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"The Edge of Disaster”: Building a Resilient Nation

Speaker: Stephen E. Flynn, Senior Fellow For National Security Studies
Presider: Brian Ross, Chief Investigative Correspondent, ABC News
February 21, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations


BRIAN ROSS: Good evening. I'm Brian Ross from ABC News. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations.

I'd like to remind the audience first that this meeting is on the record. Excellent. Participants around the nation and the world are viewing this via a live webcast on the Council's website, which is If you could, please turn off all your cell phones --

STEPHEN FLYNN: Modeling the behavior. (Laughter.)

ROSS: -- and Blackberrys, other wireless devices. And I'm pleased to be here and want to tell you that Stephen Flynn has written a remarkable book, once again. He is the Jean J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security council -- security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and this book, "Edge of Disaster," follows a previous best-seller, "America the Vulnerable."

At the council, Dr. Flynn has served as working group director and co-author of the council's special report, "Neglected Defense: Mobilizing the Private Sector to Support Homeland Security." He is without a doubt one of the country's preeminent experts on the issue of this, and this book, Steve, I would say, is at the same time both scary and reassuring; scary because of the credible way you have described the vulnerabilities that still exist in this country long after 9/11, and reassuring because you talk, I think, very eloquently of the resilience of the American spirit and the ability of America to bounce back and to do what's right.

Give me a sense, to start with, of what you see as the vulnerabilities. And in your book -- it's extremely well-written -- the first chapter describes a very troubling scenario.

FLYNN: Yeah. I spent some time talking about these vulnerabilities, because we've been hearing for pretty much the last five years that everything that can be done is being done to make us safe and secure. And our government largely has been saying, "We can't tell you much about what we've been doing because we'll give bad guys ideas or we'll spook you and you will be uncomfortable. So you shop and travel, and we'll go ahead and keep doing what we're doing." (Laughter.) And in this disconnect here, one of the things I think you need to talk about five years after the math is to point out to folks that in fact we are -- lots of sort of places out there that are soft potential targets.

But more importantly -- and this is the thing that I've really pulled away from the work we're doing here at the council -- a colleague of mine, Larry Garrett, who focuses on global disease -- whenever I feel like I'm going to be nervous about something, I go talk to Larry. (Laughter.) I go, "That's the real scary stuff." But it really was sort of an epiphany for me -- you know, when you work in the national security field -- and granted, I think I've been a little bit on the fringes -- I'm a retired Coast Guard officer -- and then also involved with the National Security Council under Richard Clarke, dealing with, you know, this threat when few people were paying much attention to it -- but the notion that national security isn't the primary -- doesn't deserve absolute primacy in the things that government should truly worry about -- the things that are defined as national security don't deserve that primacy. That's something I never really challenged. What I was working on challenging was that we're picking the wrong set of threats as what deserve that primacy.

And I think a bit of the epiphany before Katrina was this realization that -- can you really work your way through avian flu as a pandemic if it makes an evolutionary leap to be basically human-to-human contageous? I can't come up with any military scenario short of the United States and Russia unleashing what is left of our nuclear weapons at each other that gets you near the loss of life or near the economic disruption that would come from that outbreak. And this is just microbes going nuts.

And then watching Katrina was really this other very disturbing tale. I can't come up with any terrorism scenario that gets close to that level of destruction. I mean, we're talking, with Katrina, 300,000 homes destroyed and an area of about 65,000 miles laid waste. And then Rita followed on with a counterpunch there -- less houses because it didn't hit as densely populated an area, a la New Orleans, but it was about another 65,000 houses, and almost an equivalent amount of square miles.

So in this context of vulnerabilities, I find myself sort of three-tiers. One is we're most vulnerable to natural disasters. I mean, it's something we've always had to deal with. It's a beautiful continent, North America, but it's actually a pretty rough place to live in lots of spots. We have hurricanes on the east and gulf coasts; we have this little seismic activity that goes along in the west coast; we have flooding in the center of the country; we have droughts; we have all sorts of winds that get spun up in twisters and so forth that blow through. And it turns out -- it's an amazing number -- nine out of 10 of us -- 90 percent of Americans -- live in a place with a moderate or high risk of a major natural disaster.

Now that's basically where we demographically have moved, which is increasingly decamped the center of the country and gone to the coasts -- this lovely place down in Florida, but that's a very vulnerable area. Again, a lot of folks now living in the West Coast -- another vulnerable area. And we're crammed into urban areas a great deal, obviously, more than we were before. And we added another 100 million people over the last 30 years and squeezed it into the same space, basically, and the infrastructure largely has been untouched.

So basically in framing this, the vulnerabilities are the acts of God; the second is the foundations that we rely on for modernity -- basically made us an advanced society -- themselves are becoming very frail. These essentially are our grandparents and great-grandparents' work, and we're like the generation whose inherited a mansion and decided we're just not going to do any upkeep. You know? Nice mansion, got a great facade in the front -- we're just not going to worry about the wiring or the plumbing or any of that other non-sexy stuff, because we're going to get on with life. And the fact is, this infrastructure is in fact aging and looking quite frail.

And then we bring it to obviously the issue of the national security threat, which is the terrorism threat. And the more brittle we are, the more terrorism becomes appealing because you get a big bang for you buck -- the cascading effects that flow from it here.

And so when you look at the overarching things, I start with a scenario that looks at a refinery in South Philadelphia. Anybody who has taken the Amtrak train can wave at as you go by -- this is a -- turns out to be the plant in the most congested part of an urban population. And the real problem there is not the refinery, per se, it is that it uses a particular chemical called hydrogen fluoride as a part of the process of making high-octane gas, and this is one of the most nasty chemicals that are out there. Not everybody uses it because it's one of the nasty chemicals out there. In fact, two-thirds of the refineries in the country don't. But this one does because it would be about 20 (million dollars) to $30 million to convert it.

