Our panel today, titled “The Security State,” poses a series of questions that cover a wide range of topics, from the implications of continued detention at Guantanamo Bay, to the role of the private sector in counterterrorism operations, to the capacity of victims of terrorism to sue governments. But I think there’s one question that links them all, and I want to address it directly: Have we gotten the balance between security and liberty right?
It’s an important question—but I believe it is grounded in a false premise. While it’s certainly conventional wisdom that we need to strike a balance between security and rights—who could be against “balance?”—this is largely a false choice, especially in the long run. The most effective counterterrorism and security policies are those that uphold civil liberties, human rights, and the rule of law.
That might sound like fuzzyheaded idealism, but let’s look at the record — the nearly 17 years of counterterrorism policy since 9/11. Every time we have departed from American ideals and universal values, it has ended up undermining our national security.
Perhaps the most egregious departure was the embrace of torture. In response to that fateful decision, my organization built a powerful coalition of retired generals, admirals, and career interrogators whose experience told them that detainee abuse would be counterproductive. They made this case publicly and privately, and helped change the nature of the debate about torture in this country. In the end, they were vindicated by the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogation, which found that torture had been an epic failure as an intelligence gathering technique. At the same time, the use of torture sapped American credibility, alienated allies and would-be partners in the fight against terrorism, and was a public relations bonanza to violent extremist groups.
The same can be said of Guantanamo. The partisan gamesmanship over this issue in recent years has obscured the fact that not so long ago there was bipartisan agreement that Guantanamo was undermining our security. That’s why former President George W. Bush repeatedly expressed a desire to shut it down.
Too often we’ve allowed the threat of terrorism and the anxiety it produces to cloud our thinking. We resort to some extraordinary, or extralegal, response—even though we have established institutions, techniques, and mechanisms that are well-suited to the task at hand.
Take the military commissions at Guantanamo. Created from scratch at a moment of crisis, this legally dubious system is limping along in its third incarnation, with little productive end in sight. The commissions have produced only a handful of convictions, about half of which have been overturned on appeal. We’re still waiting for the trial of the 9/11 conspirators to begin. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors have secured hundreds of terrorism convictions in the federal courts, which both grant due process rights and deny terrorists the warrior’s martyrdom they seek.
The battle against terrorist organizations is a perpetual work in progress, and none of these mistakes is irreversible. Yet if we’re not vigilant, we may do serious damage to ourselves as a nation, and this, of course, is precisely the goal of extremists. Consider, for example, the mounting hostility toward Muslim refugees. This clashes with American ideals and weakens national security. There’s a disquieting synergy between the calls to shut the door on Muslim refugees and ISIS’s clash of civilizations rhetoric.
Conversely, by leading a global effort to resolve the refugee crisis, the United States would not only put the lie to extremist propaganda, it would also safeguard the stability of our allies in the Middle East and shore up European allies under threat from the far-right groups exploiting anti-refugee sentiment.
The most effective long-term weapon against terrorism is strong democratic societies and respect for human rights. One of the questions we’ll address in the panel description is whether we have relied too heavily on military force in this struggle. There’s a place for judicious use of force, no question. But ultimately, to defeat violent extremism we must work to resolve violent conflicts and cultivate governments that abide the rule of law and protect human rights.
This is obviously a huge challenge. But if we are serious about defeating this enemy and building the kind of world we want for our children, we must rise to meet it.