In the final scene of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s heart-stopping thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Maya, a CIA operative and the movie’s heroine, is strapped into a seat on a military transport plane staring into the middle distance, looking depleted. The film’s dramatic arc follows Maya’s near-messianic quest to take out “UBL.” Intense and headstrong, she battles the weary fatalism of her bosses, suppresses all moral doubt about the use of torture to extract leads, and sticks to her theory of the case with feverish conviction. The movie’s harrowing, climactic kill operation is Maya’s vindication. But then, having identified bin Laden’s body in a hangar at Bagram Air Base, she finds herself all alone in a cavernous cargo hold, a thousand-yard stare on her face. When a cheerful crew member tries to engage her, she looks away. “Where do you want to go?” he asks.
Maya never answers—and the audience is left wondering whether her struggle is over. Has she exorcised her demons? Can she free herself from the grip of the “forever war”? Those questions, in a way, are as much about America as they are about Maya. Zero Dark Thirty, which opens in theaters this week, has already stirred controversy by reigniting a debate about the efficacy and ethics of torture. But nearly a decade after the last detainee was waterboarded by the CIA, the more relevant question raised by the film may be: when and how will the war on terror finally draw to a close?
It’s a question that President Obama has quietly discussed with his closest advisers. He has raised the issue publicly only in the vaguest terms: when he said, to rousing cheers on election night, that “a decade of war is ending,” it sounded more like a reference to Afghanistan and Iraq than a statement about the war on terror as a whole. Yet behind the scenes Obama has led a persistent internal conversation about whether America should remain engaged in a permanent, ever-expanding state of war, one that has pushed the limits of the law, stretched dwindling budgets, and at times strained relations with our allies. “This has always been a concern of the president’s,” says a former military adviser to Obama. “He’s uncomfortable with the idea of war without end.”
It is still considered politically treacherous for anyone, especially Democrats, to question whether war is the right framework for fighting terrorism. But just as the intelligence and military communities were criticized 12 years ago for having had too much of a “pre-9/11 mentality,” some in the administration have now begun to gingerly ask whether we today have too much of a post-9/11 mentality. Or, as one adviser to Obama recently put it to me, “Is it time to start winding down the state of emergency?”
While no one believes Obama would ever actually declare the war on terror over, there have lately been a handful of signals that his administration is growing more open to scaling back the country’s war footing. Even as Obama continues prosecuting the drone war—last week, the CIA took out a high-ranking al Qaeda commander in Pakistan—the White House appears to be looking to rein in the military and the CIA. Three senior administration officials tell Newsweek that John Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, has proposed significant bureaucratic shifts that could place the CIA’s drone program on a much tighter leash. Meanwhile, the military is increasingly acknowledging the limits of lethal operations in the war on terror. Ironically some of the most innovative thinking comes from the Special Operations Command, the tip of the spear in the shadow wars. Adm. William McRaven, who led the bin Laden mission, has placed an increasing priority on nonlethal approaches to achieving the military’s strategic goals. These days, America’s elite warriors are more likely to be involved in training local security forces, building schools and sewage systems, and conducting village stability operations than launching daring night raids or lethal strikes. “We know,” says one Special Ops commander, “that ultimately we’re not going to be able to kill or capture our way out of this fight.”
This month Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson, with the full backing of the White House, became the first senior member of the administration to openly broach the delicate question of when the war on terror would be over. “Now that the efforts by the U.S. military against al Qaeda are in their 12th year,” he said in a speech at the University of Oxford in England, “we must also ask ourselves, how will this conflict end?”
The speech was years in the making. Johnson had been confronted with the question early in his tenure in the Obama administration: at a July 2009 congressional hearing, Democrat Ike Skelton, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asked in simple, unadorned language, “When does the war end?” Johnson could not provide a satisfactory answer, which troubled him. The question gnawed at him even more in the coming months as he played an increasingly important role in the military’s targeted-killing program, blessing lethal operations and developing the Pentagon’s legal arguments for expanding the war in places like Yemen and Somalia. As new groups kept popping up—some with increasingly tenuous ties to al Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks—Johnson and others in the administration worried about being further out on the margins of the law. And yet the conflict kept widening.
Earlier this year, Johnson was invited to speak at the Oxford Union, the British university’s fabled debating society. He would be nearing the end of his tenure at the Pentagon and preparing to return to the private sector; the timing was right to give a swan-song speech that might be a little more controversial than the usual lawyerly fare. In August, Johnson wrote a draft of the speech in longhand, sitting on the porch of his summer home on Martha’s Vineyard overlooking Nantucket Sound. He let it marinate for weeks. By October he approached the White House, unsure how officials there would respond. Johnson was told to show the speech to Brennan, who, it turned out, had been grappling with the very same question. In a series of emails, Brennan and Johnson refined and sharpened the speech. With Brennan’s backing, there was little chance that hand-wringers within the administration would attempt to water it down.
In some ways Johnson’s address raised more questions than it answered. How do you end a constantly evolving and mutating war against an unconventional enemy that is dispersed, hidden, and driven by an ideology that transcends borders? What are the implications for long-term detention and targeting policies if the war is declared over? And how do you know when the threat has receded sufficiently to justify a military drawdown?
