Obama Plans to Use More Than Bombs and Bullets to Fight Terrorism

John O. Brennan
John O. Brennan (Lawrence Jackson - AP)
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By Spencer S. Hsu and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 6, 2009

The U.S. government must fundamentally redefine the struggle against terrorism, replacing the "war on terror" with a campaign combining all facets of national power to defeat the enemy, John O. Brennan, President Obama's senior counterterrorism adviser, said Wednesday.

Previewing what aides said will be the administration's most comprehensive statement to date on its long-term strategy to defeat al-Qaeda and other violent extremists worldwide, Brennan said in an interview that the United States will maintain "unrelenting" pressure on terrorist havens, including those near the Afghan-Pakistani border, in Yemen and in Somalia.

However, Washington must couple the military strikes that have depleted al-Qaeda's middle ranks with more sustained use of economic, diplomatic and cultural levers to diminish Islamist radicalization, he said, exercising "soft power" in ways that President George W. Bush came to embrace but had trouble carrying out.

"It needs to be much more than a kinetic effort, an intelligence, law enforcement effort. It has to be much more comprehensive," said Brennan, who will address the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. "This is not a 'war on terror.' . . . We cannot let the terror prism guide how we're going to interact and be involved in different parts of the world."

Calmer Discussion

The U.S. shift in tone comes as Obama national security officials, six months after taking office, are seeking to maintain a fragile bipartisan consensus over continuing Bush-era policies that damaged al-Qaeda while taking advantage of changed political circumstances at home and perceptions abroad.

While Obama campaigned on similar themes -- and a White House budget office memo in March notably retired the "global war on terror" moniker -- aides now seem to be trying to fill in the blanks, defining the threat and U.S. goals and challenges.

The time has come to "lower the temperature of the discourse . . . and soberly discuss what steps we want to take and not take," said Michael E. Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the U.S. clearinghouse for analyzing terrorism threats. "What we've learned over the last several years is, nuance is important here."

A Holistic Approach

U.S. officials are advancing American ideals -- promoting political participation and economic development -- and attacking the factors that breed terrorism, Brennan said.

"We are not saying that poverty causes terrorism, or disenfranchisement causes terrorism, but we can't mistake there are certain phenomena that contribute to it," he said. "Terrorism needs to be fought against and certainly delegitimized or attacked, but some of the underlying grievances that might in fact lead individuals astray to terrorism cannot be ignored."

Brennan is in some respects an intriguing choice to deliver the new message. A former career CIA analyst, Saudi Arabia station chief, and chief of staff to former director George J. Tenet, he was heavily involved in CIA counterterrorism operations for most of his 25-year career, helping stand up the NCTC under Bush before retiring in 2004. After liberal critics questioned Brennan's role in post-9/11 detention and interrogation policies, he withdrew from consideration as CIA chief and Obama moved him to the White House.

Brennan's "Jesuit-like" demeanor has made him a key bridge between administrations, said David Cohen, a CIA veteran and now New York Police Department counterterrorism official.

Brennan has also brought perspective to internal debates over intelligence policy in the Obama White House, where few senior officials have exposure to the world of spycraft, intelligence officials said. Brennan is known to have opposed declassifying Bush administration legal opinions that authorized harsh CIA interrogations, though the Obama White House acted contrary to his advice.

"John understands how intelligence and policy support one another -- that's a major asset," said CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, whom Obama subsequently named. "He is a vital link between the CIA and the NSC."

"His portfolio is growing, not shrinking," said Mark Lippert, a longtime Obama foreign policy aide and now chief of staff for the National Security Council, which is run by Brennan's boss, national security adviser James L. Jones. Brennan's role spans terrorism, cybersecurity, swine flu and some intelligence matters. "He has the president's trust. . . . Folks from all parts of the policy and intelligence community respect him," Lippert said.

Even as the Obama administration softens U.S. rhetoric, it continues a controversial policy of attacking suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban safe houses inside Pakistan's autonomous tribal region. A missile apparently launched by CIA Predator drone struck a house in Pakistan on Wednesday, killing a woman identified as the wife of Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban commander linked to the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Pressuring Al-Qaeda

Unmanned drones have struck targets in Pakistan at least 31 times this year, killing more than 360 people, according to a tally by the Web site the Long War Journal. Such attacks are opposed by some prominent Defense officials who say the strikes are counterproductive because they fuel anti-Western sentiment in Pakistan.

Brennan, who declined to comment on CIA operations in the region, acknowledged internal disagreements but said that al-Qaeda must continue to be pressured.

"It's important to maintain the offensive against what are clearly terrorist training facilities and camps, and we're working closely with the Afghanistan and Pakistan governments to root out these facilities," he said. At the same time, the use of lethal force must be "very focused, and ensure that we are not incurring any type of collateral damage."


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