November 08, 2007

Losing the 'war on terror'?

As the Bush administration scrambles this week to deal with the crisis in Pakistan, which threatens to undermine the military element of its 'war on terror', it faces a more subtle challenge at home. Two prominent law professors -- David Cole and Jules Lobel -- have challenged the core premises of US counter-terror policy since September 11, 2001 in a new book, 'Less Safe, Less Free: Why America is Losing the War on Terror'.

Cole and Lobel argue that the administration's approach to counter-terrorism has been worse than ineffective -- it has increased the terrorist threat while exacting a steep price in liberty, which is disproportionately shared by certain 'suspect' groups.

Liberty for me, but not for thee.

When democratic societies seek to bolster their security against terrorism, the most equitable response is to require individuals to sacrifice their liberties to a similar degree. Yet the administration has often directed its domestic security measures at broad classes of persons deemed to be threats.

It preventatively detained thousands of legally resident, non-citizen Muslim men in late 2001 and early 2002. Most of these individuals were detained and interrogated without charge. None of those detained was a terrorist.

The government's contention that targeting such groups in the context of a security emergency was justified is inadequate. There is a widespread popular misconception that violent jihadists typically use Muslim names and hail from ethnic groups common in the Islamic world. The prominent role that Western converts have played in terrorist atrocities and attempted attacks in the United Kingdom and Germany belies this assertion.

Such 'targeted' measures -- which actually involve little more than rounding up the 'usual suspects' -- increase public anxiety but rarely net real threats. They also divert resources from the arrest and prosecution of common criminals and lead to miscarriages of justice, such as the unlawful US detention and rendition of Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria.


Heavy-handed government tactics actually increase support for extremists in targeted communities. Cole and Lobel describe two concentric circles of potential terrorists: a very small number of sympathisers, and a tiny core willing to actually carry out attacks. Government sweeps, and egregious human rights violations such as rendition and the Guantanamo Bay facility, risk increasing the size of both of these groups -- at home and abroad.

Another form of 'blowback' created by the government's counter-terror policy is increased public fear -- which Harvard terrorism specialist Louise Richardson identifies as one of terrorists' primary objectives. Cole and Lobel claim that the US administration hypes terror threats for explicitly political purposes. However, some of this is the inadvertent result of bureaucratic empire-building -- or what academics call 'corporatism' -- mistaking the interests of one's agency for the national interest.

Thus, when the director-general of the UK Security Service (MI5), Jonathan Evans, last week noted that some 2,000 individuals were a threat to national security due to their terrorist ties, he was stating a fact that underlined the importance of his agency's work. However, publicly broadcasting this information arguably benefited MI5's institutional interests more than it improved public safety. US security agencies have been chronically prone to corporatism.

A better way?

Cole and Lobel are weakest when it comes to solutions. The kernel of an improved counter-terror approach would feature two elements -- improved domestic intelligence and public ‘threat management’.

For a variety of reasons -- including constitutional restrictions and poor state-federal coordination -- US domestic intelligence is very poor. There is no equivalent to the UK Security Service, an organisation that focuses exclusively on domestic intelligence gathering (with no arrest power), and identifies specific individuals of interest. Any such agency would need to be subject to rigorous judicial supervision -- but it would make any small sacrifice of liberty pay real security dividends.
The government should stop frightening the public with hyperbolic pronouncements regarding very low probability terrorist threats. It would do better to emulate the approach of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) following airline disasters: emphasise that the public at large is still safe, that it will find the specific cause (and perpetrators) of the event, and encourage citizens to continue their normal routines.

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