On Tuesday evening, CIA director John Brennan spoke at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Micah Zenko, writing for DefenseOne, passed on an exchange between him and Graham Allison, the school's top policy wonk (and frequent government official).

Allison pressed Brennan repeatedly about whether the United States is winning the war on terrorism and why the number of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups has only increased since 9/11: "There seem to be more of them than when we started…How are we doing?"

Brennan replied:

If I look across the board in terms of since 9/11 at terrorist organizations, and if the United States in all of its various forms. In intelligence, military, homeland security, law enforcement, diplomacy. If we were not as engaged against the terrorists, I think we would be facing a horrendous, horrendous environment. Because they would have taken full advantage of the opportunities that they have had across the region…

We have worked collectively as a government but also with our international partners very hard to try and root many of them out. Might some of these actions be stimulants to others joining their ranks? Sure, that's a possibility. I think, though it has taken off of the battlefield a lot more terrorists, than it has put on.

One could make fun of Brennan's disjointed answer, or ask (as Zenko did) how we can even determine how many terrorists are on the battlefield—let alone if there are "a lot more." But I find more pressing things wrong with these statements and justifications:

  1. The slippery rationale for success is perfect for Washington and terrible for the United States and the rest of the world. They say things aren't worse, therefore we must be doing the right thing. This is the rationalization of the forever war that brushes aside the reality that the world unravels and our security never substantially improves. I love a quip an admiral friend of mine made, now more than 10 years ago, that before 9/11, 100 percent of the people in the Arab world hated us and after, 105 percent hated us, so we must be doing better. But irony and cleverness aside, does any normal person think that the problem of terrorism is more under control today than 15 years ago? Only the head of the CIA could gaze at the horizon and disregard the ground in front of him.
  2. "Horrendous, horrendous" is code for weapons of mass destruction, for terrorists with nukes or chemical weapons or even creepier biological weapons. In other words, it is the same Cheney so-called "One Percent" doctrine that followed 9/11 and justified torture, extraordinary rendition, and mass surveillance. It became the same phantom justification for going to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003. "They" supposedly know secret things about the threat of terrorists with WMDs and we are supposed to get out of the way – the veracity of the threat and the proper strategy to combat it are not even a part of the debate. In addition, the historical record of how things have come about is so wildly disputed—9/11, Iraq, ISIS, etc.—that we spend more time arguing about the past than carefully dissecting what is going on today and why.
  3. "Terrorist organizations" is purposefully and strategically used in official arguments. When pushed further—and I've had this discussion many times with intelligence officials—the justifiers and rationalizers of their own activity hide behind the word organization to mean al-Qaeda or AQAM (al-Qaeda and Affiliated Movements) and then do their own private equations: killing "x" many number 1-, 2-, and 3-level high value targets has disrupted their operations, stopping the big one, unraveling their command and control. I can hear Brennan now: If I look across the board in terms of since 9/11 at terrorist organizations... He looks where he wants and ignores the rest.
  4. "The terorrists" is uttered as such a normal and accepted part of our lexicon, the head of the CIA can refer to a vast world of bin Ladenism as if it's a sovereign nation state, with a location, a capital, and even a census. Pushed further, they happily retreat to the war against terror being not just a war against the very organizations they mentioned earlier, but also the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizballah and Hamas and violent extremism and lone wolves and homegrown whatevers. The big brains keep one score, and one score alone—the number of additional 9/11s in New York City—but when confronted with the it's-not-just-al-Qaeda argument, they're thrilled when others pile on because it builds an even greater threat picture—terrorism—that requires them to continue to hold down the fort. In other words, poking at their definition just strengthens their hands.

When the United States started fighting in Afghanistan and beyond, the now-discredited Rumsfeld was quoted as using the rationale that fighting "them" over there meant we didn't have to fight them at home. It seems the Obama administration hasn't managed to create a more sophisticated argument.

Bush and Company spoke of a full court press, of unprecedented inter-governmental cooperation, of doing better to describe the exact same rationale 14 years later: We keep them on the run because when they are running they can't plot. And so we are stuck.

If I were the CIA director speaking at Harvard, I might have said: "I take your point, and as a nation, we don't want to be fighting this war forever. So we have a lot of work to do in terms of figuring out how to get off this treadmill, how to address the root causes, how to shape the future in some meaningful way. It's great for me to have a scorecard that says we've achieved x but I'm not happy with that as an outcome. We, the government, need the help of academia and the great minds of our nation to put forth a grand strategy. Right now, there isn't a good answer to your good question because it is so small; the points we are discussing are so tactical and in the weeds, I fear we are missing the big picture."

It's not what the CIA director said, though, not even close. As a direct participant in the "war" against terrorism, the Agency is on the run itself, so busy fighting and doing there is little room for the intelligence part—the thinking part. And they are so busy with their singular objective and their achievement, they can't see the world on fire.

When Brennan uses the word "stimulant" to refer solely to battlefield actions and reactions, he also ignores his very own map of the world that says that the battlefield is everywhere. In other words, the ivory tower of Harvard is also a battlefield and stimulant. If I believed in conspiracies, I'd almost think that he is being so dense that it's purposefully aimed at provoking would-be terrorists to go ahead and try another significant strike, the kind they feel so confident about thwarting. Of course he doesn't mean any such thing, but it is clear he is fighting the last war, allowing for the intelligence agency to transform into an illegal and unauthorized combatant.

You can contact me at william.arkin@gawker.com, and follow us at @gawkerphasezero. If you are into the theater of being underground, you can anonymously deliver tips through the Gawker Media SecureDrop. I've got a book on drones coming out in July called Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare. I'm open to your input and your questions, tough questions.