The Counterinsurgency Paradigm: How U.S. Politics Have Become Paramilitarized

We spoke to Bernard Harcourt about his latest book, “The Counterrevolution,” and what makes the Trump presidency unique.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - AUGUST 12:  A Virginia State Police officer in riot gear keeps watch from the top of an armored vehicle after car plowed through a crowd of counter-demonstrators marching through the downtown shopping district August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The care plowed through the crowed following the shutdown of the Unite the Right rally by police after white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" and counter-protesters clashed near Emancipation Park, where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is slated to be removed.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A Virginia State Police officer in riot gear keeps watch from the top of an armored vehicle after a car plowed through a crowd of counter-demonstrators marching through the downtown shopping district Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump ran a campaign promising to refill the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” to “take out” the families of suspected terrorists, to ban Muslims from entering this country, and to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet these policies didn’t start with Trump: Torture, indefinite detention, extraordinary renditions, record numbers of deportations, anti-Muslim sentiment, mass foreign and domestic surveillance, and even the killing of innocent family members of suspected terrorists all have a recent historical precedent.

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, continued some of the worst policies of the George W. Bush administration. He expanded the global battlefield post-9/11 into at least seven countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria. At the end of Obama’s second term, a report by Council of Foreign Relations found that in 2016, Obama dropped an average of 72 bombs a day. He used drone strikes as a liberal panacea for fighting those “terrorists” while keeping boots off the ground. But he also expanded the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan. Immigrants were deported in such record numbers under Obama that immigration activists called him the “deporter-in-chief.” And then there were the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, where Obama national security officials would order pizza and drink Coke and review the list of potential targets on their secret assassination list.

For his liberal base, Obama sanitized a morally bankrupt expansion of war, and used Predator and Reaper drones strapped with Hellfire missiles to kill suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens stripped of their due process. The Obama administration harshly prosecuted whistleblowers in a shocking attack on press freedoms. By the end of his presidency, official numbers on civilian deaths by drone were underreported; we may never know the true cost of these wars, which continue today.

Bush, before him, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, took a hatchet to civil liberties: He expanded National Security Agency surveillance on overseas communications and created a system for unprecedented levels of surveilled communications of U.S. citizens. Much of this happened with the support of leading Democrats. Mosques across the country and in New York City were spied on. The authorization for the use of military force was passed in 2001 with the full backing of every lawmaker except for Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. The bill created the justification for the forever wars that still rage on 17 years later.

And steadily, all of the counterinsurgency tactics of these foreign wars have crept back home, Bernard Harcourt argues in a recent book. Called “The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens” and it makes the argument that through NSA spying; Trump’s constant, daily distractions; and paramilitarized police forces or private security companies, the same counterinsurgency paradigm of warfare used against post-9/11 enemies has now come to U.S. soil as the effective governing strategy.

We are in the middle of an unprecedented paramilitarization of state and local law enforcement agencies in this country. Police at protests and demonstrations often look like they’re SEAL Team 6 getting ready to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound. Many agencies have received military equipment through a Defense Department program that allows police to obtain military equipment after it’s been used in foreign war zones.

In “The Counterrevolution,” America’s post-9/11 domestic reality is placed within the deeper history of modern warfare and counterinsurgency doctrine. Harcourt traces the evolution of modern warfare, or counterinsurgency, as it developed in the 1950s and ’60s to fight small rebellions, including the colonial struggles for freedom in Algeria and Indochina against France and the Viet Cong fighting against the United States in Vietnam. The lessons learned by France in fighting colonial uprisings were distilled into French war strategist David Galula’s “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice,” which many decades later became an influential text for Gen. David Patraeus as he worked on writing the document that would come to define U.S. war strategy in the Middle East. The 2006 counterinsurgency field manual shaped the counterinsurgency strategy across Iraq and Afghanistan.

Insurgents, or the “active minority,” were aggressively sought out — often targeted for elimination via drone strike. In fact, at the center of Harcourt’s argument for how the domestication of the counterinsurgency warfare paradigm occurred is the drone strike. Heralded as “precise” or “surgical,” the drone strike won the public’s favor under Obama. Any public debate surrounding the use of drones as a legitimate replacement for boots-on-the-ground arguably ended in 2011, with the drone assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki and, subsequently, the strike that killed his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman. Instead of an arrest, trial, and verdict for these U.S. citizens, an execution by strike from the sky was authorized. A Gallup poll reported in 2013 that 65 percent of the American public supported drone strikes against overseas targets even after the killing of its own citizens. Harcourt writes, “[Drones] make killing even U.S. citizens abroad far more tolerable. And this tolerance is precisely what ends up eroding the boundaries between foreign policy and domestic governance.”

We spoke to Harcourt about his latest book, what makes the Trump presidency unique, and why we aren’t talking about drones anymore on the Intercepted podcast. What follows is the audio of the edited conversation as aired and the full transcript of the unedited interview.

The interview begins at 45:32.


Jeremy Scahill: Bernard Harcourt, welcome to Intercepted.

Bernard Harcourt: Thanks, Jeremy.

JS: So, I want to start off by asking you about a phrase that you use in your latest book. You say that we now have a counterinsurgency warfare model of politics. What do you mean by that?

BH: So, what I mean by that is that basically all of the [ways] in which we govern abroad and at home is now funneled through a particular way of thinking about the world. It’s a mentality. It’s a way of thinking about society that triggers particular kinds of strategies and politics that result from that. And the way of thinking about society is this counterinsurgency paradigm of warfare.

