Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Finding better ways to fight terror

ASK THIS | December 09, 2008

The Bush approach to counterterrorism has been counterproductive. But Obama may need to rethink a few things himself, writes a former CIA station chief.

By Haviland Smith

During the seven years since the attacks of 9/11, America has gone through a difficult learning process in dealing with international terrorism. But that experience has done little to help us address the problem in any positive, meaningful way. Quite the contrary, our policies over those years have done serious damage to American national interests.

President-elect Obama is likely to reverse course is some significant ways. Based on his campaign promises, there is reason to believe he will return to a foreign policy that values international friendships, rather than continue the neoconservative policy of preemptive unilateralism that rejects diplomacy. He is likely to be more respectful of human rights and civil liberties. Hopefully, we will see an end to color-coded terrorism warnings and the constant hyping of the terrorist “threats” which only serve to put Americans on edge.

But Obama may want to rethink a few things as well.

Q. Is President-elect Obama willing to consider that increasing U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan is not really a solution?

Military action against terrorism is unlikely to succeed. Terrorism is mostly a law enforcement and intelligence problem. A recent Rand Corporation study examined 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006. During that period, 398 of those groups have ceased to exist. Forty-three percent (171) of those that ended were absorbed into the political systems of the countries in which they operated, while forty percent (159) were defeated by police activities. It is most significant to note that only seven percent (28) of those groups were defeated by military action.

Q. Will Obama recognize the difference between terrorists and insurgents?

We must more clearly distinguish between, rather than conflate, terrorism and insurgency, because in order to develop successful strategies we will have to treat the two totally differently. What will succeed with terrorism is unlikely to succeed with insurgency.

If we continue to fail to distinguish between terror and insurgency, as we have generally failed to do in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will create more problems than we solve, aiding terrorist recruitments and support and alienating the moderates whose opposition to terrorism we need so badly.

Q. Would Obama consider creating a domestic intelligence agency?

Vesting our domestic counterterrorism responsibility in the FBI is a real problem. The entire culture of the FBI is directed toward law enforcement. They are extremely competent in that task because it is consistent with their charter.  The problem with counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism operations, two disciplines that have major similarities, is that you can't run such operations successfully with a statutory law enforcement mentality.

Counterterrorism in America is looked at as a law enforcement problem and so it is. But, particularly in the early stages of any terrorist operation, it is also very much an intelligence problem and thus totally at odds with the precepts of law enforcement. We should have something more like MI5, the British internal intelligence organization.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.