The Long-Lasting Consequences of the War on Terror

Spencer Ackerman on the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

The United States flew its last military flight out of Afghanistan, ending the 20-year war in the country — the longest in U.S. history. This week on Intercepted: Journalist Spencer Ackerman discusses his new book, “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.” In 2001, the George W. Bush administration used the 9/11 attacks to launch the war on terror — an era that led to two massive wars, countless lives lost, mass domestic surveillance, the rounding up of immigrants and people of color, a strengthened security state, drone assassinations, and human rights abuses. And it’s far from over, says Ackerman.

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Introduction music.]

Jack D’Isidoro: I’m Jack D’Isidoro, lead producer with The Intercept.

On Sunday, as U.S. forces attempted to leave Afghanistan, the U.S. government launched what it called a successful drone strike.

Raf Sanchez: Tom, a little after 5 p.m. local time, as the sun was starting to set over Kabul, the U.S. military says it carried out a drone strike against an ISIS-K vehicle heading for the airport.

Charlie D’Agata: A U.S. defense official tells CBS News the strike was ordered after two men were seen loading explosives into the trunk of a car. It’s unclear whether they were rigging a car bomb or loading up explosive vests, but it was deemed to be an imminent threat to the airport. 

JD: This strike came in response to suicide bombings just outside the gates of the Kabul airpot during evacuation efforts. The Islamic State-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, claimed responsibility for the bombing that killed at least 170 people and 13 U.S. service members.

President Joseph R. Biden: Twenty service members were wounded in the service of this mission; 13 heroes gave their lives.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki: First, I would say the fact that we have had two successful strikes confirmed by CENTCOM tells you that our over-the-horizon capacity works, and is working.

Army Maj. Gen. William “Hank” Taylor: The self-defense strike successfully hit the target near Kabul airport. Significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.

JD: But reports indicate that the so-called successful self-defense strike also killed 10 civilians from one family — including children.

John Kirby: Look — make no mistake: no military on the face of the Earth works harder to avoid civilian casualties than the United States military.

JD: These civilian casualties in the waning days of America’s longest war are the logical conclusion to its self-declared end — one that has cost the lives of over 47,000 civilians, many in drone strikes: Families in cars; wedding parties; hospitals; farmers working their fields. All killed in drone strikes.

The United States has committed and supported human rights abuses as a matter of policy for decades before the attacks of 9/11. Think the Phoenix program. But, 20 years ago, in the hysteria of 9/11, the U.S. gave a name to this kind of brutality, and began waging what it would call the War on Terror. 

President George W. Bush: Our War on Terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated. [Applause.]

JD: The War on Terror led to two wars; mass domestic surveillance; the rounding up of immigrants, muslims, and people of color; an unbridled security state; the extrajudicial killing of American citizens; and legalized torture.

It has been 20 years since 9/11. And with this anniversary, there’s this compulsion by the media to contextualize what these years have meant all along. 

Spencer Ackerman: We are in for, as you know, a barrage of sanitized reflections on 9/11.

JD: That’s Spencer Ackerman, longtime national security reporter and author of “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.”

Spencer and I recently spoke about the barrage of hagiography the American public have [been], and continue to be, subjected to:

SA: Underlying that is an attempt to tell a story in which America, not only did something perhaps confusing, perhaps in a moral gray area, but is ultimately valorous — and we shouldn’t feel as if the sacrifices that people in uniform and intelligence agencies, and in law enforcement, and so on have made should be in vain.

JD: And as Spencer told me, the 20-year anniversary may mark a point in which we can look back at the War on Terror and think of it as finished — as though that period of violence is done. But it’s not. 

Here’s Spencer:

SA: The problem with this is that nothing about the War on Terror is finished.

There are moves away from active battlefield combat, that’s true. But as we’ve come to see throughout the past 20 years, leaving a War on Terror battlefield comes with a host of caveats in this forum, as military leaders and as the Biden administration routinely says about the Afghanistan pullout, they entirely reserve the right to keep bombing Afghanistan.

