“The Forever War Doesn’t End With Afghanistan”: Joining the Substack Parade, Spencer Ackerman Wants to Reimagine National Security Coverage

“This year was when I went from, Wouldn’t this be a nice thing to do? To being like, Now or never,” Spencer Ackerman says upon launching “Forever Wars,” a Substack newsletter with the goal of setting “a different kind of course for national security reporting.” He took the leap, he says, to “do something that, both from a subject perspective and a format perspective, I’ve found, doesn’t really sit easily in newsrooms.”

Ackerman has spent the past two decades covering national security for outlets such as Wired, The New Republic, and The Guardian, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize–winning team that revealed U.S. surveillance secrets based on leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. In 2017, he joined the Daily Beast as senior national security correspondent, reuniting with Noah Shachtman, a former Wired alum who led the Beast and is now taking the reins of Rolling Stone. This past spring, Ackerman transitioned to a contributing editor role at the site, most recently writing an unsparing obituary for Iraq war architect Donald Rumsfeld. 

In going the independent route, Ackerman joins Substackers like Glenn Greenwald and Matthew Yglesias, who similarly cut their teeth blogging in the George W. Bush years as the administration responded to the September 11 attacks by not only targeting al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, but by launching, in 2003, the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. Anchored around the idea that the 9/11 era never really ended, Ackerman—who reported on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay—said “Forever Wars” will explore “the continuities, mutations, and departures [of the 9/11 era] and how they inform the very dire political, social, and economic circumstances that we face currently.” Indeed, he said, “the forever war doesn’t end with the departure from Afghanistan,” but is “entrenched into the architectural firmament of the security apparatus and political establishment.” 

That premise in many ways emerged from his forthcoming book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. While working on it, Ackerman says he “picked up on this broad and unfulfilled space in journalism,” where “people are trying to figure out what the 9/11 era is, what it represents, what its reach was, how we inform how we got here.” 

“The war on terror is about far more than, quote, unquote, ‘national security,’” he told me, which might help explain why his beat is now in quotation marks in his Twitter bio. “It sustains itself in part by how deep and deeply American its roots already are. I want to put all of that up to question and in sustained focus.” The writing, Ackerman says, will “feel very much like a continuity” of the work he’s done at the Daily Beast. But he wants to “let stories marinate,” producing “something that reckons with a really awful reality, rather than what the provocation of the day is.”

In fact, Ackerman doesn’t “really want to be responsive to the news cycle much at all,” and also sees combining journalism and history as essential to the mission of “Forever Wars,” a hybrid model largely missing from the current media landscape. (Ackerman’s friend, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, has stood out for injecting historical heft to the news.) And as the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks nears, Ackerman wants to avoid “a very cheap and sanitized and inaccurate and aggregate commemoration” that outlets may start rolling out. “I think this could be something of a corrective,” he said, “or it could be something of a counterbalance.”

Unlike some Substacks, “Forever Wars” will be edited, by Sam Thielman, recently of Columbia’s Tow Center and, before that, Ackerman’s “work husband at The Guardian,” and punk legend and artist Sam McPheeters designed the logo and is contributing imagery. The newsletter will cost $5 per month, and aims for twice-weekly publication. Ackerman received an advance from Substack, according to V.P. of communications Lulu Cheng Meservey, who said the arrangement is meant to provide “a sense of security, stability, and a financial guarantee” for the writer, and “for us, it’s an investment and a bet.” Ackerman, she said, “has really good instincts” and “can just set the keyboard on fire as he writes.”

Ackerman said he hopes he can “raise enough money to not only have it be sustainable, but to allow an expansive set of ambitions”—not just reporting trips but, perhaps, hiring lawyers to help navigate the “series of legal mazes” that come with a Freedom of Information Act request. As he noted, “There’s a whole lot of stuff from the war on terror that has yet to emerge.”

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