Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism

Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism

Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism

Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism


Chasing Ghosts exposes the ill-founded paranoia that has allowed the national security state to both feed at the public trough and undermine America's civil liberties tradition. Since 2001, the United States has created or reorganised more than two counter-terrorism organizations for every terrorist arrest or apprehension it has made of people plotting to do damage within the country. Central to this massive enterprise is 'ghost-chasing,' as less than one alarm in 10,000 is an actual threat - the rest all point to ghosts. Authors John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart contend that the "ghost chase" occupying American law enforcement and fueling federal spending persists because the public has been lead to believe that the terrorism threat is significant. The chance that an American will be killed by a terrorist domestically in any given year is about one in four million (under present conditions). Yet despite this statistically low risk and the extraordinary amount of resources put towards combating threats, Americans still worry and the government still spends billions. Until the true threat of domestic terrorism is understood, the country cannot begin to confront whether our pursuit of 'ghosts' is worth the cost.


In Decision Points, a memoir of his time as president of the United States, George W. Bush recalls a briefing he received from the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation a few weeks after the terrorist tragedy of September 11, 2001. The director informed him “that there were 331 potential al-Qaeda operatives inside the United States.”

Bush says his routine at the time was to pepper such reports with questions: “How credible was each threat? What had we done to follow up on a lead?” However, when writing his book nearly a decade later, he apparently did not feel it useful to reflect critically (or ironically) on the director’s impressive and remarkably precise number. If he had, he would likely have concluded that all of the 331 envisioned terrorists—or virtually all of them depending on how one weighs the words potential and operative—turned out to be ghosts.

Over the next year, the official ghost count rose considerably. Intelligence sources were soon telling rapt and uncritical reporters—and presumably the president of the United States—that the number of trained al-Qaeda operatives in the United States was between 2,000 and 5,000. Terrorist cells, they confidently disclosed, were “embedded in most U.S. cities with sizable Islamic communities,” usually in the “run-down sections,” and were “up and active”— electronic intercepts had found some of them “talking to each other.”

At it happens, however, scarcely any al-Qaeda operatives have ever been unearthed in the United States. The government, as it happens, has been far better at counting them than at finding them.

Impelled by such extravagant perceptions of threat, there have been great increases in spending on policing and intelligence to chase (and count) . . .

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