Now hydrogen fluoride's basic problem is it's stored under pressure, and at 69 degrees it turns into a vapor, but it's heavier than air, so it crawls across the ground. So if we had an explosion on there as a result of a tank truck attack, which is what I used -- the same kind of attack, by the way, that happened yesterday in Baghdad 12 miles north with a chlorine truck, so this is not like these things are -- requires a lot of science fiction or other sort of suspense novel writing -- this is taking real-world stuff, bringing it here -- we have this explosion. Basically it rocks the fittings. It bursts the tanks. The tanks come out, they find air, find it's warmer than it is, and it crawls around the ground and it will kill everybody five miles downstream of the bloom. Very, very nasty. So you would think we would be converting this, which is really the message. We can't prevent every one of these. What we can do is make that a less attractive target by moving in the direction of finding a safer chemical. But that in fact is not happening.

So the basic thought of the book is really to lay out that there are vulnerabilities that aren't just acts -- that aren't just bad guys up to bad things, but are in fact that we are facing natural disasters; we're facing ailing foundations that are likely to fail us, and bad guys we're going to have to keep coping with, too.

ROSS: And what is five miles downstream from that refinery?

FLYNN: Five miles -- well, two miles away is Citizens Park -- of course, they have the winds coming the right direction. You know, this is a low probability, but obviously high-consequence scenario.

The winds are blowing out of the west, two miles away is Citizens Park. As the scenario plays out, it's a June evening. There are 40,000 people packed into the stadium. The Mets are there so we've got lots of New Yorkers, as well, that are there. And the parking lot is filled up, the highway is already congested because it's a Friday evening, school is out that day -- I added all the pieces. But it really was just to say that when this thing happens, you've got five-mile-per-hour wind, you've got -- well, not much response time there if you do the arithmetic. And as people would end up trying to get to their cars, there's no place to go. And if you start breathing this, it literally just burns most of everything that we need to survive and if you get it in the lungs, you're pretty much done. And this is not something you would want around a major urban area.

Five years after 9/11, though -- five years after 9/11, we have not got a point where we know what the chemical plants are around our country, what they're doing for security. That legislation was just tacked to an appropriation bill tied to the Department of Homeland Security's funding for this year in September and gave the department a whopping $15 million to now execute a brand new mission that our government can't do, which is actually go out and police up to 15,000 facilities that have highly deadly substances with it here. I mean, try spending that all in once place.

And putting that into a sort of a more macro context in thinking about our security, since we've invaded Iraq, we've been spending $250 million a day in the war in Iraq. Now that works out therefore to be we're spending -- willing to spend about 90 minutes worth of Iraq on providing the Department of Homeland Security with resources to police the chemical infrastructure across our country. This is a country that obviously has not been willing to think about its vulnerabilities and certainly not willing to make it a priority to address it.

ROSS: You say we're at the edge of disaster because of essentially our own negligence.

FLYNN: Yeah.

ROSS: I say, "Our own." Whose negligence?

FLYNN: It really -- I mean, it's a collective negligence. Not surprisingly, we the people, ultimately as a democracy share the burden here of anything that's not going well in our society. But really I'm hovering on -- you know, the subtitle of the book is about rebuilding a resilient nation. I'm arguing we were resilient once; we just seem to be losing our way on this score.

And maybe it would help to define a little bit this "resiliency" word means. And it basically -- resiliency is three parts. It's first being able to anticipate likely bad things that may happen. The second piece is being able to -- having a plan in advance to try to mitigate the consequences -- lower your exposure to something bad happening, and when it does happen, being able to respond quickly and restore. And the idea, though, about resiliency is that you can't stop everything that happens. What you can do is contain it from being truly disastrous.

Disasters are a given. Catastrophes essentially are manmade by our acts of omission and commission -- the things we fail to do up front; the things we fail to prepare to do in the aftermath turn something into a true catastrophe. Of course, Katrina represented -- it was a hurricane. The real thing, though, that made it a catastrophe was the failure of a flood control system that nobody really decided was important to actually invest properly amounts into here.

So the bottom line is that we're very much in need of recognizing this vulnerability collectively and thinking about it rather than as security, which tends often to be thought of in gates, guards and guns terms, or it's thought of as something that -- in absolutist terms -- "We're either 100 percent secure or we fail." Often the Secretary of Homeland Security says -- time and again Michael Chertoff uses the, "The terrorists have to be right only once; we have to be right 100 percent of the time." And it gets you into this, "We have to be right -- we have to do whatever it takes to be right 100 percent of the time."

ROSS: You don't buy that.

FLYNN: I think it's just not realistic, all right; we're not going to be right 100 percent of the time, for lots of very complicated reasons.

But what we really need to step back and think about is why is terrorism attractive to our adversaries? Terrorism is attractive if they can get cascading consequences that really hurt us. But those turn out to be largely things that we inflict on ourselves. They're not actually things that terrorists can do. Most acts of terror are local disasters in terms of the physical damage that's done, the loss of life. Again, that doesn't get to the scale often of what Mother Nature can dole out to you. But what really can be a bang for your buck from an adversary's standpoint is if in fact we overreact in that we impose all these silly things afterwards in terms of ways to cure the problem, or we close down our borders and try to sort things out that way, or we retreat on our civil liberties. There's a whole series of things we can do that really can be painful that are worthwhile for an adversary to advance. Those things we need to protect ourselves from -- ourselves.

We need to basically -- the best resilience is preventing ourselves from -- the making sure that when something bad happens that we don't overreact, so therefore our adversaries find it less attractive to do it. The best defense, it turns out to be, perhaps, is a good defense. (Laughter.)

ROSS: Would you argue, though, that the U.S. is spooked today by terrorism?

