Cyber & Technology

“The War on Terror Will Be Ever With Us”

By Jack Goldsmith
Tuesday, December 11, 2012, 8:08 PM

That is the title of Eric Posner’s essay in Slate reacting to Jeh Johnson’s Oxford speech.   The first part of the piece roughly tracks some of the points I made last week, but then Eric widens the lens:

But there is a broader mistake in Johnson's speech and the reaction to it. This error lies in seeing our era of lesser civil liberties as stemming from al-Qaida in particular. Al-Qaida was merely the symptom of two larger changes in world affairs. The first is the advance of weapons technology, which has made it easier for foreign terrorist organizations to miniaturize, hide, transport, and use dangerous weapons against civilian targets. And the second is globalization, which has thrust the United States into the affairs of unstable countries with murderous conflicts, putting it in the crosshairs of unhappy groups., These two factors have made it impossible to go back to the era before 9/11.

Ordinary law enforcement methods are not effective against foreign terrorists in the modern era because foreign terrorists can train, recruit, obtain weapons, and hatch their plots in foreign countries with weak governments that cannot fully control their territory, making it impossible for the United States to demand extradition or conduct joint law enforcement operations. This puts the United States to the choice of either waiting for an attack to take place and hoping to thwart it at the last moment, or launching preemptive military operations abroad. In light of the destructiveness of the kinds of modern weapons that could be used against us—including chemical and biological variants—the choice is not very difficult.

After reviewing how the government has organized itself to meet these threats in the last decade, Eric concludes:

The United States may finally land a decisive blow against the core of al-Qaida, and could conceivably even lop off its many hydra heads around the world. But the United States will always be vulnerable to foreign terrorism. The 9/11 attacks merely woke us up to this amorphous threat. To protect the country, the public and the political class acquiesced in expanding presidential power and limiting civil liberties. These changes will remain with us as long as the threat does.