This is the second part of a two-part interview with national security reporter Spencer Ackerman. The first part is here. This is an edited transcript.
Greg Marx: Let’s get away from the media for a sec and talk about issues. This F-22 vote that came through the Senate a couple weeks ago, a lot was made at the time about how this was an important test case for the future of military procurement. How big a deal was that story, and are there other test issues looming in that general area that readers should be clued in to?
Spencer Ackerman: One of the great things about coverage of the F-22 debate was, it was one of those rare cases where entrenched interests had really lined up—not just entrenched defense contractor interests, but entrenched modes of thinking. And you were seeing for the first time in an extremely long time someone who was willing, in Bob Gates, to take a stand and stake his reputation and stake his tenure as Defense Secretary on doing this.
One of the most interesting things about Gates is that in the Bush administration he came in to basically save the Iraq war, and that was how he viewed his job. When he was leaving office, he started making all these “Beware the Ides of March” speeches about procurement reform, and about the organization of the military—particularly, let’s be frank, the Air Force—being less and less relevant to today’s present modes of warfare and the actual wars the United States is in. And when he’s asked to stay on, he moves to this attitude of saying, ‘If I’m going to stay on I’m going to be a Defense Secretary, I’m not going to be a War Secretary like I was in the Bush administration.’ And this is where he chooses to make his stand, very early in his new tenure.
I think there was a lot of great stuff done around covering the F-22 as the F-22, covering the F-22 as this—Gates used the term, I think—this premier Rolls-Royce of manned aerial combat. Then there was a broader question of what it meant to the Air Force, and then the broader question of what the Air Force meant to modern warfare, and then the broader question of why we should keep thinking in those terms. And the F-22 became a prism to understand all of these questions, and that’s what made it both an excellent and salient story in itself, and a story with real resonance.
I think the ways in which the military now moves into the cybersecurity area is going to be the next one, because it’s the furthest thing from traditional combat you can imagine. There was a great story in the Times the other day about how the laws of war impact an offensive cyberstrike. These are just increasingly relevant things that go back to classic military understandings of taking out your adversary’s command and control apparatus, so it’s a logical extension of that, but it’s also a distinct cultural change at a moment in which this Pentagon has decided to make a concerted effort to move decisively into that field. So I think that’s something to look at along the same lines as the F-22 debate going forward.
GM: You spent [Thursday] covering the speech by John Brennan, the top counterterrorism aide, in which he repudiated some of the ways that we’ve conceived of this conflict in the past, and tried to lay down some guidelines for the future.
SA: I have a tendency to be hyperbolic, and I thought this speech was groundbreaking, so take what I’m saying with a grain of salt. My girlfriend has a saying, I don’t speak English, I speak hyperbole.
GM: Gotcha. So after we have this groundbreaking speech, what are the questions or the outstanding strategic issues that the press needs to be looking at going forward?
SA: So Brennan lays out these two important considerations. Basically, he divides the way in which Obama conceives of counterterrorism into near-term and long-term considerations, and he places the destruction of al Qaeda as a near-term conception. That’s something that you just never ever heard from the Bush administration—there was this thing called ‘the long war,’ or at one point the global struggle against violent extremists, which was an interesting and good term that came very close to getting to some of the stuff that Brennan talked about yesterday, but was abandoned as soon as it was rolled out. But never did you hear in eight years that the struggle against al Qaeda was going to be something that was actually winnable in a fairly predictable period of time.