So, counterinsurgency started in the 1950s – well, it started long before then, but it kind of crystallized with Western powers in the 1950s and 60s in Algeria, and Indochina before then, and in Vietnam for the Americans. And it was a particular way of thinking about society, the way society is structured into three groups. With, on the one hand, a small active minority who are the insurgents, and a large passive majority who can be swayed one way or the other, and then a small minority of counterinsurgents.

And that way of thinking has become internalized, second hand. Most, I would say, many in America, but certainly our political leaders are looking at the world through that lens when they look at other countries when they look domestically at their own population, and as a result of that it triggers particular kinds of counterinsurgency practices, really. And three practices particularly that I think when you look at what we’re doing both abroad and at home, you see resonances of them everywhere. The first is the idea of getting total information awareness. That’s always been the key linchpin of counterinsurgency theory, is to get total information on the total population.

And that’s what distinguishes it from just getting good intelligence. It’s that you have to get total intelligence on the total population, not just targeted to people who you suspect, but on the total population. So that you can make a distinction between or you can identify that small group of active insurgents. And you need the information on everyone so that you can make that separation, those fine distinctions between someone who is in that active minority or someone who’s just [in the] you know, passive masses. So that’s the first strategy. The second strategy is then that you have to rid of the active minority that you identified, just that small group of individuals, the insurgents, and you do that through any means possible. And then the third strategy is to win the hearts and minds of the masses, basically.

And I think that starting after 9/11. We saw that way of thinking become the dominant way of governing abroad particularly with the war in Iraq, but then more generally with the use of drones outside of war zones et cetera, use of total information through the NSA in the way in which everything was captured about everyone to the most minor detail. And then also trying to pacify the masses in Iraq through kind of some provision of services or just distribution of cash. But then eventually, when this way of thinking comes back to the United States through different forms of pacification of the masses. Particularly right now, I would say through forms of distraction, really.

JS: How does this counterinsurgency warfare model of politics apply in the Trump era?

BH: The Trump Administration is kind of a crystallization, or it seals the deal really on this on this model of governing. But what I want to emphasize though is that it wasn’t unique to Trump. And so, it goes back and it threaded through the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration.

I’ll come back to that in a second. But when you see it today, what you see predominantly is through Trump’s creation of an internal enemy. So, one of the things that drives counterinsurgency ways of thinking is having an internal enemy that, the internal enemy which is that identifiable small class of the active insurgents.

And I think that Trump [has] really rested his entire way of governing us by creating internal enemies out of whole cloth, really, in this case. It started with the Muslims and Muslim Americans and the idea that we needed a Muslim ban.

But when you listened to the rhetoric that surrounded the Muslim ban, it was this rhetoric about, “Muslims are coming into the country. We got to keep them out and even the ones who are here aren’t patriots. They don’t call the police when they have information. We need a registry for them. We need – there was talk about –

JS: Surveillance on mosques.

BH: – Well, exactly, right. All of the surveillance on the mosques and on all of the Muslim businesses, everywhere. And so, all of that was the creation of a dangerous element in this country, which were the Muslim Americans. And we saw it, of course with Mexican Americans, with talking about Mexicans as criminals, as rapists. You saw it just recently with the whole caravan episode, right. I mean, I think that the caravan episode was an effort to create an internal enemy because it was not only identifying and indexing this real group of individuals, but I think it was, through those groups of individuals, it was pointing at all of the undocumented persons who are in this country and who substantiate that threat.

JS: If that philosophy is as you say, what is the purpose then of identifying these people as you say, as sort of the insurgents?

BH: It’s a coherent strategy that not only kind of identifies the danger and then, of course, tries to eliminate the danger, right. But is doing that in part to pacify the masses to win the support of the masses to bring them on Trump’s side. And of course, that was exactly a strategy for the whole week preceding the midterm elections, right? It was to win the hearts and minds of Americans by targeting this dangerous internal enemy that was coming to the border but that also is in the country, is in the country already. It’s these undocumented residents.

So, it’s got these different prongs to it and in part, what’s always been unique about counterinsurgency theory from the 1950s is that it is focused on the population in this interesting way. So, when you read all of the text by the great counterinsurgency commanders — the French, and British, and some Americans, and texts that were written for and by the RAND Corporation on counterinsurgency — one of the central pillars of this way of thinking is that the battle is over the population. It’s over the masses.

JS: Well and this was popularized with David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal and the whole notion of COIN, the counterinsurgency doctrine.

BH: Precisely, and when that got popularized — so, when Petraeus actually publishes the new field manual for counterinsurgency, field manual 24, which is an important event, kind of crystallizing all of this thought. Petraeus — who really had his hands in the writing of the document and was overseeing a team of people trying to crystallize counterinsurgency theory — goes back to the original thinkers of counterinsurgency in the 1950s and 60s, goes back to the French counterinsurgency theorist David Galula, goes back to Thompson, the British counterinsurgency theorist. And tries to kind of crystallize and update that theory and turn it into the dominant paradigm of warfare for America in these times.

JS: We’re talking about the French in Indochina, but also in Algeria.

BH: Specifically, in Algeria. For some reason, a lot of the kind of, French crystallization of the thought happens in Algeria with different sets of commanders who took different views, slightly different theories of counterinsurgency theory and practice. And it’s those variations actually that I find most interesting historically because I think we see them replicated since 9/11 in the United States.

JS: How so?

