Domestic Security in the Age of ISIS
Executive Chairman and Cofounder, Chertoff Group; Former Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Director, Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, District of Columbia
Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Assistant Washington Editor, "New York Times"
Experts discuss how the United States can better prepare for and protect the homeland with the growing threat of ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
SHANKER: Good evening, and welcome to this evening’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. The topic is “Domestic Security in the Age of ISIS.” Frankly, I can’t imagine anything more relevant or pressing at this point in time.
As a journalist, I’m very happy to say this meeting is on the record. So you can use it and quote it, and I’m sure we will all leave here with much more wisdom than we arrived with.
If you have a cellphone or any kind of personal device, if you could not only mute it but please turn it off, if you would, just because the signal interferes with the wireless microphone, that would be fantastic.
And the format, as always, I will sort of guide the conversation for the first half-hour or so, then I’ll turn it over to audience questions for half an hour. And the reason the Council likes me to moderate is I spent five years living and reporting in the Soviet Union; I run these meetings with Stalinist efficiency. We will be out of here at 7:30 sharp, for those who have—have had planning.
As always, the Council has brought together an absolutely distinguished group of experts today. To my right is Michael Chertoff, executive chairman and co-founder of the Chertoff Group; formerly secretary, Department of Homeland Security.
Next to him is Christopher Geldart, director, Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency here in the District of Columbia. For those of us who live here, thank you very much.
And, to my far right, who has a very long and distinguished public service career, but now the most important thing on her resume is that she is an adjunct senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations.
And their full bios are in your information packet.
I’ve learned a lot from the military, and various generals in the audience, to say that I’ve learned that, if you have problems understanding the world, divide it into tactical, operational, and strategic. So I’d really like to begin with some of the most pressing tactical questions ahead of us, and that is the date of January 20th, which looms very, very soon: inauguration, changing of the presidency, again, in the time of ISIS, our theme today. So, Director Geldart, I’d be very interested to—if you can, talk about the planning that’s underway, what you see as some of the greatest risks, and sort of the what keeps you up at night question between now and the inauguration.
GELDART: Sure. So it’ll be 51 more days of no sleep—(laughter)—and then we’ll be there. My staff likes—I like—they joke with me all the time. And I have a countdown clock going on, so I could tell you the hours and minutes and days until the actual inauguration.
You know, this is going to be an interesting one. We’ve seen some pretty large inaugurations in the last 10 years here. This one will be large as well. So we’re expecting large crowds. We’re planning between the 8(00,000) and 900,000 number for crowds. That’s for planning purposes only. There’s no statistics that go behind that or empirical data that we pulled for that. We looked at the inaugurations for President Obama from 2009 and 2013 and kind of picked a middle ground between there, and said this would be good for us to start the planning. That was even before we had a president-elect. So making sure we have the right things in place to handle that kind of crowd is one thing.
You know, the other is that we have a lot of folks that want to express their First Amendment rights. And we are the District of Columbia, and we do that. We are here for folks to do that. We’re used to doing it here, and we expect to have quite a bit of that happen on the 20th—this year and afterwards as well—leading up to, during, and after. Some of those crowd-control measures can be—can keep me up at night, making sure that we give everybody their opportunity to express their First Amendment rights and keep it peaceful, and keep those discussions and things that they want to get across in a peaceful and safe manner for everybody to be there.
And, you know, honestly, the 20th is the day that we inaugurate a president, and that’s a very important thing for our democracy, for our nation. And that peaceful transfer of power is really what we’re doing the planning for, to make sure that we have a good, peaceful transition of power from one president to the next.
SHANKER: The physical security any of us who have lived here have witnessed, and obviously keeping apart the demonstrators from those who are there for other reasons. But describe a little bit of the—of the invisible work that you’re doing—the intelligence gathering, the threat assessment, that sort of thing—in the age of ISIS, of course.
GELDART: Sure. You know, here in the District of Columbia we are lucky in ways in which we work so closely between state, local, and federal. And I count D.C. as a state, so those of you that live here live with me in the 51st state, which will be the District of Columbia. We share a very good relationship with our federal partners. Sharing of information and intelligence, doing joint threat assessments is something we do all the time here. So getting information from the FBI or from DHS or from the military, we don’t have that issue here. I own the fusion center for the District of Columbia, my agency does, and we share a very good relationship and ability to share information.
Likewise, social media is a huge aspect for us in this. And going through social media and understanding the things that are going to happen or could happen has allowed us to actually work with some organizers of groups to have a better plan for how to do things peacefully. So we have executed that already. Just last week, on Wednesday, I sat down with a group that’s going to come in and do a Million Woman March—at least that’s what they’re naming it—on the 21st of January. So looking at all those things, sharing that information, working with our partners from the National Park Service and Park Police, to the FBI, to the Secret Service, all of the entities that are here—Federal Protective Service, our Metropolitan Police Department—just a real good working relationship to share that information.
SHANKER: Thank you. I’m curious, with the benefit of hindsight, if you can look back at your years as secretary at some of the things that you learned. And in fact, correct me if I’m wrong, but I even recall there was before one inauguration a specific threat stream from overseas that was quite worrisome to DHS.
SHANKER: Can you give us a little history lesson?
CHERTOFF: So, in 2008, we were coming up on the first inauguration that was going to occur where there would be changing administrations after September 11th. So we were acutely aware of the set of issues posed by terrorists perhaps wanting to take advantage of that handoff to carry out an attack.
We also knew, after the election, that we were going to have the first African-American president. We had actually inaugurated Secret Service protection for him at a very early stage. We didn’t know whether that was going to excite—we knew it was going to excite a lot of crowds and we were going to have maybe more people than we normally would have at an inauguration; we didn’t know if it would excite any bad behavior.
