Daniel Benjamin Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

National Security in an Age of Sacred Terror: Conversation with Daniel Benjamin, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., February 6, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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The Evolution of Terrorism

In this context of this evolution of terrorism that you were witnessing, the Bush administration comes in and then we get 9/11. You see 9/11 as a dramatic [shift] in the history of U.S. national security. You even make reference to the Princeton professor Thomas Kuhn and a paradigmatic shift. Why was the natural order of things changed by 9/11? Explain that to our audience.

The significance of 9/11, it seems to me, is twofold. The first one is it demonstrated that non-state actors, groups that are not sovereign states, could and were prepared to cause the kind of damage that we associate only with states. That is, because of the accelerating dynamic of technology and because of the empowerment of angry individuals who have access to technology or who could find the kinks in our systems so that they can hijack their technology, we are in, to some degree, a post-Westphalian situation. That is, it's not just about conflicts between states, it is about even small groups, but certainly as in the case of radical Islam, a social movement that is transnational.

We thought [9/11] was an extraordinary demonstration of this. We'd been arguing about it for a while and it seemed then that it was clear. However, as we now know, there were lots of people, including some in power, who were simply disinclined to imagine that independent groups could to such a thing without state support.

Before we talk about the Bush administration's response, you refer to Roberta Wolstetter. There are two important points that you emphasize drawing on her work, which is that two burdens are placed on leaders in this context and you call them, quoting her, "institutionalizing imaginativeness" and "probing the enemy." What do we mean by that?

"Institutionalizing imaginativeness" is a very difficult thing to do, but it suggests that you need to create the structures within the government (or institutions that are in some ways in the service of government) to think out of the box -- to think about who potential adversaries are before we have any indication that they mean us harm, and to think about what the nature of the enemy is so that you can figure out where the points of attack should be.

The other one was "probing the enemy." Also quite difficult to do when you have an opponent who is pretty hermetic, which is true of most of the radical Islamist cells that we've been dealing with. As the scholar Marc Sageman has pointed out, most of the groups that are carrying out these attacks are motivated by strong in-group bonds and out-group hatreds, so they tend not to let in new people who can then figure out what they're up to. But to the extent we can, we need to have penetrations, we need to get people inside those cells, and we need to push them around a little bit and knock them off their game.

Drawing on your experience in the Clinton administration, in many ways -- and we touched on this earlier but let's go into it a little more -- the U.S. government (not having to do with this administration or that) was unprepared to adapt to the kind of adversary you're responding [to]. One example would be the division of labor between the different intelligence agencies. Another example would be this blurring of domestic and foreign policy. Talk a little about that in terms of helping our audience understand the kind of structural conditions that made this a real task for leadership, to move the country into this new zone where terrorism was a primary adversary, if not the primary adversary.

The government that we have reflects the historical circumstances of the Cold War, and to a lesser extent, conflicts before that, that were between states. The Economist magazine had a wonderful phrase a while ago: "the abolition of distance." Our government didn't have any way to organize itself or had not thought about the need to organize itself about an era in which distance has been abolished. We had always thought oceans would protect us, we always thought we'd have strategic warning of some dangerous development in the world beyond our borders, and so when 9/11 happened it's not just a literal ton of bricks but it was a metaphorical ton of bricks in terms of consciousness, in terms of understanding.

We had had barriers between agencies having to do with intelligence sharing, particularly when it was in the possession of law enforcement, and this causes a real problem. Not only do we have the legal impediments, we also had cultural impediments, and so, as the 9/11 Commission documented, an awful lot of stuff that could have easily been shared was not shared because of the power of this idea that there had to be a firewall. We really had very, very little situational awareness of what was going on in, for example, [in] the Muslim community in the United States, and frankly, we still have very little understanding. This is bad for many reasons because not only do we not know about the bad guys who might be in our midst, but we also don't know enough about the good guys and have not always made the kinds of contacts, and also extended the kind of reassurances we need to that community so that it continues to act as a barrier for radicalism -- which is something it has done very effectively over the last few years. Again, there was a fundamental problem that the government, the major agencies, were so busy with what they've been doing that the notion of dealing with catastrophic terror by empowered groups of nineteen simply had not dawned on them yet.

I guess this new environment requires us to re-think some of the lessons we had learned from the sixties about the relationship between civil liberties and national security.

My argument would be that we still haven't had that re-thinking, and that you can only have a re-thinking along those lines in a productive way when you have democratic legitimacy, and when you're having a large-scale discussion with the American people about the tradeoffs that are necessary. It became a sort of Shibboleth in that time, that there would be tradeoffs, but the Patriot Act was passed so quickly, with so little debate, that I think that we've still not had that debate. I'm hopeful that the current controversy surrounding the NSA and its spying, its eavesdropping, will spark that.

It's an interesting problem, institutionally and politically, because what you're saying is you have a paradigmatic shift. An event has happened that changes everything, and you have to learn to adapt to this new environment. You're suggesting that really, that's what the democratic debate can help us do, and that as we segue into the present, that may be one of the things that didn't happen. The democratic debate is not just feeling the fear that comes with the terror but having a national debate that says, well, how do we want to respond, consistent with the values that we hold dear and that we're trying to protect?

That's absolutely true, and one of my great regrets about the last few years is that there has never been the kind of public education campaign on the part of the White House that I think is necessary for people to have an informed discussion about what kinds of tradeoffs we're prepared to make. Another part of this -- it's a little hobby horse of mine -- if indeed it is a long war, as the Pentagon is now calling it, then it's all the more important to have the populace invested in that understanding and a recognition of what the threat is. Again, the public education is very important, but is there needs to be better cooperation between the two elected branches of government, because if Congress is not used as a validator of the threat, we're talking about a threat that's very hard to assess, that most people never read anything primary about because of the issues of secrecy and classification by intelligence. You really do need to have those two branches working to promote the public trust, and that has not happened.

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