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

Karen Greenberg
Karen Greenberg

Karen Greenberg joins the podcast to discuss how the subtle tools threaten American democracy. Karen is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, a fellow at New America, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Her new book is Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump.

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It was an era in which lawmakers and office holders learned that imprecision could actually work to their benefit to allow them to do what they wanted to because there was unclear codification in the law. And so yes, everybody talks about, we have to revise this law or get rid of this law or replace this law. But I want to say, it’s not about that. It’s about what constitutes a legitimately written, voted upon law. And I think that’s something we still haven’t countered since 9/11.

Karen Greenberg

Key Highlights Include

  • The origin of the AUMF and the Department of Homeland Security
  • Karen Greenberg describes the subtle tools
  • The link between the War on Terror and President Trump
  • How will history view the 2020 election
  • Is the United States an illiberal democracy?

Podcast Transcript

Almost twenty years ago an act of terror changed the course of American history. The day was September 11th. In response, the United States sent off its military to fight terrorism abroad. Congress passed legislation designed to fight terrorism at home. We called it the War on Terror. 

Two decades later, we have abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban as democracy breaks down at home. What happened? How did we get to this point? Karen Greenberg draws a clear line from the American response to 9/11 to the fragility of democracy today. She writes, “Over the long course of the war on terror, the escape from norms had escalated year after year, leading to this moment.” 

Karen Greenberg is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, a fellow at New America, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is also the host of the Vital Interests podcast. Her new book Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump is available today in the U.S. 

Our conversation connects the dots between decisions America made twenty years ago to the more unsettling aspects of Trump’s Presidency. This is a conversation about the past to better understand the present moment. 

Like always this is a conversation with a lot of perspectives and opinions. Whether you agree or disagree, I want you to join the conversation. Reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram. You can also email me at jkempf@democracyparadox.com. A full transcript is available at democracyparadox.com. But for now… This is my conversation with Karen Greenberg…


Karen Greenberg, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Karen Greenberg

Thank you so much for having me, Justin. I am really delighted to be here.


Well, Karen, what a time for your book to come out! It feels like this was the perfect time to have a conversation about how the policies of 9/11 have come full circle and continue to make a difference in our lives and our politics today as we watch what’s going on in Afghanistan as it comes to its conclusion. It really shows how decisions from 20 years ago continue to shape both our world and even our country. Now, your book does an amazing job of laying out the map of how we went from 9/11 to today. And you bring up an important piece of legislation that permitted the American occupation of Afghanistan that was called the Authorization for the Use of Military Force or the AUMF.

I think this is a good jumping off point. Not only because it’s so timely, but also because I think it gives you a great introduction to begin to introduce some of the subtle tools that you mentioned within your book. So, can you describe the AUMF and use it as that kind of introduction?

Karen Greenberg

Well, thank you for that. And you’re right. It is an interesting moment because first of all, the 20 year anniversary of 9/11 would have been an interesting enough moment. And now we have these vivid images from Afghanistan and just a sense of what has happened over the past 20 years. What have we accomplished and what haven’t we accomplished? You know the AUMF, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, that was passed in 2001 had so many danger signs in place in the way it was done, not just what was done. It was rushed through for obvious reasons in the wake of 9/11. There have been other very quick authorizations or even declarations of war that have come about including World War II.

But this one was done in a way that left, open so many potential loopholes that it’s really hard to fathom. And so just to name a few, there’s no mention of the enemy. There’s no naming of geographical space. There’s no naming or allusion to the end of hostilities and what would bring about the end of hostilities. And so, we’ve seen repeated times where Presidents have said, ‘Oh, you know, the War on Terror is coming to an end.’ We should be drawing down. But the fact is we’ve been involved in what has become known as the forever war since 9/11. And my argument is it’s not just what was done. Let’s say the passage of the AUMF. It’s how it was done. How is it possible that we passed legislation that refused to lay out basic terms?

Let me remind everyone that when we went to war in World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which eventually led to not just a declaration of war against Japan, but against European countries. Each successive country got its own declaration of war, recognizing that war is serious and you need to put limits around it and boundaries. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force in 2001 was an intentional grab for military power that would be authorized by the president that could be as expansive as possible. And so we’ve seen it expand from country to country to country. Notably in 2002, when the United States decided to invade Iraq, they did pass a separate authorization, but not for the rest of the greater Middle East and Africa.