So we spent an enormous amount of time with the District, with the surrounding counties, at the federal and state and local level, working through all the elements of security—which include, by the way, issues like traffic management. How do you make sure, if there has to be an evacuation, that your evacuation routes are clear? How do you make sure you have necessary medical facilities? How do you manage crowd control and flow, and not have people become excited or angered or frustrated? So all of that was part of the planning.
In fact, I offered my successor—I said, look, I will stay, if you want me to, through the day so that on 1:00 in the afternoon you don’t have to suddenly get tapped on the shoulder and told you’re in the middle of an event, you better leave the reviewing stand and head over to the operations center. And so she and the incoming president agreed, and I stayed through the day.
As it happens, Thom’s right, there was a, you know, reasonably credible and specific threat that—information that came in from overseas. We monitored it for a couple of days. We checked a few things out. We looked at a few people. And, happily, at about 1:00 in the afternoon I got the word: totally washed out, nothing there, nothing to worry about. But that’s the kind of thing you have to be concerned about, not only terrorism threats but just dealing with large crowds of emotionally amped-up people.
SHANKER: Thank you. If we could sort of move from the tactical to the operational and strategic, we were talking before about the incredible challenge of the self-radicalized lone-wolf actor. You talked about the threat stream from overseas. Since 9/11, this country has brought a vast intelligence apparatus, working with allies. But the man or the woman at his or her computer becoming self-radicalized without leaving, you know, evidence or indication anywhere, how are we evolving to combat that? And do you have confidence that we’re going to be more than just lucky, but we’re going to be good at catching them?
CHERTOFF: Well, so let me begin by saying I divide the period after 9/11—actually, from before—into three periods.
Terrorism 1.0, that was largely al-Qaeda. It was focused on large, relatively complicated, high-profile, largely scaled plots. To some degree, bin Laden was a bit of a micromanager. They vetted the people in the plots. They wanted to ensure they were truly committed and reliable. There was a lot of global activity: movement of money, communications, and people. And we configured our intelligence apparatus to catch those plots by looking for the signatures you get when you have a lot of movement from one country to another, where you’re using a lot of communications. And it’s worked quite well. I mean, we have not had a successful large-scale terrorist attack in the United States since September 11th. Some of you will know that in 2006 there was a very serious plot to blow up about 10 airliners coming from Heathrow Airport to North America, which we frustrated. And that’s why, by the way, you can’t bring this onto an airplane anymore, because it was the liquid bomb plot.
But now we’ve seen 2.0 and 3.0. 2.0 are smaller-scale, smaller-group plots. They’re planned, but they’re not as elaborate. And they involve, you know, relatively low-tech bombs or guns. We saw it in Mumbai in 2008. We saw it at Bataclan in Paris last year. These are lower signature. They’re not no signature. And often what we’re finding is the people involved in this have a criminal background or some prior association, but the focus is really much more on—not on the international spies and satellites, but the local community awareness: police, social services, even members of the community.
The third group is, of course, 3.0, which is what some people call the lone wolf. It is the inspired or directed individual, sometimes not even really in communication with a terrorist group, but they kind of declare themselves on YouTube while they’re in the middle of carrying out an attack. Honestly, many of these people are disturbed, and it’s kind of a psychological issue. And that’s where mental health professionals, family members, and community people are more likely to see something. If you go back and look at the Orlando shooter, I gather his co-workers complained about him before he actually wound up carrying out the attacks. So part of what we need to do is tune ourselves not just into the big CIA/intelligence community type focus, but the community level: community policing, local officials, community members, teachers. And we need to construct a way for these people to raise their hand and alert us when an intervention is needed.
And the one last thing I would say about it is, sometimes it needs to be something other than the criminal justice system. I think the hardest thing has got to be, for a parent whose child is—looks like they’re getting kind of crazy, to call up the authorities. It does happen. Abdulmutallab, who was the underwear bomber, actually his father went in and reported his radicalization to the State Department, and somehow that got lost. But a lot of times it puts the parent in a dilemma. And the question is, is there a way to enlist the community or some responsible group to intervene before it has to be a someone-goes-to-jail situation, so you can maybe redirect a person who’s beginning to head down a dangerous path?
SHANKER: Farah, and you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the community involvement and the whole of government. So what are the tools that you would be looking at to combat this problem right now?
PANDITH: So I think what Secretary Chertoff was talking about is actually at the heart of it. We are looking at a time 15 years after 9/11, when we have learned quite a bit about how somebody gets radicalized.
I’d push back a little bit on the terminology “lone wolf.” I think that is not as accurate as it might be. I also think that that implies a complacency that, oh, you know, there’s nothing we can do; it just happens over there, there is nothing—you know, we remove ourselves from the process of what’s actually happening.
What Secretary Chertoff said is correct: what’s happening within a community matters. And it’s not just the city of Boston or, you know, one suburb; it’s even more local than that. We need to really be looking at the domestic map, with all 50 states, and going all in. We as a country need to prepare ourselves for—even though the numbers are quite small of people who get radicalized in this way for these kinds of terrorist groups compared to other threats that we face—clearly, the numbers are not the same, but the impact is very different. And I think what we have to do is think about are we—are we executing an awareness on the ideological piece that means that every part of the community is applying itself in the best way that they know how? Have we given schoolteachers the information that we need—that they need to be able to understand what’s happening in their classroom, to talk about these issues, to give counsel when needed, and to help parents when needed? Have we provided for parents, as the secretary said, the kind of infrastructure that needs to take place on the mental health side, so that there is an outlet for them to go to that is not 9-1-1 or the local police community? Are we understanding what’s happening with nonprofit organizations and community groups that actually really care about protecting young people, and have really great ideas on how to fortify and build resilience? Have we given these nonprofits the kinds of things that they need to be able to execute the way they need to?