WT: Commanders on the ground continue to actively monitor threats. They are empowered to make the appropriate force protection decisions. As always, U.S. forces retain the inherent right to use force in self-defense.

SA: Similarly, the Biden administration, when the Iraqi Prime Minister came to Washington, wished to rebrand the Iraqi deployment of U.S. forces as something other than a combat mission. Now it’s a training mission.

JB: I think things are going well. Our role in Iraq will be as … dealing with not — it’s just to be available to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arrives. But we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission.

SA: Well, what that conceals is the ongoing nature of U.S. military deployment to Iraq, and moving away from an emergency basis to a routine and permanent basis, as we have seen in so many other Cold War battlefields that quickly become permanent deployment stations. 

Nevertheless, no matter how manipulative all of this kind of selective memorialization is, it, I believe, does speak to something very profound at the heart of not just 20 years out from the birth of the War on Terror. But something that over the last 10 years in particular, has really kind of repeatedly come back to the surface, which is a real exhaustion with the war and a desire to be free of it. There is a real and powerful, I believe, a profound statement of a desire to no longer be part of this nightmare. Nevertheless, that’s what makes this memorialization, I think, really pernicious: that those sentiments are going to be indulged in a very selective, dopamine-releasing way if you’re an American, but in a way that obscures the continuity from 9/11 to today.

JD: The title “Reign of Terror,” at first glance feels like this kind of double meaning for the War on Terror. But I think it’s more accurately the function of American exceptionalism: this notion that America acts but is never acted upon. Can you elaborate on what “Reign of Terror” refers to?

SA: American history is, in many ways, the history of many reigns of terror, many of which rhyme with one another.

John Stockwell: The CIA was tolerant of torture in Vietnam. It also participated in it, on occasion, in some of the interrogation centers. As a matter of policy, of course, as a matter of policy, it had to deny it.

JS: In Vietnam, I was forced to do business with a police chief who was a sadistic mutilator of prisoners. He liked to carve them up and throw the remains in the river. And he was completely paid and propped up by the CIA. His whole career depended on: one, controlling that operation, so that the CIA needed him; and two, the CIA propping him up and funding him. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders: If you trace the history of the United States vis-a-vis Latin America and Central America, there has never been a time when a country made a revolution for the poor people, where it was not overthrown by the CIA, or the United States government, or the Marines.

Howard Hunt: What we wanted to do was have a terror campaign to terrify Arbenz particularly, and terrify his troops, much as the German Stuka bombers terrified the population of Holland, Belgium, and Poland at the onset of World War II, and just rendered everybody paralyzed.

BS: But the interesting question is: Why does the United States government think, whether it’s Nicaragua or any other country in Latin or Central America, that it has the right to overthrow those governments?

SA: The justifications of the War on Terror emanate throughout American history in the sense that these are deeply seen and portrayed as patriotic operations coming to the defense of freedom at a moment of besiegement. 

GWB: This is not, however, just America’s fight. And what is at stake is not just America’s freedom. This is the world’s fight. This is civilization’s fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.

SA: The rhetoric of human rights as well, paired in an ominous way with operations that left hundreds of thousands of people dead, millions more immiserated, and the prospect of a humane and free existence further and further away.

Al Jazeera: The ICC chief prosecutor says U.S. soldiers and members of the CIA may have used what she calls cruel and violent techniques to interrogate detainees between 2003 and 2014. 

ABC News: The news of that American soldier accused of putting on his night-vision goggles and then methodically going door to door killing children and families in their homes in Afghanistan.

Juan Gonzalez: In total, Afghan officials say they have uncovered the bodies of 10 Afghan men, all of whom disappeared after being arrested by U.S. Special Forces.

Al Jazeera: U.S. military prosecutors called the court-martial of Marine Staff Sgt Frank Wuterich the last chance for justice in the mass killing of 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha in 2005.

