Addressing the current threat from al Qaeda at a recent forum in New York, the Deputy Special Assistant to President Bush and former Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism warned that the United States' military reaction to the threat of terrorism is backfiring.
"We're in desperate need of disciplining our response," said Juan Zarate, speaking on a panel last week at New York University Law School's Center for Law and Security. "We have to have a sense of resilience. Every attack can't create a maximal response, because it feeds the enemy."
Too bad Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wasn't there to hear him.
In Washington a week later, Graham was telling an audience at the American Enterprise Institute just the opposite. The U.S. needs to step up its military response to terrorism at home and abroad, he said. "The enemy has declared war on the United States. The question is, are we going to declare war on them?"
Graham lamented that the U.S. has given up its use of "enhanced interrogation techniques." And he vowed to introduce legislation that would ensure that suspected terrorists arrested in the United States don't get the same rights to defend themselves as do other suspects in the criminal justice system - such as mass murderers and rapists.
"This is not crime we are fighting," he said on the Senate floor later that day. "We are fighting a war."
In Graham's view, treating al Qaeda and Taliban sympathizers as criminals instead of warriors makes us weaker.
On its face, Graham's logic has a certain appeal. But national security experts increasingly warn that militarizing all aspects of the "war on terror" actually plays into the hands of al Qaeda and hurts, rather than helps, U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.
Senator Graham is now pushing legislation in Congress that would significantly expand the scope of the U.S. "war on terror." Among other things, he would require the U.S. to treat a suspected al Qaeda affiliate, whether arrested within the United States or abroad, as a war criminal who can be interrogated without Miranda rights and detained indefinitely without trial. A U.S. court later reviewing the detention could presume the imprisonment was lawful based on certain minimal evidence -- such as attendance at a Taliban or al Qaeda-affiliated training camp, even if decades earlier.
That sort of stark reaction to sporadic terror attacks is exactly what al Qaeda wants. According to Zarate, now a senior advisor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, al Qaeda is intentionally goading the U.S. into overreacting to the terrorist threat; it can then recruit new members by characterizing the United States as fighting a world-wide war against Islam.
Al Qaeda wins even if its terrorist attacks fail, so long as it sees the U.S. reacting with alarm - allowing itself to be "terrorized."
Thus the failed Christmas Day bombing on a plane to Detroit last year, and the botched attempt to blow up a car in Times Square last Spring, were victories for al Qaeda because they sparked hysteria in the U.S., says Zarate -- mostly in the form of new bills in Congress, from Senator Graham and others, to deny suspected terrorists basic rights.
Another al Qaeda tactic is to entice the U.S. into over-committing itself militarily around the world. "They're baiting the U.S. into a regional quagmire," said Zarate, referring to the increasing drone warfare in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Similarly, al Qaeda wants to "economically bleed" the United States by taunting it into an endless global war, he said. In al Qaeda's view, that's the best way to bring down a superpower -- particularly during a recession.
For all of these reasons, it's important not to over-react to the terrorist threat. Making what should be a law enforcement matter into a military one, as Senator Graham and some other lawmakers are advocating, does just that. It's worth noting that the U.N. Security Council, in its reaction to the September 11 attacks, obliged member states to "criminalize" terrorist attacks - not to declare war on terrorists.
If the sort of tactics Graham is proposing were actually necessary to fighting terrorism, they might be worth the risk of aggrandizing al Qaeda. But they're not. There's no evidence that reading defendants their Miranda rights, for example, keeps them from cooperating with law enforcement and providing valuable information; on the contrary, studies show they're more likely to cooperate if told they have rights. Locking the wrong people up indefinitely hasn't helped either: although the Bush administration imprisoned more than 700 people at Guantanamo Bay, the terrorist threat has only expanded around the world. Military trials for terrorists have been a dismal failure as well: military commissions have convicted only four terrorists so far, while civilian federal courts have convicted more than 400 since September 11.
Lawmakers should keep this in mind when considering legislation that would militarize our response to terrorism and sideline the role of law enforcement. Other proposed bills would forbid the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States for trial or even to their home countries and strip terrorist suspects of their U.S. citizenship. These are just the sort of over-reactions that President Bush's terrorism advisor now warns against.
Unfortunately, such over-reactions also feed growing anti-Muslim sentiment within the U.S. "The grand success for bin Laden would be to see emerging in the U.S. a division between Muslim communities and the rest of the United States," observed Zarate last week.
As Fareed Zakaria wrote recently in the Washington Post, "Bin Laden knew he could never weaken America directly, even if he blew up a dozen buildings or ships. But he could provoke an overreaction by which America weakened itself."
Congress should be careful not to give him that satisfaction.