Ending the War on the War on Terror (Review Essay)

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in Contexts 8(4):76-78, 2009. Also in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2009. “Ending the War on the War on Terror.” Review essay. Contexts 78(4):76-78.

Review Essay of:
  • Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad: How to Be a Counterintelligence Officer, By William R. Johnson. Georgetown University Press, 2009 (1987). 236 pages
  • Under Construction: Making Homeland Security at the Local Level, By Kerry B. Fosher. University of Chicago Press, 2009. 288 pages

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, brought about many changes in society, the launch of a War on Terror the most pronounced among them. Perhaps as remarkable as the social processes related to theWar on Terror— an increase in surveillance, the passing of unprecedented legislation, and engagement in two full-blown wars, to name a few—has been the relative reluctance of sociologists to take up these issues in their research. This is astonishing for the simple fact that these terrorism-related issues in the post-9/11 era have dramatically impacted society, not only in the United States, but in many parts of the world.

Of course, sociologists weren’t among the social scientists studying dimensions of terrorism in the decades before September 11—political scientists and legal scholars primarily conducted the relevant studies. However, besides its own history, the discipline also fell victim to an active opposition among several of its practitioners to the study of terrorism and terrorism-related issues. The political nature of terrorism and the War on Terror can’t justify this silence. Precisely as a politically constructed reality (primarily during the Bush administration, but with lasting impact for Barack Obama’s presidency), theWar on Terror presents a topic of research of which sociologists can unravel the mechanisms and conditions.

Fortunately, recent sociological work has begun to address a variety of socially relevant aspects of terrorism and counter-terrorism, but these studies don’t yet add up to a veritable “sociology of terrorism.” Sociologists therefore would do well to look to other disciplines. While neither Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad nor Under Construction are written by sociologists, they can be useful for the sociological study of (counter)terrorism. What both books reveal, in varying ways, are the important processes at work in some of the responses undertaken against terrorism. ending the war on thewar on terror. Furthermore, they indicate how these counter-terrorism responses reflect and impact broader developments in society, an issue sociologists are ideally placed to address.

Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad by William Johnson isn’t a scholarly work; instead, it presents the insider’s account of a former intelligence officer in the Central Intelligence Agency. The book originally appeared in 1987 and has been republished without change, presumably because a relative stability is assumed in the work of counterintelligence officers from the years of the Cold War until the War on Terror today.

Counterintelligence work refers to efforts by intelligence agencies to move beyond the collection of information on enemy organizations and nations toward the active manipulation and neutralization of hostile intelligence agencies. Though not a technical manual on how to conduct counterintelligence work, this book is written as a practical work for the aspiring counterintelligence officer. The author, now deceased, was surely qualified to write this book, given that he was a U.S. intelligence officer during World War II and a counterintelligence officer in the CIA for some 30 years.

Johnson’s book can be read as a primary document providing data that may otherwise be unobtainable due to the secrecy of intelligence work. His approach is somewhat encyclopedic in nature, listing a range of issues and techniques that are important to counterintelligence. Among the more interesting themes, the author discusses the personal and professional qualities of counterintelligence officers, such as curiosity, skepticism, and patience, and the difference between their role and that of the police (the need to present evidence in open court versus the desire to maintain secrecy). At the same time, the author recognizes the messy co-existence of law enforcement and intelligence, which in the United States is manifested most strongly in the tensions that exist between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the CIA.

Johnson further places a high premium on the material apparatus that can be relied upon to execute counterintelligence work. This infrastructure includes technologically advanced surveillance tools like wiretaps, communications systems, and interrogation practices. As to the latter, Johnson condemns the use of torture as ineffective. Interestingly, most of the methodologies he describes aren’t technological but human, specifically involving the use of double agents, moles, and defectors. In the intelligence community, the skills associated with human technology are also considered most important in order to maintain inter-agency liaisons.

Kerry B. Fosher’s book Under Construction offers an interesting complement to Johnson’s work for the contrast it provides. Fosher’s study is distinctly scholarly, written on the basis of her doctoral dissertation in anthropology. The book’s analysis is also contemporary, based on a two-year period of field work that began a few months before September 11.

The primary objective of Fosher’s study is to show how the War on Terror and the policies on homeland security are practiced, shaped, and articulated at the local level by the men and women professionally engaged in security management and emergency response. To obtain her data, Fosher relied on participant- observation methods as she managed to move progressively inside the professional world of homeland security.

Fosher most essentially argues that homeland security policy isn’t a monolithic and coherent plan merely enforced at the local level. Instead, local officers actively engage, assess, and manipulate security in their daily work environment. In the practice of local homeland security, daily tasks include intelligence work, surveillance, and incident response activities. Local officers also have an active role in conceptualizing security by defining hazards, identifying targets, and formulating appropriate responses. In sum, at the local level a whole range of activities go on that give meaning to the central plans worked out in the political arena, possibly in ways that may no longer harmonize neatly with those initial system-level plans.

The contrasting nature and objectives of these two works are important to consider. Although Johnson is at times outdated in his treatment of specific topics (for instance, the polygraph), the themes he addresses still have great relevance in the world of counterintelligence today. The book can’t appeal to a general audience as its focus remains resolutely with the practicing counterintelligence officer. As a primary data source, however, the book provides a useful glimpse into the world of counterintelligence officers, most distinctly by highlighting the professional emphasis on efficiency.

Johnson’s condemnation of torture in interrogations, for instance, is wholly determined by its purported lack of effectiveness in acquiring reliable intelligence, not by any moral or legal considerations. Other intelligence techniques are likewise valued on the basis of whether or not they get the work done. Particularly noteworthy as a consideration that still moves counterintelligence, as well as related law enforcement activities and other security tasks, today is the emphasis Johnson places on the human role in intelligence work and cooperation. Notwithstanding the ever-expanding arsenal of technologically advanced tools, security work ultimately relies most on the people who inhabit the various positions in relevant organizations.

The role attributed to local variations in making security is likewise emphasized in Fosher’s anthropological study. Regrettably, in my mind, because of the lengthy analytical and methodological chapters, it takes almost 100 pages before she reports the findings of her study in four chapters that add up to some 120 pages. The important insights that can be gained from this study might have been more effectively communicated in a more direct way, with the more technical excursions reserved for journal publication.

As it stands, the book is too close to reading like a dissertation, or at the least a scholarly monograph that appeals primarily to other anthropologists rather than the wider audience of readers interested in the social and cultural dimensions of homeland security. Be that as it may, Fosher’s study provides a useful empirical analysis of the local practice of homeland security. Most strikingly, it shows that besides the politics of the War on Terror there are many professionals from a host of organizations, such as law enforcement agencies, fire departments, medical services, and military organizations, involved in actually making security policy on the frontline against terrorism and other hazards.

These books show that terrorism and terrorism-related phenomena provide a rich field of study, one sociologists would do well to take on. Sociology can bring to the study of (counter)terrorism a scholarly perspective that ties specific developments in terrorism-related matters with broader social concerns and trends. Looking at terrorism and counterterrorism from such a macroscopic viewpoint will not only inform an adequate understanding of what’s going on in the world of (counter)terrorism, but can also contribute to informing public opinion and relevant policy options.

Like the war in Iraq, it requires more courage and intellect to study the War on Terror rather than simply condemn it. These books help us understand the mind-set of counterintelligence officers and the day-to-day work of security professionals. Extending from such insights in original research, a distinctly sociological tradition of security and terrorism studies can and should be built.

See other writings on (counter-)terrorism.