BH: In France, for instance, you can kind of distribute the counterinsurgency theorists into two camps. There were those who were much more explicitly brutal. So, somebody like Roger Trinquier, or later the general Paul Aussaresses who essentially praised torture and very brutal forms of summary execution. So, people who openly embraced those kinds of extreme terroristic acts as a way to accomplish these ends, as a way to eliminate the small minority, but also somewhat terrorize the masses so that they didn’t get radicalized.

And so, you’ll read Aussaresses account and he’s explicit. He’s transparent. He’s plain. He’s forthright: “I tortured. That was the only way to do it. That was the best way to do it. We summarily executed. Most people wouldn’t come out of the torture chamber alive. Either they would confess quickly or it would be over for them.” You know, this is pen on paper. I mean, this is printed. These are his memoirs. That’s the way he viewed things which was a very, really brutal, brutal form of counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency theory is always somewhat brutal but this was just extreme on the sleeve.

And then there were other commanders, particularly David Galula but some others, who acknowledged that some torture happened. They would say, “You know, well, there’s all this talk of torture. It’s not entirely accurate but yes, there are some cases of torture.” And who would feed into that mechanism? Who would deliver a prisoner to you know, some camp where they knew the person would be tortured? Or who would be involved with say, the assassination of a suspect, an FLN suspect, but then would turn to legal processes to kind of, brush it over?

And so, they understood very well that Algerian war wasn’t a declared war so if someone died, there had to be an investigation by the gendarmeand the gendarme would come and they would investigate it and of course, every time somebody had been running away or trying to escape and got shot in the back, or whatever.

But nevertheless, that camp was a little bit more legalistic and emphasized the provision of services more. In other words, to win the hearts and minds, it was not only to terrorize them through torturous methods but also providing basic water services, electricity, some education, et cetera.

So, what you end up with, and what is particularly interesting about the Algerian experience [are the] two camps, two different variations on counterinsurgency theory. And that’s, I think, what we’ve seen over the course of American history since 9/11. So, we know that counterinsurgency as a way of thinking and as a way of preceding in international affairs, but also domestically, is not new to 9/11. We were engaged in counterinsurgency in Vietnam. We also, the United States, experimented with forms of counterinsurgency domestically against the Black Panthers and with the COINTEL program, et cetera. But starting in 9/11 really there was a much more systematic turn to that way of thinking and governing.

JS: It was not only tolerated by Democrats and Republicans alike, but there was an almost entirely unified House, so to speak, where you had one example being Barbara Lee being the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. The PATRIOT Act — one Senator, Russ Feingold standing up and voting against it when it was initially promoted. So, it was a very effective consolidation of thinking and this bipartisan embrace of counterinsurgency as a normal part of American politics.

BH: Right, and then we saw it kind of emerge in these aberrant ways that, for some Americans felt aberrant, the use of torture to interrogate suspects. Also, the idea of indefinite detention, right. Some of these emerge in ways that were still shocking a little bit to the American sensibility because we thought that we had gotten past the willful use of waterboarding. And I think a lot of people didn’t connect the dots in part and didn’t fully understand that these were actually coherent pieces of a counterinsurgency strategy, and that’s the purpose of the book is to try and connect the dots.

But what we did see was, as you were suggesting with the passage of the PATRIOT Act, total information awareness coming into place on Americans, right, with the Section 215 program and also some illicit programs as well, but not all of them were passed by Congress. As you remember from that night where [John] Ashcroft was in his hospital bed asked to sign some of those illicit programs.

JS: And there was James Comey right next to him.

BH: Exactly, right. Acting though to kind of stop that, at that time. But the use of torture, the use of indefinite detention as a way to eliminate the suspected minority, the beginnings of the use of drones as a way to kind of target and eliminate, again, suspects.

These were all pieces that fit perfectly in a counterinsurgency theory. Now, it fit perfectly in the more extreme version of counterinsurgency, particularly torture. Now, but what we saw over time with the changing of the administration was not the end of a dominant counterinsurgency mentality but a slightly different variation on the theme.

JS: You’re talking about as we transition from Bush to Obama.

BH: Yes, right. As we transition to Obama, we see for instance, yes, a repudiation of torture. Although never any kind of accountability for the tortures, with the exception of a female officer at Abu Ghraib, and [a] few underlings who get prosecuted. No one was held accountable for that. Although, there was a statement that we wouldn’t engage in torture again, OK.

JS: Quickly before you go on with that: To me, one of the most telling and under-told stories about the very point that you’re making, the Obama administration’s posture on terrorism, is that you had civil litigation brought against Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bush himself, but specifically for the torture and alleged extrajudicial killings at Guantanamo.

And when either the family members of survivors or prisoners themselves filed this civil litigation seeking damages from the U.S. government, the Obama justice department repeatedly intervened in the cases and filed briefs saying that even if Rumsfeld had participated in genocide as Defense Secretary, for instance, that it would have been within the official scope of his duties. And these were papers filed by Eric Holder as the attorney general. Those cases, and it’s a little bit complicated legally, but the short of it is that that intervention removed those officials as defendants in those cases.

It was then just the individual suing the entirety of the U.S. government bureaucracy and they were all dismissed. So, it wasn’t just that Obama said “Well, we need to look forward not [backward],” or failed to take any action. His justice department actively intervened to protect the very people at the top who were authorizing torture and potentially extrajudicial killings.

