Q & A, Part Two: Spencer Ackerman

Part two of CJR's interview with the national security reporter

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.

And then there’s a longer question of placing counterterrorism alongside other policy considerations about development, about providing security for populations in at-risk parts of the world where extremism can fester, about strengthening security forces and institutions that can allow people political expression, economic prosperity. Brennan talked about food security—my god, this was never something that was placed in the pantheon with counterterrorism! He spoke very eloquently about Hamas and Hezbollah, speaking with a clear eye about the acts of terrorism they perpetrate, but also saying, there’s a reason that people flock to these organizations, and it’s not just an ideological one. It’s not just an issue of political tyranny, or even enthusiasm for political tyranny. It’s the fact that, who else is providing free health care for people in Gaza, or in southern Lebanon. And it talks a lot about what you might call demand-side support for terrorism.

That’s really amazing. And the question has got to be, to what degree are discreet counterterrorism steps going to [aggravate the things] that Brennan and the rest of the Obama administration are arguing contribute to support for terrorism? I asked him about drone strikes – this is something that Kilcullen and my friend Andrew Exum have written about in The New York Times. What’s the greater utility? Is it killing the terrorist, or is it preventing the 15 people around him who would be injured in the drone strike from having a reason to cleave themselves from the government of Pakistan and against the United States? And Brennan gave an answer that was a real transactional trade-off, not anything that was hindered by ideology or by not thinking this through, but saying ‘This is a really difficult problem. Whenever we’re considering an action like this, we get people who have nothing to do with the discreet terrorism action, and we try to think through what are the second-, third-, fourth-order effects of this, and then we make a decision.’ And that struck me as a mature answer, an answer that didn’t insult anyone’s intelligence, that recognized that there really are trade-offs here—it didn’t try to minimize them, and didn’t pretend that they’ll always get it right. And that’s going to be something that I think is the obligation of the press to really follow up on.

And similarly, if we’re going to increase foreign aid, we should put some pressure on the idea that poverty is that important a contributing factor to global terrorism. There’s been some great work over the years about how the people who become members of al Qaeda specifically, as opposed to terrorist or insurgent groups that are more locally focused, aren’t destitute people. These are people often with graduate degrees. These are not the wretched of the earth; these are vanguard fanatics. Where the programs that Brennan was talking about will require scrutiny is the question of whether they’re dealing with root cause issues or they’re being sold to the American people, who might be more skeptical about this, as discreet actions to go after precisely those terrorists. There’s a difference between going after the hard-core radical international terrorist and going after the conditions that he’ll exploit in order to become successful, and that difference is going to have to be bird-dogged and studied and teased out. And it’s the responsibility of a skeptical press corps and a diligent press corps to do that.

GM: A related question. You’ve pointed on a couple occasions to the Obama administration’s inability to define metrics of success in Afghanistan, and the Times just had a story on the same subject. If the administration won’t articulate it, is there a role for the press to begin articulating what success might look like there, or to establish benchmarks for this apparently stepped-up effort?

SA: For the opinion press, sure. I would rather think that the non-opinion press’s role is to take the lines of what the administration has laid out, even if they’re not specific benchmarks or metrics, and just go deep in the weeds and chase their efficacy. I think that there’s a responsibility of the press to think through and investigate the ways that the current counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan—and I’m someone who’s written a tremendous amount about counterinsurgency, from a rather sympathetic perspective in some cases—really does relate to the national interest, really does relate to the strategy that Obama laid out in his March speech, which was entirely a counterterrorism focus. In the beginning, you heard from Michele Flournoy, who’s the undersecretary for foreign policy at the Pentagon, talk about how this is a counterinsurgency strategy for a counterterrorism goal, and that needs to be thoroughly investigated. It’s the sort of thing that works well in the abstract, or is an understandable and coherent concept, and in practice a tremendous amount can slip between cup and lip. That’s something that needs to be constantly investigated.

And the press ought to be constantly questioning lawmakers and officials to say, if you don’t provide benchmarks, isn’t that itself an admission that you don’t know how to measure the path that you’re on, and therefore its own index of strategic drift? And you know, this is a war. This is not something that can be treated lightly at all, or can be treated, with so many lives at stake, as something that can just work itself out well even if drift occurs.

GM: What are some of the particular areas for slippage that you worry about now?

SA: The degree to which there’s a conflation of al Qaeda and the variety of insurgent groups in Afghanistan, and the goals for which they fight, and the strategies for approaching them. I mean, the Taliban is itself not a coherent entity. And there has to be a question at a certain point about whether the United States interests demand a war of such intensity and such resources to go after people like Jalaluddin Haqqani, who’s a vicious individual, and a warlord, and an extremist, whom also the United States worked with against the Soviet Union. And the degrees to which relationships between these terrorist groups and insurgents are transactional. There’s been a lot of really great work in counterinsurgency theory about disaggregating those enemies. Kilcullen wrote what’s increasingly the seminal work here. How’s that actually working in practice? What strategy, politically, is resulting to just focus on a discreet enemy?

