How to Define Success in the War on Terror

Originally published at The Seattle Times

"What is success?"

So asked a senior federal law-enforcement official at a recent meeting I attended in Washington, D.C. The context was the war on terrorism.

This was not a rhetorical question. The official was mulling over how to measure success in the counter-terror war. He seemed uncertain and appeared to be seeking an answer for himself.

What he did know, however, was that whatever success may be in such a war, domestic law enforcement — by itself, in any case — was not enough.

One significant difficulty is that the culture of law enforcement does not lend itself neatly to dealing with strategic-intelligence issues. Long having been rewarded for "cracking" individual cases and presenting glossy press conferences, law enforcement has been confounded by a murky environment in which to "catch them in the act" is not only extraordinarily difficult, but can also represent a fatally late failure.

To deter terrorists from launching attacks is better than catching them in the act, but as the official asked, "How do we know whether what we do has a deterrence effect?" In other words, how do we know if our homeland-security measures actually deterred attacks — for there have been none since 9/11 — or have the terrorists merely been waiting and preparing for the "right moment" to strike again?

In the absence of hard, measurable data, the official considered the effects of our protective efforts to be marginal at best — psychologically reassuring to the public at large, perhaps, but not particularly central to the core issue of combating terrorists.

So preemption has been offered as the more-effective solution. Since passive, defensive measures alone cannot possibly protect against every single terrorist attack, taking the fight to the terrorists before they can carry out their plans has become more attractive and acceptable.

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