BH: Which shows the kind of, the continuities and the ways in which this takes slightly different variations, has [a] different flavor, different cast, different language, different public relations, but was essentially a continuation. I’ll come back to that in a split second because I think that’s really important and relevant here. What I wanted to suggest was that with the Obama Administration, we see those departures that end up actually, as you were suggesting, protecting and immunizing. But we also see the use of very deliberate, what are counterinsurgency practices, like the drone strikes which go up dramatically once Obama takes office in Pakistan, for instance. And that of course, is a different way of eliminating and targeting the small minority. You’re not using torture. the Obama administration tried to close down Guantanamo, didn’t succeed.

But the drone strikes in outside war zones is a perfect illustration of something that is counterinsurgency theory but has a slightly different flavor. Now, part of this is you know, it’s odd to come back to all of this now that we’re in the Trump, in this nightmare with the Trump administration and presidency. It’s odd to go back to Obama or Bush when it feels so unique what’s going on today and as we worry about a kind of encroaching authoritarianism – or what is it? Is it fascism or what, exactly? Where are we headed?

My point is, that you have to do that. In other words, the groundwork was laid for this. You can’t think about Trump’s penchant for authoritarian executive power without thinking about all of the theorists during the W. Bush Administration — very well-recognized law professors at the elite schools, who were talking about unbounded executive power as a good thing. There are continuities here and that’s the main point is that the most important continuity is this mentality, I would say, of counterinsurgency theory. And insofar as the Trump Administration marks a separate moment, you have to identify it within those logics, within the logic of a way of governing that we’ve had since 9/11. We’ve had [it] for a long, long time, 17 years of this.

And what does it represent? So, then the question becomes what is unique about the Trump formulation of this? Some things are not unique. When he says on the campaign trail, he’s ready to waterboard or worse, you know, torture the family members et cetera. Well you know, it’s not that unique, right? We had that when we had water – I mean, you know, a hundred-and-eighty-three application of water on one individual under the Bush Administration. So, we had that –

JS: It’s what Cheney was referring to when he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press, you know, that we’re going to have to be doing work on the dark side. I mean he was – you know, you had Cofer Black, senior CIA official telling Congress there was a before 9/11, and an after 9/11. And after 9/11, the gloves came off. I mean what they’re talking about there is torture and so-called targeted assassination in addition to the big scale military maneuvers.

BH: Exactly, right. So, some of these aspects of the Trump era are not novel, sadly. I wish they were almost. But then so what is unique — I think that one of the things that’s unique is this creation of an internal enemy in terms of all Muslims, for instance. And the language that Trump used about Muslims — well, I would not have imagined anyone in post-Nazi Germany ever being able to use that kind of language about a religious group. I mean, if you substituted “Jews” for “Muslims” in most of the statements that he made, people would be falling off their chairs, right. So, the creation of Muslims as a group, the demonization also of the undocumented and Mexicans which the Obama Administration did not have a very enlightened policy towards deportation or towards detention at the border. Tent cities pre-date Trump et cetera, massive detention pre-dates Trump. But nevertheless, the demonization, the way in which it’s used as a way to pull the masses on his side, I think is relatively, is characteristic and has a particular flavor. And the way in which some of the kind of militarized policing has now become routine in this county are all aspects that make it somewhat unique or the variation of counterinsurgency more extreme today.

JS: Well, there’s this, Department of Homeland Security program working with DOD to transfer the weaponry and vehicles of war to local law enforcement agencies across the country, which has enhanced the progress of the para-militarization slash militarization of the police, the 1033 program.

BH: Right, exactly, right. You’re putting your finger right on the right spot which is kind of, how does this counterinsurgency theory in practice make its way back into the domestic governing context? And it’s precisely through actually, material distribution. So, the fact that all of this counterinsurgency equipment that’s basically created for Iraq and Afghanistan, all of that equipment actually comes back to ordinary police departments to become hyper-militarized. Through the brave men and women who are fighting abroad who come back into police departments and security forces and bring all of that know-how and technology back. Through the private security firms at Standing Rock, you know, TigerSwan that The Intercept exposed some of their documents, and the mentality that was in the security, in the private security there, of thinking of the water carriers as you know, Jihadists –

JS: Oh, yeah, it was straight out of the CIA targeted killing program.

BH: Yeah, it’s straight out of counterinsurgency way of thinking in the Middle East brought back into this country. And then, [this] just particular mentality, just the way of seeing the world, the way of thinking of society as being divided into these three categories of the passive masses and the counterinsurgents. All of that is how this way of thinking, and breathing, and living, and governing becomes second nature. But also, as you were suggesting with these material flows of hardware, it’s both the hardware and the software that’s coming back.

Now, what I would say is unique about the Trump Administration or the point at which we are now is that this way of governing has now become dominant. And I can talk about other parts of it kind of distracting us, distracting the masses, in a second. But it’s become dominant domestically in a time when there is no longer, there is no insurgent minority. There is no insurgency, right? These techniques were developed mostly at times of revolutions, independence movements, many communist movements in the South whether it was in Algeria or in Indochina, et cetera, when there was, in fact, a war to be fought. There were armed insurgents trying to liberate the countries.

Now, you can have a whole debate about counterinsurgency in that context. Counterinsurgency theory was actually — [it] never succeeded. All of those movements for independence, all of those anti-colonial struggles prevailed. So, you can have an independent conversation among the military strategists as to whether or not counterinsurgency is a good thing, but what’s so unique about it now is that it’s operating in this country as a mode of governing, a filter through which we govern in this country, and there’s no insurgency.