What we know 15 years after 9/11 is that government, as important as it is, can’t be that credible actor in a community to actually stop a 16-year-old boy or girl from moving down a pathway that moves them towards an ISIS-like organization. So what do we do in between? And I would argue that, if we create a comprehensive approach—not just look at cities that could be problematic, but all 50 states, going all in with the kind of money that we need so that local communities get it; and learn from the kinds of things that we’ve seen, whether it’s in Paris or it’s in Orlando, what didn’t work, where are the black holes, and how do we fill them—we’ve never gone about constructing a domestic security plan that has all of those elements, and here’s the part that’s so important at scale. There are one-offs everywhere, but we haven’t been able, because we haven’t had the money. And we haven’t had the kind of leadership from both community and government to say this is what we need and this is a threat that we have to—because my view is that the solutions are available and they are affordable.
SHANKER: But there’s a dynamic tension that’s always there. You say “we”—it can’t be only the government, but the money, the leadership has to come from the government. But in these communities, they welcome a visit by the secretary of homeland security, but they also know that perhaps the FBI or local police are monitoring them, and you can’t get away from that tension. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, and also how it plays out in the National Capital Region, which has a significant and very important Muslim American community.
PANDITH: So there is one piece that has to do with policing and law enforcement, and clearly that is needed. For groups like ISIS that are preying upon Muslim youth, let us remember that there are only 6 million Muslims in America. That number will double by the year 2030. And these young kids that are growing up in an environment that moves them into an us-and-them mentality has only increased in the last few years.
So we have a—we have the responsibility as Americans to help other American young people get protected from an ideology that’s coming from the outside and then is growing within. This isn’t because we haven’t paid attention to this; it’s because we haven’t been able to build up at scale the resilience. And that’s to your point.
Look, everybody knows that local communities can make the difference, yet we keep asking Muslims to get involved in this fight. And I ask the question, great, that’s wonderful, but how are you helping them do that? You expect moms and dads who have full-time jobs to come home at night and then patrol, you know, what’s going on? You expect community groups to be able to do this when there’s no money for them to get paid to do the job we want them to do? We aren’t looking this—at this like a threat, we’re looking at this like some activity that might go on. If we really are serious about protecting our communities, we’ve got to construct the infrastructure so that the young people are protected, and the community groups that have credibility and know what they’re doing can do what they know the best way that they know how to do it.
SHANKER: So, Chris, here in the National Capital Region, what are you doing along these lines? And what do you need?
GELDART: So I’ll take it from a District perspective. Having done this job, been a resident of the city now coming up on five years, you know, we saw—this is a very big issue in the Muslim community that we’re talking about. But when you look at the city writ large and you look at our big cities across the nation right now, violence in itself is growing so much and so fast. So when we looked at the overarching issue, we look at it more on an overarching violence issue—not just in terms of domestic preparedness or looking at it a terrorism perspective, but look at how do we provide the teams of services from the different agencies to go into communities when we feel there is an issue. And we may be able to feel there’s an issue from a radicalization perspective, but more along the lines here is when violence happens. How do we engage that entire community so you don’t see a cycle of violence that happens, which is usually what goes on in a community? There will be a shooting where the family of the victim then will get—we’ll call it radicalized, OK, since that’s the conversation we’re having—to go and commit more violence.
And so, here in the city, under our former chief of police and our current interim chief of police, put teams together—target teams together with both the social service side, the mental health service side, the victim service side, and the law enforcement community to go in with the families of both sides of this—both the perpetrator and the victim—and work with them to stem that cycle of violence so it doesn’t continue to turn. Those kind of target teams, I think, are what we’re looking at for the overarching issue.
And when we talk about the money, in cities, there’s not all that money to do all the different services out there, right? So we have to look at, how do we take things that are working for one solution and broaden that just a little bit so that it can work for multiple solutions. And that’s actually what we did in this. We do the same thing within our Muslim community, within our African community here, within our Hispanic community here, because you can’t—you only have to go back so far to get to the MS-13 days. And we fight a lot to keep that from coming back in our communities here. So it’s really looking at how do you provide those full-circle servicers from all those agencies working as a team within those communities to do that when you have the understanding that this is a need or an issue.
SHANKER: We are emerging from a very difficult presidential election. The Council is nonpartisan, as it should be. As a Times editor, I’m nonpartisan. But you can’t separate some of the rhetoric that was heard across our nation—you know, building a law, a Muslim registry, what country are you from, the threat of Sharia; some have even said that Islam is not a religion. How does—so I’m not asking you to judge the speakers, but tell me, how does this make your job more difficult? And what should be done now to move this country to a place where it’s not so polarized? Because I can just imagine how these statements are falling on the ears of the 16-year-old that you’re talking about.
PANDITH: So I would say, you know, the ideology that matters is this idea of an us and a them. And these cumulative extremisms only—it makes an impact because it changes the ethos of where you live. And as a young American kid grows up and thinks of themselves as the other, or that whether their religion or their race or their heritage, whatever that other happens to be, it adds to a crisis of identity. And what we know about groups like ISIS and al-Qaida and the Taliban and groups like that, we know that young Muslims who have grown up in a post-9/11 world are dealing with a crisis of identity, and that’s the beginning point from which they begin to move down a positioning of trying to find out more about how to be more uber-Muslim, whatever that might mean. The bad guys are in that space. They prey upon these young kids.