FLYNN: You know, fear -- I would argue basically -- we're definitely in this -- a little bit of a no man's land. Fear is always -- requires two pieces. The first is an awareness of a vulnerability. When we say our child is fearless, usually it's because they don't know if they put their hand on the stove it's going to hurt. All right? So it's an awareness of vulnerability. But the second part, and this is the critical second part, is a powerlessness to deal with that vulnerability. And I think to some extent that yeah, we are. I think I describe it in the book as a bit like our government has said -- largely the federal government has said to virtually all of us -- the equivalent of you going to your cardiologist who then looks you over and says, "You know, you're at extremely high risk for heart disease. Have a nice day." (Laughter.) And what do you do with that, right? You're either -- one, you go out and write your last will and testament because you're convinced doom is impending, or the other is you grab another Big Mac going, "Well, this is hopeless, so what can I do?"

You know -- but it's dysfunctional. What we need is change of diet, change of exercise. And then actually when you do those things, you don't actually end up being a worse person for it, many times. I mean, it's a traumatic thing to find out that this may be in your family history and you've got some things not going your right way, but the corrective actions you often take are things that are going to make your life more fruitful. And I think any of us who've had a traumatic medical kind of experience here often come to that realization, that in fact it's not all bad after you get that initial drop. It's bad if you don't think you can control it or if it is and turns out to be an uncontrollable event.

In a similar fashion, Americans have been essentially left out of the equation of what we can do with -- as individuals, as people, as businesses, as a civil society -- what can we do to deal with our vulnerabilities and the threat that terrorism presents?

ROSS: We've been advised to get duct tape. (Laughter.)


ROSS: But there's more to it than that, obviously.

FLYNN: Well, what I'm really sort of pushing hard on is first, let's think about preparing for this homeland security mission that we've now sort of embraced. Let's think instead about national security -- the way to advance a national security goal of trying to make our society more resilient is to prepare for the more probable and inevitable events, which are natural disasters. Let's take the terrorism picture out of this for a while and sit back and say, "All right. There's 90 percent of us going to be affected by this other stuff. What skill sets does it take to actually manage those events?"

ROSS: Are you saying, though, that we sort of just have to be -- let ourselves get hit if there's another terror attack?

FLYNN: The most missing piece here is that I think overall it's been the lack of leadership that's really not been there both with 9/11 and Katrina, to essentially say what needs to be said, which is that we are a vulnerable society, but there are things that we can do and must do to make ourselves -- reduce this exposure to these kinds of events.

You know, it's really the lesson we should have taken from 9/11. I would argue that we missed a very important lesson that day, which was resiliency really mattered. In the case of particularly the World Trade Center towers, because of the first attack on -- in 1993 with the truck bomb in the basement of the North Tower, the Port Authority invested $250 million in not-very-sexy things to make that building safer for the occupants in it. Not-sexy things like photo-luminescent paint on treads of steps and handles.

Now why would you think you would want to make that investment? Because when the lights go out, people can see the stairs. And this really would have been -- as tragic as the day was, it would have been a lot more tragic if it was 1993 and there was still 10,000 more people in the building when the building came down. The egress worked because a prudent investment was made in thinking through this "what if" driven obviously by the '93 event, but not saying we've got to run around the world and hunt and destroy every terrorist and forget about buying photo-luminescent paint. You work on that part of it. I would argue offense should be the complement to building this defensive capability.

And what we can do -- in other things, backup emergency centers. I mean, Rudy Giuliani got beat up pretty hard about basically gold-plated emergency management. Nobody was beating him up after 9/11. It requires investment around things that don't look like silver bullets that often do make you more resilient.

And there really -- and I talk about this in the book leading up to one of my scary scenario chapters, but I think this is such an important issue, and it's -- real good work, Brian -- in part has been a very much -- I think helps drive us in the right direction. And the biggest demonstration of resiliency -- what we should have taken away from 9/11 -- was the experience of United 93. Of the four planes that were out there, of course, this was the one that was heading for, almost certainly, our seat of government -- for the Capitol, and maybe the White House. So let's think about this. We have constituted our government to provide for the common defense, so we put these folks on Capitol Hill and their job is to figure out how to protect us. The only thing that protected them that morning on September 11 -- the only thing -- was informed citizens -- citizens who knew on that plane, unlike the people on the other three planes, that a plane could be used as a missile.

The Air Force didn't know the plane was up there. The Northern -- NORAD at the time here hadn't identified it as -- in fact as being hijacked and heading into -- heading towards Washington. There were no air marshals. Nobody checked people for their three-ounces plus liquids and so forth here. What was going on there was they knew something the other three planes didn't know, which was that a plane could be used as a missile.

You know, it's a very sobering thing for all of us. I mean, what would we do in that position? But I think it's extraordinary that that day it turned out to be our greatest strength were our citizens who understood the threat and acted and took actions in their own right.

We have a second-to-none military, and I think we need to keep it that way, but we've lost sight of what the greatest strength really is, which is that capacity.

ROSS: But that requires playing it straight with the American public.

FLYNN: It really does.

ROSS: But that also means you are essentially playing straight with terrorists in the audience. They hear the same thing. If you reveal that the security at the airport is weak or that the ports can't detect nuclear weapons, aren't you giving a roadmap to terrorists?

FLYNN: This is really of course what we basically have used at the federal government level as the reason for not pushing this envelope at all here. We don't want to give the bad guys ideas.

I think this is nonsense overall. I mean, we're not talking about wiring diagrams. We're talking about identifying vulnerabilities and change behaviors we have to -- to deal with that vulnerability.

What if, I argue, in August 2001 -- the director of the FBI, the director of the CIA and the secretary of Transportation and stood up in front of microphones and said, "It's not great intelligence, but we've got some information that troubles us that there are folks out there who may be interested in taking planes and turning them into missiles, and this is something you need to know"? Because every one of us was conditioned before then to thinking that when your plane was taken, your job was to sit passively, land on a tarmac somewhere, and the pros would come in and negotiate your way out of this. And this really clicked for me when I heard Mohamed Atta, who of course captured the American airliner, when he says very calmly, "Everybody stay in your seats" -- he keyed the wrong mike -- "Everybody stay in your seats; we're going to be returning to Boston." So you're like, "Okay, I'll stay in my seat."

