What’s Wrong with the War on Terrorism?

By Joseph Straw

SM: You express deep concern about alleged human rights abuses by the U.S. government since 9-11. The administration contends that its broad use of the authority to interrogate or track suspected terrorists is one reason there has not been an attack in the United States since 9-11. What is your response to the argument that some civil rights must be sacrificed for the sake of security?

Jenkins: First of all, whatever we do must be consistent with American values. That does not mean that we cannot alter the rules to facilitate the collection of intelligence, broaden police powers, perhaps even to change trial procedures. But there must be rules, and there must be oversight. We must protect these values we have. And when I say “fundamental” values, I’m talking about our belief in liberty, our respect for fundamental human rights, our sense of fair play. These values are not luxuries that we toss overboard when the ship of state hits stormy waters. And they’re not constraints. These define us.

We’re in a very long contest, and it is those values which in fact will sustain us. When it comes to how we’re going to deal with people in custody, we have to keep that in mind. This is not simply because of legality, perhaps it’s not even because of morality. It’s a strategic imperative. To get into the business of torture is to take enormous strategic risks for what are likely relatively modest gains in intelligence.

People say, “Well, of course we’re going to do what we have to do; torture works.” Actually, we have no evidence it does. And so I would say that torture firmly remains a crime.

Inevitably, someone comes up with the exquisitely crafted scenario in which we have a terrorist in custody who knows where the nuclear device is that’s going to go off in 30 minutes. First of all, that’s a fictional scenario. It belongs on 24. That’s Jack Bauer stuff. That’s not real life.

But let’s say it’s conceivable that it might occur. If an individual is so absolutely convinced that he must break the law and commit a terrible crime in order to get that information, then let that person do so with the knowledge that he is committing a crime and that he will be held accountable even if he saved life as a consequence.

What is important here is maintaining our values. And having said that, I’m not naïve. I’m a former soldier. I’m not squeamish about the use of force. It’s not that kind of an argument. For me, it’s a strategic imperative that we maintain these values, and, moreover, I think we can; I’m convinced we can win, and we can win right.

SM: What are your thoughts about how the Department of Homeland Security reacts to new threats?

Jenkins: Well, when we look at the recent example of fluids on airlines—once there was a clear indication that there were terrorists who may be attempting to smuggle liquid explosives on board airliners, then certainly we were obliged to take that into account in our security measures. And yes, it created great inconvenience. But had the measures not been taken, and heaven forbid an airplane in flight had been sabotaged, the government would be crucified. People would say, “My God, you knew this. You had intelligence, and you failed to take appropriate measures.”

Now, in the longer run, we may decide that with something like 10,000 flights a day, that we can afford to accept the risks. That’s a decision we make as a society. But I think in that particular case, it was appropriate to do it. It’s important there that people understand, and be helped to understand, why we do something.

And, in general, we have to educate people and have security-savvy citizens. There are certain aspects of security that are helpful if some people have an understanding. A concrete example of this process is selective searches. Because of threats or high-threat environments, some communities have imposed selective searches on individuals getting on subways or trains.

Why selective searches? Well, we obviously cannot have 100 percent passenger screening. That simply would not be possible. Does it make sense to look at some? Well, it makes sense to look at some. How should we select them? On a mathematically random basis? That’s one approach, but not always particularly useful.

On the basis of their observed behavior? Clothing? Appearance? Yes. We are training people to understand this process better and to use appearance, behavior, and clothing as indicators, that’s another possibility.

We’re not going to do it on the basis of racial profiling. It wouldn’t be particularly useful. It wouldn’t be good security.

People say that if you don’t search everybody, and if the search is voluntary, people can just go away and go to another station, so what use is it? Well, it still has utility. It does have a deterrent value because it’s unpredictable.

It does complicate the planning of the adversary. It may lengthen the time of their reconnaissance, which increases the opportunity to identify them and discover the plot. It complicates their operations. They may be planning on going to one area and may decide to move at the last minute because of selective screening. Once you set the timer on the bomb, you probably don’t want to do that.

Is it absolute prevention? No. That’s where we have to educate people. We have to get people away from thinking about absolute prevention. Very few security systems can achieve that.



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