So it makes a difference in my work in a really big way that our country stands up for who we are as Americans, that we demonstrate that there is no us and them, that everybody has equal rights under—all the things that we know about our Constitution. That will add value to my ability and the work that I do to stop young kids from getting recruited because it fortifies our system. It tells us who we are as Americans.
And then you asked another question, and that is, what can we all do? Now, I’m not going to sit here and be Pollyanna to this crowd and say, can’t we all just be friends, and do more with kindness and empathy and compassion. But I will tell you that—
SHANKER: Although those aren’t bad things to say.
PANDITH: Yeah, no, but I will say, because this is a foreign policy crowd, we have to do that in our local communities. We have to reach out to the other, because what’s happening here at home impacts how we are perceived abroad. And there is no distinction between the radicalization of a young kid—the ideologies that are spread globally create a conflict. So if you are in a country that looks back at ours and says you Americans are not respectful of Christianity or Judaism or Islam or whatever that might mean, or somebody of a different race or of a different creed, how—that us-and-them narrative is alive and well. And they will begin to move in a direction we don’t need them to move because it just builds the movement that will make a difference to us here at home.
SHANKER: Mr. Secretary, thoughts on this question?
CHERTOFF: Well, I agree. I mean, I think, you know, overstating and portraying a whole religion or whole ethnic group as an enemy plays into the hands of people who are recruiting, because basically the recruitment pitch is you are not welcome where you are, the country you’re living in is at war with you and your religion, and therefore you have to enlist and fight for your own people. And that’s not a phenomenon unique to Muslims. I mean, we’re seeing a rise of identity nationalism around the world now, certainly in Europe and the United States, and in many cases you see the same argument. The argument is our group is not getting treated fairly; you have to defend your kin against this enemy, whoever it is. So I think it is—you know it’s pernicious. It works contrary to what we’re trying to do.
I agree that at the local level, as you get to know people who are not from your own background—and, you know, studies show—and, frankly, personal experience shows—that tends to create much more a sense of, wait a second, we’re more alike than we’re different. And so, without being Pollyannaish, programs that encourage that are important.
But it’s also about leadership. You know, I remember right after 9/11, you know, President Bush went and he had—he made two statements which resonated. One was we’re going to bring the perpetrators to justice or we’re going to bring justice to them, said over the smoldering hulk of the World Trade Center. But the second was to go to a mosque and say we are not at war with Islam, we’re at war with a certain group, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. And I think that was—it was important to hear from the leaders to make that distinction. I do think our leaders, if they’re really going to bring our country together and begin to reduce the conditions that promote violence, are going to need to start sending that message out.
SHANKER: So, Chris, as someone with your fingertips on the National Capital Region, have you seen the rhetoric of the campaign changing the mood, making your job more difficult?
GELDART: Oh, absolutely. It’s hard not to see that, not just here in the National Capital Region but across the nation.
You know, a lot of—a lot of folks came off of this with questions of what now, what today? I think the president came out with a great speech and said, you know, the sun comes up today and it’s going to come up tomorrow. And we continue on. And that’s, again, great rhetoric and great speech to put out there. I’ll go back to, you know, my boss, my mayor, her slogan—our slogan that’s out there is: We are D.C. And we are, right?
We are a community. We are a group of folks that live in a certain area but share a common bond. Whenever we have disasters or emergencies or things—our snowstorm that we had last year, you know, our thing is check on your neighbor. You know, that’s always the last thing that I leave off on a press conference is, you know, now it’s your time to go and check your neighbor. You know, does he or she need help shoveling her walk or are they good? Do they have power, do they have the thing that they need? That sense of coming together as Americans, as neighbors, as our kin that are right next to us.
That’s really I think what we need to do around this is to say, you know, OK, so we had an election, but I’m lucky enough to still have a secretary as a resident here in the District, so I’m going to make sure that we’re doing the right things for him. It doesn’t matter where he voted or where his political views are—although it does—it has created, you know, a lot of anxiety in people. And the hope is that folks can see that, and say this is my neighbor. And, you know what? We’ll go on.
The sun will come up tomorrow. And we’ll be able to go through this. We’ll have a peaceful transition of power. I’ll be able to express my views, if I so choose to, to be out there and be for or against or protest or whatever you want to call it. I’ll be able to express my First Amendment rights, because that’s what makes this country great. But at the end of the day we’re still all Americans. And we go home from that day, all of us do.
SHANKER: Right. I’ll close the moderated portion of our session with a question that’s been on my mind very intensely over recent weeks. I remember speaking to then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld—and at which point I always have to tell audiences that just because Rumsfeld said something doesn’t automatically make it wrong. And this is something in which he was incredibly insightful. I covered his confirmation hearing. And he liked to remind people a year later that the word “Afghanistan” did not come up once in his confirmation hearing in early 2001.
So I would ask our three experts, what is the problem that is around the corner for this president, but whose name has not even been uttered yet, because we’re not thinking around the corner? Farah.
PANDITH: So, for me, I think about the demographics, with one-fourth of the planet that’s Muslim and nearly a billion of them right now that are under the age of 30. And I think about what happens after ISIS. Everybody knows what ISIS is. We know what they stand for. There is going to be something after ISIS. And it’s going to be manifested in a way we cannot yet imagine. So what I think about around the corner is what that thing is, and are we prepared ideologically in this soft-power sense for the war that we have yet to fight.
SHANKER: Thank you. Chris.
GELDART: So she gave a great answer on that one, because that’s actually where my thoughts were on that. You know, with the size of the Muslim population of the world, we need to look at it, much as we do here, that that’s our community. So what’s around the corner with that? My hope is what’s around the corner with that is we can actually take the lessons that we have learned and not repeat those mistakes that we may have made, and be able to have the 3.0, as the secretary was talking about, be much less of an issue for us here in this country or around the world as it has been. But I do think that the ability for the world to do its crisis management needs to improve and continue to improve, so that we can at least be better in that as we move forward.
