The early autumn sun was bright in a cloudless sky as the shuttle bus turned sharply into the Maclean, Virginia, headquarters of the MITRE Corporation. Hidden away on a sprawling campus strategically close to both Langley (Central Intelligence Agency headquarters) and Dulles airport, gleaming cube-like office buildings dot the MITRE complex. The grounds are at once anonymous and clinical, an all-but-sinister parody of how Hollywood might envision a defense corporation. As we cleared the well-armed guards at the security gate, I reflected on my fellow occupants of the bus. It was a button-down group: most appeared to be government employees or members of the intelligence and law enforcement communities. I was, I'm quite sure, the only civil rights lawyer aboard, riding slowly into the belly of the beast.
MITRE is indeed a defense contractor, born at MIT in the late 1950s as an independent, not-for-profit organization surviving on government contracts--but it still retains a reputation for its academic-style research. I had been invited to the Virginia campus for a conference organized by the federal government's National Counterterrorism Center. I hardly knew what to expect. I soon found myself closeted in a windowless seminar room, ringed by analysts from across the U.S. intelligence community, their counterparts from the United Kingdom, and, surprisingly, a scattering of civil-rights advocates and "representatives" of the American Muslim community.
Respites from the discussion were few--and every time you needed a bathroom break, a MITRE employee would accompany you to ensure you didn't stray too far. For two days, I sat in this bleak room, a fish out of water (or among sharks?), discussing terrorist radicalization, analytic models, and lessons learned from campaigns against Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) and the Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Yet I left the session with a fresh sense of hope for American counterterrorism. What was distinctive about this meeting was less its subject matter than its unusual blend of transatlantic and public-private personnel. To my knowledge, it was the first time the federal government had brought together not only other countries' officials, but strangers with fundamentally different perspectives, to debate the future of counterterrorism, especially with a new administration looming in Washington. While the good faith of government experts is necessarily hard to assess, those who did attend, all the way up to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, showed impressive willingness to reach beyond traditional silos, challenge engrained assumptions, and develop more nuanced pictures of counterterrorism and its consequences based on ideas from civil society and other contexts. It was, I thought, a genuine effort to challenge the ingrained thinking of official security circles with fresh evidence from overseas and non-governmental voices.
The future of counterterrorism depends heavily on whether the MITRE conference was a sign of things to come or a lonely aberration. For counterterrorism's future success depends less on the accumulation of hard powers of detention, surveillance, and interdiction--where the Bush administration has heavily invested--and more on understanding the evolving nature of the threat. Like many twenty-first century challenges, counterterrorism is essentially an informational game. But on this ground the United States has far to go. Through the development of new public transnational networks to share knowledge, transcend petty local political dynamics, and foster best practices, Washington stands a better chance of obtaining the right answers to central questions that frame any new national counterterrorism policy--questions that right now may not even be asked. Without these new knowledge networks, Americans are likely to keep asking the wrong questions, and pursuing the wrong answers. This is the first and primary element that our new president must change, from the top down.
Two stale and unproductive debates dominate contemporary counterterrorism discourse today. The first, and closer to front and center, is whether to treat the totality of counterterrorism policies as a "war" or as a "policing" action. The United States listed to the former on the very evening of September 11, 2001. Thanks to the Bush administration's fervent insistence on the war paradigm, the phrase "war on terror" entered our way of thinking so completely as almost to mandate a military course of action. As recently as summer 2008, the Bush administration still sought congressional reaffirmation of the military cast of counterterrorism. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, a consensus around the policing model long has dominated--a consensus that, by last summer, had extended even to such stalwart Washington strategists as the RAND Corporation.
The second debate--less prominently in the headlines, but dominant in "expert" circles-concerns the recruitment of a new generation of terrorists. In two recent books and a Washington Post editorial, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Marc Sageman has stressed that a second generation of Al Qaeda operatives is being seeded in Europe. Arrests and terrorist attacks across Europe have bred an impression that this increasingly polyglot continent is a breeding ground for religiously inspired violence. By contrast, another former CIA analyst, Bruce Riedel, has labeled Pakistan as "the eye of the storm" and called for a retrenchment in the Afghan-Pakistan theater to defeat Al Qaeda. Echoing this analysis, the longstanding doyen of American terrorism studies, Georgetown scholar Bruce...