The ‘terrorism expert’ industry

Ken Silverstein has a good article in the June 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine (p. 58-59, behind a paywall) looking closely at the resume of one Matthew Levitt, one of the many so-called ‘terrorism experts’ who on closer examination do not seem to have the kind of expertise they claim to have. Their main function seems to be to hype the terrorist threat beyond all recognition and it is easy for them to do so because everyone, except the general public, benefits: They get paid to give their opinion as ‘expert witnesses’ in the government’s prosecution of terrorism cases, the media get to write sensationalistic stories, and the government achieves its goal of keeping the population terrified and docile.

In the past decade, the federal government has brought to trial hundreds of alleged terrorists. Some of these cases have been deadly serious and others decidedly dubious, but regardless of the indictment’s plausibility, prosecutors often rely on an “expert witness” to frame and buttress their charges. In their constellation of star witnesses, few have shone brighter than Matthew Levitt, Ph.D., who has testified or submitted written opinions in at least thirteen terrorism-related trials.

Terrorism experts often have professional, ideological, and financial incentives to side with the government. For his turns as an expert witness, Levitt typically bills the government $200 an hour. Not coincidentally, his role also dovetails neatly with the policy objectives of his employer, the Washington Institute, which was founded by the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. These gigs are, of course, self-reinforcing, each one serving to further legitimate Levitt as an expert. Less well served by this arrangement are defendants, whose cases can be won or lost on the basis of witness testimony that is all the more convincing when the government withholds so much of the hard evidence from the jury.

And so it goes.


  1. unbound says

    Pretty much the same story for many security experts in general. Many that I know have minimal background (a few courses and some initials they can put on their e-mail sigs) and are all about raising fears. It is harder to notice the bad security experts in technical areas because most people simply don’t know what they are actually saying and assume they must know what they are talking about.

  2. F says

    Security theater is expensive.

    There are real security experts out there. Some include terrorism as a speciality. Mostly, people with power do not want to hear from them.

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