Today was national security day in Congress, with three simultaneous hearings on the terrorist threat and how best to fight it.  I watched the House Armed Services Committee hearing on “The State of Al Qaeda, its Affiliates and Associated Groups” and I think there were some key points made by expert witnesses worth highlighting for those who missed it.

First, Christopher Swift, a fellow at University of Virginia Law School’s Center for National Security Law who also teaches at Georgetown, emphasized that the United States has to stop lumping together every group that calls itself “al Qaeda” and assuming it’s an “associated force” worth fighting militarily.  Many of these groups are instead creating or responding to “regional crises” with “unique causes, characteristics, and consequences.”  Failure to distinguish the threats they pose “weaken[s] the consistency and perceived legitimacy of our operations.”

In fact, he said, “associated forces has no legal or strategic meaning” — a point many of us have been making for a very long time – and reliance on the term prevents the United States from accurately categorizing our adversaries and prioritizing the threats they pose.

Much of the testimony underscored the need for greater reliance on intelligence on the ground and less of an assumption that military action, particularly by remote-control, will solve the terrorist problem.

As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and adjunct professor at Georgetown, pointed out in his testimony: “we need to recognize the limitations of the United States’ targeted killing campaign.”  That campaign seems premised on an assumption that the United States can fight al Qaeda by attrition, but “if al-Qaeda is resilient in the face of this kind of attrition, it’s important to think more comprehensively about the impact of the strikes, including the consequences when innocent people are killed.  While the U.S. shouldn’t simply eschew targeted killing as one counterterrorism tool, we should seriously consider the idea that the tactic is being massively overused.”

Ross also said the United States needs to be much more careful of the “second-order consequences” on terrorism of its military actions, such as in Iraq and in Libya. And needs to rely more on “open-source analysts” of terrorism, which requires declassifying more relevant documents, so those analysts can put them to good use.

Interestingly, some members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence this morning were grilling administration witnesses on the lack of transparency in U.S. counterterrorism actions. None indicated that more transparency would be forthcoming.