And, increasingly, this is the big question. You know, Petraeus testified that al Qaeda isn’t really in Afghanistan anymore. This is not a war that’s been sold to the American people, as John Brennan said [Thursday], as a war to prevent al Qaeda from coming into Afghanistan. It’s a war that has been presented to the American people as one to get rid of al Qaeda from Afghanistan. And basically, to be less euphemistic, from the face of the earth. Would the American people really support a war that’s being sold basically as a prophylactic measure? Those are not questions that the administration, in my opinion, journalistically, has really had to confront.

GM: You mentioned the tension between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. For a reader who doesn’t read Small Wars Journal on a daily basis, can you talk about that a little bit?

SA: Sure. Basically, there are some competing notions of what approaches ought to be taken for terrorism as a discreet national security problem. One school of thought, which is more the counterterrorism thought, is the idea that there’s a particular enemy who fights for particular reasons, and combating that enemy is a matter of identifying that person, collecting intelligence about him from the areas in which he takes succor, tracing his movements, identifying what his patterns are, capturing his communications, freezing his finances, targeting very specifically on groups and on his network, and then taking him down one way or another.

There’s another group that’s more affiliated with counterinsurgency that says, in some cases that’s appropriate—in some cases we have no other tools but that—but the danger there is that you’re focusing too much on an enemy, and you’re not focusing on a population that has discreet material reasons for providing that terrorist with succor and with at least passive support. And unless you provide that population’s material needs, you are ultimately locked in a battle of infinite regression, whereby you kill one person and the network is able to regenerate that capacity, and on and on and on. And also, you’re going to run out of ways in which you’re going to track that person, because if you’re in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan, and you’re tracking an al Qaeda affiliate, eventually you’ve got to get intelligence about that person. And to get the intelligence about that person that’s most reliable you need to collect intelligence from the people around that person, his tribe and social connections.

And the question that you’ve always got to keep in your mind, this school of thought argues, is that the person you’re seeking to get information from has to get something in return—there has to be an active reason for that person to cooperate with you, because often that requires placing himself or herself at tremendous personal risk. So the population-centric strategy holds as a fundamental tenet that unless you address the broader needs of a population, the counterterrorism mission is compromised from the start, or that it will very quickly face some diminishing returns.

GM: There was an interesting line from Rory Stewart in the Financial Times the other day, in which he analogized the policy in Afghanistan to driving off a cliff, but wearing your seat belt while doing it. I think his frustration was that the boundary of strategic possibilities tends to be too narrowed by the political leadership. Do you agree with that view? And is there a role for the national security press in prodding political leaders to take a more expansive view?

SA: I think the biggest problem strategically, in the debate, is there isn’t a sufficient distinction between the enemies the United States faces and the enemies the United States needs to face. Stewart is absolutely right that there can be this self-distorting effect of trying to address a question from the root cause, when a political decision having been made already didn’t address the problem from the root cause. So you end up having your advice as an expert—although I’m not really ever in this situation—distorted.

From what I’ve seen, the Obama administration, when they confront this problem, they turn kind of white as a sheet. And you’ve been seeing this in some of the people who’ve come back from advising the McChrystal strategy review, that this is an enormous and enormously complex problem, and no one is really confident that their solution is going to work—I should say, no one is willing to bet the house on it, and is already thinking, well what if this fails, and this fails, and this fails?

Now it if does, and one of the reasons that it does is that they haven’t thought of the problem back from the root questions—what is the American national interest at stake here, what are the costs that we’re willing to bear to see that through, what are the alternative ways of addressing this threat, what are the acceptable pools of risk?—then it’s not going to do to say, well we thought about it really hard and we were well-intentioned and we were torn and we were trying to address this with the diligence and seriousness it deserves. At some point, you’ve got to really be responsible for the decisions that you make. This is an awful situation that they’ve inherited, but it’s theirs now.

I would also say I’ve encountered in the administration a number of people who’ve read not just Stewart’s interview with the FT but his London Review of Books piece, which was a real ground-breaking piece in terms of opening up the debate in Afghanistan and expressing a lot of fears that people had, particularly fears that the debate was too constrained. That was really a very influential piece, including within the Obama administration.

GM: We’ve had eight months now to see how the Obama administration addresses these issues. Has there been anything that’s surprised you about the approach he’s taken?

