The Next Chapter
Three Austin-based national-security experts offer their views on how America can rebuild its reputation in Iraq and beyond
One day, there will be no more U.S. troops in Iraq, but that doesn't mean there will be no Americans there. As Dan Grant sees it: "The consciousness of the American public is on the fighting men and women, and rightly so, but they're not the only foreign workers there. There's a huge complement of [nongovernmental organization] workers, aid workers, U.N. officials, State Department and U.S. [Agency for International Development] workers."
A graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown University, former Democratic congressional primary candidate Grant worked on civilian reconstruction in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. In 2005 he got his first taste of Iraqi politics while helping run the overseas "get out the vote" campaign for the Transitional National Assembly elections. He then spent a year and a half in Iraq, working on governmental reconstruction, before moving back to Austin. He recently returned from providing cultural and political training to an Army unit being deployed to Afghanistan, where he taught them "how the Army can work with nonmilitary international actors. ... It's the soft side of counterinsurgency."
Getting the U.S. military out of Iraq, Grant argues, is inevitable. As exit strategies go, this one would require changing the popular political mindset that equates foreign policy with military strength. Take the surge: "In the sound-bite world of contemporary politics," he said, "the success of the surge, true or not, has been equated to success in Iraq overall." The surge was a massive buildup of troops in Baghdad intended to buy time for Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds to come to some compromise – little of which has materialized. More importantly, he argues, measuring it in terms of military success, and not in civilian reconstruction or real peace-building, is a major problem. "The surge has been treated like peace has broken out in Iraq. ... But it's just gone from 'cataclysmic' to 'frightfully bad.'"
Grant's optimistic that Iraq and other nations are ready for President Barack Obama (whom he calls "the rare politician who has consistently done what he said he's going to do") to press through with the 16-month timeline for withdrawal and build a new foreign policy. He had particular praise for Obama's "cold-eyed and realistic decision to enter into discussions with Iran. This is important: Entering into discussions with Iran is not the same as capitulating to Iran." Ditto on keeping Robert Gates on as secretary of defense; he calls Gates "a pragmatist" who will get nonmilitary groups involved. "The Defense Department has been working very closely with these elements to make sure everyone is on the same page, and I think they'll double down on that philosophy under Obama."
Between pre-9/11 failures, finger-pointing over nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and warrantless wiretapping, it's not been a great decade PR-wise for the intelligence services. "When you start talking about surveillance," said Fred Burton, "especially inside the United States and of American citizens, it makes everybody very, very nervous because of past abuses."
A former deputy chief of counterterrorism for the Diplomatic Security Service, Burton is now vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security at Austin-based private intelligence firm Stratfor. As such, he understands the breach between citizens "jaded on inaccurate assessments" and the intelligence community. But, he argues, if the agencies do their job correctly, and if existing federal oversight tools are properly enforced, then objections fall away.
Part of the problem is a mistrust of the terminology. "Most average people would say, 'I expect the police to collect information on crime or terrorism,'" Burton said. "But when you say, 'I expect the police or the FBI to collect intelligence,' suddenly it's, 'Well, hang on a minute, are you going to be collecting intelligence on me?'"
Similarly, he describes rendition – seizing a suspect overseas – as a "political football," now synonymous with human rights abuses and "black sites," the term associated with CIA-operated secret prisons. Strip away the scandals, he argues, and what remains is simply the process of serving a warrant. He estimates that 90% of all renditions are done in partnership with foreign intelligence agencies. For their own reasons, those foreign actors sometimes keep their roles secret, making the program look even worse (and potentially illegal) than it already does. However, Burton notes that there are other less controversial tools available, such as luring high-profile suspects into American jurisdiction or continuing surveillance.
For Burton, security comes down to two basics. "Human intelligence and tactical analysis," he said. "You can collect all the evidence you want, but if you can't make sense of it, or you can't fit the pieces into the puzzle, it does nobody any good." Better analysis should mean better threat assessment and fewer false leads. In real terms, that means fewer attacks and fewer mistaken arrests. But he says Americans need to have reasonable expectations of intelligence operations, which generally involve stitching fragments of second- and third-hand data together to create a best guess of emerging and imminent threats. "Very rarely do you get that terrorist who comes forward and says, 'This is what I'm planning to do,'" he said. "You're dealing with a fog of gray at all times."
When the Bush administration invented the concept of enemy combatants, it created a constitutional, diplomatic, and legal minefield. As director of the National Security and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas' School of Law and a lawyer defending detainees in the "war on terror" (see "Blind Justice," Sept. 21, 2007), Kristine Huskey sees defusing at least some of those mines as high priorities for the incoming Obama administration.
Closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Huskey argues, is only one step toward restoring the balance between national security and the U.S. Constitution. But this raises a big question: Where should the detainees go? Huskey envisions separating them into three groups: those who should face immediate trial ("There's plenty of federal statutes they can be charged with," Huskey said), those who should be released immediately for lack of evidence and either be sent back to their home countries or given asylum, and finally, those whom Huskey calls "the Mukasey group" (after Attorney General Michael Mukasey), often portrayed as "so dangerous that you can't release them." That third group poses great constitutional questions for Obama, she said. "Do we have a definition of enemy combatant? Is it broad; is it narrow? Are we detaining people because we think they will commit terrorist acts or because they did?"
Huskey argues that Obama must change how the U.S. deals with suspected terrorists. "The best thing he can do is get rid of the military commission, because no one's happy with it, except for the core Republicans that invented it," she said. But while she backs using criminal courts, she's not sure the new administration can completely abandon the enemy-combatant concept. She sees some kind of national-security courts potentially emerging as a compromise option.
But if detainees reach the legal system, what about the people who put them there? Many critics of the administration have suggested indictments or even war crimes trials for certain Bush administration members, nicknamed "the Torture Team" (such as David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff and the man often accused of masterminding current anti-terror policies). "Obviously," she said, "that would be a good thing, but can Obama really do that?" Even if he wanted trials, he may not want to sacrifice bipartisan support for his legislative agenda. But Huskey remains optimistic about the president-elect. "He's a lawyer, and he taught constitutional law. That's got to account for something."