And so here we are today. Now Congress in recent months has been talking about repealing the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, but they’re not talking about repealing it only. They’re talking about replacing it. So, my big concern, if you want to turn the page on the war on terror and the culture of governance that it unleashed, the harmful culture of governance, there have to be specifics in any new authorization for force, any declaration of war, any use of our military force abroad and what it’s intended to accomplish, who it’s intended to address, and what areas of the world. There have to be some limits. And there haven’t been.


I love how you connect the dots between our loss of a sense of law within this period that continues to this day. There’s a brilliant line in your book where you write, “The vote approving the resolution 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.” Just really drives home the point that you just made and really just demonstrates the real concerns that even just this single piece of legislation had.

Karen Greenberg

This is a very overlooked notion which is that imprecision in law violates the spirit of what it means to have a law sets out. This is what this pertains to. This is what it doesn’t pertain to. The doesn’t is just as important as what it does pertain to. And we saw this throughout the War on Terror, not just in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, but also in the way terrorism statutes were applied to terrorists in excessively broad fashion and to many other things as well. And so, it was an era in which lawmakers and office holders learned that imprecision could actually work to their benefit to allow them to do what they wanted to because there was unclear codification in the law.

And so yes, everybody talks about, we have to revise this law or get rid of this law or replace this law. But I want to say, it’s not about that. It’s about what constitutes a legitimately written, voted upon law. And I think that’s something we still haven’t countered since 9/11.


You also note that imprecision comes up in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. There’s another quote where you’re write, With the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in January 2003, imprecision became institutional in scale, with overlapping authorities, unclear responsibilities, confused lines of command, and a mixture of agendas.”

Karen Greenberg

What on earth were they thinking when they put together the Department of Homeland Security is really hard to say! Some like former Senator Russ Feingold called it a bait and switch at the time. There were a number of lawmakers who saw what was coming, which was, let’s take all these different agencies with different authorities, different issues that they attend to and put them together. What were they thinking? They were thinking we will create this big agency in which we can sort of fudge the differences. And you saw this, well, first of all, you saw this in Hurricane Katrina.

In Hurricane Katrina you had FEMA which had been against its protestations placed into Homeland Security, unsure of the lines of command also a little bit not quite comfortable with the new role they were playing inside this larger agency. And the lines of command were very confusing all around after Katrina. And the disaster is well known. That was a wake-up call. They knew it at the time there were a number of reports written about it, but was anything fixed? No. Was the department of Homeland Security really reorganized in any way? No. There were some guidelines about command authority and lines of authority, but the fact is that it still remains a mish-mash of agencies that are not necessarily related to one another functioning in sort of a no man’s land.

Where we’ve seen it really disastrous is at the border where Homeland Security has become the front agency in determining what the policies are, for example, in the separation of women and children. And I just want to point out something else. It wasn’t just Homeland Security. It was what Homeland security became. Start with the fact that Homeland Security, if you were going to make it the lead counter-terrorism agency, didn’t have the FBI, the lead counter-terrorism agency here in the United States. So, that already tells you something about it. But it was more than that because there are a lot of things say within ICE and Customs Border Patrol that are beholden to or can take direction from the Department of Justice.

And so, the borders between agencies, not just within the department of Homeland Security, but outside of Homeland Security also became blurred. So, there were a number of times when, instead of Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, being referred to as the Secretary, people would say, you know, the real secretary of Homeland Security, Jeff Sessions, who is the attorney general. So, all of this imprecision between departments, between agencies, between branches and in the law is how we ended up with such a mess.


So, can we go backwards? Can we undo the Department of Homeland Security or after 18 years is it something that’s become a part of the administrative state that at best, we can just reform it?

Karen Greenberg

It’s hard for me to imagine how to take it apart with everything else going on and the amount of things that it has to attend to right now. But it could be better. And the authorities of each office could be strengthened and the uses of resources and how they pertain to one part of the department or another could also be strengthened.

