Counterterrorism Challenges – Pondering Seemingly Unsolvable Problems with Phillip Smyth

The first Covert Contact interview features University of Maryland Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics researcher Phillip Smyth. Phillip is also well known for his Hizballah Cavalcade project on Jihadology

Phillip specializes in Shia militias, and we touch on that topic, but most of the interview is spent looking at the big challenges we face in countering terrorism and its sponsors. It’s an interesting conversation that illustrates the dynamic and difficult problems that we continue to face in places like Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain.

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The Senate Torture Report

It is always disheartening when America does not live up to the standards many of us expect and in the adoption and execution of enhanced interrogation we have failed to do that on many levels.

The primary failure is that our elected officials and the people who serve them strayed into territory where most of us instinctively know America does not belong. The failures continued though – there were failures in implementation, failures in oversight, and failures even today as our political class is failing to find a collaborative resolution to this problem that does not further harm American interests. But America, unlike some countries, is dynamic and very much a work in progress. When we stumble, and we do, it is important that we acknowledge our mistakes, make improvements, and continue moving forward.

Hot Wars are ugly terrible things. Cold wars are too. It is only the scale of the ugliness which changes. America has never been able to find morally comfortable ground in the most violent parts of either despite, at times, excelling at both. Perhaps it says something about our struggle to attain the ideal even while the forces that rage against us fully embrace the darkest parts of humanity. That is the most optimistic take on it all but it is also the one I believe. At our best, American’s have a brighter vision of the world than most others, and while we are far from perfect, we do continue to make progress. Hold that up to the world envisioned by our many of our enemies and the contrast is striking. I want it to stay that way.

That is one reason it is important to confront and rethink the practices we put in place after 9/11. Perhaps some of it can be rationalized. Much of it likely not. But either way the systematic abuse of people, even terrible people, is not a machine that we, as a nation, should put into motion. As a realist I can conjure up scenarios where almost anything is justified but I expect those cases to be the exception. When there is a bureaucracy, workforce, documentation, legal findings, and a language to support that abuse the exceptional threatens to become routine.

Some would say that water-boarding, humiliation, threats, sleep deprivation and other enhanced interrogation tactics fall far short of the brutality exhibited by our enemies. That’s true but it does not make widespread adoption of those tactics acceptable. I trust that America is in no rush to match the inhumanity of it’s enemies. Barbarism is growing and if we chose to we could match and exceed the inhumanity of our enemies with the press of a button. But we don’t do that. We take the hard way. We try to avoid unnecessary suffering even at the cost of the lives and limbs of our own. We are different. We are not them. And we should strive to remain that way even if it is the most difficult road to travel.

The release of this report, and the reaction that has followed, is intensely political and partisan. Rather than scramble to score points for their party all Americans should be looking at this and asking if it fits the their vision for their country and if it will help us tackle the growing threat of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Are we doing what is right and are we being effective? If not, we will eventually suffer collectively.

America is a nation that should advance the most optimistic vision for humanity. It should have a firm sense of itself and what is right. No enemy should ever be able to use fear to drive us one inch closer to systematically adopting the extremes that they embrace. We face enemies with no limits, no constraints on the terrible things they can do to advance their cause, but we can beat them without becoming them. In fact, that is the only way that we will win.

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The Navy SEAL Who Killed Osama bin Laden and the Anonymous Heroes You’ll Never Know

In episode eight I look at the case of Navy SEAL Rob O’Neill and the culture that lures men and women like him out of the shadows and into a world of fame, ego gratification, and financial reward. I examine the role that military leadership and our culture at large plays in chipping away at the notion of quiet professionalism and share some thoughts about how we can change course. There is also a call from Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics. Phillip shares some thoughts on social media and its impact on national security, politics, and the collection of intelligence.

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Robots and the Future of Warfare

In episode 6 of the Covert Contact podcast I am looking at the evolution of unmanned platforms and speculate about the impact that they could have on warfare. The technology is evolving faster than our appreciation for the complications it will bring so while there will be countless positive benefits there will also unquestionably be a dark side to it all. Smarter systems are better, and spare innocent lives, but does that mean that less ethical actors could exploit less capable platforms to kill indiscriminately? Does that give them an advantage?

Blogs of War contributor William Tucker also called in to the Covert Contact voicemail line and shared some thoughts on how the U.S. intelligence community should be allocating its resources. I close out the episode with a special drone edition of Five to Follow.

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