SA: And so what I mean with “Reign of Terror” is not just the easy pun of the ascendancy of counterterrorism and its effects over the past 20 years, but a very literal thing that we must, in order to end this nightmare — a nightmare that feeds into many other political, social, and economic nightmares that we are seeing compound at the moment — we have to think of the past 20 years in terms of the expansion of surveillance opportunities, in terms of the expansion, and innovation even, of surveillance methods at scale, the introduction, and orientation, and justification of an apparatus of domestic repression that starts against immigrants, and then expands outward, that subsumes immigration itself into a counterterrorism context and acts accordingly, the acceptance of indefinite detention, not just at Guantanamo Bay, but at aspects of the mainland, U.S. federal justice system, and even the local justice systems, as something that over time blends very much with all of the supposed exceptional activities of the War on Terror for detention, the acceptance of torture, and so on and so forth. We need to understand that as a reign of terror. We need to understand what the United States built after 9/11, and its continuing operations today — not only abroad, but at home — as a reign of terror.

JD: So you actually start the book with Timothy McVeigh, the U.S. Army veteran who was responsible for the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil prior to 9/11. What was the purpose of relitigating that story? And what kind of context does it provide when viewing the subsequent history?

SA: Why I started with McVeigh was to show the way in which continuities and departures in the War on Terror are thrown into real, stark contrast, when remembering that just six years before 9/11, the most devastating terror attack in American history happens in Oklahoma City — and nothing changes.

President William J. Clinton: The bombing in Oklahoma City was an attack on innocent children and defenseless citizens. It was an act of cowardice. And it was evil. The United States will not tolerate it. And I will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated by evil cowards.

SA: What happens after Oklahoma City is nothing like the transformation and mobilization of the United States after 9/11. There’s none of the criminalization of association that we see from the Patriot Act, and then just in practice, the FBI and the NSA after 9/11. And the reason why none of this happens, and the reason why even those continuities after and before Oklahoma City don’t seem exceptional, don’t even seem worth remarking upon, is because the people committing this act were white, the people supporting this act were white, and the people who incubated this had gotten so used to thinking of themselves and the broader public kind of thinking of them as a really aggressive form of traditional patriotism, feeding from the same emotional, symbolic, and political wellsprings as essentially the dominant racial caste throughout American history. That is something that you really see in sharp contrast when putting Oklahoma City in, I think, the context of the post-9/11 period as kind of a prologue. 

There are two ways in particular, this really comes out. One is: After Oklahoma City, in the first few days before people realize that McVeigh is in custody, and this is the architect of this atrocity, law enforcement and media proximate to law enforcement spend quite a long and hysterical moment speculating breathlessly that Muslims are responsible for Oklahoma City, and that has real consequences with stirring up harassment toward, and fear amongst, American Muslim communities in a way that very ominously prefigures the storm on the horizon coming after 9/11. 

And then secondly: The major law passed in response to Oklahoma City, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, sort of expands the vistas of what is possible to do against members of a designated terror organization in terms of both surveillance, and apprehension, and then sentencing from taking part in an act of violence, to taking part in an act of association. And that’s a critical step in what’s called material support law, that the Patriot Act, six years later, will supercharge — except there’s one really crucial distinction. And that’s: the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 only applies to terrorism overseas; it doesn’t apply to terrorism committed by — so it’s not to be euphemistic about it — white terrorists who claim to be patriots. 

And when we look at it in that context, that you see the vistas of violent opportunity and expansive focus open up so strongly against Muslims, against immigrants, and so on — against non-white people and against dissenters after 9/11, and none of that opens up after Oklahoma City, I believe we ought to put those two things in contrast to understand the War on Terror. 

And just to say one more thing about that, so it’s not misunderstood, now that we’re living in a post-January 6 world: We should not wage a war on terror against white terrorists. There should be criminal responses for people who committed actual criminal acts, but criminalizing their association, as we’re starting to see both the Biden administration and the security state trend toward, particularly without waging that political battle against those who not just attended January 6 but those who called for January 6, is sort of coalescing into an ominous way, the War on Terror will not just manifest over the next four years, but then become even more entrenched as an opportunity and as a response to domestic dissent. And we will see, just as we saw during the Trump administration, another right-wing administration that will then persecute the left and persecute non-white people and use both the languages and tools of the War on Terror to do so. This is really a tragedy foretold, and I hope that comes out of “Reign of Terror” as well.

