Book Review: Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of America From the War on Terror to Donald Trump


Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of America from the War on Terror to Donald Trump, Karen J. Greenberg. ISBN: 978-0-69121-583-9(Hard Cover), ISBN: 978-0-69121-656-0 (ebook), Princeton University Press.

How policies forged after September 11 were weaponized under Trump and turned on American democracy itself

In the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, the American government implemented a wave of overt policies to fight the nation’s enemies. Unseen and undetected by the public, however, another set of tools was brought to bear on the domestic front. In this riveting book, one of today’s leading experts on the US security state shows how these “subtle tools” imperiled the very foundations of democracy, from the separation of powers and transparency in government to adherence to the Constitution.

Taking readers from Ground Zero to the Capitol insurrection, Karen Greenberg describes the subtle tools that were forged under George W. Bush in the name of security: imprecise language, bureaucratic confusion, secrecy, and the bypassing of procedural and legal norms. While the power and legacy of these tools lasted into the Obama years, reliance on them increased exponentially in the Trump era, both in the fight against terrorism abroad and in battles closer to home. Greenberg discusses how the Trump administration weaponized these tools to separate families at the border, suppress Black Lives Matter protests, and attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Revealing the deeper consequences of the war on terror, Subtle Tools paints a troubling portrait of an increasingly undemocratic America where disinformation, xenophobia, and disdain for the law became the new norm, and where the subtle tools of national security threatened democracy itself.

Threads linking the war on terror Subtle Tools to Donald Trump:

Imprecise Language

The imprecise language of the legislation for the war on terror had numerous consequences, notably in the 2001 authorization for the use of force. At first, tied to the attacks of 9/11 and the use of force against those who carried it out, or abetted those who did, the authorization had no temporal or geographical limits. This led over time to many Trump-style efforts, including his Iran policy which included:  the threat of the use of force against Iran by Trump -far afield of any perpetrators of 9/11.

In addition, an imprecise language created a space for the grab of excessive presidential powers as national security became a catch-call for top-down policies. Obama was unwilling to give up the powers unleashed by such imprecise authorization. Trump exploited the trend towards expansive policy direction based on imprecision in language, determined to avoid the checks and balances of judicial and congressional efforts, e.g. in the Muslim Ban which took a broad swipe at Muslim countries, rather than discern those individuals who were cause for concern and those who could enter the U.S.

Biden has made clarity and precision central to many of his policies – as seen in

his casual “Let me be clear,” in the detail of his executive orders, and in the words of his appointees who have emphasized the need for precision and clarity in new policies, e.g. on immigration.

Bureaucratic Porousness

The creation of DHS rested upon institutional imprecision. It mingled too many missions, too many agencies, and too many authorities, allowing for the possibility of a bait-and-switch misuse of departments and the agency as a whole. This erupted during Trump in the response in innumerable ways, including the BLM protests, the vicious and cruel use of border agencies at the southern border, and in the threat of using federal agents throughout the country during the election. Trump exploited the ability to erase boundaries between the DoJ and DHS, between federal and local law enforcement, and between crime and immigration violations. It has left us with the mess we have today.

Again, the Biden administration is trying to sort these things out, to separate departmental functions, supervisory authorities, etc, for example in reducing the AG’s role in intervening in immigration court proceedings.


The Bush administration relied on secrecy to hide its policies that violated domestic and international law – notably, torture of detainees in US custody and warrantless surveillance of Americans. In addition, it classified documents exponentially, keeping from public view some of the most important programs of the war on terror. The goal was the avoidance of accountability as torture, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, and targeted killings, including of Americans, violated laws and norms. This institutionalization of secrecy as a means of burying accountability grew to new heights during the Trump era when Trump took it several steps forward – forbidding the creation of any record at all: no notes at meetings, no documents to destroy, no ready acquiescence to turning over presidential records at the end of his presidency.

