The NSA Report: Another Step Toward Ending the War on Terrorism

A quiet but profound second-term shift on terrorism

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NSA / Reuters

The National Security Agency headquarters building in Fort Meade, Md.

“We’re not saying that the struggle against terrorism is over.”

Those were the words of the former Clinton and Bush White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke. He was speaking to reporters about Wednesday’s report by a presidential panel — of which he is a member — calling for major reforms to the National Security Agency (NSA).

The panel may not have declared the war on terrorism over. But the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications did make a compelling case for considering its costs and benefits:

Because we were acting in a moment of crisis [after Sept. 11, 2001], there was always the risk that the new rules — and the new authorities granted to the intelligence community — might have gone too far.

It is now time to step back and take stock … We conclude that some of the authorities that were expanded or created in the aftermath of Sept. 11 unduly sacrifice fundamental interests in individual liberty, personal privacy and democratic governance.

(MORE: White House Group Calls for Limits on NSA Surveillance)

It remains to be seen which of the panel’s recommendations President Obama might adopt — and how much change a Congress where the NSA has powerful allies will enact. But if the NSA’s wings are clipped, it will be another step in America’s steady march away from its post-2001 wartime footing, one that has accelerated dramatically, if quietly, in Obama’s second term.

Most of Obama’s first term was about perpetuating — even accelerating — the war on terrorism. Obama surged more troops into Afghanistan. He dramatically expanded drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Yemen and North Africa. He spent no political capital on closing the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. He let the NSA carry on with the advanced snooping he’d inveighed against as a Senator.

On every front, however, Obama is now pulling back. Without much fanfare, his renewed push to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp has gained momentum. The pace of drone strikes has plunged, and the U.S. appears to be trying harder to capture and try terrorists rather than simply kill them. American combat troops will finally leave Afghanistan in 12 months. And despite growing al-Qaeda activity in Syria and Iraq, Obama refuses to intervene in either place.

This is all possible because the terrorist wolf is no longer quite so visible at the door. Even in his first term, remember, the threat felt near: the failed Christmas Day underwear bomber of 2009, the fizzled Times Square SUV bomb, the foiled FedEx-package bomb plot, just to name a few.

(MORE: NSA Takes a Hit in Fight for American Public Opinion)

Now Osama bin Laden is dead, along with most of his lieutenants. The Boston Marathon bombing was horrific, but relatively small in scale — and the work of unstable misfits without foreign support or encouragement. The terrorist threat feels more distant, on a daily basis, than it has since before 2001. We now worry more about Call of Duty–addicted teenagers in America’s suburbs than about jihadist fanatics in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

And increasingly, a zero-risk mentality that has prevailed for more than a decade is giving way to the question of costs and benefits. Does the blowback from drone strikes make us less safe? Is closing Gitmo worth the risk of releasing some potentially dangerous inmates? And is protecting privacy more important than giving the government one more tool to fight terrorism?

Our growing sense of security may well be a false one. An evil-genius al-Qaeda bombmaker remains loose in Yemen. A kind of Qaedastan may be forming across eastern Syria and western Iraq. The awful effectiveness of chemical weapons in Syria may have given some people dangerous ideas. Another major attack could swing back the pendulum overnight.

No doubt haunted by visions of an attack on his watch, Obama has defended core elements of the NSA program against growing political pressure — including public doubt that the privacy costs of NSA surveillance are justified by the threat. But Wednesday’s report, coupled with Monday’s court ruling that the NSA is violating the Constitution, could push Obama toward — or at least give him political cover for — an embrace of real NSA reform.

“We’re not saying that the struggle against terrorism is over,” Clarke said.

“But this war, like all wars, must end,” Obama declared in May.

That end, whatever it looks like, has drawn just a little nearer.

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