[Musical interlude.]

JD: We’ve forgotten how much of a ludicrous culture shift took place, and how the security state was successful in marketing this coalescing, but also insidious, idea of an all-encompassing, quote-unquote, War on Terror. Can you talk a bit about the culture change that occurred as a result, too?

SA: Yeah, absolutely, because it is wild. Going back and rereading both my own journalism from the time ,as well as what other people had been writing about these events contemporaneously, was just bracing. And the ways in which you see, in contemporary journalism, the kind of uncritical acceptance of extremely violent language and practice in the name of righteous revenge and aggrieved patriotism and justification, I certainly don’t exempt my own bad journalism. 

Dan Rather: Special expanded coverage: America fights back. 

Bob Woodruff: We have two stories from Afghanistan tonight that could deeply affect American interests there. 

Brian Williams: Andrea, after Pearl Harbor, people showed their anger by elbowing each other in line to sign up to go fight.

Tom Friedman: You don’t think we care about our open society? You think this bubble fantasy, we’re just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this. That, Charlie, was what this war was about. 

Lawrence Eagleburger: The whole idea is to take apart the military capability of the Taliban, and cause the regime to collapse, and in the process unearth bin Laden, and his crowd, and get them.

SA: We should also recognize that it’s not just the security state that’s pushing this culture shift. It is politicians of both parties that are doing that in various styles and to various degrees as well. We have really widespread elite complicity in both the construction and maintenance of the War on Terror. 

But you saw the culture just absolutely conquered by the reign of terror. You saw it in ways both subtle — where New York City subway trains suddenly put an American flag on them, which remains to this day — and then you see them in really unsubtle ways, like Toby Keith writing “courtesy of the red, white and blue” —

Toby Keith: The U.S. of A. — because we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way. 

SA: — to indicate that we’re still ready to beat the shit out of you into submission if you resist, because 9/11. You see it in how quickly Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Television entertainment company creates a fantasy War on Terror called “24,” in which the good guy, Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is enthusiastically torturing people — [sounds of Kiefer Sutherland beating someone] — in a circumstance of emergency. 

24 Character: Please, please, you’ve got to stop him. 

24 Character: He needs answers. And he’s gonna get them.

SA: He’s always got to stop a bomb from exploding, and only he is brave and serious enough to stop that as expressed by his willingness to engage in brutality and only brutality against those people who have the information about this imminent attack that only torture can extract in order to save people. In reality, this never happens. It certainly doesn’t happen throughout the CIA and the military’s warren of post-9/11 torture prisons. 

But what it does as well is not just normalize the need for that brutality — at one point, several years later, the Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the guiding legal light of the right, during the emergence of revelations about torture from the CIA and the military, says: What are you going to do? Are you gonna arrest Jack Bauer?

“24,” like the culture at large, really saw as its real villains, not just the terrorists that Jack Bauer had to torture, but the bureaucrats, the civil libertarians, the attorneys, and the politicians who were there to say: You can’t torture that guy, Jack Bauer, that’s barbaric! And that goes as well to serve the purposes of the War on Terror by making sure that we thought of the responsible thing to do during the War on Terror to unleash the people who are willing to do, you know, the rough thing necessary to safeguard freedom.

JD: The mania that was produced by this was wildly bipartisan, both politically and socially. Following 9/11, the security state is given essentially limitless power — again, in a bipartisan way. The Patriot Act, the AUMF, even FISA, many of these mechanisms are still in place to this day. How is the Bush administration able to construct this surveillance apparatus in plain sight?

SA: The Bush administration does this both in plain sight and then out of plain sight away from any meaningful democratic review. Part of that it does in the overt ways, through, as you mentioned, the Patriot Act.

GWB: This new law that I signed today will allow surveillance of all communications used by terrorists, including emails, the internet, and cell phones. As of today, we’ll be able to better meet the technological challenges posed by this proliferation of communications technology. 

