In the wake of another botched terror attack, it’s worth noting that the Islamists’ post-9/11 track record is pretty terrible (keep in mind this is in spite of the well-documented incompetence of Homeland Security). So: is it time to reconsider the threat posed by transnational terror networks? James Fallows has persuasively argued that we should “end” the War on Terror, and at first blush, the Obama Administration seemed to agree, though its underlying approach to counter-terrorism hasn’t changed all that much from its predecessor’s.
Here’s the problem: I find John Mueller’s terror revisionism persuasive, and I’m generally sympathetic to people who think our current national security consensus exaggerates or over-estimates Al-Qaeda’s capabilities. But what do I know? I don’t have access to the reams of intelligence the White House receives every day on possible terrorist attacks. I don’t get classified briefings from the CIA. A common conservative trope is that once in office, Obama was forced to moderate his positions on surveillance, interrogation and counter-terrorism because he was faced with the same grim reality Bush had to deal with. This is quite obviously a self-serving talking point, often followed by all sorts of ridiculous claims about the terrorists’ “will” and “brutality” (plenty of unsavory characters are willful and brutal; that doesn’t make them a threat to national security), but I wonder if it contains a grain of truth. Debate, deliberation, and analysis are supposed to shape our approach to foreign policy; what happens when this entire process is shut-off from the public eye? I am emphatically not in favor of taking everything the president asserts on faith, but I wonder if there’s something we’re missing here.
I suppose we’ve dealt with this sort of thing before: the public wasn’t exactly privy to the details of Cold War-era planning, and sensitive national security information is routinely kept under wraps. What’s striking about the global war on terrorism, however, is that we haven’t even reached a level of consensus about the extent and nature of the threat, a question that implicates our entire strategic approach. No, I don’t think we need to be debating the advisability of every single air strike in Peshawar, but it would be nice to have a real discussion about the extent of Al Qaeda’s capabilities.
I’m not sure how to initiate that discussion, but I don’t think a real debate on the nature of Islamic terrorism is possible without making more information available to the public. Right now, critics of the status quo are stuck on the outside looking in, unable to marshal an effective response to “you don’t know how things look from the Pentagon.” It would be nice, for once, to get a sense of how things actually look to policymakers who review threat assessments and intelligence reports every day. Moreover, I don’t think you can have a serious, fair debate about issues related to counter-terrorism – interrogation and warrantless surveillance, for example – without some broader frame of reference. Call it the “Cheney doctrine” of public disclosure: release as many memos and intelligence documents as possible on the dangers of Islamic terrorism, compare them to what we know now, and see if our current approach is vindicated.
UPDATE: As if on cue, Jay Nordlinger chimes in with a succinct defense of the “better safe than sorry” school of thought. As I said, it’s difficult to have a fair discussion on these issues without all (or even most) of the relevant data, but what really rankles is Nordlinger’s inability to even acknowledge that a) national security scare-mongers don’t have the best track record of assessing foreign threats and b) the significant trade-off between civil liberties and a maximalist approach to counter-terrorism.