And I don’t envy Secretary Mayorkas in having to really think through these problems at the same time that he has to solve the problems that some of this has created. But I do think there should be some real rethinking and it’s possible that some things maybe should be taken out of Homeland Security. But I think it needs a rethink and I think it’s getting a rethink. There’ve been a number of think tanks and others that have started to think about this in a granular way. So maybe it’s a beginning.


Now, Karen, your book is titled the Subtle Tools and you name four of them. The first is degradation of language. The second is bureaucratic porousness. The third is secrecy and withholding of facts. And the final one is abandonment of legal and procedural norms. Now, I’m just kind of naming them out for you because it becomes so important when we get to the Trump administration. Because you note that Trump “took these tools already destructive and sharpened them into weapons.” Can you help explain what these subtle tools are and how Trump approached the presidency, approached these tools differently than other presidents in the past?

Karen Greenberg

Trump approached them as gifts and he had an uncanny intuition about how they could be used. And maybe the one I’ll start with is one I haven’t addressed yet, which is secrecy. You know, we, as Americans, are used to the critique of excessive secrecy that accompanied the War on Terror in particular with the creation of memos that justify torture, that justified enhanced surveillance of Americans, warrantless surveillance. We’re also accustomed to hearing about the WMD story that was kept secret from Americans and from even some officials about what the actual absence of WMDs in Iraq was, but Trump had a unique sense of how important this secrecy was. And I think learned something from the past in terms of discovery of those secrets and what it could mean.

And so, Trump basically decided if you create fewer documents, you don’t have to keep them secret. And so, as John Bolton reported in his book and as a number of other post-Trump administration officials have spoken to, they just decided not to keep the record. You couldn’t take notes in certain meetings, you couldn’t create certain other documents. Let me take this to the border. Families and children were separated without documentation of their familial relationship. Of course, we couldn’t find their parents. Of course, that made it a much harder task when there was an effort to reunite families. There was no record.

So, just to give you a sense of what this can mean and I want to take this a bit further. People don’t usually see secrecy and lying as on the same continuum, but they are. And Trump made that very clear. He would say what he wanted the policy to be. If you don’t create the record, if you confuse people with imprecise language, imprecise representations, then the line to lying is very direct. We see this in Afghanistan right now. What about all those incorrect reports about what was happening? How effective the training was. How prepared the Afghan government was. All of this was just incorrect? All of this was spin? This is an example of something that is layered throughout the book, in terms of all the misuse of all of these tools, which is unaccountability. That’s what they lead to.

If you keep things secret, who is accountable. If you don’t even write them down, then who really is accountable. And we have not seen the kind of accountability since 9/11 that is necessary for a healthy functioning democracy. And these tools, secrecy being one of them, imprecise language which we’ve talked a bit about, bureaucratic porousness is another one of them, and then finally the tool that you mentioned which is pushing aside norms and laws. This was sort of appended to the subtle tools when they were used in tandem with one another. And the idea from 9/11 was look, we’re in a different paradigm. We’ve never been attacked like this before. We have to do everything we can. We didn’t have the forces to prevent this.

And so, this becomes the threshold excuse for being able to push aside norms and laws. Yes. We used to declare war a long time ago, obviously. But with specifics. We used to authorize the use of force with specifics. Not now. We used to be very careful about the separation of powers and checks and balances. No. The president needs as much power as the president can have and the court shouldn’t stand in the way and Congress shouldn’t stand in the way. And you know what? The courts and Congress did not for the most part stand in the way when national security was claimed.

And so, you get this sort of agreement at the top levels of government with buy-in from the American people who are very complacent about it for too long with the exception of some rights groups which is that we have to make ourselves safe. And what that does is basically say although the 9/11 report does lay out a great deal about what went wrong and who our enemies were. The even deeper dive into how this happened, how this wasn’t prevented, who should be held accountable, how should they be held accountable never happened. And it didn’t happen after 9/11 as the new policies took place either.

For example, torture. Who’s been held accountable for saying that torture was legal? For using it around the world in CIA black sites? For making it impossible for us so far to be able to try those who are alleged to have conspired to bring about 9/11? So, the basis of all of this is with these tools weaponized and the underlying message of there is no room for accountability. What do you have?


And the report on torture is another example of secrecy because they tried to bury it and they’ve only released the executive summary so far.

