The long shadow of terror: How fear reshaped democratic values

Women in Peshawar, Pakistan, rally in 2011 against the secret targeted killings by U.S. drone strikes that were a mainstay of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism effort.
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It’s not only the American way of life that has changed since the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago. So has the American way of war.

The U.S.-led “war on terror” transformed warfare, mobilizing harsh counterterrorism tactics that shook democratic values at home and abroad. It also sparked a corrective moral backlash. And the struggle between the two is a key legacy of 9/11.

Why We Wrote This

How much freedom must we give up for national security? It's an enduring post 9/11 ethical challenge for the West – but harsh measures that violate human rights are often checked by moral correctives.

The fact that America hasn’t suffered a major jihadi attack on its soil for two decades leads some to argue that the counterterror effort succeeded. But others say the U.S. lost the moral high ground in wielding such tools of anti-terror as intrusive mass surveillance, torture, extraordinary rendition, drone killings, immigration bans, and law enforcement sweeps and detentions of terror suspects without charges.

“The United States certainly tarnished its reputation as a beacon of values,” says former CIA officer Douglas London, author of the upcoming memoir “The Recruiter.” “It’s a country that has made some serious mistakes for which it should be accountable. But I think the fact that we have had that conversation in the United States is a reflection of what we are fundamentally. We don’t want to be the bad guy.” 

John Kiriakou remembers 9/11 like it was yesterday. It made no sense to the CIA counterterrorism officer that a plane would accidentally crash into the World Trade Center on such a sunny day. When the second plane hit, it was clear to everyone at the CIA that the U.S. was under attack. 

There were roughly 600 people working at the CIA Counterterrorism Center that day. On 9/12 there were around 1,600, he says. 

Shock quickly gave way to revenge.

Why We Wrote This

How much freedom must we give up for national security? It's an enduring post 9/11 ethical challenge for the West – but harsh measures that violate human rights are often checked by moral correctives.

“There were 3,000 Americans who died because we didn’t do our jobs,” Mr. Kiriakou says, recalling his stateside boss sending him off a few months later to chase Al Qaeda militants as CIA counterterrorism operations chief in Pakistan. “He said to me, ‘Kill them all.’”

Mr. Kiriakou – who went on to be the first whistleblower to confirm that waterboarding, a form of torture, was official U.S. policy – summed up the era in a Monitor interview this way: “9/11 was the watershed that permanently changed the American way of life. We’ll never, ever go back to our Sept. 10 country.” 

It’s not only the American way of life that has changed. So has the American way of war. The U.S.-led “war on terror” transformed warfare, mobilizing harsh counter-terrorism tactics that shook democratic values at home and abroad. It also sparked a corrective moral backlash. The struggle between the two is a key legacy of the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago.

“How do you balance the rule of law with the security principles put forth by politicians and demanded by the public?” wonders Nacer Lalam, a member of the European Experts Network on Terrorism Issues. “There is a permanent tension. How far we can go in sacrificing our individual liberties in the name of security has been a question across Western countries.” 

The catalog of controversial anti-terror tactics used at home and abroad includes intrusive mass surveillance, torture, extraordinary rendition, drone killings, immigration bans, law enforcement sweeps and detentions that turned residents – especially Muslims – into the enemy, and detention of terror suspects without charges. 

The fact that America hasn’t suffered a major jihadi attack on its soil for two decades and that the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden, founder of the Islamist terrorism network that committed the 9/11 attacks, leads some to argue that the war on terror succeeded. Others suggest the U.S. lost the moral high ground, triggering a shift of values and legal norms globally. 

Since 9/11, terror suspects – like these at Guantánamo’s Camp 6 detention facility, in 2009 – have been held at the U.S. base often without charges. Today, 39 remain.

Today, though the old competition between great powers is again the big focus of security, countering terrorism remains a global imperative powered by cutting-edge technologies that encroach on freedom of expression, religion, and privacy, say those who’ve sometimes successfully fought to check the spread of these practices. 

“9/11 changed American public opinion and, to me, that’s far more dangerous than changing policy,” says Mr. Kiriakou, now a radio host on Russia-sponsored Sputnik.

