Juan C. Zarate ’97: ‘There’s a lot of presumption of the demise of American power, and I’m raging against that’

Former counterterrorism czar says the U.S. needs to reconceptualize what power means in the 21st century

Juan C. Zarate ’97 was the fifth counterterrorism czar in the Bush administration; the first-ever assistant secretary of the Treasury for terrorist financing and financial crimes, where he led the post-9/11 anti-money laundering efforts; and, prior to 9/11, a federal terrorism prosecutor. Today Zarate is global co-managing partner and chief strategy officer at K2 Integrity, which provides financial integrity services to private clients, and co-founder and chairman of the Center on Economic and Financial Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which analyzes economic and financial power as a part of national security.


Harvard Law Today: Particularly given your many years in counterterrorism, how do you feel on this 20th anniversary?

Juan C. Zarate ’97 : I frankly have mixed emotions. Any time the 9/11 anniversary comes up, it’s filled with memories of the horrors and anxiety, and the sort of the transformative nature of the day, so it’s always a difficult day. I have different remembrances over time, and even as the years faded, being very somber and solemn thinking about the victims and their families and the effects of that day. Also, being proud of what we did in the aftermath. I think we did some good things, the U.S. made some mistakes as well. But I think we did some things to keep the United States safer after that than not, which is a point of pride.

There’s a sense of loss in what’s happening in Afghanistan, a sense of moral abdication, a sense of retreat, all of which was the opposite, I think, of what we tried to do post- 9/11

Juan Zarate ’97

But on the 20th anniversary, to be honest, with what’s happening in Afghanistan, it’s mixed emotions, because what would otherwise be a sense of pride in what we’ve done is now filled with a lot of questions as to what we achieved. There’s a sense of loss in what’s happening in Afghanistan, a sense of moral abdication, a sense of retreat, all of which was the opposite, I think, of what we tried to do post- 9/11, which was obviously to disrupt and dismantle the terrorist networks that had attacked us that day, and to deny them safe haven in places like Afghanistan that allowed them to plot and to plan, and to do very dangerous things that people forget about, like testing chemical weapons and beginning to flirt with very dangerous, other means of attacking.

And what I thought was, despite failings at times, a real sort of moral aspect to what we’re doing, which was to certainly give people, like in Afghanistan, hope for a more open, pluralistic society, and declaring, pretty clearly post-9/11, that terrorism was not acceptable. For whatever political purpose, the purposeful killing of innocent civilians is no longer acceptable. Again, I think people forget that that was part of the animating principles post 9/11. We were very deliberate about that as both a moral, a legal, a policy focus. We were trying to deal with terrorism on a broad and global scale. So … a lot of mixed emotions as the 20th anniversary comes up, made more complicated by what’s happened in Afghanistan the last few days.

HLT: You’ve said in the past that we are engaged in an ideological battle against a global movement and that you’ve attempted to shift how that battle is waged by doing everything possible to empower credible voices in Muslim communities around the world.

Zarate: That’s still centrally relevant, I think, to the counterterrorism campaign. The problem of counterterrorism was not just the fact that you had very bad people planning very bad things, and you had to stop them or capture them, arrest them, etc., but that there was an animating ideology that was not only motivating those people, but metastasizing in different ways, and taking advantage of a lot of grievances, taking advantage of a lot of bad governance, taking advantage of a narrative of the U.S. as the enemy, all of these things that have been pervasive in the terrorist ideology for almost three decades now, and had to be something that we would confront. I think it’s still very much at play, although it’s taken on different dimensions since 9/11, and even since 10 years ago. But I do think a core principle of counterterrorism and the prevention of these groups finding safe haven and resources and recruits in any population around the world is to ensure that their ideology is seen as bankrupt [and] doesn’t have resonance for young people around the world, and that there are challenging voices to that ideology, which can take hold in populations. I think in Afghanistan, we’re going to see that again, front and center. You have the Taliban with a particular ideology aligned with groups like al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups.

Part of the counterterrorism program was trying to articulate a different vision for the world and trying to counter the ideology that would have societies that were less open, less pluralistic, less open to minority rights.

