effort that has become increasingly and narrowly focused on eliminating the people in the matrices rather than on what leads people to become terrorists and to get into the matrices in the first place.

The United States, through its policies and actions, does a lot to affect which people, and how many people, become terrorists. Those actions include the drone strikes, with their collateral damage and power to enrage, that have become the preeminent means of elimination.

Another concept that is only slowly and belatedly being appreciated is that counterterrorism involves inherent trade-offs, between security and such things as civil liberties, personal privacy, and alternative use of public resources. The common absolutist attitude toward preventing terrorism, which was especially stark in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, has led most public discussion of the topic to be phrased in terms of what measures are necessary to do the job.

But there is no “necessary” level. It is instead a matter of how much security to buy at what price. The answer to that can vary, and vary over time as the same population changes its attitudes. This is a lesson that is only being learned over time and as backlashes have set in.

Most of the important lessons about this subject still have not been assimilated by most of the American public. Over the next few years public support for counterterrorism probably will ebb and flow as it always has: sharply up after a terrorist incident, gradually down as the costs and downsides become more apparent with any incident-free passages of time.

Such fluctuation will have little or no correlation with the pattern of actual terrorist threats or with a rational approach to countering the threats.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “The Permanent Counterterror War

  1. Bobzz
    October 29, 2012 at 02:16

    Just a general reaction: the US is indeed on the cusp of losing its democracy. The crackdown on whistleblowers, the spying on its citizens, NYPD’s spying on Muslims, Romney telling CEOs to tell their employees to vote against Obama if they want to keep their jobs, the attempt to keep (Democratic) voters from the polls, the corporate aligned media, the HIgh Court’s decisions on eminent domain, Citizens United, ALEC, etc. The only hope is that the neocons will overstep before the US is beyond the point of no return, and the public will finally see the light.

  2. Hillary
    October 28, 2012 at 19:46

    ” real work it will take to reclaim your democracy.”

    That F. G. Sanford accepts what we have been told is just fine as long as you are willing to believe the not only improbable but impossible.

    Just imagine an inquiring mind believing that a fugitive tracked by all the major intelligence agencies in the world to be living in a cave in Afghanistan was able to orchestrate 12 Arab terrorists to coordinate a “simultaneous” hijacking in the US of 4 American commercial planes and on three of these planes, they pulling off stunning flight maneuvers beyond the capability of expert pilots and managed to cause damage to their targets, so extreme as to be in clear violation of several well understood laws of Physics, Chemistry, and Thermodynamics.…ch_massacre.htm

    When an event occurs that that fundamentally changes the dynamics of global geopolitics, there is one question above all others whose answer will most assuredly point to its perpetrators.

    That question is “Cui bono?”. If those so indicted are in addition found to have had both motive and means then, as they say in the US, it’s pretty much a slam-dunk.

    And so it is with the events of 9/11 even though the “official story” of miraculous sequences of stunning coincidences that boggles any critical mind & was so strongly promoted from day 1 is trustingly believed by unknowledgeable folk like F. G. Sanford.

    But we also know far more than that the “official account” is false. We have ample justification to conclude that the neo-cons who ran the Department of Defense and were prominent participants in the Project for the New American Century were concerned that, with the demise of the Soviet Union, there was an unprecedented opportunity for the US, as the sole remaining superpower, to seize its opportunity to create a world-wide empire for the next 100 years, if only the American people could be persuaded to support the wars of aggression that would be entailed by invading , occupying or taking control of the Middle East for the sake of oil, Israel, and ideology. They feared that the moment would be lost because American values and traditions oppose attacking nations that have not attacked us unless there were to be a traumatic, catalyzing event on the order of “a new Pearl Harbor” that would convince the US public to support these actions and also curtail civil rights in the face of a foreign threat.

