When Penn Law hosted an April 14 discussion on counterterrorism neither the participants nor the audience could know how relevant the topic would soon become: Just two weeks later President Barack Obama would announce that al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden had been killed in a raid that has become a milestone in the U.S.' counterterrorism campaign.
Before that landmark event, Ambassador Dell Dailey, former U.S. Department of State coordinator for Counterterrorism and retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, explained the current counter-terror model. He said it includes capturing and killing terrorist leaders, interrupting terrorist organizations' abilities to function, and attacking the foundation of terrorism.
Dailey said the capture or kill tactic, while "glamorous" and engrained in American culture, simply buys time while terrorist organizations rebuild from the bottom up. He said interrupting terrorist organizations also buys time by hindering their ability to communicate, recruit, and obtain supplies.
He explained that people feel compelled to become terrorists for a number of reasons: a lack of political integration and social equality, religious persecution, ideological extremism, and economic deprivation.
"The 15 or so Saudi Arabians that came in 9/11, you can thread each one of their motivations, as best we can tell, back to one of those five categories," Dailey said. "Sixty percent of our effort ought to be to go after those five areas."
Deborah Pearlstein, associate research director in the Law and Public Affairs Program at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School and visiting faculty fellow at Penn Law, spoke to the policy implications of counterterrorism. She said most counterterrorism measures are rights neutral, but many legal scholars are raising questions about how best to balance rights against security.
"Focusing on just those initiatives of the government that burden rights, I think, misses a substantial part of the picture," Pearlstein said, adding that one must weigh the shortterm benefits of rights-burdening initiatives against possible long-term costs.
Addressing the question of whether the Obama and Bush administrations have different approaches to counterterrorism, Pearlstein said there is no definitive answer. "Depending on what day you ask me, I have two very different thoughts about that question."
Dailey agreed that the comparison is difficult to make because of the different circumstances of their terms. Obama "didn't have the reality that Bush had. Bush's reality was here and now, something could happen tomorrow."