So, what you’re going to see, and I think you’re already seen on the streets of Kabul, is a bit of clash of ideologies, a clash of systems, a clash of the kinds of societies that people want to live in. And the whole question as to whether or not women and girls will have the right to go to school and have equal rights in a society plays into that, fundamentally. It’s often criticized as having been too ambitious, but I think part of the counterterrorism program was trying to articulate a different vision for the world and trying to counter the ideology that would have societies that were less open, less pluralistic, less open to minority rights. All those things that are part of a terrorist ideology, we needed to undermine. That was part of that war of ideas, and I think it’s still present and will be even more present given the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

HLT: Are you less hopeful about the state of the world than you were, say, 10 years ago?

Zarate: It’s a great question. I think there are different layers to this. I think, from a counterterrorism perspective, I’m less hopeful now than I was two, three years ago, especially given what’s happened in Afghanistan. But I think we are much better positioned, not just the United States but the international community, to deal with terrorist threats, to be alert to the way that the ideology or even terrorist networks metastasize. There are systems [and] institutions, there’s intelligence, all of which have grown up post 9/11 in a way that gives us some degree of comfort that we’re safer, that another 9/11 is much harder to imagine coming to pass, etc.

Where I’m less optimistic is that we’ve known, and we’ve said all along, that the counterterrorism battle wasn’t just an immediate reaction to 9/11 or al Qaeda, that it was going to be a generational struggle. We said that explicitly, President Bush did, and I think that’s still very much the case. Where I get worried is that we forget that this ideology and terrorist groups evolve and adapt over time, and they take advantage of safe haven and a political space and resources that they’re able to gather. We saw that with ISIS in in Iraq and Syria, we’re going to see that, again, I think, with the Taliban and al Qaeda.

But again, I think we’re much better prepared to respond. But it’s just it feels like we tend to forget the lessons of the past and forget that there’s a persistence to this threat that we have to continuously manage. I think people feel like they’re tired of it, they want to forget about it, they don’t want to worry about it, which is all fine. But it’s part of the responsibility of the U.S. government and other governments around the world to continue to care and to continue to mind the store. And all of this, of course, is happening at a time when there’s a shift in power around the world, the rise of China, challenges by Russia to US predominance [and] lots of questions about the staying power of American alliances and American power, especially now in the wake of Afghanistan but even before.

So, I’m a little bit more worried because I happen to believe as a matter of principle that the world tends to be safer when the U.S. is seen as a strong and good force in the world. Now, [that] doesn’t mean the U.S. is perfect, [it] doesn’t mean our policies have been all right, of course not. But there’s more chaos, there’s more dislocation, there’s more pushing of international norms or challenging international norms when the U.S. is seen as not able to enforce them, [is] not paying attention or otherwise not able to support our allies. So to me, that’s the most worrisome part of the current environment, which is, do we see a frame of the international norms that contain power and contain the excesses that rogues and rogue regimes are willing to engage in? That’s the real danger I see moving forward, besides whether or not a terrorist group reemerges. It’s that broader, systemic challenge that I worry most about.

HLT: What do you think we should do to better protect democracy and pluralistic societies?

Zarate: I’ve been working on a book that tries to articulate this … I think there’s several things that we need to do. First of all, I think we need to recognize the changes that are happening in the world, both in terms of challenges from states, but also non-state challenges. We then have to think about our strategy and configure our strategy in a way that takes advantage of the environment. Because I think there’s often a sense that the world is slipping away from the American-led system, and the reality is that the shifts in the global environment around trade, commerce, finance, technology, and the elements of globalization that have kind of allowed us to intermingle populations and systems actually play right to our advantages. They play right to the core of how the U.S. should be operating in view of the world. We’re just not configured to do that.

We need to be thinking much more aggressively about how we use immigration to our advantage, how we use diaspora communities as a way of influencing around the world.

So we need to be thinking much more aggressively about how we use immigration to our advantage, how we use diaspora communities as a way of influencing around the world, which we already do, organically. Some of the leaders of the Afghan government came from the United States, some of the leaders from the transitional government in Somalia came from Northern Virginia. You look at relations with Vietnam; we’ve got our populations in Southern California, Northern California.

And now with Afghanistan, if we were viewing this through the lens of leveraging the attractiveness of America, and our ability to incorporate and acculturate people from all around the world, and giving them hope and promise in the American dream, we should be welcoming Afghan populations, especially those that have already worked with us and have fought with us and supported us. Those are exactly the kind of people we should want to be Americans. So that’s one dimension.