Johnson in no way claimed that the end of the conflict was near. Instead he sought to identify a “tipping point” that would allow America to shift away from its global-war footing. And he set the bar high: al Qaeda and its affiliates would have to be rendered incapable of launching “strategic attacks” against the United States—a goal that we are nowhere near close to reaching. While the core organization of al Qaeda has been devastated, its offshoots in places like Yemen and Somalia remain potent threats. And the turmoil of the Arab Spring has birthed or strengthened countless splinter organizations—in places like Mali, Nigeria, and Libya. (The latest source of concern is Al Nusrah Front, an al Qaeda–connected group that is in the vanguard of the rebel insurgency in Syria.)
Yet it is the metastasizing nature of the threat itself that may provide the best argument for tempering the war on terror. Many counterterrorism officials are making the case that the administration needs to be more discerning about which groups are worth going after militarily and how to calibrate our response to the level of threat. “Should we resort to drones and Special Operations raids every time some group raises the black banner of al Qaeda?” asks one senior military planner. “How long can we continue to chase offshoots of offshoots around the world?” In at least acknowledging this type of question, Johnson’s speech arguably represented an inflection point for the Obama administration—and perhaps for the war on terror as a whole.
Around the time Johnson was working on his speech, Brennan was hard at work on a related project. Known internally simply as “the playbook,” it is a highly classified initiative to codify and institutionalize the standards and procedures for the government’s targeted killing program. Brennan, a tough-minded spook who spent 25 years at the CIA, is unapologetic about the secret drone program. Indeed, he has been in many ways its most energetic public defender (if obliquely, since it remains covert). But behind the scenes he has also been an advocate for more transparency, placing counterterrorism operations on a firmer legal footing, and imposing reasonable restraints on the CIA’s operators.
From the start of the administration there had been occasional flare-ups between the CIA and the White House over targeting. Obama is a strong supporter of the drone campaign, valuing its relative precision and lethality in going after the enemy. But he has also worried about its potential for diplomatic blowback, and has sometimes even mused about whether the program should operate under tighter supervision. “The president wants to further institutionalize procedures and oversight for all kinetic action,” an administration official told me recently.
Brennan’s “playbook” is more than simply an effort to enshrine the rules of the road for targeted killing. He is seeking to fundamentally reform the process by which targeted-killing decisions are made. One key proposal, according to three administration officials who have been briefed on the matter, is to harmonize the CIA’s and the military’s decision-making process for lethal strikes. This would not be just a bureaucratic rearranging of the deck chairs. Although there has been White House supervision, the CIA has for most of Obama’s presidency operated with a relatively free hand in choosing its targets and developing thresholds for when to take a shot. By contrast, when the military prepares for a killing operation, dozens of officials from across the national security bureaucracy assemble via secure videoconference to debate the decision. Representatives from the military, the National Security Council, the State Department, the intelligence community, and other agencies hash out the legal authorities, policy considerations, diplomatic sensitivities, and potential risk to civilians before a recommendation finally works its way up the chain to the president himself.
A common decision-making process with more uniform standards would almost certainly force the CIA to behave more like the military—that is, to operate with far less freedom. To take just one example: the CIA engages in a controversial practice known as “signature strikes,” targeting groups of military-age males whose identities are not known but who bear certain characteristics—or signatures—associated with terrorism. Under new protocols, the strikes, sometimes referred to as “crowd killing,” may still be permitted but would likely be more heavily regulated. (The CIA declined to comment on the proposed reforms, but intelligence officials say the drone program is carefully vetted and dispute that they need more supervision.)
It could take months before any decisions are implemented, and it’s unclear whether the CIA, or others, will put up a fight. It’s not hard to imagine conservative politicians and pundits arguing that the administration, by carrying out these reforms, is underestimating the persistence and brutality of the enemy. Indeed, a major theme of Zero Dark Thirty—and the debate surrounding the movie—is whether the war on terror can be fought with gentlemanly rules. In an early scene Maya winces at the sight of a bloodied terror suspect, strung to the ceiling with ropes, being savagely beaten. But it doesn’t take long for her to extinguish any moral qualms she may have had. Later, when the same suspect is alone with her, pleading for mercy, Maya coldly responds, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” The message is clear: America won’t vanquish al Qaeda by playing with Marquess of Queensberry rules.
It’s also true that, like Maya, the real spies of the CIA have developed a weary cynicism about their bosses in Washington. First they are told to take the gloves off; then when the inevitable scandal erupts, they are hung out to dry. “You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes,” Maya is warned by Dan, the movie’s burly, politically adept torturer.
Yet so far, the CIA doesn’t appear to be putting up significant resistance to Brennan’s reforms. “I haven’t seen a lot of table banging,” says one U.S. official who has been briefed on the proposal. Even some who have been gung-ho advocates of the CIA’s drone war recognize that change may be inevitable—and appropriate. “Where the world was in 2008 clearly put the premium on killing these guys,” says a former CIA official. “But now there are broader considerations—public diplomacy, relationships with our allies, and the like. There was a time for agility over everything else, but now having more expertise in the room may be more important than simply ‘we need to kill these people.’ ”
No movie has captured the ethos of the “we need to kill these people” era better than Zero Dark Thirty. (In another memorable scene, George, a high-level CIA official, chews out Maya and her colleagues for not going after more terrorists. “I need more targets,” he shouts. “Do your f--king jobs. Bring me people to kill.”) But now that era may be passing. For the first time since 9/11, the White House seems serious about finding a way to move beyond a state of permanent war—though how much the president will eventually curtail the war on terror is anyone’s guess. As Zero Dark Thirty ends, Maya sits, stony-faced, on a C-130 cargo plane. It isn’t really clear where she—or the country—is going.