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Politics and Counterterrorism? Gimme a Break! January 5, 2010

Posted by Afflatus in World Affairs.
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The upcoming issue of The New York Times Magazine has a piece by Peter Baker on John Brennan and Obama’s counterterrorism strategy. The article draws comparisons between George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and Obama’s strategy for eliminating Al-Qaida. Baker points out that a significant portion of Obama’s counterterrorism team are Bush-era officials (Gates, Mullin, Brennan, and Leiter among others), and in many respects Obama has continued Bush’s policies, including increasing the number of Predator and Reaper drone attacks in Pakistan (more on this later).

For me some of the most interesting aspects of the article concerned the political implications that counterterrorism decision-making carries with it. Matt Yglesias already touched on this subject some in a valuable way. Baker reports that several senior Bush counterterrorism officials were happy with the continuity between the strategies of the two administrations. However they were reluctant to say so on record fearing that it would “make Dick Cheney mad and they’re timid, gutless careerists,” as Yglesias put it. Likewise, the Obama administration likes to claim it has made significant shifts from Bush’s counterterrorism strategy, while in reality it is more or less the same. So sadly, yes, politics extends to even the most important issues of security and terrorism and neither side is innocent.

One other thing the article pointed out relating to the politics of counterterrorism was the issue of holding Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s trial in New York City. Rahm Emanuel was worried that holding the trail in New York as Attorney General Eric Holder suggested would cause a firestorm of criticism, and squander the president’s political capital. It was nice to read that despite Emanuel’s correct warnings, Obama declined to intervene in Holder’s decision. The administration is certainly suffering a political backlash, only time (and the verdict) will tell whether it was the right decision or not.

Another interesting thing that came to my attention was the problem posed by the sheer volume of information that the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) must process everyday. The recent development of homegrown terrorists becoming a threat to our national security makes the process of thwarting 100% of all terrorist attacks more complex for the administration. John Brennan and others in the intelligence community have been defending themselves from the onslaught of criticism directed at them since the failed Christmas-day attack by citing the ever-growing amount of information that must be processed. This sounds like a job for Google to me. Some type of filtration system that can separate serious strategic threats from irrelevant ones is needed. Hopefully investment in some such program or system is forthcoming.

Sadly I think it will be nearly impossible for the US (or any host of countries for that matter) to eliminate terrorists and extremists around the world. The sooner we update our counterterrorism strategy and infrastructure the closer we will come to achieving this goal. President Obama is getting briefed on how to do exactly that this afternoon. I am confident he, Brennan, and the rest of the counterterrorism team are working assiduously to correct the problem, and that they are some of the most well-qualified people to do this. Some of the criticism from outside the administration and infighting within it is misguided, unconstructive, and only plays into the terrorists’ strategy. Let’s use this failed bombing attempt to update our security systems and move forward united, and better prepared to defend ourselves from terrorists.