There’s no active group, I mean, there are as we see practically every week now, you know, very unstable individuals who are engaging in violent acts, and who are appealing to the most attractive ideologies now for someone who is in an extreme violent condition, and that tends to be white supremacy, on the one hand, or you know, the Islamic state, on the other. And you have these individuals, but you don’t have an insurgent minority in this country.

JS: Isn’t it the case, and I know you work on death penalty cases in the state of Alabama, but I recently have come to believe that our carceral state in this country, the prison industrial complex is perhaps the premiere form of counterinsurgency. And if you look at the economics, the housing trends after desegregation in black communities across this country, and you look at the explosion of the prison population — in Florida now, there’s going to be the re-enfranchisement of 1.4 million people who were previously imprisoned — but what would any of those people have done in their lives? This is one of the most targeted groups in the history of this country and you have record-shattering numbers of black people warehoused in prisons.

BH: Yeah.

JS: Do you buy what I’m saying or — ?

BH: You know, so I’ve spent a lot of time – because I bridge these spaces, these two worlds a lot — and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to locate mass incarceration within the paradigm of the counterinsurgency way of governing and it’s a little tricky. Here’s where I end up: Mass incarceration starts around 1973 is when we start seeing the uptick in rates of incarceration and it’s an exponential rise in the prison population. And every time I or others flash this, the graph of incarceration in this country, people’s jaws usually drop because you’re not used to exponential trends literally sky-rocketing in public policy. You’re used to it in the context of microbes or some kind of scientific experiment or something but not when we’re deciding what we’re doing.

So, it starts in 1973. It’s racialized from the beginning.

JS: And coming on the tails of the height of the civil rights movement, the black power movement.

BH: Right.

JS: The uprisings in ghettos across America. Prominent black athletes now standing up. I mean, Nixon understood the way the winds were blowing there and, in a way, this was sort of his brainchild toward the end of his time in office.

BH: It sure was. It sure was. And through Reagan and Ed Meese who really was favoring the building of prisons.

JS: And Clinton.

BH: And Clinton, as well. Rights. The New Democrats.

JS: But on your point about – I’m interested in how you’ve internally debated that question.

BH: Yeah, because a lot of what caused that were things like the war on crime and the war on drugs. Now, you can’t over-emphasize the war on drugs. It’s about one-quarter of the increase. Everybody debates this. We’ve rehashed it a million times but nevertheless, it contributed. But what was contributing I think, were these ideas of large-scale warfare and that’s where mass incarceration feels somewhat to me, a little bit out of joint. Now, in terms of what brought it about because counterinsurgency theory and counterinsurgency mentalities were opposed to large-scale battlefield war models. But a lot of the social policy that predated 9/11 was the result of a particular, large battlefield war model.

You can think of the New Deal as being that. You can certainly think of the war on poverty as being an effort to have a wide scale, all forces on those problems. And the way that the war on crime was implemented did have a lot of this idea of “We’re just going to put all our forces on it and we’re just going to attack this thing.” And that’s a slightly different mental structure say, than the more targeted counterinsurgency interventions. And that’s why, for me, it’s always been difficult to – the result seems very similar in the sense that what you’ve effectively done at the end, by the end, by the time you get to mass incarceration is you know, you have literally just incapacitated, you have just knocked out this whole tranche of young, black and brown men, predominantly. The numbers are really increasing for African American and Hispanic women right now. But you’ve just knocked out this tranche which is the generally, in the United States, perceived as the internal enemy.

You know, when I was speaking earlier about the internal enemy and referring to the Muslims and referring to the Mexicans, et cetera, of course, also African American protesters or #BlackLivesMatter folks fit in that category, right now, particularly with Donald Trump, being an internal enemy. So, you’ve achieved something that kind of fits with the counterinsurgency model which is to eliminate that tranche. Although, I think at the beginning at least, it was coming from a different way of thinking which was this large war on crime approach. So, I think it has fed in to the point where today, it functions in that way. You see it well in a state like Florida, as you were saying.

JS: Yeah, I mean, not to belabor the point but part of what informed my thinking on this was when we interviewed Mehrsa Baradaran who wrote an excellent book about the history of black banks. And I think you could make an argument — and maybe we’ll have you back to have a longer discussion about just this — but I think you could make an argument that from the official end of slavery through reconstruction, the entire strategy with black masses in America has been “Never allow independent financial power, never allow viable community-building and ensure that large numbers of people are just stuck in the criminal justice hamster wheel, basically.”

BH: Right.

JS: But I definitely understand the distinction that you’re drawing but I do think it can be helpful. And also talking to black activists who are really looking at this – Mariame Kaba and others – I do think it’s helpful to engage in a line of inquiry about prisons as counterinsurgency when you’re taking the full scope of that history into account.

BH: Yeah, I agree. I agree, and you know, the relations between the buildup and the hyper-incarceration and the creation of ghettos before them are I think important elements to understanding the transition to a more theorized, or a more coherent counterinsurgency mode of governing.

JS: One of the specific examples that you cite as being a particularly disturbing if not unprecedented event was back in 2016, I believe it was when the Dallas police used an anti-bomb robot strapped with explosives to blow up the Army veteran Micah Johnson. So, this was Dallas PD. There was some litigation about that against the officers. It ended up getting tossed up. But remind people of the circumstances of that and why you describe it as basically, unprecedented. What was it about it that was unprecedented? First, just sort of the context.