CHERTOFF: Well, I’m astonished. I was going to say demographics too. I’ll add a little bit of an additional twist to it. I think an area that has not been discussed much is Latin America. And it tends to pop up when we see kind of an uptick in mass migration. And it’s really not Mexico. It’s you get into parts of Central America which are really almost ungoverned, and where we’ve actually been sending back—you talk about MS-13—we send back, you know, gangsters, and they basically wind up not being properly controlled.
And you have people fleeing that. Plus you now have—I mean, there’s good news out of Colombia. There’s a peace agreement. Brazil, though, is now reeling with a number of corruption scandals. Not clear what Venezuela’s going to do. If people are in fear of their life, they’re going to run. And I don’t care how big the wall is, if someone’s got a gun at your back you’re going over the wall. So we need to start to think about how do we—not only deal with the issue of failed states or weak states in Africa and the Middle East, but also how do we deal with it in our own continent.
SHANKER: Just a quick aside from the chair. When Admiral Jim Stavridis was at Southern Command, he’s now at the Fletcher School, he didn’t create the word but he popularized the phrase “convergence,” which was the coming together of all of these issues in Latin America. And the one overlay that hasn’t come yet, that could, is the foreign terrorist threat making common cause with the cartels in this demographic nightmare.
CHERTOFF: Well, we had a little bit of that, you know, with the FARC, which began—because I actually—which had a criminalization when we issued the first indictment—where they started out as a terrorist group, then they started charging for protection against the drug dealers, and ultimately they wound up actually working with them. I mean, in many ways, you know, serious transnational criminal groups are as much a threat to governance as terrorist groups. If you go to certain parts of Mexico, you will see groups that literally control the government. It’s only a short distance away before a gangster looks in the mirror and says: I’m not a gangster. I’m a political leader. And they come up with some half-baked ideology to cover what they’re doing.
The whole issue of transnational organized crime, transnational terrorism, non-state actors who increasingly are able to leverage with technology and communications and money, I think that is really the next big security challenge. And it addresses a different set of issues than what we’re traditionally dealing with when we deal with nation-state actors—although, I might add, between Russia and China, we still have to deal with those issues too.
SHANKER: Sounds like a great idea for the next Council forum. (Laughter.)
So at this point I very much invite Council members to join the discussion. There are microphones on both sides. I simply as you to identify yourself, speak into the microphone, and, if you would, keep your questions short because there are so many here. And I do remind you that this is on the record.
Q: Kim Dozier with The Daily Beast.
So, I’m going to start with a little bit of an obnoxious question. We’ve heard some great ideas here tonight, about sending the community—sending the teams into the communities after an incident, outreach to communities to make them feel—make the youth feel part of the fabric of American culture. It’s been eight years of an Obama administration. What have been the main obstacles from keeping this from happening?
PANDITH: I want to jump it.
PANDITH: So a couple things. One is, I’ll start with the really good, OK? We are now at the end of the Obama administration, where there is a process within—this is so wonky—a process within the interagency to actually look at the ideological piece. And it’s run out of DHS, and that’s where it should be run out of. You have an HSAC report to Secretary Johnson that talks about how much money we need to have a domestic plan to fight groups like ISIS. That’s $100 million that we’re asking for in the next fiscal year. It took us some time to get to this place where we’re able to talk about the ideological side. The downside of what’s happened over the last eight years is it took three years for anybody to begin to even begin to talk about the ideological component. Everybody started off thinking it’s all about the hard power. It’s not about soft power. We’ve moved in that direction.
And then here’s the final point. I think the biggest problem—and it is going to be a huge one for the next president—is the soft-power tools that we have in our toolbox, the war of ideas that was part of the 2006 national security strategy that came out of the Bush administration, defines CVE, countering violent extremism, as the war of ideas, the soft-power piece, everything that is non-kinetic. And somehow, in this last eight years, everybody believes CVE is everything from building a school to watching the weather to a police force. We’ve mixed everything all up. So in my view, the weakness then becomes how do you get the actors that need to be able to do CVE, to do it in the pure form as we began it, and what we understood needed to be done, and get them to be able to scale up what we know needs to be done with the money that I hope comes from Congress to be able to allow DHS to actually move it forward from the community engagement division of DHS.
SHANKER: Other thoughts, gentlemen?
CHERTOFF: No, I mean, one thing I would add to that is that I do think—you don’t necessarily have to wait for the federal government. I mean, part of the argument here is you’ve got to get each community, each state, each locality has to have its own plan about how it’s going to deal with this. And you know, far too often there’s a justifiable criticism that everybody talks about these issues, or you are waiting for the president and Congress to act. You don’t have to wait. This is not an area where you are invading a prerogative of the federal government. And frankly, as they say, using the states as laboratories for what works could create a model that other states can adopt.
SHANKER: But there has to be some follow-through and sustainability. I mean, the Cairo speech that President Obama gave, I think you can look back on one of his finest pieces of rhetoric—I use the capital-R rhetoric in a respectful way. But if you look at what specific promises were made and what specific deliverables there were, I think you’d have to give him a very poor, poor grade. And it was a squandered opportunity.
CHERTOFF: I agree. I mean, listen, I will tell you, having worked in—you know, having run a department which is all about implementation, speeches and laws are great. That is not the end of the chore. That is the beginning of the chore.
GELDART: That’s right. And for that matter, I mean, we did it at the local level because we wanted to keep our crime rate down, right? I mean, we want our city streets safe for the residents here. We’re growing at a huge rate. So we put something in place that made sense for the city and then looked at that said, you know what? We can expound on this and we can take it into areas to go and counter violent extremism. You go right across the border into Montgomery County, they’re doing something a little bit different.
