The speech Brennan gave at the Center for Strategic and International Studies today — man, it had some high notes. He always looks visibly disgusted by al-Qaeda, and he talks about its operatives like you would talk about a child molester. (The Bronx/North Jersey accent helps.) Counterterrorism debates incline toward overbroad generalizations. Brennan likes precision. “Jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam meaning to purify one’s self or one’s community, and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children,” he said, looking like he’d pick up Andy McCarthy by the neck if McCarthy peddled his bullshit around Brennan.
Effective counterterrorism is about strengthening American ties with Muslim communities and law-enforcement ties with American Muslim, he said again and again, not about targeting them. The right strategy to “destroy al-Qaeda” — he pretty much smiled when he said it, like he was picturing it in his mind — distinguishes between extremists and the civilian populations they exploit; addresses the sources of legitimate grievances among those populaces; isolates those who present illegitimate grievances; and then targets, locks and executes.
The crescendo of the speech was about how al-Qaeda can only win by getting us to betray our values and our laws. While it helps that the “new phase” of al-Qaeda is marked by “low sophistication” — and as someone who’s been documenting that since before Abdulmutallab, that was reassuring to here — “no nation, no matter how powerful, can prevent every attack from coming to fruition.” So the choice is ours as to how to respond when an attack occurs.
This is the challenge we face. Even more than the attacks that al-Qaeda and its violent affiliates unleash or the blood they spill, they seek to strike at the very essence of who we are as Americans. By replacing our hard-won confidence with fear and by replacing our tolerance with suspicion. By turning our great diversity from a source of strength into a source of division. By causing us to undermine the laws and values that have been a source of our strength and our influence throughout the world. By turning a nation whose global leadership has meant greater security and prosperity for people in every corner of the globe into a nation that retreats from the world stage and abandons allies and partners.
That is what al-Qaeda and its allies want. To achieve their goals by turning us into something that we are not. But that is something they can never achieve. Because only the people of America can change who we are as a nation. al-Qaeda can sow explosives into their clothes or park an SUV filled with explosives on a busy street. But it is our choice to react with panic or resolve. They can seek to recruit people already living among us. But it is our choice to subject entire communities to suspicion or to support those communities in reaching the disaffected before they turn to violence. Terrorists may try to bring death to our cities. But it is our choice to either uphold the rule of law or chip away at it.
I believe in every word that Brennan spoke. So I had to ask him if the Obama administration wasn’t already compromising American values, with all the attendant strategic implications Brennan articulated, by upholding indefinite detention without charge for a cohort of terrorism detainees. (Or just see this post for all the particulars of the critique.) Here’s his answer, in its entirety:
When this administration came in, in January of last year, we dealt with a number of legacy situations that we wanted to make sure we were able to deal with appropriately without compromising the security of the American people. I think as everybody recognizes, on both sides of the political spectrum, the situation at Guantanamo is a very, very difficult and challenging one. I think that even as the president said he was determined to close Guantanamo within one year, it still remains open because the president is determined not to do anything that would compromise America’s security. It is something that we are working very closely with the Congress on. We are trying to do things in a very thoughtful manner. We have transfered about 50 of those detainees over the past year and a half, and we’re continuing to look at their situations there. But this is a challenge that we need to look at from a policy perspective, from a legal perspective as well as from a security perspective.
I go back to the quote that Marc Lynch gave me for my morning piece: “What I’m afraid of is that as soon as you get turbulence — like an actual terrorist attack — there’s going to be a big backlash and you can’t hold the overall structure in place. Right now, Obama’s got the rhetoric, but they’ve done precious little to institutionalize it and put on durable legal foundations.” I think it might be worse than that. The institutionalization that the administration is pursuing will codify indefinite detention without charge. Brennan today vowed fairness and checks and balances in such a system, and careful discretion in when it will apply. But opt-out clauses from the rule of law create an incentive to expand their applicability. And if Brennan’s critique really applies, then that’s an unalloyed strategic asset for al-Qaeda.
Lynch’s fear may not be hypothetical for very long. The attempted-attack level in the U.S. is high by historic standards, even if the sophistication of the attempts are low. Brennan deserves credit for not saying the administration requires more surveillance authorities to handle the domestic threat when he was asked. But how prepared is the Obama administration, really, to withstand the enormous political pressures that will exist for ever-more-draconian measures when another attack finally succeeds?