BH: Okay, well the context was there was a large anti-police misconduct protest going on in Dallas. It was a significant group of, you know, it was a big demonstration. And towards the tail-end of the demonstration, there was an unstable individual, Micah Johnson, who was an Army veteran, who started firing on the police, and who got cornered. So basically, I mean, he shot and killed five police officers and wounded others. So, it was a pretty dramatic situation and of course, very extreme situation, extreme danger for everyone and [a] terrible, terrible situation.

But ultimately, he got kind of cornered in a particular location and there were negotiations taking place to try and get him to surrender. And at some point, the chief of police in Dallas instead of continuing with the negotiations decided, “Look, we’re just going to take him out with a bomb.” And basically, a drone, effectively. You know, so it was an anti-bomb robot, as you were suggesting. That usually is used to diffuse bombs, but instead, they strapped a bomb to it and they sent it in the direction of Micah Johnson and then when it got close enough, they detonated the bomb and he was killed.

JS: Do we know if this was something that they kind of, thought up on their own or was this a product that is already ready-made in the hands of police departments?

BH: My understanding, but you know, I’d have to go back and double-check, my understanding is that they were inventing, that they were kind of jiggering the device. Because it wasn’t intended, it’s not intended to be a blow-up robot. And you know, these things are kind of expensive, so you know, it’s not a kind of self-destruct kind of robot. So, my understanding is that it was jiggered to have a bomb placed on it and then it was deployed. Now, so what was so unique about that was: that’s not the police function. The police function when you have a suspect is to subdue the suspect, is to try and get the suspect alive so that the person can be tried in a criminal court.

Now these were extreme circumstances for sure, but we don’t know for instance, Micah Johnson was in his right mind. We can suspect that he was not. He might’ve been suffering from delusions. He might have been in a state that we would qualify as a trial insanity. There may have been other defenses. Who knows? That’s why we have a criminal process. That’s why we would afford someone like that an attorney and we could try to figure out what happened.

JS: But this is an argument against – I mean does it matter to you if it was with a robot that was created by the police for the purpose of blowing this guy up or a sniper shooting him and taking him out?

BH: Well right, I mean in a situation like that a sniper, and there were snipers ready to try, wouldn’t be shooting to kill. That’s the point. The difference, the line of demarcation, right: There is shooting to kill versus trying to subdue and catch the suspect. That demarcation is the demarcation between the military context and the policing context. In a military context, it’s fine to shoot to kill if you’re in an engagement against a declared enemy in uniform et cetera. There are rules of war but the logic in the military context is yes, people are trying to kill each other. That’s what a war is, like it or leave it. There are going to be Geneva Conventions and other forms of regulations of what can and can’t be done but against an enemy in a conflict, in an active conflict, you shoot to kill.

That’s just not what we do in the domestic policing context and that’s the huge difference. And that’s what was unprecedented about it, really. It was transitioning from a policing context where you try to subdue suspects and bring them to court alive, flipping into this drone tactical attack that is the pristine illustration of counterinsurgency theory in warfare, right. It was that. It was that flip.

And you know a lot of people, a lot of people looked at the situation and thought “Well it’s no big deal, you know. I mean, you know, he shot five cops and what not.” It’s fine to take those kind of, you know –

JS: Well they make a similar argument about drones. “Oh, this is a more precise weapon. We don’t have to risk our soldiers.” Yes, it’s true. I mean, the missiles fired from a drone tend to be more accurate than a cruise missile launched from a ship. However, it also removes the participants in that act of mass violence further away from the process that would involve the human mind or logic. It makes it so easy to say “Oh we can just zap this person and then they disappear from the world.” That’s a big part of the problem with using these technological platforms. It’s still based on the idea that “Better we kill him than he kills any of us.” But it has this added dimension of making it so sort of, void of any moral oversight or removing it even further from any kind of human intervention, logic, compassion, all of that.

BH: Right. And it’s administering a completely different logic right. That’s what it’s doing. I mean you’re no longer there to serve and protect. You’re there to destroy, eliminate. Now, with the drones – I mean, the drone situation is particularly fraught particularly outside of the war zone. And again, there I don’t think people have sufficiently thought through all of the implications, as you were suggesting. Because when you’re not in the war zone it can only be done effectively. It can only be justified as an act of self-defense. I mean in the war zone, using a drone becomes almost an ordinary form of a ballistic attack, right. I mean, but when you’re outside of the war zone and you can’t use the logic of active military engagement. The only way in which it’s defensible is if you are in imminent need of self-defense.

JS: Define imminent.

BH: Define imminent first of all but then there become limits on self-defense when there are going to be innocent bystanders, right.

JS: Well, you recall that on that there was this Department of Justice white paper that leaked under Obama that revealed to the public — and then later this was confirmed through public release of documents — that the Obama Justice Department had radically changed the definition of the term “imminent” so that it had almost no resemblance to an ordinary person or even a very learned person’s understanding of the definition of imminent. It was basically if you’ve ever talked to anyone that we believe is a terrorist, ever, you represent an imminent threat to the United States. I mean they just threw the basic meaning of it out the window and said, “Anyone in Yemen that we say is a threat is an ‘imminent’ threat, and therefore all of this is justified.”  