SA: In addition to being kind of the teeth of the war on association emanating far and far outwards from any actual terrorist — any actual infliction of violence — to those who know those people and then know those people, or who contribute money to causes that present themselves as refugee charities or so on, and so forth, and then allowing surveillance to route away from me seeking Jack’s records, but toward me seeking from other services you use for communication. So those services are more likely to turn that stuff over to me — a guy with a badge — then potentially you would be if they served you directly. 

Even beyond that, which was: A, controversial in its very brief window of debate, but also B, overwhelmingly approved by Congress, it is at that same time that, in secret, Mike Hayden at the NSA is constructing surveillance at a scale simply never seen before by humankind. He was constructing an apparatus that functioned as a panopticon to pick up, at first, Americans’ communications into Afghanistan, and then very quickly became something far more ambitious. 

When, a year later, Hayden is asked to testify to a joint House and Senate Intelligence Committees investigation of what went wrong — not from Bush, but from the intelligence agencies ahead of 9/11 — Hayden gives this really impassioned speech that, on the surface of it, seems like a really important call for people to democratically debate where they want the boundaries between liberty and security to be drawn. 

Mike Hayden: We have to find the right balance between protecting our security and protecting our liberty. If we fail in this effort by drawing the line in the wrong place — that is, overly favoring liberty or security — then the terrorists win and liberty loses in either case.

SA: But, in truth, Hayden, by activating the surveillance program known as Stellar Wind, the NSA decides that boundary for itself, it does this in secret with practically no one on even the secret surveillance court that is supposed to oversee these operations, knowing except for the chief justice of it, and then in kind of rudimentary outline, the intelligence and political leadership of Congress, they take that as consent. It’s also clear from what we know of the record so far that that leadership in Congress, Democratic and Republican, does not meaningfully dissent from these operations.

Laura Cellier: But the full impact of the Patriot Act was revealed much later, in 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked thousands of secret files. The world discovered how the NSA dramatically expanded its surveillance programs, regardless of whether the target was a suspected terrorist.

Edward Snowden: The NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone: it ingests them by default, it collects them in its system, and it filters them, and it analyzes them, and it measures them, and it stores them for periods of time, simply because that’s the easiest, most efficient, and most valuable way to achieve these ends. 

SA: Beyond that, over the course of time, it takes only the disclosures that come from journalism and from whistleblowers — most importantly, Edward Snowden — that reveal the scope of what we live in, particularly after a legal change happens in 2008 that permits the NSA to then pivot its collection of really important information over to the social media giants and the giants of surveillance capitalism, as Shoshana Zuboff has so perfectly called it. The general way in which the 21st century data economy works is itself a panopticon. And through the NSA, the FBI piggybacks on that and exploits it rather than recreating the wheel. And this is now not an emergency operation. That’s a permanent thing. That is what I’m trying to draw out through drawing these various connections in the book.

[Musical interlude.]

JD: So by the time Obama takes office, it’s not that these words are unacceptable on their face. Rather, in his opinion, they’re simply mismanaged or “dumb,” as he once referred to them. They need to be “reoriented,” as you say in the book and provide this kind of simulacrum of due process. Can you talk about Obama and this idea of targeted killings, and how this led to an inordinate number of civilian deaths, including some Americans?

SA: The middle portion of the book is a look at Obama and he is waging of the War on Terror [and] his relationship to it. And through that you really see — and, as well, the period before that, but certainly in office, you really see the manifestations of how liberals approach the War on Terror. 

In some cases, Obama does view the operations of the War on Terror as either counterproductive, misguided, or flat-out wrong — in particular, he views torture that way: 

President Barack H. Obama: — or equivocation that the United States will not torture. [Applause.] 

SA: He views the Iraq war that way: 

BO: Most of you know that I opposed this war from the start. [Cheers and applause.] I thought it was a tragic mistake. 

SA: And he views Guantanamo Bay that way: 

BO: Imagine a future, 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country. 