And so exchanging those ideas and saying, OK, so this kind of worked there and this is kind of working here, that think tank of how you share those ideas, brought up to the policy level to say: OK, here is a set of tools that can be used across the nation. So like areas like the District of Columbia, other cities—L.A., New York, other cities like that—can look at those and say, OK, how do I take what those did and adapt it, because that’s what needs to be done? It’s not a one-size fits all. It’s not going to work across the country the same way as it is in different places.
PANDITH: Didn’t mean to interrupt. I would add just one more thing. I think that there hasn’t been the vision to understand all the elements of going all in. So we’ve been looking at this threat from the lens—and we’re talking domestic now—of DHS, which is an important lens. But there are other departments and agencies in our government that have a role to play—HHS, Department of Education, I could list others. Why haven’t we—it’s taken a long time for us to get to a place where we’re talking about that integration. And that’s been a failure, in my view.
In addition to that, it’s this idea of what is possible. We are the most innovative nation in the world and we haven’t applied ourselves to this issue with the kind of resilience, leadership, and innovation that we can. Why aren’t we scaling up what we already know? I mean, it’s absurd that we’re even having this conversation. We know what needs to be done. So one of the failures, I think, has been, in my view, the vision and secondly the professionalization of this fight, OK? The kinds of actors that are in our government, their—most of whom are wonderful former colleagues or their heart is in this, they need to do it. But not all of them have the skillsets to be able to do the things that need to be done on- and offline.
So when I think about what we need to do to build the kind of plan domestically to stop the vast majority of young Muslims from finding this ideology appealing, we aren’t even beginning to build that kind of plan out the way we really should.
CHERTOFF: Well, let me—you know, you raise—something is triggered in my mind. And we’re great at spending time, like, inventing “Pokémon GO,” and we have all these social media that can micro-target ads exactly at you. Why can’t the people who are doing this start to think about how do we—when certain kinds of behavior’s occurring online, why can’t we send ads or connect people to thinks that broaden their aperture as opposed to narrow the aperture? I mean, one of the complaints now is you can live in your own world where you’re only dealing with people who are likeminded. What if the algorithm instead of selling you stuff also tried to give you connections or perspectives that were a little broader? It’d be worth thinking about.
SHANKER: Question, this side of the room? Anybody? Sir, please.
Q: I’m Greg Treverton from the National Intelligence Council.
I get paid to be contrarian, so let me ask a contrarian question.
SHANKER: This is the contrarian row here, obviously. (Laughter.)
Q: What strikes me is if you look at the threat from ISIL domestically in numbers, it’s trivial. But people are scared. And if you look at the polls, people are scared well beyond what I think most of us in this room would say is reasonable. Does that suggest that we have, over time, hyped the threat, or that the leaders have not done a good enough job of trying to put this threat into a broader perspective?
CHERTOFF: So I have a theory about this, which is that you have to balance between acknowledging the threat seriously and not overreacting to the threat. And I think that—I don’t know that there’s been overreaction on the part of the current administration. But I think there’s been maybe a lack of acknowledgment, a little bit of a tendency to say we killed Bin Laden, game over, nothing more to see here. And I think when people hear that from the government and then they see things in the news that—even if it’s relatively small—that suggest that there still is a threat, they begin to doubt that the government is being serious.
So I mean, I think the trick here or the challenge here is you have to acknowledge there is threat. You have to put it in perspective. But you can’t minimize it or say it’s over. And that’s a tough—I agree, it’s a tough balancing act. But I do think that the worst thing that can happen is lose credibility. And if you over—you know, it’s a little bit of the equivalent of what President Bush got criticized for with that banner, “Mission Accomplished.” If you say there’s no problem anymore, and a problem arises, you have—
SHANKER: But President Bush also described al-Qaida as an existential threat.
SHANKER: And to be sure, any death by al-Qaida above zero is too many. But al-Qaida only became an existential threat if this country took actions that violated our fundamental principles.
CHERTOFF: Well, I mean, I think what I want—I can’t, you know, interpret his words—I think what he meant—and remember—you have to remember the time. When we went—when we went into Afghanistan—and you know this, Greg—we found labs. I mean, these guys were trying to come up with chemical and biological weapons. And had they done so, there were potential issues out there that would have been existential. And you remember, we lived through the anthrax attacks, which didn’t come from al-Qaida, but was a pretty, you know, clear reminder of what was capable out there.
I do think we dialed back that level of threat quite a bit in the last, you know, eight, 12, 13 years—a credit to both the administrations and people working together. And you could argue maybe it was a slightly—but, you know, I’ll tell you, the interesting thing is this: I think if you slightly overreact it’s actually helpful, as long as you don’t go way too far. I think if you underreact, it actually is harmful.
SHANKER: Rules for parenting. Next, yes, please. (Laughter.)
Q: I’m Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School.
Chris, I want to thank you, for knowing you’re going to take care of these kids that are coming in on the 21st because my family is coming in from Berkeley and all of their friends are flying in for that. So I want to make sure that they’re going to be well-protected.
GELDART: My mom signed up too. (Laughter.)
Q: I have a sense—and my assumption is it’s because we don’t have any time—but the sense of community is diminishing, in the sense that the attendance at churches apparently is dropping. I mean, I know myself—I mean, there are so many demands on our time—I don’t know the people who live on my block. I mean, it embarrasses me that I don’t. But I know it would take time to do it. It seems to me that if we had leadership from the top that kept talking about the importance of community that it’s something we all need to get engaged in, would be a really useful thing to do.