BH: Right. And when you start doing that then you really move away from anything that is justifiable or defensible, right. Because self-defense is a very bounded concept basically, in criminal law, jurisprudence, and it has certain limits and it’s not as if you can engage in forms of self-defense that cause death to others, to innocent others. And what happens is that you pivot at that moment. You pivot from a domestic logic to a military logic but you’re not in a military war zone. And so, what’s happening right there, those moments right there is where you begin to see the extension of counterinsurgency theory to foreign affairs more broadly. The use of drones in a place like Pakistan is no longer a military engagement. It’s foreign policy, right. Now we’re conducting our foreign policy with this counterinsurgency mentality.

Or when you bring it onto American soil and you all of a sudden use a drone to assassinate a target effectively, a suspect, you’ve domesticated this way of thinking and you’ve blurred the lines in such a way that we don’t really think about questions of self-defense anymore because now we’re thinking through a military prism. We’re thinking through a counterinsurgency prism.

JS: You wrote that “Trump ratcheted up and accelerated the counterrevolution on every front.” What do you mean by that?

BH: When you take all of the different elements that I’ve suggested: the use of torture, the use of indefinite detention. So, torture we don’t know of use of torture under the Trump Administration, but during the campaign this kind of embrace of torture worse than what was done during the Bush Administration –

JS: It is perfectly plausible that many of those programs have been reactivated particularly when you have Gina Haspel now running the CIA. We hear almost nothing about any of the tactics that are being used.

BH: Right.

JS: I’m not even sure that Trump outside of saying “Well, let’s pull some fingernails out,” has any sort of involvement in the tick-tock of counter-terrorist policy, whereas Obama was like babysitting the whole thing, you know, and was getting briefings on every aspect of it.

It does seem like Trump is very hands-off and is letting the most unsavory players within the intelligence community run the show. So, I just want to point out we have no idea what tactics have been reauthorized or newly authorized under this administration. Zero idea.

BH: Yeah and let me just emphasize that that is a product, I would argue, of the ratcheted-up heart and minds work that’s being done right now through distraction. So, you were saying, you know, Trump has ratcheted up all these elements, you can go through each one of them: indefinite detention, the idea of we’re going to fill Guantanamo again. Not only are we going to fill Guantanamo again but we’re going we’re going to fill it with American citizens too, right.

JS: And he’s suggested it a few times like when you had the West Side highway.

BH: Right.

JS: He suggested that that suspect should be sent to Guantanamo.

BH: Right, right, right. So, you’ve got all of these different aspects. Increased use of drones, so we’ve seen a spike since the Trump Administration [came] into power, but — and this is the key point here — we don’t even talk about the increase in drones anymore. We don’t even talk about drones anymore. Not just because this Administration has stopped the flow of information, and not because we’re used to drones, but because of the distraction techniques that Trump is so agile at that preoccupy us with other things. So, it’s almost as if there isn’t any air space to debate drones, to even write about drones, or to draw our attention to this escalating problem with drones because all of our time, and attention, and energy is being distracted with you know, “who got fired?” These distraction techniques of which Trump is a master, right? Day after the midterm, right, a midterm where he loses the House, Democrats gained the House, you know, it was pretty eventful: Bam! Sessions gets fired.

JS: Well Sessions gets fired and then the whole thing with Jim Acosta and CNN, and then Trump right now is basically going after every black White House correspondent calling them either a racist or stupid, right.

BH: Right, exactly. And that, those forms of distraction that he is so masterful at is, I believe, our newest way of winning hearts and minds. Our hearts and minds are not so much one as they are pacified because we are glued to our devices figuring out what happened next. You know, this acting Attorney General Whitaker. You know, what’s he going to do next? What did he say? He already said how to close down the Mueller investigation. You know it’s such a – before President Trump was inaugurated, I believe he told his team, you know, “I want my presidency to be like a reality TV show with one episode a day where I conquer my enemies,” right? That’s the way in which we are now being, I would say, most pacified under this counterinsurgency form of governing because we can’t even pay attention to the important things anymore.

We can’t even pay attention, for instance, to how many drones we’ve used in the last month and how many civilians have been killed as a result. It’s nowhere. You won’t find that anywhere in the news, right, or in the conversation because we just don’t have time for that.

JS: As we wrap up here – one of the main reasons I wanted to talk to you is that I think a discussion that we’re not having in this society, and I think it’s a real problem that we’re not having it, is what do these trends that you’re describing – and that we cover a lot on the show – what do those trends look like if you remove Trump from the equation and it was another term of Obama? What is there that we should be focused on, concerned about trying to confront versus what is new with Trump? And it seems from listening to you, that you are identifying some real differences that Trump presents in policy, and style, and tactic from Obama but that the core strategy, that you document the history of it in your book, is in place whether you have a third term of Obama or a first term of Trump.

BH: Yeah, I think that that’s right. I mean one of the – it’s hard to say this – one of the downsides of Trump is, in part, this distraction that doesn’t allow us to see the continuities. It’s a confusing statement, I know –

JS: No, I know exactly what you’re saying.

BH: It’s that all of sudden we’re talking about — we’re now facing an Administration that is what would people call it, some people call it fascist, some people call it authoritarian, some people call it some kind of right populism, some people call it alt-right. I mean [there] are lots of different ways of describing this and some are more accurate than others. But what that hides were the continuities that came before and that we would still be facing today.

When I really conceptualize this, when I came to see that what we face is [a] counterinsurgency mode of governing, I was pretty convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to be elected president of the United States and that it would take a different form. I didn’t think – we weren’t going to stop drone strikes pretty clearly and there would have been different ways in which — and it’s not clear what the continuation of deportations and what our immigration policies, where they would have gone, right.