Karen Greenberg

yeah, 600 pages of what I think is a 6,000 page report. We’ve seen attempts to get rid of that have been reported. I believe that Obama has – it will be in his Presidential library, but it will still be decades before we see anything. It’s not that other people don’t know. That’s the thing it’s Americans that don’t know. Individuals that have talked about this elsewhere in other countries, even individuals who have written about it in books we’ve seen. We know more than we’re officially allowed to know. And that’s really, a very unfortunate position to be in.


Now the Nixon presidency also had significant degrees of secrecy. The Trump presidency has drawn many comparisons to Nixon, but your book is unique because your point of origin begins with the American response to 9/11. It alludes to things from earlier. It doesn’t ignore them, but your point of origin was what you described as Ground Zero with the actual attack. So, what made this moment different? And hadn’t past presidents already developed these subtle tools earlier than 9/11?

Karen Greenberg

That’s a really excellent question. And the answer is: Yes, but not in this form. The reaction to Nixon’s, let’s say misuse of the Justice Department, for example, was very strong and very firm on the part of Congress. There was an attempt right after Nixon to have a reset. That fell apart during the War on Terror to tell you the truth. The other administration you could bring up is Reagan, the Iran Contra deal. If you think about these tools and sort of backdoor imprecision between agencies. An abrogation of the separation of powers, secrecy, you know. When you think about these things, it’s not that we haven’t seen them before. There’s no question. And some of these people are the same people who were involved in some of those earlier aberrations. So, a number of the Iran Contra people found themselves into the Trump administration, including Barr.

But these tools are always there should anybody want to use them. That’s what we’ve learned. There are two questions here. One, we could reestablish laws and norms that would make it so you have to be held accountable if you violate them, which we don’t do. And I think the other thing is to say it comes down to who’s the person holding office. And that’s one of the kind of uncomfortable takeaways that we’ve learned over these two years. Whoever’s holding these cabinet positions and mostly who’s ever president ultimately, in a weird way, it’s the way our system’s constructed. You can violate so much that it’s an act of faith. And, this is a very unfortunate piece of the architecture that was set up by the founders.

And the question is, are there ways to have that not be the case going forward? And that’s sort of why I wrote the book, which is this was a slow, incremental erosion of laws and norms and it has to be addressed in that way in a very formal, strong way. And that hasn’t happened yet.


So, you mentioned just now that the War on Terror was a long, slow incremental change of our norms. This happened not just during George W. Bush’s Presidency and Donald Trump’s Presidency, but also included Obama’s Presidency in the middle between the two. So, was Obama complicit in the decline of democratic norms as well?

Karen Greenberg

So, I think complicit. Is too strong, a word. Obama recognized that things had gone seriously awry. What does he do? He comes into office first thing. Let me make it clear. Torture is illegal as it was illegal. It is illegal. Let me also say we’re going to close Guantanamo Bay and indefinite detention system without due process that exists under no particular law that existed before. No. We’re going to close Guantanamo and we’re going to stop being as secretive as those in the past. We’re going to honor a transparency in each one of these places. Obama tried, I believe genuinely tried, to change things. But it was too little too late in almost every single category. And for lack of a better term, the security state, the intelligence agencies, the military, as he writes about in his recent book, were hard to counter.

It was hard to counter their arguments. And he tried. You’ll notice that Joe Biden is not having it. He is standing up to this idea that the military has to be deployed in Afghanistan in a way we have not seen a president stand up to the military and that comes from lessons learned. Obama was an attempt to do it genteelly and with everybody on board. And let’s just talk about this and Biden’s trying to do it with, I don’t want to say he’s not genteel, but he’s doing it. And he’s not going to be pushed around in what he thinks is the larger issue, the larger question.

And it’s interesting to watch how the media is starting to come around to the point of view of this was a 20 year mistake. Not a two day or one week mistake, which it does look like they were caught off guard in terms of how quickly this happened and how fast things collapsed. But this brings a very strong light to the idea that for 20 years, we haven’t been willing to keep things not secret, precise, attached to what we tell ourselves we are as a country and what the reality underneath is.


So, Karen, if you were in the White House as an advisor to President Biden, would you have recommended to pull out of Afghanistan at this time or do you think that it was a mistake in terms of national security?

