What It Takes to Fight the Terrorists

President Obama has characterized John Brennan, his nominee for CIA director, as “one of our most skilled and respected professionals” and by quipping: “I’m not sure he’s slept for four years.” Mr. Brennan has been the chief adviser at the White House on counterterrorism and homeland security.

I have worked alongside and formally studied the professionals who do the work of counterterrorism, and the president’s comments touched on the dedication, determination, and also the stress, intensity, and exhaustive pace of work that characterizes this cadre of exceptional people.

Despite how they are often portrayed on screen and in fiction, they are ordinary people tackling intransigent problems, against monumental odds, often while in personal danger. In contrast to their terrorist opponents, they are neither grandiose nor deluded and are not emotionally or morally stunted. They do not think they are invulnerable to criticism or that history will guarantee them success. They know they can make terrible mistakes, and they know real failure.

Take for example the now iconic photograph of the president and his cabinet watching events unfold during the raid in Abbottabad in May 2011 in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. We now know how that raid would end. At the time the photo was taken, however, these world leaders did not know how the story would end, and it shows in their faces. You do not see hubris or vanity in this shot, but tense, tired, mature people with stress in their eyes. The president is seated on a folding chair; the vice president and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff hold rosaries; the room is too small; coffee cups are strewn on the table. This image has become iconic among the thousands available surrounding that historic raid because this scene was not staged; it shows the world’s most powerful political leaders at their most vulnerable, doing the job of countering terrorism together.

In the course of my research on the psychology of those engaged in countering terrorism, policymakers from various administrations described the politics they must manage in the counterterrorism arena as particularly challenging and ethically demanding. Political misjudgment, the errors of others, unforeseen outcomes, or even simple bad luck can result in catastrophe and haunting personal second-guessing on the part of a politician, with a crushing sense of personal responsibility.

They also described to me how their mental energies can be wholly colonized by terrorism, how shifting attention from the daily terrorist “threat stream” to concentrate on other important political priorities—or even to simply enjoy daily life, or to get a good night’s sleep—takes an effort of active will. For all that, the policymakers said that in countering terrorism, they are using their talents and living out their political vocations at a peak of intensity and significance.

As with the politicians, the field professionals in counterterrorism—those who physically go where the terrorists operate “on the ground”—also report exerting their talents to the maximum. Their fieldwork is physically dangerous, as exemplified by the September 2012 killing of a U.S. ambassador and three of his colleagues in Benghazi, Libya; the killing in December 2009 of seven CIA officers in Khost, Afghanistan; and the many thousands of deaths and wounding of U.S. military since 9/11. Field professionals measure their personal courage while also facing psychologically harrowing conditions.

Consider for example the psychological experiences of personnel whose jobs take them to the scenes of terrorist bombings to secure the site, succor the wounded, recover the dead, or conduct forensic investigations and deal with desperate and bereaved loved ones who come to the site. I was told by several such personnel that you never forget the distinct smell of the site of a terrorist bombing. Yet these field professionals described their job as intensely rewarding and themselves as privileged to perform them.

Another vital class of counterterrorism officials—often caricatured in fictional treatments—are the intellectuals. Intelligence analysts, targeting officers, and other “brain workers” immerse their minds daily in the malevolent worldviews of terrorists. As a result their own worldviews can become more somber. They experience frustration and anxiety when their hard-won insights are not acted on. They fear analytic failure, dread missing something critical. Their successes are anonymous and often secret. Every successful terror strike is an opportunity to experience guilt, self-doubt, and failure. Yet they are passionately dedicated to their work and believe it is vital.

One terrorism analyst described to me working at his desk inside the Pentagon on 9/11, running out of the building after the plane struck, then pushing his way back into the burning building with some colleagues over the strenuous objections of first responders. They needed to get back to their desks and assist in the frantic analytic efforts to understand what was happening to the nation that day. He said that for him and many other terrorism analysts, “every day after that was 9/12.” I suspect that the new CIA director, if confirmed, shares these sentiments.