Indeed, public fear has fueled strong majority support for counterterrorism as a top priority in Pew Research Center polls since 9/11. But the swing toward security compromised U.S. values and the Constitution and “set a dangerous precedent for other nations,” says Hina Shamsi, director of the national security program at the American Civil Liberties Union.  

“In the name of national security and counterterrorism, the U.S. government violated human rights, damaged the rule of law, international cooperation, and the United States’ reputation,” she says.

Domestically, the 9/11 attacks paved the way for security measures that hit communities of color the hardest. The FBI enjoys expanded powers to carry out intrusive investigations without evidence of wrongdoing. Even after the revelations of mass surveillance of phone records by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, U.S. surveillance capabilities and secretive legislation around them remain so complex that few grasp their full effect. Over a million people are on the government’s watchlist of known and potential terrorist suspects, which has been challenged in court by U.S. Muslim rights groups.

“When you are subjected, as so many Muslims and immigrants were, to special registration ... or the Muslim [immigration] ban,” says Ms. Shamsi, “U.S. values are betrayed again and again.”

Internationally, the U.S. war on terror put American troops in Afghanistan and helped justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some of the darkest chapters of that war – such as the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq – came in the early years. Europe initially held the line on human rights, then mimicked the U.S. when terror attacks hit its turf.   

The Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon succeeded in striking terror in American hearts. The national security panic following the attack created perhaps the most ethically challenging moment the nation has faced as it embarked on the dark pursuit of unconventional, asymmetric warfare with a nonstate enemy. 


Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“We as a country felt justified, that we were wronged, and that we have a right to strike back,” says former CIA officer Douglas London, author of the upcoming memoir “The Recruiter.”

“There was just such a state of panic that we were going to be hit again, that rules became a lot looser and gray,” he says. “The same principles applied, but a lot of it was about developing capabilities as quickly as possible” to buy time to thwart other attacks. 

Many extraordinary practices have been dialed back or discontinued since 9/11. Others have become normalized, anchored in institutional processes, or codified into law. 

Counterterrorism in her own backyard  

Pressure to uphold American values and international law in counterterrorism efforts has come from many fronts, including ordinary citizens unversed in the ways of war. 

When Christina Cowger learned that the CIA front company Aero Contractors used North Carolina airfields in its extraordinary rendition flights, she was furious they were happening in her own backyard with taxpayer dollars. From 2001 to 2005, extraordinary rendition involved nabbing suspected terrorists off the streets in other countries and bringing them extrajudicially to the custody of the U.S. or other countries for interrogation and, in many cases, torture.

Aero Contractors operated some extraordinary rendition flights out of this hangar at the Johnston Regional Airport in Smithfield, North Carolina.

“I want the United States to be a country that respects human rights instead of just lecturing others about them,” says Ms. Cowger, an agricultural scientist and a board member of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture. “This was an egregious example of the United States moving the goal posts after 9/11.” 

The yearslong work of that citizen-led truth commission concluded in 2018 that at least 34 of 119 known CIA detainees were rendered to CIA black sites on Aero flights from North Carolina; at least 15 others were rendered to foreign custody to be tortured.  

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was renditioned from Mauritania to Jordan and Afghanistan, testified before the commission that he was held 14 years without charge at the U.S. Guantánamo base in Cuba. Mr. Slahi, whose 2015 memoir “Guantánamo Diary” was the basis for the film “The Mauritanian,” says he was tortured in Jordan and at Guantánamo. 

It troubles Ms. Cowger that two decades on from 9/11, the U.S. – unlike Britain, Sweden, and Canada – has neither apologized nor compensated anybody for denying due process to innocent people. In 2017, on the eve of a jury trial, the two psychologists who masterminded “enhanced interrogation techniques” settled an ACLU lawsuit filed on behalf of three torture victims. Guantánamo Bay still holds 39 men, only two of whom have been convicted by a military commission war court.

“We designed this [rendition] program specifically to torture people outside the rule of law,” says Ms. Cowger. “It was a deliberate policy.”  

There have been some corrective steps. President Barack Obama acknowledged the use of torture and banned it and extraordinary renditions. In 2015, Congress passed legislation outlawing enhanced interrogation techniques. When President Donald Trump flirted with reintroduction, he encountered bipartisan pushback.