Now that wouldn't happen -- in fact, the 9/11 commission didn't even -- they -- the 9/11 commission focused on the issue -- there were some parts of the U.S. government that knew that this issue was there, and other parts didn't know, and basically beat up the U.S. government for not sharing information. But they never said, "Why weren't we sharing this with the American people?"

I would argue as well, this is not Soviet Union. This is not espionage of some high caliber. Terrorists have a very low tolerance for failure. Now good news five-plus years in, the footprint is quite small here in the United States. To put together a 9/11-scale attack would take you about three years or so. I mean, some of the folks I've run into in the Department of Defense and in the national security group, you know, talk to me, push back and say, you know, "You can't deter these people. They're suicidal. They're tied to some ideology, you know, tethered into certainly a realm that we can't understand. Bottom line is, we're too open, we're too vulnerable, and these folks can't be deterred. The only thing we can do is take the battle to the enemy."

And I've pushed back on this, all right. First, all right, yes, suicidal bombers. Somebody in that act -- it's a bit like saying I can't deter a round that's left a 9-millimeter gun. But let's step back and look at this here. How does somebody become suicidal? It's about a two-year socialization process or radicalization process they have to put you through. Well, somebody had to provide that process. Secondly, they're probably not a natural-born bomb maker. Somebody actually had to make bombs without blowing themselves up -- that's a skill -- and be able to match this up. Thirdly, the suicide bomber wants to be able to actually have some effect. In order to do that, they've got to know what to hit. Well, that requires somebody doing surveillance. You can only do it once, so you've got to do a dry run. All this is taking time. People need a place to live, and they've got to do it without being observed. If you try to recruit Americans into this process, which one could potentially do here, it's a real challenging operational security challenge because the person may be all for it until he learns that Aunt Tillie's neighborhood is actually next door to the thing you want to blow up. Or there are also our friends and neighbors who are sort of seeing this changed behavior and may also sort of clue folks in.

So you have to be very, very careful about who you draw in; you've got to compartmentalize the information you provide. And all this, I would argue, starts to bound the problem. It's not like they can willy-nilly hit everything, because if they hit something, it's going to be three years before you're reconstituted again. So you want to hit the bigger thing with the cascading effects. But if we start chipping away at that, both what are really vulnerable that you don't get your loss of life or disruption but also that as you chip -- you do this thing, it's essentially a fizzle, then I think the reaction is, "Gee, do we really want to do this? Is this investment really worthwhile doing here?"

We're not going to solve the loony problem. There are going to be the Tim McVeigh's out there and the others who will do the spontaneous act of lunacy, but we're worried about a qualitative risk that we saw in 9/11 -- The ability for mass destruction, mass cascading effects. Let's bifurcate this issue and start to take a deep breath and essentially engineer our way back into figuring out how we can contain it and work around it without losing our heads.

ROSS: And you think the American public is prepared to accept the risk that there will be more attacks and that that's okay -- to sort dial back a bit.

FLYNN: I think what we really need is --

ROSS: Is that politically acceptable as well?

FLYNN: It's -- we need a candidate willing to test those waters, I think. But what we clearly know right now is the other line -- I mean, the president put the ultimate line in the sand here with the State of the Union Address, in which he said, "The one thing about which there can be no question is the only way to win the war on terror is to take the battle to the enemy." And the entire house stood up and cheered.

Well, you know, the sailor in me says whenever something's that conventional wisdom, alarms are going off. I know Mother Nature's going to throw me a curve ball and maybe we really need to think about whether that really is the absolute nonnegotiable.

There's certainly an element of it -- offense will always need to be, I would argue, a complement of our strategy as we go forward, when we have the intelligence to inform it. But if we're willing, I think, to talk adult-like to the American people about the nature of these vulnerabilities, I think the reality is everyone understands natural disasters, they can't prevent. The earthquake will happen; the hurricanes will happen. But when you explain the things to make sure that these things aren't cataclysmic are things like making emergency management work, public health work, your having a plan, your being self-sufficient for 72 hours -- build it around the non-terror issue, but then bring it full circle and say, "This is, ladies and gentlemen, what you can be doing as your victory garden. There's what you contribute on the home front to the war on terror. Our young men and women are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of their blood in support or defense of this nation. What we can do here at home at a minimum is to make sure that terrorism is not so attractive to be done, and when it does happen that they don't -- we don't have the mass loss of life or the mass disruption that can flow from it."

ROSS: And do you see that resilience in the American spirit?

FLYNN: I absolutely do see it, and I certainly saw it here again in New York on 9/11, and you saw it on United 93. I've seen it in every sort of major crowd control event that I was involved with in the Coast Guard. I remember being in New York Harbor on the centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty. Statistically it should have been an absolute -- you know, it should have been a frat house disaster. I mean, people are tipping up a little bit and all this, but what you saw under those circumstances were people pulling together. They didn't call up everybody for help; they basically helped everybody along. It was sort of this sense of civic responsibility to manage our way through that.

I think it's untapped, and it's really very interesting when you go back and look in the 1930s, when the Brits were wringing their hands over the issue of obviously growth in German power, one of the things that fed the appeasement dialogue -- obviously the fatigue of the first World War was the main driver, but the other one was Nazi air power, where the conviction was the British people were just so weak. They hadn't been -- nobody actually had attacked the place since the Spanish Armada, and the Spanish didn't get very far; that basically, if we get a hit here, the whole society will fall apart. The elites were pretty well convinced, in Chamberlain's cabinet here, that the British people couldn't take the punch of Nazi war power.