    As of May 26, 2011 the United States had spent more than $7.6 Trillion on “defense” and homeland security since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

  3. F. G. Sanford
    October 28, 2012 at 05:04

    “Such fluctuation will have little or no correlation with the pattern of actual terrorist threats or with a rational approach to countering the threats.”

    The author’s point should be well taken. Whether or not the American public grasps the cyclical nature of events which will occur regardless of countermeasures, there seems to be no inkling on the part of the public that the doctrinal mechanism which now fosters the implementation of those countermeasures is most definitely NOT mutable or vacillating. We have entered the epoch of “etat d’urgence”, the “state of exception”, or as the Machiavellian mind that unleashed this Orwellian abomination on the world would have called it, “ausnahmezustand”…or martial law. This schizophrenic bit of circular reasoning adduces that a sovereign is defined by an exceptional state of affairs in which rectification may be achieved by the sovereign through suspension of the rule of law. The state of exception defines the sovereign, and the sovereign defines the state of exception. Please, dear reader, bear in mind the George W. Bush quote, “I’m the decider”.

    Although not a Nazi himself, this bit of legal philosophy comes to us courtesy of Carl Schmitt, whose rationalization was regarded as, “The crown jewel of Nazi juridical philosophy”. In his 1947 book, “22 Cells in Nuremberg”, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley wrote: “I shared the opinion of ethnologists and politicians alike that Nazism was a socio-cultural disease which, while it had been epidemic only among our enemies, was endemic in all parts of the world. I shared the fear that sometime in the future it might become epidemic in my own nation.”

    Dr. Kelley posited that the most immediate threat of this disease would manifest itself as voter suppression. How prophetic. Of course, as Chief Psychiatrist at Nuremberg, Dr. Kelley probably knew a criminal when he saw one. Too bad we don’t seem to be quite so astute. Carl Schmitt’s philosophy is today cited as the juridical justification for many of our “Constitution Busting” counter-terrorism strategies. Sorry folks, but I ain’t makin’ this stuff up.

    • Hillary
      October 28, 2012 at 09:26

      “Whether or not the American public grasps the cyclical nature of events”

      Alas the US Public including “F. G. Sanford” still remains blind to research on 9/11 and accepts the Official 9/11 report.

      To keep the public “CALM” people including government agents like Julia Davis and Susan Lindauer have been imprisoned in the US via the Patriot Act

      Many people like “F. G. Sanford” immediately succumbed to the official 9/11 “kool aid” available almost as the event was happening via an obliging MSM.

      And who better to be the 9/11 Executive Director than Phillip Zelikow, whose area of academic specialization prior to becoming engaged in public service was the creation and maintenance of “public myths” to give “F. G. Sanford” et al an “official account” that could NOT be sustained on multiple grounds,like it violated laws of physics, of engineering and of aerodynamics.

      “Whether or not the American public grasps the cyclical nature of events”

      Excellently coordinated 9/11 media deception effectively fooled the sheeple.

      • F. G. Sanford
        October 28, 2012 at 11:35

        Hillary, the “truth movement” is a government disinformation project to keep people like you chasing windmills instead of doing the real work it will take to reclaim your democracy. There is a raccoon up a tree somewhere, but it’s not the one you’re barking up. And, they sure are glad you’re off chasing UFO’s, looking for treasure on Oak Island, searching for Bigfoot, and hunting down the shooter on the “Grassy Knoll”. What they’re REALLY afraid of is that you’ll support the United Front Against Austerity:

        In fact, Hillary, you may be one of those government goons who just wants to suppress the idea of a Wall Street Sales Tax! I think you are not a conspiracy theorist, but perhaps a co-conspirator! Give Bigfoot a hug for me, will you?

  4. Hillary
    October 27, 2012 at 12:50

    “the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism has become an increasingly institutionalized killing machine that appears destined to operate indefinitely against a continually replenished list of targets.”

    USA __ USA___USA:: the world’ bankrupt superpower ?

    It was and is the continuing neocon plan for the American Taxpayer with 9/11.

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