SA: I have to say I’m surprised by the preventive detention stuff. I’m waiting to see what he’ll actually produce as a plan, but he accepted a category of detainees—those who are too dangerous to release, but against whom the evidence is insufficient to charge. What I expected, from a campaign that talked a tremendous amount about not being constrained by old methods of thinking, and by a group of people that considered themselves, particularly on legal questions, to be more rigorous than the Bush administration, would be an exploration of the question: If we don’t have the evidence to justify charging them, or to justify detaining them, what reason do we have for believing that these people are so dangerous that they can’t be responsibly released?

There are others who really are dangerous, but the evidence against them is pretty decent, even in cases like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Abu Zubaydah, where they’ve been tortured. None of the torture stuff is admissible or should be, but nevertheless there’s good reason to believe that they’re the terrorists that we know they are. I expected the administration to take more of an approach of saying, some of these people are just people captured on a battlefield who’ve been through a series of rigmarole steps at Guantanamo that resulted in their presentation to the public as more dangerous than they are. And when the Secretary of Defense talks about a category of fifty to a hundred detainees, which is anywhere between about a quarter and half the population at Guantanamo still, that can be neither responsibly charged nor responsibly released, it’s an indicator to me that they’re not considering the option that perhaps they’re not in fact that dangerous.

GM: That’s a topic that Obama has taken grief from some parts of his base on, but it tends to be not a really high-salience issue with the general public. So how does the press go about holding him accountable on something like that?

SA: I think our responsibility is to present the situation in its complexity. There’s an audience that’s going to be interested in that. One of the things about the Internet, since everyone can access something like Google News, is you can go searching for what stories you want to read about. And national security reporters should report this and deal with the criticisms from their readers about whether the stories in and of themselves cover the situation they’re describing accurately, contextually and adequately. But just because more people, understandably, want to read about the economy or health care and that sort of thing doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be intensely focused on holding the administration accountable, particularly if there are going to be laws passed or executive orders issues that in significant ways transform the architecture of American constitutional law.

GM: A lot of the coverage on the internal dynamics of the administration with respect to broader foreign policy issues tends to get focused on Hillary Clinton, just because of her star power. With respect to national security issues specifically, what are some of the important fault lines in the administration? Are there particular names or patterns that readers should be looking for?

SA: I would trace not so much personalities. When I read that stuff it makes me really grateful that I work for a place that doesn’t confuse substantive coverage with a Washington parlor game. This stuff about is Hillary up or down, I want to quit the business before I write crap like that.

What I’m more interested in, and what I think readers are more interested in, is the degrees to which the Obama administration’s focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency sort of divide at a certain point, or whether there’s a sufficient role for global development—we still don’t have a head for USAID. I think that the changes the administration is talking about, structurally, to national security decision-making—things like transforming the ability of the State Department to have more of an expeditionary culture, to do diplomacy not just in embassies and consulates, but around in hinterlands of certain areas, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia—are really important things to look at and be focused on.

I’m more interested in structural changes than I am in personality changes, because personalities change and that’s just going to happen in any administration. But one of the reasons that personalities clash is because the institutions that back up these personalities do or don’t have the capabilities, the influence, the power, and the funding to do what administrations politically would like to see accomplished. And that’s really the sort of thing that I think is more illuminating for a reader than what order Hillary sat in the Cabinet room next to Obama, that parlor crap. I think that’s a virtue of the Internet, that communities have formed around the idea that they don’t want to read coverage of weighty issues as spectacle.

GM: Last question. Can you talk about one or two stories on your beat that are especially challenging to tell correctly, or that are frustrating because there’s specific information that you would love to get and haven’t been able to?

SA: There are tons, basically anything in intelligence. I would really love to find out the degree to which, over the last several years, the CIA has managed to create what oftentimes it was said it just wasn’t going to create, which is a network for human intelligence in the Pakistani tribal areas. All of these targeted strikes we’re seeing come as the result of a lot of intelligence work. I’m not vouchsafing for their accuracy in killing the people they say they kill, but it wouldn’t be happening with greater frequency if the CIA wasn’t getting a whole lot more inputs than it had been in the past. The capabilities have been there for quite some time, but it’s only in the last eighteen months to two years that the drone strikes have accelerated to such a tremendous degree. The story of how that happened, the circumstances that gave rise to that, still hasn’t been told. I’ve been trying assiduously, and not with great success, I’m sorry to say, so far, to tell that story. It’s a tremendously important one.

Similarly, anything having to do with the circumstances surrounding the Bush administration’s surveillance programs. There’s still a tremendous amount of opacity there, and that needs to be traced. A lot of the decisions that the Obama administration is making, we’re still in the very early phase here, so I don’t put them quite in that category yet, but those are two that come to mind.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.