And then of course, fast forward to the Battle of Britain, V bombs, the ultimate weapon of terror -- there was absolutely no military utility. It was plus or minus London -- that's what you basically got out of them. But what the Londoners showed was steely resolve, that ultimately weakened the desire by the Nazis to use them. They were having the opposite effect of what they thought was availability.

I'm convinced that the American people have been undersold in their -- in their ability to work their way through. And I make that case because every generation of Americans has confronted adversity and confronted challenges. And so it goes back to our founders. But if you look at, whether it was Great Depression or Great Wars, we haven't become a lesser of people every time we were confronted with adversity; we've become a better people every time.

ROSS: I want to throw it open to some questions from the audience.

Just a reminder, there's a microphone here for you to speak into. If you would, state your name and your affiliation and one question at a time, and try to keep it concise. We want to get to as many questions as possible.

Yes, ma'am?

QUESTIONER: Senator Nunn and Senator Lugar have been talking a lot about nerve gas and depositories that one tube of this could wipe out, say, a third of the country. Do you deal with that, and do you have any knowledge about that?

FLYNN: They have truly the knowledge on that in terms of their focus. There's little question, when we think about dealing with this threat, one element of it is ultimately, of course, finding where the bad materials are and finding a way to contain it. And Senator Nunn and Senator Lugar have really been just absolutely trailblazers on that. And with great frustration, we can't seem to make appropriate investments to get a handle on that.

What I remain pessimistic about is that we'll ever reach the point where the regime will be so tight that we won't ever have an event that involves these horrible chemicals in the 21st century. So I want to make sure that our society is prepared for them, both psychologically as well as mechanically.

And I just praise my colleague here, Mike Levy (sp) here. A report came out yesterday from GAO that we, in fact, of course, don't have many people who actually understand how to manage a biological or chemical event here in the United States because they're in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, you know, this is a skill set. There's a limited supply. And we have to think through how we deal with this. There's a go-to-the-source issue. But as somebody -- and this is part of what has animated my work and my skepticism in part about border management and border control, because, you know, you can eliminate the enemy; and the other course, Lou Dobbs style, we can lock down our borders and filter everything that comes through if we just get these nuts in Washington to get on with the job.

Well, you know, I was on the front lines of the drug war for a while, have spent a lot of time studying it, first with the Council's support back in 1991. We've been winning that war now for 27 years. (Laughter.) Every year the president has a new national drug strategy which he puts on the front how much progress we've been making.

Okay, let me just give you one of the basic numbers. There was cocaine and heroin in 1980 and there's cocaine and heroin available today in 2007. It's cheaper, purer, at a lower price today than it was in 1980. And this is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. There's some very sharp people, but there's also a lot of other players, not the sharpest knives in the drawer. They're managing to sustain this business despite a global prohibition against it. Every nation has signed up to the regime. Nobody's for drugs.

The mechanics of it are such that it's very difficult to control at (every available way ?). So I think, you know -- again, this is more an adult-like conversation to say stuff happens. And you're actually making the all-hazards argument, because it is something we're familiar with. But it also makes no sense that we're not prepared to deal with those hazards when they materialize, because they are inevitable. The timing isn't inevitable, but they are going to happen. And we know. Friction is building up on the West Coast; they'll have an earthquake. It's going to happen. So what's the plan? And we need to, as citizens, push those questions.

ROSS: I noticed an article recently, a new flow of heroin now on the West Coast from Afghanistan.

FLYNN: Yes, absolutely.

ROSS: Mr. Isham.

QUESTIONER: Chris Isham from ABC as well. I just wonder if you could give us your evaluation of the progress that's been made, or not made, for that matter, on deterrence of smuggling a nuclear device into a U.S. port. Brian has done a number of pieces, as you know, in terms of -- that have exposed some of the vulnerabilities in the screening systems. Has there been improvement? Where do you think we are on that?

FLYNN: Let me say, first and foremost, that I think the threat that I've been most worried about has been not the actual successful smuggling of a weapon of mass destruction in the United States. It is that when that happens, our response will be to shut down the global intermodal transportation system to sort things out. And that will be really bad on lots of levels here, because it turns out everything from medicines that we rely on to the basic stuff that obviously goes into our manufacturing and retailing sector moves around in these ubiquitous boxes.

So my concern is one that when we have this event, a bad thing gets in the box and we associate box with very bad thing, a nuclear device or, worse, a dirty bomb, or, worse worse, a nuclear weapon going off, then our response will be, because we have so little faith in the controls right now, to overreact and turn it off, to try to turn off the spigot.

In terms of our ability to detect this material, particularly a nuclear weapon, basically there's been a lot of deployment of radiation portals, which basically will pick up whether there is radioactivity moving stuff, unless it's shielded. Well, nuclear weapons turn out to be all shielded. That's part of the deal, so that basically if you get on a submarine, a sailor can (hid ?) it around in his gym shorts, basically, you know, without being willing.

And so it's surrounded in material called tungsten. It gives off so little radiation that there's normally more background ambient radiation than what's in the -- than what's being given off by the nuclear weapon.

Many nuclear materials actually have, like, highly enriched uranium, which Brian is very much associated with it. There are actually low levels of radioactivity that they give off. You can carry it around essentially in a soup can without being hurt because they have a very long half-life. And so they're also very difficult to detect.

So the bottom line is throwing these things up here as portals and saying, "We're making a big leap forward," without really explaining to the American people how difficult the challenge is and what the problems are, I think, sets us up for the overreaction, because when this thing gets by this equipment and we have this terrible event, then the government has lost a lot of face and a lot of confidence, and it's going to be -- you're going to have to sort of reinvent the wheel all over again.

So what it really is, it's about building these layers -- and we often hear about them here -- but the problem is, the basic system right now is an honor system. If you've been shipping terrorist-free so far in the course of your corporate career and we can verify you're a legitimate actor, we're not going to check you.

