Paul Pillar

Politicizing Counterterrorism

The United States is losing an able public servant as Michael E. Leiter steps down after four years as director of the National Counterterrorism Center. The nation owes gratitude to anyone willing to become head of NCTC, who has a mixed role involving both strategy and analysis, reports to two different bosses, and sits in one of the hottest of hot seats during the inevitable recrimination phase that follows any significant terrorist incident. Leiter deserves additional commendation for consistently and skillfully keeping his organization focused on its mission, properly and objectively defined, notwithstanding the political swirls surrounding it. Former CIA director Michael V. Hayden aptly described Leiter as a “well-prepared and apolitical” official who “knows his brief, and he sticks to it.”

That kind of straightforward performance of the counterterrorist mission is not to be taken for granted. The political swirls are frequently threatening to divert or distort the mission, or to load it with political baggage. We got some taste of this with the controversial hearing convened in March by House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-NY), whose approach invited justified criticism that he was equating terrorism with Islamic beliefs. (Mr. King has announced that the next installment in his series of hearings will be this coming Wednesday.)

The United States has a substantial history of politicizing counterterrorism in the sense of taking a firm line toward some flavors of extremism and a soft or even apologetic line toward others, depending on what were the dominant political winds blowing at the time. Philip Jenkins has recounted some of this history, which includes, for example, the changing of the official approach toward violence against abortion clinics. Such violence was not even considered terrorism during the Reagan years of the 1980s; that posture changed during the Clinton years of the 1990s. Similar tendencies have been seen in the approaches toward some Latin American terrorists. Republicans have taken a soft line toward anti-Castro Cubans; Democrats have tended to be softer toward Puerto Rican nationalists. Part of the backdrop to these differential approaches has been electoral politics in states such as Florida and New York.

Now we are seeing echoes of such tendencies in news that the Department of Homeland Security has reduced its capability to analyze domestic terrorism. This move grows out of a kerfuffle a couple of years ago surrounding an intelligence report the department produced on right-wing extremism. Republicans complained that the report was an attack on conservative ideology, including opposition to abortion and immigration. The analytical unit that prepared the report has now been “effectively eviscerated,” according to the Washington Post, and even distribution of some of its previously completed work has been blocked. The consequences have already been felt by those who had been customers of the unit's reports, especially officials in the counterterrorist fusion centers across the county in which local, state, and federal officials share terrorism-related information. Those officials speak of now being inadequately served regarding analysis of home-grown terrorism.

And after the next significant incident involving the kind of terrorism that DHS is not analyzing any more—perhaps something like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, or maybe even an attack less deadly than that—it is certain that some of the subsequent recriminations will be over why government agencies hadn't written more analytic papers on the subject.