I recently finished two very different books on terrorism: Garrett Graff’s The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror, and Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker’s Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda. Having finished both within a couple of weeks of each other, it is difficult not to compare them, which is perhaps unfortunate given how unalike they are.
Threat Matrix is essentially a history of three things: the FBI, director Robert Mueller, and change. Its 600+ pages document in extensive detail the rise of the FBI to prominence, the rise of terrorism as a focus within the FBI, and the necessary changes to the FBI’s culture and practice to cope with the evolving threat of terrorism, as well as Mueller’s life and influence on the agency he runs.
By comparison, Counterstrike’s relatively short 275ish pages feel like a collection of news stories compiled into one volume, in which chapters or even paragraphs change topic mid-stride, leading to a chaotic if loosely organized tome. Deterrence, high-profile government leaders, new technologies and approaches, big picture overview and minute detail all struggle to emerge as the driving force of the book.
The books are different in both scope and style. Threat Matrix is written by a reporter whose background is technology and domestic politics. As such, accounts of intelligence exploits sometimes take on the breathless feel of a Hollywood blockbuster. Counterstrike’s authors’ experience writing on national security issues pushes such fluffiness to the side, while also forgoing the political editorializing Graff almost unintentionally throws into the final chapters of his book.
However, perhaps because of their backgrounds, Schmitt and Shanker try to cover almost too much ground for the length of the book. Nearly each chapter could be a book of its own, which would allow for more detail and - an essential need - better organization. Rather than having just one agency (and thus one story) to focus on, as is the case with Threat Matrix, Counterstrike attempts to tackle nearly the entire government’s intelligence apparatus as it relates to fighting al-Qaeda. It’s just a bit too much.
This isn’t to say that either book was lacking in excitement or useful information. I found Counterstrike interesting, and Threat Matrix fascinating. In the big picture, through, Counterstrike is probably the more important of the two, particularly as it pushes for further discussion on ways to counter both the methods and the message of al-Qaeda. Threat Matrix is the story of an agency struggling to catch up, while Counterstrike recounts the ways various agencies are trying to get ahead.
Perhaps the two most important themes of the latter book emerge near the end: the need for (and slow accomplishment of) close cooperation between the military and various government agencies in a whole-of-government approach to countering terrorism; and the need for adopting what Schmitt and Shanker call a “culture of resilience.” These two themes are perhaps best exemplified by some quotes from then-Defense Secretary Gates.
Regarding the multifaceted operation to take out bin Laden, and then to analyze the intelligence treasure trove from his compound, Gates said, “This mission simply would not have been possible before.” While strikes against bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and the like have occurred under Obama, these successes have largely been the result of years of evolution within the military and the intelligence community that should have started before 9/11, but which required that catastrophe and subsequent wars to show its need. We’re now getting to the point where we should have been long ago.
But that’s on the government side of things. On the civilian side - in the media, in domestic politics, in our homes - we are too often paralyzed by fear. “We’ve created an environment in which politicians are just waiting to jump on each other if there’s a failure,” Gates said, leading to political responses of throwing money at the problem “in order not to look like they’re slacking off.” Instead, Gates argues, we need a bi-partisan stand to say, as he puts it, “We will not be afraid. […] We will do everything humanly possible. We will not distort our values. We will not let them claim victory by changing our way of life and the way we look at the world.”
And yet, the last part of that quote is only partially true, for Gates is also quoted as saying “We appear as a people to be afraid all the time. […] Americans in the past have always been resilient. I think this is a change for us. And I wish we could get back to where we were. We are not a fearful people.” Schmitt and Shanker echo this later when they that when the terrorists get through our defenses again, as they inevitably will, “the nation must deal with it and return to normal that day, as has been the practice in Israel and Britain.” To put it another way, if the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, and we stop allowing ourselves to be terrified, then terrorism will become an unsuccessful and self-defeating strategy.
If there is a common theme (other than terrorism) between these two books, it is the need to adapt to the fight. That means changing political culture within agencies, tweaking tactics and strategies, and adding strength to society’s outlook. With the recent spate of books on terrorism hitting the market lately - Ali Soufan’s The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda and Dana Priest and William Arkin’s Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State are next on my personal reading list - perhaps as a country we’ll get a better picture both of where we’ve come from, and where we should go to adapt properly. Threat Matrix and Counterstrike have opened small windows onto how to view that goal.