And this made sense from a counter-crime standpoint, because the basic challenge with counter-crime was like the heroin run from Afghanistan. It's an ongoing conspiracy. It's something that repeats over and over again. And so there's an entry-level cost for a criminal to try to penetrate a legitimate company's supply chain, because they have checks, and over time, they catch it and they shut it down.

But a terrorist incident is a one-time event, or maybe simultaneously two times. So you purposely want to go after the, quote, "low-risk player" as a way -- and you can always do it once because nobody has a system where the alarms go off and private security jumps out of a helicopter and say, "Why is this truck late?" You know, it would only be because the truck is consistently late that leads to a question that goes to an investigation that you begin a process of examining it, which is, again, good for counter-crime but does not help you deal with the threat of a terrorist incident.

So I've made the case to the customs commissioners in a meeting I had in Paris here a while ago, saying, "What you define as low-risk is the highest risk for the worst-case scenario." We haven't yet built the controls in place for all that low-risk population that should give us any confidence.

ROSS: Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: Donald Shriver, Union Theological Seminary.

I used to think, after 9/11, that we were being manipulated by the politics of fear. I think it's more accurate to say we're being manipulated by the politics of anxiety. While walking through airports, we're told we are now at Level Orange, which means nothing at all to us about anything we could do about it.

And by being given the notion that we are globally vulnerable to almost everything, then we hunker down and hope for the best. A striking thing you have asked for is that, as an example, in August of 2001, that the government might have told us what a specific danger might have been out there about which the government was not ready to say it knew exactly what to do.

I think we are in danger of the 100 percent mentality that you talked about. The government is not going to protect us against everything. Democratically, we've never thought we were justified in saying that.

Would you say that it's possible that we could get political leadership who could come on to us with a stance like "We're doing all we can, folks, but we can't do everything; that's the human condition?"

FLYNN: We can hope that that's there. But also, of course, an element of leadership is not just about pointing out vulnerabilities and threats and being clear-eyed about it, but it is pointing out the ways in which pragmatic steps can be taken to address this. It has to happen at the civil society level. It has to happen at the private sector level.

And obviously there has to be some re-racking of the way the federal government behaves, particularly with regard to states and locals. I mean, if people push back and say, "Why is it we're so woefully unprepared as we were with Katrina, you know, to deal with so many of these contingencies?" The basic issue with homeland security is that it bounces head-on into an orthodox view of federalism, which is that anything that falls within the states and cities is a state and local responsibility.

The federal government's responsibility is national security defined as water's edge out. But as soon as you start getting into homeland security, by definition, you're having to rub up against states and locals. And if 85 percent is our number we use all the time about critical infrastructure being owned by private sector. Now you're talking about the federal government interacting with the marketplace. Another orthodox view holds that that, in fact, shouldn't happen. And then ultimately, you know, engaging citizenry also creates a bit of challenges for us here.

So the easiest thing is to say, if you hold this very orthodox view that government should be small, basically should not involve with states and locals, not being involved with private, what's the one thing you can do, national security traditionally defined, we're protecting you by taking a huge number of your resources and taking the battle to the enemy.

So it's this failure to confront and having an adult-like conversation about the federalism paradigm. I mean, the administration has done pretty good work in saying, "Let's look at the avian flu pandemic. How will that work out? Conclusion: Ooh, all states and locals will be overwhelmed. What do we do? States and locals, you'd better get on with this."

Now let's look at some of these major hurricane scenarios like Pamela a year before New Orleans. "Ooh, states and locals will be overwhelmed. Solution: States and locals, get on with this. We've got a job to do." And then the same with many of these terrorist scenarios.

The fact is, the nature of where we live and how we live, again, means that many of these natural disasters right now, should they happen, or even catastrophic terrorist events, will overwhelm the state and local capability. If that is so, we need to have a conversation about either more federal support for states and locals or taking more resources away from the federal government and giving them to states and locals so we can do this core function of government, which is provide for our safety and well-being.

You can't get away with taking a quarter to a third of our money -- (inaudible) -- Washington and then give a nickel or a dime to the states and locals when the threats, in fact, are calibrated where it's more response where your states and locals have a heavy lift to do.

We have to have these kinds of conversations. You can't pretend that the marketplace will take care of itself when the data is in five-plus years later and problems like I illustrated in Philadelphia is they're not taking care of themselves. There's obviously -- markets, as I've learned -- I'm not an economist -- they work by incentives, which are either, A, carrots, or B, sticks. They don't work by exhortations.

ROSS: Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: My name is Khalid Azim. Could you speak to any success stories that we've had in the last six years and also any other governments that have done a better job than us in terms of managing these issues?

FLYNN: Absolutely. A big part -- the second half of the book goes into, a chapter that lays out how we need to get the federal government together and examples where that has been done and can be done well. Then I look at the private sector, some examples there, and then finally civil society, where you see some real smart things.

Let me give you a micro one that I find just really appealing. A major software maker was in the Seattle area. Of course, we had an earthquake in Seattle in 2001, and one of the things that happens after an earthquake, you have to have a building inspector come by to see if your building is free to be occupied by everybody.

Building inspectors, not surprisingly, go to public buildings first. The private sector is down the food chain, appropriately, when you need to help hospitals and schools and other things that need to be done.

Well, this company basically thought this was not good waiting days for the building inspector to come by to say the building was okay. "We have engineers. Let's do this. State, we'll give you six of our engineers to train to essentially do this job of building inspecting. Let us use them to give us our thumbs clear when this happens, and we'll make them available for you to help with all the other buildings." Absolute win-win for a very sort of simple thing. But it can make a real difference in terms of recovering that community quickly.

Another example, Eden Prairie, a small suburb of Minneapolis, where essentially the big companies have come together with the small companies. There's a very compelling number and scary one. Thirty percent of small businesses, after a major natural disaster, are shuttered. They just can't recover. And this is a problem for larger businesses that are increasingly more dependent upon small businesses. But it's really, of course, a real threat to a community to have a third of your small businesses go away.