And for you, Mr. Secretary, how would you reorganize your department if you were the new secretary today?
CHERTOFF: Well, first of all, I think reorganizations are always painful and costly and I probably wouldn’t. I mean, I would say what I would do to improve—and I think Secretary Johnson have been doing this—is build more of a sense of jointness, which is similar to what DOD does after Goldwater-Nichols, because I do think as the department has matured, joint planning and joint operational activity, with the major moving parts, has actually improved. And so that’s really where I would focus my attention.
GELDART: I’ll take the community one on for a second, and say I agree with you. I see that as well. And it’s not just the churches, but it’s the civil organizations across the board—it’s the Knights of Columbus. I mean, there’s all of these groups that I grew up with that nowadays when you talk to folks about memberships and people being engaged and involved and the numbers do come down.
Q: We don’t have time.
GELDART: I think really for us here, and this is what we try to do here in D.C., is—and it’s tough in this city because there’s a lot of people that come and go out of D.C.—but we are a community. And the mayor can get up there and say we need to increase community engagement and community. I go to probably three community meetings a week to be engaged. And some of those are my own community meetings that I go to just as a resident, and not to go get yelled at by some other folks that don’t like what we’re doing for something.
But really, that impetus is on us. It’s on everybody sitting in this room. You know, I go back to President Kennedy, you know? You know, ask not what the country has done for you. Well, ask not what your city’s done for you, or your community. Before—and I take that seriously. Before my wife and I left tonight to come here we saw two of our neighbors out on the street and caught up with them. And we see them on a daily basis. We’re on a first-name basis. When we had the snowstorm we both went out and helped them out. One of them is a little elderly, so we helped them with their stuff. That’s what it takes. It’s individuals just engaging with your community where you are. So I won’t wait for the president to say something, or somebody at that level. I want to do it just on my block.
SHANKER: Yes, sir.
Q: Hi. Kevin Sheehan from Multiplier Capital.
I’d like to take the analysis from the macro to the micro, because it seems like in some of the worst cases of domestic terrorism—I’m thinking the Chelsea bomber, the Orlando shooter, Abdulmutallab, we knew in advance that we had a troubled young person, but they weren’t in the criminal justice system, there was no basis for enhanced surveillance, there was no evidence of providing material support for terrorism. So how might government organize community groups, religious groups, or others to do, I guess the best term, an intervention of some kind at the point when it might still be meaningful?
SHANKER: Thank you.
PANDITH: So the first part, obviously, is education and understanding how somebody gets radicalized. I mean, we have so little information in the public domain that people are absorbing. It’s there, but people aren’t absorbing it, right? So we need to make it user-friendly, if you will, to understand what’s happening in the human mind. One of the things that I think we have really been very poor at is understanding the mental health component to all of this, and understanding where the adolescent brain and the child mind makes a difference. A human mind doesn’t mature until the age of 24. There is a lot that goes on between zero and 24 that we have to understand what the stages are across the board.
It’s taken our nation a long time to look at other illnesses that have to do with the human mind, and make it acceptable to talk about. We aren’t there on the issues of extremism. And we need to get there, which means we have to normalize the conversation. And that’s what I meant by making the tools available for parents, for teachers to understand this, to broaden this out, and to bring the mental health experts onto the table.
The second—the second piece of this is what do you do, then? You see a young person who might be moving in a direction, that needs the kind of help that we need. I go back to what I said to Kim about the recommendations that the HSAC put together for Secretary Johnson. We would like to see American hospitals get involved in this issue in a way that maximizes our research and our understanding of adolescent/child mind behavior, and integrate it with the communities, so that there are places within the communities that we have the expertise alongside a safe space in which a child can go.
There is, and my final point—there’s nowhere in the world that is the center for extremism vis-à-vis the human mind. There are places if, god forbid, your child has depression, or bulimia, or name another illness that might be out there, that you know, boy, that the leading place in the world to go get help on that is Switzerland or it’s Houston or it’s wherever it happens to be. Where is the leading medical center in the world for a young child that begins to find sympathy towards a group like ISIS? It doesn’t exist. And it needs to exist.
SHANKER: Yes, please.
Q: Thanks. Elisa Massimino with Human Rights First.
All three of you agreed that the kind of rhetoric that we heard during the campaign, the exclusionary kind of rhetoric, the us versus them, the Muslim registry, was making our jobs more difficult and increases the attractiveness of groups like ISIS to some young people. And yet, we know this administration’s coming into office. And we have seen already some of the people who are being considered, including for secretary of homeland security, have very specific plans to kind of operationalize some of that rhetoric. What can we do, as we kind of watch this unfold, to counter that, to counter-message that, in a way that can deprive our enemies of the benefits they might gain from that kind of rhetoric?
CHERTOFF: Well. (Laughter.) All right, so—I mean, I think—I guess I’d say two things. First of all, I would say that in terms of input, you know, there have been a range of things said about various issues, like the wall and registries, which depending on the day of the week is very, very different. So you kind of pick where you think he’s going to be operative. But honestly, I think it’s—the system—with all the complaints about the system and how slow it is and clunky, the framers, in their genius, designed it to be that way. It does limit your ability to do really extreme things.
Speaking of the wall, I mean, I rebuilt, in my tenure, about 600 miles of fence. I welded some of it myself. It took a long time to do. And we did it areas where you should do it, not in areas like a mountain range where it doesn’t make any sense. So I look at some of these things and I think it’s very unlikely that it will be carried out, as has been something that has been portrayed. However, I do agree that the message has to be counteracted. And I think the only way to do it is to have people write and speak and act in a way that sends a contrary message because, in the end, it’s all done at a micro level, at a community level.
