The War on Terror: A Podcast Primer

War on Terror
Spc. Jason Curtis, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 151st Infantry Regiment, pulls security while leaders of a medical civil action project searched for a suitable site in Parun, Afghanistan June 28.

The War on Terror

The War in Afghanistan came to a close last week. Its legacy is complicated. Many who opposed the invasion of Iraq supported the invasion of Afghanistan. Its mission was more closely identified with the War on Terror. Nonetheless, its purpose lost focus over twenty years as it became known as America’s Forever War. Many sympathetic to the original mission became opposed to the ongoing presence of American troops in Afghanistan. Still, the shift in public opinion did not mean the conclusion was any less tragic. Americans found themselves horrified as the Taliban seized control of city after city, often without any meaningful resistance from the Afghan military. 

This week the Democracy Paradox explores the subtle tools developed in the American response to 9/11. Karen Greenberg shows how a long shadow was cast on American politics. So, this week’s primer will focus on the policies and legislation of the War on Terror. Greenberg highlights three policies during this period with lasting effects in her book, Subtle Tools. They include the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the Patriot Act, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. It’s easy to overlook this period after the drama of the Trump era. However, Greenberg argues this legislation and these policies “fixed the country on the course it has pursued to this day—away from liberalism and toward self-serving greed and the perpetuation of injustice and inequality.”


The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed Congress on September 14th. It was signed into law on September 18th. This is the legislation that brought America into Afghanistan. It is a short document. It’s about a page. It does not specify an enemy, but rather authorizes “necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” It implies organizations like Al Qaeda who planned 9/11 and nations like Afghanistan who harbored them. But also opens the door for future military involvement to prevent terrorism in the future. 

American involvement in a wide range of countries used the AUMF as a legal justification. It acts as a hall pass for the President to send American troops anywhere in the world so long as it ties its mission to the prevention of future acts of terrorism against the United States. American interventions in Somalia, Libya, Syria, and others have all used the original AUMF passed in 2001 as a legal justification. In essence, the AUMF allows the President to bypass Congress so long as military involvement has a link to the War on Terror. So, the AUMF went far beyond the War in Afghanistan. Karen Greenberg goes so far as to argue the AUMF “set the nation on a course that was antithetical to the spirit of law as a doctrine based on precision and limits and was inattentive to the constitutional principle of the balance of powers.”

The Patriot Act

While the AUMF focused on the threat of terror from abroad, the Patriot Act expanded the tools to prevent terrorism at home. The legislation was broad, but some of the key components included increased penalties for some crimes related to terrorism, eased interagency communication surrounding terrorism, and expanded the surveillance capacities of law enforcement. The expansion of police surveillance raised alarm bells for many civil liberties organizations. As early as the Obama Presidency sections of the Patriot Act began to expire, but most have been renewed or incorporated into new legislation. 

At the time, many recognized the need to update the limits on law enforcement for the digital age. For example, before 9/11 law enforcement could not access voicemails in an investigation. Indeed, the digital age has opened a broad conversation about the lines between public and private information today. Today people make available a vast amount of information about themselves on social media. Many critics, most notably Shoshana Zuboff, raise important questions about the line between public and private spheres. So, as new technologies emerged, the Patriot Act lowered the bar for police surveillance. 

Nobody denies the Patriot Act opened the door for law enforcement to collect vast amounts of data on its citizens. Edward Snowden’s release of documents in 2013 left many surprised at the amount of information on file about ordinary Americans. The FBI had also dramatically increased the use of National Security Letters (NSLs). They went from 8,600 in 2000 to 56,000 in 2004. Over time Congress and the Courts have tried to limit the information collected on Americans. But they have found it difficult to establish firm limits without permanently reducing the authority of law enforcement organizations. 

The Department of Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) arose from the inability to coordinate between different agencies to combat the War on Terror. It reorganized agencies and offices into a single department designed to protect the homeland. The new cabinet level department included the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Secret Service, and others. Of course, critics claimed the reorganization was unnecessary. For example, Congressman John Dingell described it as “a fine opportunity for confusion, for waste, for overlap, for duplication, and quite frankly, for a splendid amount of delay.”

The key problem of DHS is a lack of coherence. From the beginning it was a bureaucratic nightmare. Different organizations with little in common became assembled under the same umbrella. For instance, the response to Hurricane Katrina brought many of the challenges to light. Its structure caused confusion over how to handle a non-man made catastrophe. The focus of DHS on terrorism left itself vulnerable to the challenges from a natural disaster. Beyond the immediate failures of FEMA, DHS had not provided a clear structure for communication nor the resources to manage a disaster like Katrina.  

Final Thoughts

The War on Terror has largely faded into the background in recent years. New issues have taken precedence in recent years, most notably the precarious state of American democracy. Indeed, the Trump Administration elevated many challenges into crises. Many lament the direction of the country, but few can pinpoint the turning point. Karen Greenberg offers some clarity. She writes, “Over the long course of the war on terror, the escape from norms had escalated year after year, leading to this moment.”

This week the Democracy Paradox features Karen Greenberg in a conversation about the War on Terror, Donald Trump, and American Democracy. Subscribe today or look for it on Tuesday, August 24th on your favorite podcast app.

Further Reading

Martha Crenshaw (1981), “The Causes of Terrorism,” Comparative Politics

David Fromkin (1975), “The Strategy of Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs

Karen Greenberg (2021), Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018) How Democracies Die

Mujib Mashal (2021), “How the Taliban Outlasted a Superpower: Tenacity and Carnage,” The New York Times

Barak Obama (2020), A Promised Land

George Packer (2019), “The Longest Wars: Richard Holbrooke and the Decline of American Power,” Foreign Affairs

Nilay Saiya (2021), “Why Freedom Defeats Terrorism,” Journal of Democracy

James Piazza (2009), “Is Islamist Terrorism More Dangerous?: An Empirical Study of Group Ideology, Organization, and Goal Structure,” Terrorism and Political Violence

Text of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Karen Greenberg on the War on Terror, Donald Trump, and American Democracy

Charles Kupchan on America’s Long Tradition of Isolationism

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