So we have these big companies who have things like hot new operation plans training the smaller companies to play these parts. They're all inventorying things like who has trucks, who has vans, who has radios, who has this -- they're putting on a data base that the city manager has where they have access to, and the idea is the stuff's available; they can help do it -- not for terrorism; for tornadoes and snowstorms. That's what they're focused on building it here. But obviously it has a benefit that would apply there.

On a macro scale, international scale, the Japanese are really good at earthquakes. I mean, they know the plan, drill at the neighborhood level. And it works. And obviously the Dutch, they are very good at flood control. The whole place is underwater. They have flood control now like nobody else. And -if you argue about civil defense, the Swiss have been at that for about five centuries. It's basically their strategy. You get into the country; we basically blow up our own bridges and we hang out and subsist, and you've got nice mountain passes that you can't pass. That was basically right down to the home level and still makes that investment.

Let me see. Switzerland, Japan and the Netherlands -- democracies, all three democracies. Preparedness is not about being paranoid and being undemocratic. It's just the opposite. It's about being real about the challenges that confront you and making pragmatic investments to reduce your exposure to the real bad things that are likely to happen and have the ability to respond and recover when they do. And I think --

ROSS: What about the British? What about the British, given the attacks on the subway system there, the Underground? How was their response compared to the response in this country?

FLYNN: It was much better than probably would be for certainly any other city. This is another important -- let me just say also about 9/11, the thing we were seeing frequently right after that is we only had one horror that day, and the horror was the loss of the towers and the loss of life, and obviously the attack on the Pentagon as well.

What we didn't have, what we did not have, was a gross government incompetency in responding to that disaster; dare I say, Katrina-scale government incompetency responding to that disaster. And that didn't happen by magic. That happened because there was an investment here in New York to do emergency management well, to do backup emergency centers that have -- and because the people's resiliency here actually is pretty good because getting around this area here of this particular piece of real estate requires some daily resiliency; the Brits in the same way, but here in mass transit, basic stuff was there.

Why were the Brits willing to get on the train the next day? Because they had some things that went right there that are not likely to go here. One is lights in tunnels, as we found out here when the lights went out, not by terrorists but by trees growing too high, in the summer of 2003. When the lights go in the tunnel, the trains don't move; it's really spooky trying to get out of them.

But having some emergency lighting is an investment that will really help make that work; a conductor who's trained to actually deal with this contingency, who can make good announcements and lead the passengers out. That's a pretty good thing to have -- emergency response, police and fire, who have exercised this and, of course, because of IRA attacks on the system, well-exercised; good communications by the locals, honest communications with the people, what they know and what they don't know.

All that worked together in filing their case. The fact that there were closed-circuit TV cameras that allowed them to go back in trying the actual perpetrators limited the risk automatically, and so people could take their breath and get on the train.

Two weeks later, there was another copycat kind of attack on it here and it failed. They were apprehended. I'll go out on a limb and say there's virtually no chance that al Qaeda or its imitator organizations will attack the British Underground for the foreseeable future. They expended essentially suicide bombers, which are hard to get, and they have nothing to show for it.

You know, the old rule of terrorism was all about visibility and getting attention. Well, if you have people with suicide pacts going to Buckingham Palace at the changing of the guard, it would have been a perfect way to kill a lot more people and get a lot better visuals. What they were trying to do was shut down the mass transit system for London. That would have really hurt. It turned out to be more resilient than they thought.

Our systems are less resilient because of some of those very basic things -- training of the conductors, making sure we have lights and escape routes, and also informed citizens. I have to commend Washington, D.C. though. They have a very good program where they take, with volunteers, Metro riders, who come in on the weekends and they take them through evacuating if the train is stopped in the tunnel. You don't have to do this for everybody. You have to have a critical mass.

Again, going back to 9/11, two-thirds of the people in the World Trade Center towers had, in fact, gone through a fire drill 12 months before, and the other third are going to be helped along by those two-thirds who did that. And so it's not all about, you know, essentially bunker-busting bombs. It's about doing the grunt work, not very sexy work, of photoluminescent paint and fire drills. But we can do that. It's clearly not a cost issue. It's really about engaging us to work our way through those challenges.

ROSS: Yes, ma'am.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I want to go back to the countries that you talked about. I think that the bigger similarity -- the similarity that you talked about, democracy, is really not that telling. It's a bit simplistic, it seems, because these are all smaller countries. They have less immigration than America does.

How can the U.S. have the same kind of security without essentially stopping being the U.S., which is an open country with a lot of different people, much less border control, and people within your country who are actually ideologically opposed to the government's, you know, stance. How do you actually protect against homegrown terrorism and staying open actually become more secure, unlike those smaller countries?

FLYNN: Yeah. Well, first, I mean, I picked those countries purposely because they were democracies, and to say that basically preparedness is not an undemocratic thing. But obviously a lot of countries have illustrated resiliency dealing with lots of different challenges, and democracy hasn't been necessarily the guiding principle.

But in dealing with the -- there is growing concern, rightfully so, about the homegrown threat, where I think of homegrown as really more the West European, maybe Canadian, and also clearly will have American roots increasingly.

We're basically talking about well-educated folks with no criminal records who are angry and who have been radicalized, and therefore have the means to get into this country relatively readily with the system we have, because they won't hit any of the watch lists, and will be able to potentially carry out pretty sophisticated attacks without drawing attention because they know the lay of the land.

The guy memorizing the Koran in a madrasa in, you know, eastern Pakistan is going to kind of stick out like a sore thumb when he just shows up here for the first day. You know, it's like that Robin Williams in "Moscow on the Hudson" kind of problem, right?

