Subtle Tools Cover

Subtle Tools

The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump

Karen J. Greenberg

Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2021, 288 pages

Book Review published on: April 22, 2022

On 11 September 2001, with thousands dead and smoke pouring out of the wreckage in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, President George W. Bush spoke to a traumatized nation, pronouncing, “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.”1 But his statement was overly optimistic, at least according to author Karen Greenberg in this very insightful book, Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump. According to Greenberg, the political changes arising out of those ashes have dramatically changed the foundations of American democracy.

Be warned though, if you are enamored with Donald Trump, you are not going to enjoy this book but may want to read it anyway. It offers a compelling, and at times chilling, exposé on how American democracy arrived where it is today. It is, among other things, an excoriation of the Trump administration regarding the denigration of democratic norms. But while Trump’s actions are blasted, that is only one facet of the book.

Speaking to the press, CIA Director George Tenet, whose agency owned a substantial part of the blame for the intelligence failures resulting in the tragic attacks, wasted no time declaring that “all the rules have changed.”2 A transformation was indeed afoot, but the details were murky at best. Often, the murkiness was accepted in the interim because no one knew if the next attack was just around the corner, if a delay might hinder prevention. Nevertheless, some worried America risked losing itself in the process of overreacting to 9/11. Congresswoman Barbara Lee beseeched her colleagues, “Let us pause for a minute and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control …. Let us not become the evil that we deplore.”3

In just over a year, three acts of Congress would set in motion a series of actions that would incrementally, but fundamentally change American democracy: the September 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the October 2001 USA Patriot Act, and the November 2002 creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Greenberg’s purpose in writing the book is to explain the origins of an insidious process, often advanced by good intentions, if not well-considered after-effects, that ultimately grew (and metastasized) into a beast, threatening our very democracy. Her story unfolds in the chaotic wake of 9/11. Not surprisingly, the government enacted a wave of overt policy changes to thwart an enemy we were still trying to understand. But alongside these overt changes were many less obvious changes, which Greenberg calls “subtle tools,” that emerged as desirable ways to enhance government agility, flexibility, and capability to act/respond/counter terrorists. They form the axis of the book, around which her arguments revolve.

The author is adamant that “these ‘subtle tools’ imperiled the very foundations of democracy, from the separation of powers and transparency in government to adherence to the Constitution.”4 These subtle tools, which will be explored in greater detail below, were forged under the weight of a Bush administration scrambling to address a crisis. The Obama administration, despite campaign rhetoric implying a scale back of ramped up national security policies considered overreach, largely retained these tools because they proved convenient. When Trump took office, he inherited an American political system that had mutated—sometimes instantly, sometimes slowly—in the midst of the War on Terrorism, into a muscle-bound behemoth. Trump then turbo-charged those policy changes to advance his agenda, both internationally and domestically, “weaponizing” these subtle tools, in myriad ways, to include an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election and hold on to power.5

Greenberg reveals deep, concerning consequences of the War on Terrorism, whereby a nation, shocked by 9/11, became an increasingly less democratic place “where disinformation, xenophobia, and disdain for the law became the new norm, and where the subtle tools of national security threatened democracy itself.”6 Those troubling consequences are the result of repeated adoption of a variety of maybe less obvious devices that, despite their opaqueness, did not diminish their cumulative impact. Two decades of imprecise language, bureaucratic porousness, secrecy, and the bypassing of procedural and legal norms have steadily worn-down American institutions and principles.7 Contrary to Bush’s strident assertion, terrorism has indeed touched the foundation of America and frequently, not in a good way. One can understand the why behind many of these developments, but the damage is often evident only when one steps back and takes in the scope and totality of the changes. Therefore, it is worth delving into these instruments to capture the thrust of her thinking.

Imprecise language refers to purposeful vagueness and open-endedness engineered into policies and documents that can then be interpreted in ways that favor broad application and expediency for government officialdom at the expense of clarity and accuracy. For instance, the AUMF, authorized by Congress in 2001, was worded to allow for almost anything to be done under that banner, to include the assassination, via drone strike, of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 (nearly two decades after the AUMF was approved). The AUMF had been designed to go after nonstate actors and those that harbored them. But its application to high-ranking members of a sovereign country, in this case Iran, was yet another expansion to an already very broad set of targets. One wonders what is not covered by it, given this recent event. This is not to say Soleimani was not a bad actor, worthy of elimination, possibly, but under the AUMF? Furthermore, by allowing targeting under the AUMF, normal consultation processes were short-circuited. Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for Barack Obama, noted that the neglect of standard decision-making procedures were typical in the Trump administration. “Very serious decisions are brought to the president without a whole lot of vetting and exploration of second- and third-order consequences.”8