There is now one major Supreme Court decision pending on this.  The court this week decided to consider whether information relevant to the Guantanamo military commissions should continue to be withheld as “state secrets.” In general, transparency has been moved forward without bluster – e.g. in the many released DNI reports of the Biden administration – including the report on Khashoggi’s murder.

Bypassing Norms

The gross violation of norms – and laws – that defined the Trump administration started in the aftermath of 9.11 as both were pushed aside in the name of national security. There was too little substantive reset during the Obama years, despite intentions to restore the separation of powers, transparency, and a return to legal norms.

Trump overrode law by fiat – e.g. in defying the customary restraint of the use of federal troops in local circumstances, notably in Portland. His administration unilaterally pulled out of treaties, authorized the use of force abroad (Soleimani), decimated the State Department and avoided confirming officials, interfered with court proceedings in regard to the protests, immigration, foreign policy, and the election.

The effort to destabilize norms and avoid the law was a signature element of the Trump administration. The Capitol Riots were the most extreme form of Trump’s overstepping of norms of the law, including the withholding of law enforcement from the scene of the insurrection for hours. Often central to this was the restoration of accountability – e.g. in the DOJ investigations into racially abusive policies endemic to police departments in several localities – as well as the creation of new norms.

The Subtle Tools used in Combination

More than the policies themselves were at stake in the perpetuation of the subtle tools over three presidencies. Used in combination, these four subtle tools enabled Trump to dig deep trenches into the culture of governance in Washington. This is one of the primary challenges the Biden administration faces – and without naming the subtle tools, their early efforts have made it clear that they are extremely aware of the name to restore precision, clarity, institutional distinctions, transparency – all in the service of restoring the importance of laws and norms.

Some of the signs of this are Biden’s relatively quiet form of governance – not making himself the central figure in the media; the bureaucratic functioning of each agency that has receded into procedural, non-headline grabbing work; the processes of governance returning to the fore. The result has begun a restoration of norms both in terms of reviving the balance of powers and in terms of reviving or creating new domestic and international policies. But it is not just a restoration.

The ground cleared by the Trump weaponization of the subtle tools created the possibilities of recreating rather than restoring – e.g. in policies regarding diversity and inclusion, immigration, and foreign affairs.

About the Author: Karen J. Greenberg is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, an international studies fellow at New America, and a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Her books include Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State and The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days. Twitter @KarenGreenberg3


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  1. The above book review, and evidently the book itself are fresh evidence the quest for truth, delivered to an increasingly informed public, remains in force.
    I say this because I’m barely halfway through ‘a book’ which would’ve been required reading in high school, if the oligarchs had not attained complete control of the “educational” process.
    That book is “THE BRASS CHECK” by Upton Sinclair.
    Though it is over a hundred years old, a novice contemporary reader could not fail to immediately grasp its profound relevance to our current fake news media saturation.
    For anyone who hasn’t read it, you do yourself a egregious injustice for every day you go without doing so.
    And these quotes, from the above article will resonate like a giant cosmic tuning fork.

    “””however, another set of tools were brought to bear on the domestic front, unseen and undetected by the public,””””

    “”Taking readers from Ground Zero to the Capitol insurrection, Karen Greenberg describes the subtle tools that were forged

    • And one more thing;
      Upton’s book is NOT fiction, but riveting truth-exposition of his personal struggles against, for all practical purposes, an already total controlled newspaper business by the oligarchs and their 100% media blackout of any truth!
      “It” is as relevant today, if not more so, than it was over a hundred years ago, and who knows how much longer before that.

    • Maybe the year 1897 was the turning point when William Randolph Hearst wired to Frederic Remington an artist hired by Hearst to provide illustrations, that was in Cuba that moment “…You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”… Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who “coincidentally” also he was joo, both of them, the main actors in in drumming up USA public opinion to go to war with Spain, were responsible to switch the news from a media to inform people into a mass brain washes tool…

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