SA: But there are, of course, caveats on all of these things. Obama, not just delays the Iraq withdrawal to make sure that he has a productive working relationship with a military leadership that is extremely reluctant to withdraw — and then permits the re-invasion of Iraq once ISIS comes out. 

With torture, the Army Field Manual’s infamous Appendix M on isolation, which is to say, being imprisoned, separated from everyone else, remains in place and on Guantanamo Bay. First of all, he doesn’t actually renounce indefinite detention — he retains explicitly the option of indefinite detention — and he fails to close Guantanamo Bay for a variety of reasons. 

Even beyond that, those operations are the ones that he thinks ought to be eliminated/constrained. For the rest of it, that he retains, he wants to wrap it in a belt of process, which is to say, lawyers have to play more assertive roles in shaping the operations of the War on Terror. But what it is, in fact, is continuity. It is permitting the operations of the War on Terror to not just persist but metastasize in such a way that, in Obama’s theory, all of these wise attorneys and people committed to the rule of law will come to a wise decision as expressed through this sensible process. 

What this sensible process actually yields is a ominous system of what they call targeted killing — I think of as anonymous assassination — something so complex in terms of trying to wrap your head around that it’s hard to really think of it as traditional assassination because, in many cases, particularly with so-called signature strikes, CIA drone strikes and military drone strikes don’t necessarily know who they are targeting. They’re targeting patterns of behavior, rather than they’re targeting people. Inevitably, this becomes a glide path, not to constraining these operations, but to perpetuating them in different forms. 

It’s barely a year into office for Obama, when his attorneys at the Justice Department decide that they can not just do this to anonymous people abroad, but do it to American citizens overseas like Anwar al-Awlaki. And this is a Chekhov’s gun waiting along with the maintenance of indefinite detention, the maintenance of bulk surveillance, and so forth, and the maintenance of the apparatus of militarized anti-immigration operations. Both at the border and in the interior of the country, they’re just waiting like a Chekhov’s gun to be picked up by a president like Trump and by future presidents who will be both Republican and Democratic once all of this stuff entrenches itself and continues to to be kind of the backdrop, the firmware, of what the 21st century presidency is.

JD: And so Trump inherits this apparatus that Obama has maintained. And Trump himself escalates drone strikes in Somalia and Afghanistan; he authorized troop surges and massive bombings in Iraq; launched cruise missile strikes in Syria; threatened to totally destroy North Korea; and he even assassinated an Iranian general. 

On the other hand, he signed a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces; he, in essence, attempted to end the Korean War. I really think he believed that these forever wars were bullshit endeavors but, like, for all the wrong reasons. Can you describe his worldview and how it motivated his policy decisions?

SA: Trump is the lagging indicator of the War on Terror. 

I will argue in the book that a figure like Trump is inevitable the longer the War on Terror lasts. Trump is not an opponent of the War on Terror, regardless of his particular dissatisfaction with this or that operation from it; Trump is trying to harness and direct the War on Terror from enemies he thinks are stupid — like, for instance, the Taliban. But certainly with the War on Terror, before he’s signing a deal with the Taliban, which I do believe is the only valorous act of his presidency, he’s escalating the war in Afghanistan and escalating it to nowhere. When he announces his escalation, he’s not talking about the prospect of, like the Obama administration did, fighting them to a point where they sue for peace — the Taliban are never going to sue for peace. They won the war. What he’s doing is creating an outlet for shaping an escalation that people like H.R. McMaster believes that it ought to have gone in 2010 when Obama escalated but imposed a date for the beginning of the end to that surge.

What happens later is the surge fails and the Taliban not just retain their strength, but expand their reach across the country. And eventually there’s no way out, but to do the thing the Taliban have been trying to do all along, which is negotiate an end to this. Beyond that, what Trump also wants to do is show that the language of terror — the justification terrorism provides for brutality — can be visited on leftists, can be visited on black people, can be visited on immigrants, can be visited on on essentially non-whites and dissidents, both at home and abroad, and the mechanisms of the War on Terror from overhead surveillance to getting thrown into unmarked vans for confusing detention and onward can be used against American dissidents, can be used against Black Lives Matter protests, can be used against people who protest for the dignity of immigrants on immigrants themselves. 