Bureaucratic porousness, Greenberg’s second subtle tool, denotes fuzziness in the roles and responsibilities of the institutions of government. In utilizing this device, government is able to expand the purview of say DHS, to use it against, for example, the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere, employing methods often characterized by the courts as dubious, overly secretive, and/or downright illegal. In this instance, Trump was furious with various state governors who he believed were derelict in dealing with the protests and the subsequent destruction of property. He derided the protesters as “terrorists,” latching on to the vocabulary of the war on terror. He blasted governors, saying, “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you.”9 In effect, the governors would lose “the war” if they didn’t come down hard, utilizing the National Guard and other federal agencies. As for Trump’s efforts to leverage DHS in this pitched battle, of sorts, with protesters, noted terrorism expert Brian Jenkins reminds readers that “there are two things DHS was expressly intended not to be: a domestic intelligence agency (which undercover DHS agents were effectively serving as) or a Napoleonic gendarmerie—neither a MI-5 agency like that in the U.K. nor a national police. And certainly not a Praetorian Guard or the President’s police force.”10 Trump’s actions on this front were torched by two former DHS secretaries, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff. Chertoff, in particular, delivered a stern message: “The agency he had helped bring to life after 9/11 “had taken a devastatingly wrong turn.”11 Many had warned lawmakers early on that combining so many dissimilar agencies into one under DHS was a prescription for the abuse of power. Richard Clarke, the national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counterterrorism for Bush noted that DHS was riddled, from the onset, with problems of clarity of mission and distinctive powers and suggested “the sheer magnitude of the bureaucratic challenge overwhelmed the department’s leaders.”12

As regards secrecy, the third subtle tool, any lingering doubts among those concerned about imprecise language in newly granted policies and powers serving as a gateway to the abuse of power were quickly realized as the Patriot Act became “a massive dragnet for enforcement and intelligence agencies.”13 Under the Patriot Act, the Federal Bureau of Investigation could now issue National Security Letters demanding personal information from third parties, including financial records, credit reports, telephone and email communications data, and internet searches without the procedural safeguards that had been in place before 9/11 and without close judicial supervision, as had been previously required. No longer did the target have to be a foreign power or agent of a foreign power; under the new arrangements, records could be obtained from persons other than the target of an investigation, so long as the information was deemed “relevant.” Well big surprise! The number of National Security Letters issued exploded, going from eight thousand in 2000 to fifty-six thousand in 2004.14 It was “an open-ended invitation for new police powers to be expanded in unprecedented ways.”15 The Patriot Act’s vague language allowed intelligence agencies unprecedented access to the communications of all Americans. It was only in 2015 that the act came under significant scrutiny by the courts in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations. Those revelations made it clear the National Security Agency was collecting unimaginable troves of information on all Americans, not just bad actors. The courts belatedly determined “the government’s launching of ‘general counterintelligence efforts’ was too sweeping to pass muster,” since the possible targets were potentially infinite. Coupled with the fact the government’s own reports concluded these massive collection efforts had not thwarted any particular acts of terror, the bulk warrantless collection efforts were ruled illegal and terminated. But it had now been going on for thirteen years.16