So the real issue is, as we metastasize this and it has those kinds of roots, the federal apparatus we have in place is going to be virtually no good. So it turns out the real opportunity for dealing with counterterrorism for these large-scale attacks is during the surveillance and rehearsal stage. That's where we're seeing people behave in ways that just don't look right. But the people most likely to see that are the cops on the beat or everyday citizens.

But the extent to which they have not actually got the resources or been engaged on this -- and basically most locals have not, and we citizens haven't been brought into much of this at all. NYPD is pretty much an exception to that rule. I mean, New Yorkers would feel comfortable with what Ray Kelly has done, largely at odds with the federal approach.

You know, the federal approach is basically just to grab every nut case and that's how we're going to nip it in the bud; you know, the more sustained effort, basic things like they've gone to every parking garage in the city, since car bombs are a common tool of terror around the world, and they've explained to the people in the garage working there what car bombs are. Cars get weighted down a little bit different than -- these people know cars. They have to park them in minuscule spaces.

They basically give them the tools to identify this, which is somewhat reassuring to them. But, you know, what the most important part of it is now it's Inspector Gonzalez that I'm going to call when I see something wrong. It's not a 9/11 kind of, you know, something with the PA system. It's a person that I know and the face. But that's resource-intensive.

The New York police department is 40,000 people. You know, the Coast Guard has barely that for the whole country. You know, FEMA, by the way, that didn't perform so well -- this is an amazing number; I think people don't know it. You know how big FEMA is? It's 2,600 people. That's FEMA for the whole country. The FEMA for the region of the outer coast of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee, is 112 people. And the idea here that we should be shocked that these folks couldn't parachute out and rescue an area the size of Katrina -- if you don't invest in emergency management, you get what you pay for.

But the Coast Guard has a great asset -- the Coast Guard auxiliary. These are volunteer folks who come out. And they've been trying to draw them in by both informing them but also having them in their basic boating safety courses, in their actions elsewhere here, to say, "Here are things to look out on the waterfront you might want to be cognizant of."

But they're doing it on a shoe string, right. It's a collateral duty for a lieutenant because there's no money for this kind of stuff. So people know how to do this. The pros know how to do this stuff at the local and state level, but basically the resources simply aren't there to do this in a real successful way, a nationwide kind of way, the kind of thing we saw in the Second World War.

ROSS: Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: (Inaudible.) There are two good solutions that you give us. One are the various technological and the other is in terms of political leadership. And I've got a couple of issues about the political leadership.

In London, when the bombers hit the Underground, there was a very different attitude towards government and the credibility of government than there is many other parts of the world. It's not a specific government, Tony Blair; it is a government as such. And I was reminded of this in the piece in The Washington Post today that the inspector general of the Department of Justice said that of 26 tables of data about terrorists, 24 were wrong, which raises the question about the American people not being undersold but overblown by the way in which we characterize the terrorist issue.

But on the politics, the leadership, what is the difference between this rather inchoate, still abstract threat of terrorism as against the issue of global warming? We have more and more data. We have better scientific projections as to what might occur, what will be the consequences, the economic costs, and somehow or other, for all of the things that you talk about in political leadership, global warming hasn't hit.

FLYNN: Yeah. Well, clearly there are a lot more experts than I am on the issue of global warming. But I can say the extent to which we've seen climate change, we're going to see more severe weather, which always guarantees we're going to have the kinds of disasters that I'm talking about.

And as Fareed Zakaria pointed out well last week, I know others have too, is no matter what we do about global warming right now, we're still in for it because we've pretty much messed with the climate for a while. We can do and must do things to fix it, but we're in this for a while. And therefore talking about that this exposure exists and making these investments ideally will help folks want to do the prudent things that ideally would keep this from compounding itself.

There really has clearly been an absence of leadership in being willing to talk about our own frailty as an element of a weakness as a country. And, you know, I hearken back -- this is a nonpartisan issue. I mean, I hearken back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the last president who looked at both infrastructure and civil society as national security assets.

As you well know, our interstate highway system was the Interstate Highway in Defense Act. It was done with basically overriding state and local concerns that these highways would bypass the Route 66 problem here. The moms and pops would lose on this, but also because most states (use it as ?) a department of corruption. You know, if you actually had rules of engagement at the federal level here, this would really mess up a good deal.

But there was a real push-back to this. Well, happily, it never got used for that bigger purpose of mobilization and evacuation, which was what Eisenhower was thinking about, the Cold War got hot. But it certainly turned out to be very important for our economic development.

The other story was civil defense as being a component of this as well. But we've lost sight of that. Those are elements of our national security. And it's not just this. (Inaudible) -- is here. He's got a new book coming out and it's talking about financial frailty.

You know, basically, when you run out of money and you get into something really expensive, then that makes you a softer target too. We were pretty flush with cash when 9/11 happened. So it's not just the physical infrastructure, but really this is requiring us -- and at the day, I'm really convinced that we will be so much of a better society by stepping back and looking at what it takes to be resilient, because really that first step is, what is of real value to us? What is of real value? Because when you do risk assessment, you're basically saying, "What's at risk that we value? What can we do to make sure it's around?"

And that -- whether it's a civil society that we most value and our civil liberties, that's important to make sure we make that investment, whether it's the critical infrastructure that makes our modern society modern, we make those investments. In virtually all cases, we get a bang on our buck, consistent with our values. We've tried this other model almost to this other extreme.

Whatever it takes to win the war on terror on the offense is taking many of those values to the breaking point and beyond. It's compounded the threat in lots of ways that clearly none of us anticipated -- or some of us anticipated, but the government didn't anticipate when they set down this path.

And the argument here is that, you know, is we need to learn from these events and we'll be better from doing so. And I'm convinced that this is a country that, when basically somebody just talks the facts to them, gives them the starting point, that we'll get over this and we'll be -- and we'll look back and say, "What was the big deal?"

ROSS: Well, that's what you've done for us tonight. And it's so wonderful to hear clearer thinking and intelligent thinking. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

FLYNN: Thank you.







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