Karen Greenberg

So, first I want to say that I recognize and respect the difference between those who are tasked with advising Presidents and myself who have the luxury of reading books and reading documents and thinking about things. So, I recognize how hard it is. And let me say that I would have said we should have pulled out of Afghanistan years and years and years and years ago, as I think Biden has continually said in Congress and elsewhere.

But I do think it was time to come to an end. Do I think it would have been better to have certain things in place to get people out faster to protect people? Yes. Do I think there is a way to protect those people going forward with a different kind of resource other than military force? Yes. Do I think having the Taliban in charge of the country raises certain national security concerns that have to do with terrorism globally? Yes. However, we should not get caught in this trap. And this is the real question here for our national security experts, establishment officials, et cetera.

For 20 years, we have devoted men resources, energy, and time to building up an intelligence network, a law enforcement network and a military capacity that would never let 9/11 happen again. I trust that we have a robust security apparatus that we did not have in place in 9/11. It hasn’t just been about Afghanistan. It’s a bit about us. Who are we? What do we do ahead of time to know what there is? How do we prevent? How do we see this? And my feeling is to keep saying we’re going to have another 9/11 is so destructive in terms of the accomplishments that were made in terms of understanding what the security risks are. And yes, my book argues that they went overboard in many ways, but that doesn’t mean the structures aren’t in place and the professions aren’t in place. And I think one of the real questions about Afghanistan is are the lies we were told about what the United States accomplished in building up the civil society and use of force within Afghanistan for the Afghan government – What other things have we been told that were successful or not successful? And we need to know.


So, you mentioned about the accomplishments that came out of the War on Terror or that came after 9/11 to be able to combat terrorism. The book is very negative about the consequences when we went too far. Why don’t I give you an opportunity to describe what some of those accomplishments actually were so that we can parse out the mistakes from the genuine accomplishments?

Karen Greenberg

You know, deploying the FBI around the world to be able to have ears on the ground and be able to know what was going on is an accomplishment. Creating an interagency structure that would allow all of the security concerns to talk to one another and still keep bureaucratic integrity, but to have a discussion that was more centralized and organized was extremely important. And you saw this with the creation of the office of DNI, Director of National Intelligence. And it also freed up other intelligence components to do their work better. So, I think that was a good one. There were a number of departments set up within agencies that existed that were created specifically to think about counter-terrorism and other national security measures. One in particular was the Department of National Security at the Department of Justice to really focus on what this was.

So, there are some patterns in the past that we can look at and that’s what I would turn to. Just so you know the world has changed since 9/11. If we thought counterterrorism was the threat we had to look at, what about the fact now that we’re facing climate change? We’re facing pandemic and who knows where this pandemic will end and a number of other things that we could mention. And what do we need to do to make sure that there’s a plan for how these things relate to one another? And we do not have a formal structure for that yet. So, not to mention cybersecurity and all the other things that I left out.

It’s not that our intelligence apparatus, our National Security Council isn’t aware of this. If you read the most recent threat assessment from the DNI, it notices this as well as the rise of the great power rivalries, but we’re in a different phase and we’re carrying with us the baggage and the weakened culture of governance from the War on Terror. And we need to get our act together and get it together quickly.


So, I want to take a second to just kind of bring back to the subject of the book, which was the subtle tools and you see the Trump administration, Donald Trump’s presidency, is almost a culmination of 20 years of the loss norms, of these changes in how we approach the law and how we approach governance. One of the challenges I had within reading the book was that, I’ve already read a quote where you describe Trump as sharpening these tools into weapons, but this gives me a sense that there was deliberation and intention from the Trump administration. But the popular narrative is that he’s very erratic. He’s very unfocused. How do we resolve these two very different portrayals of the Trump presidency?

Karen Greenberg

He’s not erratic. He may be impetuous, but he is not erratic and those around him are not unfocused. So, let’s take the attempts to use the insurrection act which were clear as soon as June with the protest at Lafayette Square. Already, he was doing a number of things to figure out what grounds on which they could deploy troops. So, they’re going to be federalized national guard called in. Was it going to be with the Department of Homeland Security, which it turned out to be? How could he get around the authorities that existed and use troops that he commanded to do things on domestic soil? That isn’t a far extension of the aggregation of norms using the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, and eventually he sent forces, DHS forces from the border to, for example, Portland.