And that’s what Trump’s relationship with the War on Terror is: He doesn’t roll back the War on Terror; he reorients it. And then beyond that, all of the racism that the War on Terror uses, that it stokes, that it encourages and that it uses during the Bush administration, is a very flimsy veiled subtext, really becomes screamingly, deafeningly loud under Trump. And Trump uses that, he marshals it, for his power, for ensuring that his base is tied to them, because he knows how the War on Terror actually operates within those people on the right, who are perhaps sick of the foreign wars, but want to see American politics resolved violently against not just their specific political enemies, but against vulnerable non-white minorities as well, and certainly against non-white immigrants. 

Basically, it’s a giant misconception, as happens again and again in both mainstream and, frankly, alternative media, to portray Trump as somehow opposing the War on Terror rather than being a result of it who sought to wield it.

JD: So you recently started a substack called “Forever Wars.” That term itself kind of got me thinking about how the 9/11 era is not really an era at all, but a continuation of many of the inhumane and violent and pernicious policies of institutionalized torture and surveillance in the United States that have always been implemented. Are we in any kind of discernible era at the moment? Like what’s next? 

SA: Well, I think that the 9/11 era is an era. I think given the degree to which first all of the security state’s emphasis goes into it after 9/11, and in mutating form stays there and recedes it into the background, as well as politically and economically, an arrangement coalesces whereby the continuation of the war is considered more important, even as the war itself is seen as a disaster or an albatross. 

As long as all of it sort of becomes what, in her recent New York Magazine piece about Daniel Hale, Kerry Howley rather insightfully called a transformation from the War on Terror to simply American foreign policy, I still think we mark the point at which that happened, and the way in which it embedded itself into a kind of permanent way of doing business that really supercharges itself with the Cold War and with anti-communism, I think we’ll see it mutate, but we won’t see it end.

There is, right now, a great deal of emphasis — to be a little bit flip about it — a kind of fork in the road that elites are taking with the War on Terror. They’re basically like: Do we fold this kind of focusing, mobilizing need for a national enemy into China, and kind of try and do a farcical sequel to the Cold War at a time of climate emergency where cooperation is the most important thing for the salvation of quite a great deal of humanity, or instead do this nationalism stoking, attempt at another Cold War, which, in its liberal proponents’ imaginations will kind of get the country kneaded back together from its current state of extreme, social, internal disgust? Or lean into that social disgust and construct a forever war against the far right and white supremacists, in theory?

I think until all of the structural changes created by 9/11 — not just the wars, but the surveillance apparatus; the architecture, in practice as well as in legal exceptionalism of indefinite detention; the remnants of torture, through appendix M, or through the American carceral system, the use of isolation; in immigration suppression, the militarization of the border, the use of this expanded suite of surveillance tools to use against migrants, who are, themselves a downstream effect of neoliberalism and policy choices that the United States makes, both economically and militarily — without all of these things being abolished, being taken as tools and broken, then I don’t think we can say the 9/11 era has ended.

[Musical interlude.]

SA: I think you’re going to see, to bring it back to where we started this conversation, in the memorializations that happen around the 20th anniversary, you will hear, as you have heard from politicians like the former CIA and Pentagon official who represents a district in Michigan, in the House, Rep. Elissa Slotkin say that the 9/11 era has come to an end. That is an expression of exhaustion. But with A, a reckoning with what that error was, specifically; B, restitution for its victims; and C, the abolition of its tools, its practices; and D, a proper understanding that the architects of this sort of thing are not fit to serve in government anymore, then I don’t think there is really a path to ending the 9/11 era. These things have to start, I believe, with a reckoning and it was that belief that ultimately guided “Reign of Terror.”

JD: Spencer Ackerman, thank you for joining me today. 

SA: Thank you so much, Jack.

JD: Spencer Ackerman is the author of “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.” You can find more of his writing at

[Outro music.]

JD: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. This episode was produced by José Olivares. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

Until next time, I’m Jack D’Isidoro.

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