So I mean, the speechifying is good, but people I think react more to the individual interaction than they do to a kind of a speech. So I’m hopeful that—I still think that most Americans, if you ask them, didn’t sign onto the most extreme version of some of the rhetoric that was said. And I think as things settle down, maybe emotions cool, the space for a more measured and emollient tone will be—will be present.
SHANKER: Yes, ma’am.
Q: April Wells, the Department of State. Thank you all for your comments.
Particularly online in general chatrooms, dating sites, and other social media feeds, but perhaps elsewhere, the role of the private sector in combatting extremism or radicalization has become a news topic—whether in San Bernardino or elsewhere. The private sector has, obviously, been somewhat concerned about a slippery slope associated with getting involved in government behest actions. And I wondered if you had any specific asks that you would make that sort of straddle the line between private and public cooperation that the private sector may be able to get onboard for, for this particular issue.
CHERTOFF: Well, so let me—so I believe in the First Amendment. I don’t think the government ought to tell people what they ought to say and do. However, I think there is a space where the government can provide information, assistance, and suggestions that doesn’t impose on the First Amendment. And maybe we get overly nervous sometimes that if media platforms do anything directive at all, that somehow that’s violating some principle. And to be honest with you, to me as—even my own thought process is changing. But I will say this, I mean, the many platforms are spending an enormous amount of time and effort selling you stuff, and have no problem directing you or incentivizing you to click on things which they get paid for. And that’s just in order to make money.
How about if public-spirited people—without being told they had to but being encouraged—what if they began to use some of those skills to see if they could direct people away from extremist behavior and extremist thought? I mean, you would argue there’s some things—when you get to actual incitement you can shut it down and you should shut it down. That’s not protected by the First Amendment. But even before you get to that, are there ways to essentially blunt some of the messaging by using some of the same skills? And to me, I think this is well-worth at least thinking about. And you know, the private sector has a public-spirited element as well. But they also have their own long-term self-interest. And you know, one thing they don’t want to do is cook the goose that laid the golden egg.
PANDITH: So a couple of things. I feel like I paid you behind the scenes to ask that question, because I’m really actually quite passionate about it.
I want to say a couple of different things with regard to the private sector. You’re specifically talking about the technology sector, let’s be clear about that. But I want to be super clear and make sure that everybody remembers that people don’t get radicalized in only one way. It’s an online and offline thing that happens, experience that happens. And I think that these ideas that you just go to your smartphone, you watch something and, boom, you get, you know, switched into another direction are false and they’re really not helpful to think about things that way. So something is happening to that person outside and something is happening to that person on their—on their smartphone.
To the issue where the private sector broadly can make a difference, certainly everything that the secretary just said about expertise in that particular sector that can help move people in a different direction, can provide new content at scale, at a pace that we really need them to see it, to do a lot of other things with the algorithms to change the nature of the experience for that young people—young person. But there is something else that the private sector, outside of those things, that we never talk about. And I want to use this opportunity to mention them.
The first is, government money to work on issues of countering violent extremism comes with an optic that is very hard for nonprofits to bear, OK? When a nonprofit takes U.S. government money, there is an idea that the government is telling me what to do. The most credible money comes from a community, a community of individuals and philanthropists, as well as a business that says, boy, we need stable and resilient communities—safe communities. And we as a business are going to put our money where our mouth is and we’re going to help—the same way we fight poverty, the same way we fight HIV, the same way businesses invest in a whole host of other human problems. This is a human problem.
So the private sector hasn’t paid attention to this issue in way that allows them to think about this differently and give their money and their expertise to it in a different way. And then the final point is, I think, the most important. And it goes to your point. This issue of people getting radicalized and moving towards a group like ISIS is a community problem, OK? This is not just a Muslim problem. This is not just a law enforcement problem. This is our problem, which means that all of us have solutions there. And I think that there is great hope and great promise in the private sector in the United States of America that can make a difference with small businesses, as well as global corporations that can activate the way we activated around HIV/AIDS, because it took everybody in the community over 25 years to put their attention to that disease so that in 25 years we’re at a very different place. I leave you with the question, what happens if the private sector applies itself to this issue in the same way?
GELDART: So, and I would say that, going with the theme of going from the strategic to the operational, to the tactical—we might be sitting in the wrong order for that, but I’ll give the tactical example on that. I meet with many of the community—many of the private sector organizations here in the District of Columbia, whether it be Ronado (ph), places like that that own large properties. And I usually, when I go there, proceeded or followed by our Metropolitan Police Department doing some kind of active shooter training, or something like that.
And my message to them very much go along with where we just ended up from a tactical perspective is, all these people are in our community. And eight hours of those days, they’re in your community. But you should know them just as well, if not better than, most everybody else in your community. So engage with your people. Know what’s going on with your coworkers. We’re in a world now where we are disassociated from people because of the ability to go online and do other things like that. Know who’s working for you. Know what they’re doing. Have managers and leaders in your organizations understand where are the people in your organization, what are they thinking? Know your people. That’s the bottom line. And if you know your people, you can identify these things early before they become larger problems.
So sticking with the tactical side of this, which I’ll gladly pull up that end of it, as I talk to groups, before we get to an active shooter situation you should have known that this person had a propensity to perhaps go that direction. And if we’re being good managers and good leaders and good community stewards in our own workplace, we should be able to see these things.
SHANKER: Thank you. Well, we have only 90 seconds left, and I promised to end on time, so I do have three gigantic thank yous. First, to all of you for being here tonight, for your attention, for your terrific questions. Secondly, to the Council for once again hosting a very educational and intriguing discussion. And most of all, to our three experts who shared their time and wisdom with us. Thank you all. (Applause.)
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