So, that’s one example, but you know where else it’s an example and it’s a more searing example. When you think about what the stakes are, how about for the elections? The idea of using federalized troops to work at election centers to do whatever they had to do to monitor it so that there could be talks about interference, fraud, whatever it was. This was not unplanned. This was coordinated. This was authorized in many cases by other agencies. So, for example, you would get out of the Department of Justice order saying, ‘Please look to prosecute these people, Black Lives Matter protesters. Please prioritize looking into the election results and looking into fraud.’

So, one of the other norms that would overlook was not just separation between agencies, between branches, but the relationship between the federal government and the states. And it’s an interesting moment in American history because the Supreme court sort of inherits this question and is not going to take away that state power at that moment. They leave the door open to some of the things we’ve seen after the election. But I think that choosing the election to do this luckily for us it has turned out to be a bridge too far. But this was not a spur of the moment decision in any way. And so the roll up to this election, the amount of things put in place to discredit it had been going on for a long time in clear violation of procedures, laws, norms that had been well set up before this.


I love how you tie together the importance of losing our sense of the spirit of the law, because I truly believe the most key component to democracy is to maintain a sense of the rule of law. And the idea of law enforcement and the relationship we have with them always has a peculiar relationship to the law because it can either be used to enforce the law and protect rights, or sometimes it can be used for the opposite. You have a passage in your book where you write, “Law enforcement could not be expected to restrain themselves in the midst of such confusion. It was an overt acknowledgment of the useful power of imprecision as a rationale for lawlessness.” It’s an odd position when the law enforcement becomes lawless itself. What does this say about our relationship between law enforcement and the law?

Karen Greenberg

Well, there is a profession of law enforcement and one of the things that Trump did in using DHS agents and other agencies and sending them to Portland was to confuse that boundary in terms of who actually was a legitimate authority and what were their authorities. And so again, the lack of clarity in terms of who the actors were on both sides. If you read through the court cases that come before the court in Portland, you see that the government is accusing people of being protestors. The journalists are saying, ‘We’re journalists. We showed you our thing.’ And they’re saying, ‘No. No, if you’re there, you’re a protester.’ So, no distinction. The protestors are saying, ‘Who are these people? These are our police?’ The governor and the mayor are saying, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. This is not us. This is the federal government.’

There’s a complete lack of clarity. So, one thing for law enforcement you need is who’s actually in charge, who actually the law enforcement agents are. And when you confuse that, what can you expect to happen in the streets, not to mention that there was an executive order laid out by the president about protecting monuments which included federal buildings and then how you define just how big the perimeter around that building was. And so, it just was a situation that got out of hand in exactly the ways you would expect something where there’s no codified clarity to happen.


You also need to have precision of who the enemy is, if you’re bringing in law enforcement and you write, “Antifa was an imprecise enemy and thus a useful enemy for a government bent on using imprecision to accomplish its end.”

Karen Greenberg

Right Does anyone talk about Antifa? No, and we’ve seen this before. I mean, look, once you define the enemy, this brings us back to the beginning of our talk, the AUMF. Once you define the enemy, how do you expand it? And so, under the Obama administration, they added the term ‘associated forces’ to Al Qaeda and associated forces thinking that would be a more freeing and empowering interpretation of who we could use force against. But again, it was just an expansion that’s been difficult to draw back.


So, one of the things that you already brought up was in the confirmation process where Trump nominated people and we broke different procedural norms. One of those norms was regarding the Secretary of Defense, who was a general. He hadn’t had enough time away from the military. So, they had to Institute a waiver at that moment. The Biden Administration has done the same exact thing with Secretary Austin. Does President Biden truly represent a break from some of these challenges, the shifts in norms and the problems  that the Trump administration brought to a crescendo?

Karen Greenberg

Yeah, it’s a really good question and one I think we should all be thinking about. It has nothing to do with what I think about General Austin, but I think the pushing aside of norms again to allow somebody to be in that position was not one of the more encouraging moments of the Biden Administration and it happened early on. I will say that since then, there’s a lot Biden has done that I think addresses many of these tools. One of the things I’ve been heartened by is there’s been an outpouring of reports, not inquiries into what went on in the past, but here’s what we’re doing. Here’s what we’re prioritizing, whether it’s the DNI or elsewhere in the government, sort of here’s who we are.