Another dimension is how we think about leveraging the private sector, not in a way that turns the United States into a state-authoritarian capitalist system as you have in China, but thinking much more creatively about how we use capital influence around the world in key places that matter to U.S. national security and national economic security. I think you’ve seen more debate over the last few years around this: How can we add government funding to private sector funding to invest in key technologies, key parts of the world? How do we do that in a way that challenges China and what they’re doing with the BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] project? So there’s a very different way of thinking about leveraging the U.S. private sector, U.S. technology, U.S. capital in concert with the government or in parallel with the government in a way that gives us greater strategic suasion, as I’ve argued.

Finally, we need to think about our alliances differently. We need to

We need to be creating new alliances around these domains of power and challenge that are bedeviling us, in the cyber domain, in the economic investment and investment security domain.

be creating new alliances around these domains of power and challenge that are bedeviling us, in the cyber domain, in the economic investment and investment security domain. I’ve argued for a long time that we should have a “Five Eyes’s” process. The “Five Eye’s” are the five countries that share the most intelligence together: the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Those five countries, at a minimum, should have a common investment security strategy to make sure that enemy actors or nefarious actors aren’t getting access to the best technology in those countries and they’re not embedding in the infrastructure … I’ve argued for a long time that we need to be thinking about the kinds of alliances and structures, on the defensive side and on the offensive side, that are much more creative and allow us to defend forward in some important ways, that allow us to have new alliances with NATO partners, with Japan, with Israel, with Latin American partners, African partners, in creative ways that then drive the principles and standards that we want to see around the world.

I’m not talking about kinetic hard power and I’m not talking about, you know, the Joe Nye sort of classic soft power, where people like Coca Cola and Mickey Mouse. I’m talking about something in between that leverages our suasion in a much more active and deliberate way. I don’t think we have figured that out yet. And I think, once we do, the environment plays to our advantage because we’re still the most innovative country in the world, we still have the most important companies in the world, largely on a global scale. We’re still highly attractive. We still have the best universities in the world, starting with Harvard. We play best in this domain, we just haven’t figured out that we’re playing on a different field and we’ve got to move to that field. That’s the gravamen of the book I’ve been trying to write.

There’s a lot of presumption of the demise of American power, and I’m raging against that, in part because I think we haven’t reconceptualized what power means and looks like in the 21st century. And if we do, I think with the right intentionality and the right structures this plays right to our strengths and this becomes yet another American century.

HLT: In your national security course at HLS, what did you emphasize?

Zarate: This is relevant, because for eight years, I taught a course that was about national security decisionmaking and the challenges of evidence and proof in national security and foreign policy. The reason I think it’s important, and this was major theme of the course, is that we’ve entered a period where there is information warfare, there’s challenges to truth, and there’s a struggle for proof — How do you prove things?

In the national security domain, the most challenging problems, the most existential threats — terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, cyber — all present challenges of attribution and proof. What I taught for eight years was [that] this was going to become more and more of a challenge, which I think it has become, and it was going to become more of a challenge with the use of new technologies, which in some ways are allowing us to refine how we think about threats or individuals or problems, but also are allowing us to obfuscate the truth. So think about new technologies that allow you to change somebody’s identity or morph a video or spoof a video. The challenges of proof are going to get harder and harder on the issues that that are most challenging and difficult from a national security perspective.

I’ve argued for a while that China and Russia understand this, or at least they understand it at a certain level, and they have as a strategy, especially the Russians, a strategy of challenging truth and proof. As I often say, Putin starts with every challenge to his power, any question about what Russia may have done, who they may have poisoned, what chemical weapon they may have facilitated using, with the exhortation, Prove it! His strategy then is to obfuscate the facts, create other channels and theories, and undermine the ability to prove, because the ability to prove is then the gateway to response and reaction in the legitimacy of what may be isolation of rogue behavior. The less you’re able to prove, the more rogue actors are able to push the envelope and challenge the international system and norms. I fear that we’re right in the middle of that. And that was that was the course I taught for eight years, which was how do we think about evidence, intelligence, standards of proof, burden shifting, and proof in the hardest national security arenas? How can we learn from the past and what are some of the challenges moving forward when we think about, for example, the use of algorithms in making determinations, and use of technology in ways that complicate these questions? I was very proud of that course and I’m very proud of a number of the graduates who’ve gone on, some of whom are in government today doing really good and important things.