Counterstrike: A Post-9/11 Report Card

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Inside the op-plan for the war against al Qaeda

There is a flood of 9/11 books now coming onto the market, but Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker of the New York Times should be atop the list of anyone curious about how the U.S. government has grappled with the challenges posed by al Qaeda.

Both authors – who have spent careers reporting and writing important stories about U.S. national security – have dissected what the U.S. has gotten right –- and where it has whiffed – over the past decade. The two of them chatted via email with Battleland last week about Counterstrike:

What was the most important thing you learned in reporting Counterstrike?

Schmitt: As national security correspondents, we always were aware that most of our daily reporting was describing the iceberg above the water and then as much below the surface as we could survey, identify and define. In taking three years to focus on American counter-terrorism strategy, based on almost a decade of reporting, we learned how much had changed, and was changing in the counter-terror fight across the U.S. Government.

So we were able to dig out a number of new and exclusive case studies in countering violent extremism on the Web, in financial networks and in the “marketplace of ideas,” as well as on the battlefield. We also struck by how far behind the U.S. government has been, and continues to be, in combating al Qaeda’s ideology.

If you were a schoolteacher grading A-F, what grade would you give the U.S. government for its post-9/11 counter-terror strategy?

Shanker: The “kinetic” part of the fight gets an A-. Cyber and financial counterattacks get a B+ (with an E for effort). Efforts to counter the messages of violent extremism are a D, or even failing.

Was the Iraq war necessary?

Schmitt: A fair question, and we hope you think this is a fair response: As beat reporters for the Times, this answer goes far beyond news judgment to opinion, and we are not columnists or editorial writers. Sorry…

Do we spend too much on our military, relative to the other tools of international security, like development and education?

Thom Shanker

Shanker: If all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. You’ve heard that before, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The military implement was the first pulled from the toolbox after 9/11 – an understandable if not always elegant response to the horrors of the attacks.

But, as we report in Counterstrike, the government’s strategy has evolved to adopt a broader campaign to counter violent extremism that reaches across the continuum to include development, education and so on. But those approaches take time; it’s hard to measure “captured territory;” and so they require patience, which this nation does not have.

Do you feel the U.S. public has lost its ability to “roll with the punches,” and that it is lacking the resilience needed to get through the terror attacks that are sure to come?

Eric Schmitt

Schmitt: The nation is without a doubt moving ever closer toward the dangerous precipice of another attack. The length of the journey to that next mass-casualty strike has been extended by years of successful counterstrikes. And it is possible, but not certain, that the severity of the attack — the drop off the cliff— has been diminished. But the next attack is coming.

The most important thing the nation can do is be resilient and not overreact when that attack happens. That denies terrorists the strategic victory they seek. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in a valedictory interview for Counterstrike, said he was very worried that Americans had become too fearful as a nation, and that historically the nation had not been fearful.

Why do you think the U.S. hasn’t been attacked in a major way since 9/11? Was that attack the exception rather than the rule?

Shanker: In the first years after 9/11, America was lucky and good, and the terrorists were unlucky and not particularly good. Al Qaeda was unable to replicate the success of a simultaneous, mass-casualty attack, but the public must understand that the United States — its military, its intelligence community, its diplomatic corps and its law enforcement personnel— cannot count on being lucky all the time.

Terrorism and counter-terrorism are the new Darwinism; both species are evolving. Al Qaeda is now plotting smaller-scale attacks aimed at disrupting the American and global economy, in addition to its longtime goal of conducting another mass-casualty attack. It is certain that despite improvements in tactical American counter-terrorism skills, in time a determined terrorist plot is certain to get through again. Unfortunately, the United States can move from tactical success to tactical success against extremists and still end in stalemate against terrorism.

Did the nation over-react to 9/11?

Schmitt: We think it is a matter of historic fact, and not opinion, that some of the decisions made in the name of fighting global terrorism included tactics and policies that were not in keeping with our nation’s highest values. The proof of that is that many have been rescinded.

What under-acknowledged skill set, technology, person played a key role in protecting the nation post-9/11?

Shanker: No tool has revolutionized the nation’s ability to take apart terror networks, or received less acclaim, than the computer or, more specifically, the vast array of supercomputers devoted to the mission. Driven by the NSA, the system can collect, analyze, sort, and store data from a range of communications, in particular cell phone conversations, e-mails, and Web sites, billions of times faster than humans can. It’s the same case with data from documents seized on raids or forensic analysis of bombs.

Is the Department of Homeland Security the optimum way to defend the homeland? Why or why not?

Schmitt: The DHS and its component parts, such as the Transportation Security Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, have struggled at times to fulfill their broad mandate to protect the country from threats and hazards ranging from terrorism to natural disasters. DHS is only one part of this whole-of-government approach to defending the homeland that we discuss in Counterstrike. This strategy also includes other Federal partners like the F.B.I. as well as thousands of state and local law enforcement and other agencies. Only when all three levels of government — Federal, state and local — are working closely together, which is only just now happening, will the homeland truly be safer from terrorist attack.