Widespread values shift

Suicide bombers can’t be deterred; they are willing to die for their cause, and 9/11 showed how high the stakes could be, says Johannes Thimm, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Intelligence agencies can only try to prevent suicide attacks, he adds, and “since that is very difficult to do, they have expanded their powers at the expense of civil liberties.”  

In the post-9/11 era, both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group (ISIS) staged attacks in Europe. In their wake, as in the U.S., watchlists mushroomed, focusing on Muslims. Security services won greater leeway to conduct surveillance, and some emergency powers, notably in France, were codified into law. Across Europe, laws emerged that made individuals criminally liable for their thoughts and words, not just for their actions. 

“Gradually we understood what the Americans put in place,” says Mr. Lalam, the terrorism expert. “9/11 had a very strong impact on European legislation. We don’t have a Guantánamo in Europe, but there are politicians who float the idea of special camps for radicalized individuals.”

Another dilemma for intelligence leaders in Europe is what to do with hundreds of their citizens who joined ISIS and were left stranded in Syria after the collapse of its so-called caliphate. Some see troubling echoes of Guantánamo in the refusal of many nations to take them back, leaving over 600 children in dire conditions.

“I want the United States to be a country that respects human rights instead of just lecturing others about them,” says Christina Cowger (left), co-founder with Allyson Caison (right) of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture. The citizen activists received the Joshua Heintz Annual Humanitarian Award for their work examining CIA extraordinary renditions flying in and out of their state.

As U.S. allies in the war on terror, European intelligence services have confronted ethical dilemmas. Whether to share intelligence that could result in a person being tortured or killed in an area with no active hostilities is a tough one. Germany takes the U.S. at its word that American bases there aren’t used to carry out lethal drone strikes.

“It is essential while countering terrorism not to leave the democratic and legal order that you want to defend,” says Michael Kowalski, a Dutch expert in counterterrorism and ethics. “Values definitely shifted.”

U.S. targeted killings are evidence of that shift, says Mr. Kowalski, even though they may be lawful and reasonable in certain contexts. Before 9/11, President Bill Clinton boasted he’d had a chance to kill Mr. bin Laden but passed because the attack would have killed innocents. “That standard was abandoned,” says Mr. Kowalski.

Drone killings started in Afghanistan under President George W. Bush. Airstrikes – mostly through drones – increased from 57 under Mr. Bush to 563 under Mr. Obama, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. They continued with greater secrecy, a wider geographic range, and less deliberation and transparency over civilian casualties under Mr. Trump.  

U.S. counterterrorism policymakers began to prioritize locating and killing terrorists over infiltrating terrorist networks, says Mr. London, the former CIA officer.* The problem with this strategy is that it eliminated the possibility of gathering intelligence from captives and caused Al Qaeda and ISIS to disperse forces. The battle, once focused on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, now has multiple fronts, from Nigeria to Indonesia. As the U.S. shifts responsibility to local partners, some worry security assistance delivered with counterterrorism logic is used to repress local populations. 

“We don’t want to be the bad guy”

Human rights and counterterrorism haven’t made easy bedfellows, despite the best efforts of people like Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, a United Nations special rapporteur. Prior to 9/11, she notes, terrorism was seen as a domestic concern. Today many nations take advantage of the lack of any common definition of terrorism and the “permissive environment” created by 9/11 to trample on fundamental freedoms, she says.  

Counterterror infrastructure grew in the U.S. and at the U.N., and the security lens spread to other areas such as health and education. “That’s the legacy of 9/11. We have securitized everything,” she says.

An overly securitized response – or one that is not appropriately targeted – risks creating more terrorists than those that are killed or captured, warns Eric Rosand, an expert on countering and preventing violent extremism at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. “Whether it’s Guantanamo or jailing political opponents under counterterrorism law ... you are generating more grievances in communities that then can lead to violence,” he says. 

Under President Joe Biden, the U.S. finally – and abruptly – pulled out of Afghanistan last month, losing 13 U.S. service members in the process. Mr. Rosand considers the withdrawal an acknowledgment that “20 years of military engagement and security assistance hasn’t led to much.”    

“The United States certainly tarnished its reputation as a beacon of values,” says former CIA officer Mr. London. “It’s a country that has made some serious mistakes for which it should be accountable. But I think the fact that we have had that conversation in the United States is a reflection of what we are fundamentally. We don’t want to be the bad guy.”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to show that Douglas London is a former CIA officer.

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