Here’s what we’re doing. Not sort of like, don’t ask us, we’re taking care of it. I do think that his ability to work with Congress is unparalleled in his immediate predecessors and you can see it now with how the Afghanistan story is actually being told. It started out as, you know, a complete critique even among those who might’ve supported some of his other foreign policy decisions and has now become sort of like, ‘No, the failure was prior to this. This is not the best scenario we would have liked to see, but let’s talk about what really failed here.’ I think domestically, I think he’s inherited a quagmire that’s just mind-boggling at the border.

But he’s at least making the right inroads in the courts, using the government to try to push some of these anti-immigrant laws that were passed, that were used in a particular way during Trump. He’s trying, like, you know, I’d like to see more headway. But I do think there is a sense of decency that is in stark contradistinction to what we’ve seen most recently and that I think is important.


The 2020 election was almost a culmination of the subtle tools. You’ve already referenced how they came to play and how they were manifested in Trump’s reaction, the way how he executed his strategy, not just during the election, but we’re talking about after the election, as he denied the legitimacy of Biden’s victory. Nate Persily and Charles Stewart, III wrote in the Journal of Democracy, “How the country interprets the 2020 election will in many respects shape the future of U.S. democracy.” So, there’s a lot of politicization of the 2020 election still today. How do you think the country will look back on the 2020 election as we move farther into the future?

Karen Greenberg

As a turning point. As a definite turning point. We don’t know, if it will be a turning point that sets us on a correct path or just keeps us going down this path. A couple of things to remember though. The Bush-Gore election was a contested election. There have been other contested elections going back to the 19th century. A number of them. No presidential candidate who lost has ever said, ‘I’m really going to be president.’ Nobody’s taking it that far. So, recognizing that norm is, I know we say it kind of offhand, but you know, it’s not the first time there’s been a contested, clouded result to an election or it’s not the first time a candidate has thought he should have been the President legitimately.

We move on. This time that didn’t happen. So, understanding what that means and making sure that can never happen again and whatever that means in terms of accountability. This is not a line you can step over. So look, it will be referred to on the floor of Congress as Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the election of 2020. The other two things were destructive attacks on our democracy. And so, was this. So, getting the record clear. Understanding not just what happened, but what can’t happen again.


So, Karen, your book deals with a very dark topic going through the subtle tools and it can feel very Orwellian when we think about how these have been used, particularly within the Trump presidency. So, have we gone to a place that we could describe the United States today as no longer a liberal democracy, but now as an illiberal democracy?

Karen Greenberg

We’re close. I think that the Biden team recognizes that. I think that they recognize more than most of us. They are very aware of the fact that there is a fragile democracy in place right now. Even if we don’t want to put the term illiberal on it, but there is no question we are vulnerable. We are fragile. We are hopefully fixable. But between the use of money to control politics, the rampant use of guns, but there are so many things that make us vulnerable that our policies don’t address and there are many bigger things coming down the pike.

And I think recognizing that we’re vulnerable and fragile is actually a good step. It’s a place of saying, ‘Okay. We’re vulnerable. We’re fragile because of ourselves.’ Let’s start there. And then when we fix ourselves and make ourselves more robust. Then, okay, we’re going to take on these other things, but we’re going to fix ourselves and tend to ourselves and we’ll see if that happens.


Well, Karen, thanks so much. Your book is – I think it’s such a great read right now, because there’s so much attention on Afghanistan where we’re looking at the impacts of that war in Afghanistan itself as part of our foreign policy as a distant place. But your book reminds us that these policies have an impact on us here in the United States. That the decisions that we make that may involve foreign countries have repercussions on how we govern ourselves. And I think that that’s a necessary conversation right now, as we’re talking about the foreign policy implications to be thinking about those domestic implications for the United States and our democracy. Thank you so much for writing that.

Karen Greenberg

Thank you so much for having me on so wonderful conversation. Thank you.

Key Links

Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump by Karen Greenberg

Vital Interests Podcast with Karen Greenberg

Follow Karen Greenberg on Twitter @KarenGreenberg3

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