But the radicality of Trump masks all of those continuities which is one of the troubling aspects here. Because in part, we need to address the radical dimension of Trump the way in which our political discourse has shifted so dramatically to the right and that people feel emboldened to say things that they would never have been willing to say before. And all of the kind of signals and indexing to what [is] effectively, you know, white nationalist language, with the “globalists” and you know, which substitutes in for anti-Semitic, basically, language et cetera. So, all of that needs to be addressed.

And yet we also need to address the fact that we’ve been on this course since 9/11, and that those practices continue that, and that way of thinking continues today so that the counterinsurgency mode of governing, the militarized police forces that we see across this country that continues, and it becomes second nature. And it’s almost masked by the extraordinarily radical language and actions of the president.

JS: Right. And I mean, just parenthetically it also has had the consequence of lionizing the FBI, the CIA, the intelligence community for certainly one whole television network MSNBC which is just filled with these people on their airwaves. But I mean, I think if I were one of the sort of evil plotters of you know, within the CIA paramilitary division or propaganda ops, I would be loving this moment. Because on the one hand, you have Trump who is totally hands off, just get the torture done. It’s fine. I don’t need to know the details. And then on the other hand, you have John Brennan, the drone lord who is you know, on CNN constantly. He now has the audacity to say that he’s against you know the continued involvement of the U.S. military in Yemen. He started it. You have James Clapper, a known perjurer, who’s now a hero. James Comey. They have Go Fund Me campaigns for all these people. The Trump era is really — I’ve been saying this for quite some time. It’s like a new golden era for the worst parts of the so-called national security apparatus in this country.

BH: Right. I mean that is what is so striking is the way in which you know, the way in which the NSA, or the CIA has become the savior.

JS: They’re protecting us from Trump.

BH: Right, and I mean and that just goes to show – so when we talk about like how has counterinsurgency changed over time and how has this mode of governing change over time from the Bush, to the Obama, to the Trump Administration. I think it really does show how extreme the Trump form of kind of counterinsurgency management becomes when those tranches of our government become not sufficiently embracing of a counterinsurgency mentality, right. Not sufficiently embracing of the fear of the caravan, or all of these other kind of, Trumped up fears. Not sufficiently embracing a repression of Muslim Americans, right. All of a sudden, those entities no longer can serve the function of a counterinsurgency approach. Entities that were at the core of a counterinsurgency approach. I mean, the FBI and COINTELPRO, that was the beginning, the seeds, the first experiments with a domestication of counterinsurgency approach. Those agencies are no longer even kind of, have fallen off the chart of the kinds of you know, people, and associations, and agencies that will fulfill this vision of a counter-revolution.

JS: Final question, what would a large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil look like under Trump?

BH: Oh, don’t. Please don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.

JS: Well, I mean, I’m –

BH: No, no, no, no, no. I mean, I mean you have to understand that is the greatest danger for this country. Had those pipe bombs not been white supremacist pipe bombs, but some kind of other unstable individual claiming Islamic fundamentalism. I am — I do not know where we would be in this country. My greatest worry is a true terrorist attack that would afford this administration the opportunity to put in place emergency measures or state of emergency that would centralize power further.

Now, the one kind of saving grace now, I think, was the midterm elections that turned the House Democratic. But before I mean, I think at this point now, there is potentially a political counterweight in our government that will be able possibly at least to serve as a counterweight.

But prior to that with the Senate in Republican hands and the House in Republican hands and Trump – my greatest fear prior to those midterm results was some kind of credible terrorist attack from someone who delusionally claims Islamic fundamentalism of some sort triggering a kind of state of exception.

JS: Or someone advocating for the rights of immigrants, particularly undocumented.  I mean, it could be Islamic terrorists. It could also be that it’s immigrant groups. It’s Antifa that’s doing this.

BH: Right.

JS: The one thing that would push you on though is I think that Bush and Cheney could have could have gone much further than they did in that open space right after 9/11. I think they obviously they got a lot and with a lot of Democratic support. I think they could have even pushed it further on a domestic level and they would have lost Democrats, but not all of them. And I think that when you look at the key programs you describe in your book, and you look at the U.S. military you look at the intelligence budget, you look at surveillance capabilities, the leadership of the Democratic Party is consistently backing Trump in expanding all of these things despite the fact that they say he’s such a threat to our democratic process in this country. I mean it’s very interesting how the powerful in those Reichstag-like moments sort of do coalesce around the flag. The challenge here is that Trump is the kind of cartoonish villain that you’re describing. So, it does throw a bit of a monkey wrench. But if recent history is any indication when it comes to “We’re all Americans and we need to protect the country,” the Chuck Schumer’s of the world are going to be whipping up those votes to make sure that the military gets its record breaking budget again or that the president has these surveillance capabilities.

BH: Right, yeah, and sadly, that’s what kind of, you know, fuels this kind of the continuation of this counter-insurgency way of governing right and that sadly, there wasn’t a rupture. I mean that’s the point of the book. There wasn’t a dramatic rupture from Bush to Obama. And that’s one of the things that’s most disappointing in our contemporary politics is that there isn’t a real counterweight. And you know, it’s a situation that that keeps me up at night thinking about the potential triggering mechanisms that could that could push us further into this form of counterrevolution.

JS: We’re going to leave it there. Professor Bernard Harcourt, thank you so much for joining us.

BH: Thank you, Jeremy Scahill.

Elise Swain contributed to this story.

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