Finally, there is the issue of bypassing procedural and legal norms. The immigration crisis at the southern border of the United States has become a festering boil in American politics, a lightning rod, sure to ignite heated debate anywhere, anytime. The porous border is also a potential passageway for bad actors intent on doing harm. So, it is both an economic and security issue at once. Encouraged by what they heard from candidate Trump, members of the union for Immigration and Customs Enforcement endorsed his candidacy—a first since the creation of DHS; Customs and Border Protection followed suit. As one frustrated officer ranted, “[He’s finally] taking the handcuffs off.”17 Trump’s messaging to the electorate was, for some, like feeding red meat to a hungry lion. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with [them]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Then, in a seemingly remorseful turn, added, “And some, I assume, are good people.”18 Trump’s new DHS secretary, retired Gen. John Kelly, applauded his get tough policy and was committed to ending illegal immigration. To that end, interactions at the border were treated as an enemy encounter rather than one with economic (and to a lesser extent political) refugees. Obama’s border policies had been harsher than Bush’s, garnering him the name “Deporter in Chief.” But under Trump, those deportation efforts were stepped up significantly. He rejected the controversial “catch and release” program whereby illegal immigrants would be released after initial capture to await their hearings. Trump was insistent that that loophole be closed. Instead, detainees were held, pending their hearings, which guaranteed detention numbers would skyrocket. Beginning in October 2017, immigration judges were ordered to prosecute seven hundred cases a day, at times, forcing dozens of cases to be heard simultaneously. The judges pushed back that this egregious demand violated due process.19 Not to be thwarted, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s “zero-tolerance” directive, which stipulated “100 percent of those crossing the border [illegally] be charged with a crime,” also resulted in the separation of children from their detained parents.20 Meanwhile, Kelly, who had promised to “do almost anything” to strengthen the border, was overseeing a military-like operation. The stage was being set for massive detentions and legal procedures that would enhance deprivations, deviating from standard due process and international law. As designed, these changes involved more aggressive and punitive enforcement tactics. In particular, the separation of parents and children, was done in an attempt to deter others from trying to cross the border. In short, the message was “Don’t come!” A legal settlement, arrived at in 1997 and known as the Flores Settlement, outlined standards for the detention and release of unaccompanied minors. Despite this long-standing legal standard, Sessions advocated that DHS officials “should simply ignore Flores and start holding families for longer periods of time. Let the judges come after us.”21 This was a rather pronounced discarding of procedural and legal norms.

Hopefully, the expositions above highlight many of the effects of the subtle tools. The author wonders if these means have become so ingrained in governance that they are deemed indispensable. As for Greenberg, she is convinced the future of democracy in America hangs in the balance and believes its best chance lies with purging these subtle tools.

There was one glaring error in the text that surprised me, though it did not take away from the overall potency of the book. On page 149, when discussing the Insurrection Act, Greenberg states “The last time [the Insurrection Act] had been invoked was 1992 by George H. W. Bush in response to the Los Angeles race riots that followed the acquittal, by an all-white jury, of the policemen who had brutally beaten the Black man Rodney King to death.”22 There is a problem with this statement. Rodney King did not die at the hands of policemen. He would live an additional twenty years, dying in 2012 by accidental drowning. Possibly, the author had George Floyd on the mind at the time she wrote this, but who knows.

The author is to be commended for stringing together a host of developments over the course of two decades and clearly showing how changes wrought from disaster created fertile ground for encroachments on civil liberties, transparency, and the rule of law. Fear convinced many to adopt draconian measures as a necessary evil to prevent another catastrophe; consideration of possible drawbacks to such far-reaching changes was often deferred, minimized, marginalized, or framed as less than patriotic in such trying times. Courage informed others, though few in number, early on, who could sense, if not yet see, trouble over the horizon in the rush to react. “If this bill is passed, it will perhaps be the most devastating one, certainly the most far-reaching one … one that all of us in this body will rue to our dying day.”23

Here is a well-constructed, well-written book worthy of your time and attention. Bravo, Greenberg!


  1. George W. Bush, president of the United States of America, 11 September 2001, as quoted in Karen J. Greenberg, Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021), 1.
  2. George Tenet, CIA director, as quoted in Greenberg, Subtle Tools, 1.
  3. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, 14 September 2001, as quoted in Greenberg, Subtle Tools, 8.
  4. Greenberg, Subtle Tools, jacket.
  5. Ibid., see chapter 9, “The 2020 Elections.”
  6. Ibid., jacket.
  7. Ibid., 4.
  8. Michele Flournoy, as quoted in Greenberg, Subtle Tools, 135.
  9. Donald Trump, as quoted in Greenberg, Subtle Tools, 148.
  10. Brian Jenkins, as quoted in Greenberg, Subtle Tools, 165.
  11. Michael Chertoff, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, as quoted in Greenberg, Subtle Tools, 164.
  12. Richard Clarke, as quoted in Greenberg, Subtle Tools, 166.
  13. Greenberg, Subtle Tools, 33.
  14. Ibid., 34.
  15. Ibid., 35.
  16. Ibid., 37.
  17. Ibid., 98.
  18. Ibid., 99.
  19. Ibid., 109.
  20. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as quoted in Subtle Tools, 111.
  21. Ibid., 114.
  22. Greenberg, Subtle Tools, 149.
  23. Donna Christian-Christensen, nonvoting member of the House of Representatives, 12 October 2001, as quoted in Greenberg, Subtle Tools, 27.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas