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Media Conference Call: U.S. Response to Terror Threat

Speakers: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, and Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
January 4, 2010
Council on Foreign Relations

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MOHAMAD BAZZI: Yes, thank you all for dialing in. I'm Mohamad Bazzi, an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As most of you know, after the failed airliner bombing plot on Christmas Day -- which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a terror group based in Yemen, has claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing -- the United States has come under scrutiny and some criticism for its failure to track this threat despite several warnings in the weeks leading up to the attempted bombing.

Now, in response, security measures have been stepped up at airports around the world, including extra security that will target citizens of 14 countries. Today we have with us CFR experts Ted Alden and Steven Simon on the line to offer their commentary on this situation and to answer your questions.

Ted is the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow here at CFR and the author of the 2008 book "The Closing of the American Border." He's an expert on border security issues.

Steve is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at CFR, and the author of "The Age of Sacred Terror" and "The Next Attack."

Ted, let's start with you. Do you think the United States is taking appropriate measures to deal with the threat at hand today?

EDWARD ALDEN: Thanks very much, Mohamad, and thanks to all of you for taking the time to be on the call. Mohamad, I want to respond primarily to the announcement that you mentioned in your introduction, which is this announcement by DHS yesterday, that it will be requiring extra screening, which in practice will mean either physical pat-downs or scans, if they are available, for all travelers coming to the United States from or through countries of interest.

I've -- there's a briefing that I've written on this issue -- it's about to be posted on the CFR website -- that goes into a little more detail. But the short version is that I think that this is an ill-considered response that will do more harm to the United States than it does good.

And why do I say that?

My conclusion comes out of the research that I did for my book, which looked at the development and the consequences of visa restrictions and other border security measures after 9/11.

For the book, I interviewed most of the Bush administration officials who were involved in the time at the White House, at DHS, at the Justice Department and at State.

And just by way of background, to simplify, there were two sorts of post-9/11 responses that came out of the Bush administration, with respect to transportation and border security measures.

The first was, we are going to try to go after the citizens of bad countries and make it difficult for people from those countries, to come to the United States, and improve our security in that fashion.

And the second one was that we were actually going to try to figure out who the bad guys were. As Brian Peterman -- he's a Coast Guard commander who was in charge of border and transportation security at the White House after 9/11 -- the way he put it to me was, we needed to handle people individually, because there are bad people coming from what we consider good countries.

So these were really the two ways in which the Bush administration tried to deal with this problem. The first response -- let's put in place special measures for citizens from bad countries -- led to a number of programs that I think in retrospect have turned out to be very harmful.

The worst of these was the NSEERS or special registration program. It was set up in 2002 and required lengthy screening upon arrival for all male travelers from predominantly Muslim countries and required them to check out of certain airports.

What that meant is that no matter how many times you'd come to the U.S., or even if you were living here but not yet a citizen, you'd have to run this gauntlet every time you came to the United States.

And not surprisingly when you look at the numbers, travel from these countries to the United States fell sharply after 9/11, hasn't come close to recovering since.

The second approach -- let's figure out who the bad guys are, to the best of our abilities, and try to target those individuals -- led to a whole series of developments that we've become very familiar with over the past week or so.

These include the watch lists, information sharing within the government and within allies, and the advanced information that DHS requires on all passengers getting on airplanes to come to the United States.

We get far more information on incoming airline passengers than we did a decade ago.

And the reason for developing those systems was that any crude screening system based on nationality was just going to be too easy for al Qaeda to defeat by recruiting elsewhere.

And the classic case of this, of course, is the failed shoe- bomber, Richard Reid. He carried a British passport. So he's not an individual who would have been identified under this new system the TSA has set up effective today to do special screening of individuals who come from or travel through these countries of interest.

And these targeted -- just to finish up -- these targeted systems have the virtue for the most part that security inspectors are not hassling people without some good reason. There needs to be some reason to pull someone aside for extra scrutiny, not just everybody who fits a certain class of individuals.

So, you know, as I spell out in more detail in this brief, which is going to be up on CFR.org momentarily, this incident over Christmas was a failure of the targeting system, with lots of information out there about Abdulmutallab and it wasn't put together in a way that it should have been put together. And the challenge is to make this targeting system work better, and that's what the various reviews that are under way in the administration right now are about.

But adding another crude system that just targets everyone from these countries is going to be ineffective and it's going to hurt larger U.S. interests in a struggle that requires keeping and winning friends as well as deterring enemies.

Let me just make one final note and I'll stop on that. If we had put this kind of system in place -- you know, let's say we're going to give extra pre-flight scrutiny to people coming from countries of concern. If we'd done that on December 24th, Nigeria would not have been one of the countries on that list. Nigeria was not one of the countries initially targeted under the NSEERS special registration program. So if we'd put this in place with what we knew December 24th, Abdulmutallab would never have been picked out and targeted. So I think it just underscores that these kinds of measures are not the most effective way to respond to the sort of failed effort that we saw in Detroit on Christmas.

Thanks. I'll turn it back to you.

BAZZI: Thank you, Ted.

We're now going to turn to Steve Simon, who's going to address some of the issues around the changing nature of the al Qaeda threat today, and also U.S. policy towards Yemen.

Steve.

STEVEN SIMON: Thanks.

These are going to be, you know, more or less scattered observations which many of you have probably made yourselves. But for conversational purposes, let's start with al Qaeda.

You know, there's been I guess a controversy that was reflected in the moderator's introduction about whether al Qaeda still counts or whether, as some experts have maintained, this is really a completely distributed operation at this point, with little reference to the core al Qaeda that brought us 9/11 and other terrible attacks.

And you know, the conversation on this has unfortunately dichotomized the possibilities. And I think what this incident shows is that the truth perhaps as usual lies somewhere in the middle.

Al Qaeda, core al Qaeda, seems very much to have been involved in this, although the actual attacker was radicalized, you know, well outside of Pakistan but well within the Pakistani diaspora. And I'll get to that in a minute.

So lesson one for me or observation one is that al Qaeda is still very much in the picture. The second is that Abdulmutallab is exactly the sort of guy that core al Qaeda has been trying to recruit and has recruited in the past.

And you know, to me, he resembled most closely Ramzi Yousef who was also an individual -- an engineer trained in Britain who targeted aviation and who also attempted to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993.

Ramzi Yousef was an engineering student -- not at University College London, as was Abdulmutallab, but at University of Wales at Swansea -- but rather similar to this guy, expect perhaps for their institutional affiliations.

One of the interesting things about Abdulmutallab is his affiliation with what most people would regard as mainstream Islamic organizations, although ones that, it must be said, have their roots in the Muslim Brothers; and that includes the umbrella group to which his University College London Islamic students' group belonged.

So you know, there is -- there's a difference there between a Ramzi Yousef, who seemed to operate outside of these institutional frameworks, and Abdulmutallab, who was radicalized seemingly within that kind of a framework -- but in other respects, very similar and very suggestive of the kind of person that AQ wishes to recruit, because they're essentially cosmopolitan people who can travel anywhere and can handle themselves in demanding situations.

The third observation for me was the role of Yemen in Pakistan and Nigeria, on the one hand; that is to say, countries that have very weak law enforcement. Of course, Yemen -- that's the understatement of the year, but nevertheless, they're countries where, you know, you can sort of do what you want. And those are the sorts of countries, of course, that the United States has been concerned about for a long time precisely for the reasons that have brought us together in this call.

The other country involved here, of course, is Britain.

And you know, they've got a really big problem with radicalization.

And the cross-fertilization here is kind of interesting, where you have this Nigerian Muslim in what's essentially a Pakistani diaspora context. And you know, there again you have the fertile ground for contact with people who are al Qaeda or have some contact with al Qaeda back home.

Let's see, just to run quickly down the list of some other observations. Aviation is still a favorite target. This is really striking to me. It's just an irresistible target. And it's irresistible I think perhaps because it's so challenging, as much as it might be said to be irresistible despite the challenges.

I think, you know, this is the target par excellence for a lot of reasons. But anyway that struck me. And lastly what struck me was how hard it is to stop this kind of thing.

And in part, and I'll just close on this note, at least this part of the presentation -- I've been asked to speak a little about U.S.- Yemeni relations as well -- the last point here is that this enemy, al Qaeda, is incredibly resilient and adaptive.

And the move towards body bombs is a really good example of this. You know, the one that preceded -- the body bomb attack that preceded this and which also did not succeed was the attempt of al Qaeda -- in particular al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, with which this attack has been linked -- the group tried to kill Muhammad bin Nayef, who is the head of Saudi internal security.

And there the bomb was actually secreted inside the body of the attacker.

And, you know, this attack reflects the same determination and ingenuity. And those are hallmarks, to my mind, of al Qaeda.

On U.S.-Yemeni relations, you know, it's really -- it's really difficult. You have a Yemeni government for which terrorism is the least of its problems. You know, it's well understood, I think, that, you know, they're facing -- that that government is facing two insurrections. One is more incipient than the other, but nevertheless, they're serious problems not just for the stability of the country but for its very integrity.

So those are the sorts of things that the government is worried about. And particularly with the northern insurrection, the government finds it useful to use the kind of people whom we really don't like to defend its interest up there. That is to say, they seek out Sunni radicals who will take special exception to the Shi'ite composition of the rebellion in the north.

So, you know, there are structural obstacles to U.S.-Yemeni cooperation right there. And then there are other issues; you know, lack of training and competence, in addition to problems with motivation.

Now, having said that, you know, the U.S. has operated perhaps not with impunity in Yemen since 2001, but with a relatively free hand. And that situation doesn't appear to be threatened. I think, you know at the end of the day, Saleh, the president, will want the U.S. in his corner, in part precisely because he's weak.

In any case, the U.S. is expanding hugely its economic and its security assistance, which means more Americans in country, which could have, you know, a blowback effect that we might not entirely like. But, you know, the bottom line is that the U.S. has decided to invest ever more heavily in the stability of the current government and in an infrastructure -- a U.S. infrastructure in that country that will assist in the fight against AQAP, al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.

And with that, I'll close.

BAZZI: Thank you, Steve.

I'm sure we have many questions, so we're going to open this up to questions.

The Conference America moderator will let you know your position in the queue. And please identify yourself and your news organization. Thank you.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the "1" key on your touchtone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they're received. If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, press star-two. Once again, to ask a question, that is star-one.

Our first question comes from Jonathan Weisman with the Wall Street Journal.

QUESTIONER: Hi, gentlemen. Thanks for doing this.

I'm curious. You know, since the Predator strike in Yemen in 2002 -- and that strike was very public, it created a lot of controversy, and then we didn't hear much since then. And I'm trying to figure out if the -- what kind of assets the United States still has. Is it still operating an active Predator program in the area? And what impact did that particular strike have on U.S.-Yemeni relations and Yemeni willingness to cooperate in our hunt for al Qaeda there?

BAZZI (?): Steve, do you want to take that question?

SIMON: Well, you know, judging by the raids that were conducted in December, in one of which you'll recall Anwar Awlaki was supposed to have been killed -- it turned out he wasn't. He was the preacher who has been linked actually both to Abdulmutallab but also to Major Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter.

Judging from those raids, there's a fairly robust U.S. presence in Yemen that, you know, carries out raids and uses, you know, all the techniques at their disposal to assist Yemenis in attacking AQAP. And you know, these resources include missiles and other weapons.

You know, I can't go into a lot of detail on some of that. But you know, the U.S. also has naval vessels offshore. There are a lot of U.S. assets available for these purposes. And they are used.

You know, we're just, I think, become inured to Predator strikes and Reaper strikes, in the years between the killing of Abu Ali al- Harithi in 2002, in Yemen, and nowadays where we carry out numberless such strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the last year where -- if I'm not mistaken, in 2009, we killed something on the order of 300 al Qaeda people, not counting others who were in the vicinity when the missiles hit.

So you know, they've become an instrument of choice for U.S. counterterrorism operations. And you know, Yemen is, like the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a very good place, as it were, to use these kinds of weapons.

QUESTIONER: Thanks.

BAZZI: Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Francine Kiefer with the Christian Science Monitor.

QUESTIONER: Ted, this is for you.

I was wondering what you think of the full-body scanner idea.

ALDEN: Well, you know, I -- the main problem is, it's expensive to deploy and difficult to deploy in some different airport environments. And it raises privacy concerns.

But I think certainly, you know, used selectively in a targeted way, it makes sense.

I think there's no question that, had Abdulmutallab been pulled aside and scanned or otherwise checked, that this explosive device that he was carrying would have been revealed. So I definitely think it has its place.

But we continue to look for a technological silver bullet that is somehow going to respond to all plausible threats, and that is not the right way to look at the Homeland Security enterprise. There are an infinite number of potential ways to carry out terrorist attacks and potential targets. And so we, the United States, have to be as adaptable as al Qaeda is in terms of trying to identify potential plots, people carrying out those plots, and respond on the basis of that information.

So I think, you know, we continue to hope that there will be one perfect solution out there. And there isn't. That's why we need to take a careful look at what went wrong in this case; why, despite the information that was available on this individual, he wasn't targeted for special scrutiny; and try to improve those systems so they will work better the next time, rather than imagining that there is some single system that's going to solve this problem for us.

BAZZI: Okay. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Tom Frank with USA Today.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for doing this. And hi, Mohamad.

Question for Steve Simon: Why do you think that aviation -- and it seems particularly international aviation, transatlantic flights to the U.S. -- remain such an attractive target?

SIMON: I think for a few reasons. One -- and this is -- I don't know if this is really an explanation -- but you know, people think that terrorist techniques sort of follow a wave pattern, and you know, if there's a technique that seems particularly effective, it'll catch on, and it'll just dominate the mode of attack for a while, maybe years before fading in favor of some other form of attack. And right now, we're in the age of aviation attack.

But more specifically, the airlines symbolize countries.

They're -- you know, they signify the nationalities that operate and own those airlines. So, you know, it's a symbol of sovereignty, in a way, that can be attacked.

An aviation attack's particularly horrifying, I think, because there's no possibility of escape. If you are attacked, you will die. You're also in a confined circumstance, which adds to the horror of it; you know, the claustrophobia of being attacked inside an airplane. And, you know, the fact that if your target goes over -- goes down, you know, over water, there's the added horror and the tactical benefit of the evidence and in fact the victims just disappearing.

So, you know, I think for these reasons it's -- you know, it's still attractive.

And going back to the wave thing, I think the -- you know, the effectiveness of the 9/11 attacks really gave aviation attacks generally a new lease on life. They were just perceived to be phenomenally successful, as indeed they were.

BAZZI: Ted, is there anything you would like to add on this?

SIMON: I mean, I agree with Steve, though I think, you know, certainly aviation attacks have been a popular target, but not exclusively, by any stretch. I mean, we've had, of course, the subway bombings in Madrid and in London and a number of hotel-related attacks. So I think there are clearly other targets that al Qaeda has in its sights, but that said, I certainly agree with Steve's comments about the particular attractiveness of aviation.

I think the other thing that makes it attractive is that the United States and other countries have put so much effort into protecting aviation targets, so that if al Qaeda succeeds in carrying out an aviation attack, it just, from their perspective, further highlights the inability of the United States and other countries to respond effectively to the threat that they're posing. So they're attractive for that reason as well.

BAZZI: Okay, next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Caroline Cooper (sp) with HDNet.

QUESTIONER: Hi there. Just to follow up on the question about the full- body scanners, I'm just wondering, Ed, if you'd weigh in on how good a job TSA is doing.

I mean, understanding that maybe that's the silver bullet, but why didn't we have these scanners more widespread in place?

ALDEN: I mean, I think, you know, there are really two reasons. I think one has been cost. These are expensive systems to deploy. And the other has been airline configurations -- I mean airport configurations. (You know ?), having the space to set up full-body scanners that you can put everyone through is difficult in a lot of airport environments.

And the other thing to remember, of course, is that this -- you know, this flight was boarded from abroad, from overseas. And so the question arises: Do we, the United States, want to require this technology for use on everybody boarding flights to the United States? And I think we just have not reached that point yet where that was seen as necessary for security reasons.

But they are -- you know, they're gradually being deployed more widely. I think they will continue to be deployed more widely.

BAZZI: Okay. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Robert Flint with Dow Jones News.

QUESTIONER: Yes, I'd like to ask both of you if enough emphasis is being placed on potential terrorists getting visas to the United States. Isn't that the place where we could head it off directly? If they don't have a visa, they don't get to check in at airports anywhere around the world. Isn't the place to put the emphasis in stopping potential terrorists from getting visas to the United States?

ALDEN: Mohamad, if I could -- if I could respond to that one first, perhaps, because this is a topic I've paid a lot of attention to.

BAZZI: Sure.

ALDEN: There has in fact been a huge amount of effort put into trying to prevent terrorists from getting visas. This was one of the primary focuses of the U.S. effort after 9/11. And one of the unfortunate consequences of that effort was that we gave fewer visas to everybody. The number of visas issued for travel to the United States plummeted after 9/11, and only had just recovered to pre-9/11 levels before the recession hit.

And that has consequences. That has economic consequences when tourists don't come here. It has diplomatic consequences when foreign students who might eventually be leaders of their nations don't come to study here and they go to other places. So that's a tool that you want to use in a discriminating fashion.

The issue in this case is why Abdulmutallab's visa was not reviewed in detail after information about him started coming forward. He was granted a visa in London in 2008, at a time when there was no evidence that he had been radicalized. It seems to have been a reasonable decision at the time. The question is why, when his father approached the U.S. embassy in Nigeria and bits and pieces of other information came forward, that the U.S. didn't move to revoke his visa at that time. And that's currently under investigation in the State Department, and I think is one of the legitimate questions to ask about what went wrong in this incident.

SIMON: Well, the only thing that would answer that is, you know, most embassy visa sections -- well, not most, actually, but most in the countries that we're talking about are swamped. They deal with an enormous volume of visa applicants. And, you know, the review process is probably never as thorough as you'd want it to be.

The complicating factor is that, you know, if you're dealing with a network that's really very clever, they can find ways of, you know, essentially corrupting embassy, you know, employees to get visa approval.

So, you know, it's a necessary front line, and for the most part, it's probably pretty effective, but it's not going to be perfect, and, you know, you have to look at the State Department visa operations as part of a bigger interlocking system of defensive measures, none of which is going to be perfect, but, you know, in some kind of totality or synergistic whole, they're going to keep you safe.

BAZZI: Okay, we're ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Alexander Privitera with N24.

QUESTIONER: Yes. My question is two-fold. It's a follow-up on why the target is -- the target of choice seems to be aviation, in big part, because if the evidence disappears, why would al Qaeda want to target planes?

I mean, it could take months or even years to find out that they actually targeted a plane. And isn't it true that trying to target planes seems to be a quite low-tech solution from their point of view and that some of these al Qaeda operatives seems to -- seem to be pretty badly prepared for their task, from their point of view?

SIMON: Well, you know, that's a good question. You know, my feeling is, first, for all the reasons that we've already discussed -- not to mention, you know, the fact that you do commit mass murder. And if it's a mass-casualty attack you're seeking to inflict, well, it's a really efficient way to achieve that goal. But, you know, the horror of everyone disappearing is that, you know, one wants to get the bodies, at least in our culture, but, you know, in most cultures. You just -- the thought of the victims simply disappearing forever and being irretrievable, even as remains, adds a special horror.

The evidence disappearing is good because, you know, the thing is, even if you're taking credit for an attack, which is what al Qaeda, let's say, would be likely to do, if the forensic evidence isn't recovered, then links back to the networks or cells that put together and carried out the plot are going to be difficult to suss out, are going to be difficult to investigate.

So, you know, I think, again, for those reasons, it's a pretty good option.

Now, as far as, you know, the attackers themselves failing: In the case of, say, Richard Reid and this guy, you know, failing to bring down the airplane, well, you know, it's bad luck. But, you know, we had bad luck on 9/11, and, you know, they had bad luck on Christmas Day. That's the way the cookie crumbled.

BAZZI: Okay.

Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Nathan Guttman with The Forward.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, hi. I'd like to ask Ted about the issue of -- actually both of you about the issue of profiling, ethnic and racial and religious profiling.

Do you think this question will be raised more frequently now? Do you think we will hear more calls, such as the one we heard from Newt Gingrich, to employ these methods in airport security in the United States?

ALDEN: The answer is yes. I think we're already hearing that and we will hear more of that. My real concern about profiling, and you can -- you know, there are reasonable civil liberties and other concerns about profiling.

My real concern about it is that in its crude form, it doesn't work; that simply adding up a number of characteristics about individuals and saying, those are the individuals we need to scrutinize -- you know, be that nationality or religion or ethnicity or any other quality -- just isn't a particularly effective way to identify the people you're worried about.

What the U.S. government -- DHS and other agencies have been working on for a long time is more sophisticated targeting systems, in which you look at things like an individual's travel patterns. You look at how the ticket was purchased. You look at past relationships if you have evidence of that.

You bring together a number of bits of information to try to say, this is someone who we ought to take a second look at rather than just saying, well, everyone traveling to the United States from Saudi Arabia or from Pakistan or from Indonesia, we are going to scrutinize them, because their passport is from a country that we're worried about.

That I think has been shown to be ineffective. And I think there are significant diplomatic and economic consequences, negative consequences for the United States, from that approach. So to answer your question, yes, I think there will be more call for profiling. And I think that's precisely the wrong response to this failed attack.

BAZZI: Anything to add, Steve?

SIMON: Well, you know, not really.

I'm not as skeptical of profiling as all bad.

You know, if you're taking into consideration a lot of factors -- country of origin, you know, religion and things like that, or at least religion as evidenced by, say, name -- it's just going to be taking into account, not perhaps in terms of some formal profiling process, but you know, no one who is doing the sorting, if I can put it that way, is simply going to be oblivious to those factors.

And you know, the thing is that coming up with an alternative is kind of hard. And you know, it -- the comments that were just made, you know, called to mind one of them which has become a factor in the Abdulmutallab case, and that's the purchase of tickets for cash. You know, when I was in government and, you know, we kind of dreamt that one up as an indicator and, you know -- but it's flawed, because if you look in the current case, in country like Nigeria, you know, or Ghana or any of these countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, cash is the way people do business. Credit card fraud is rife. It makes those kinds of plastic transactions very problematic. So you know, what do you do when you got all those people coming up to the counter paying cash?

I'm not saying that, you know, this becomes irrelevant, you know, or disproves the utility of alternatives to profiling. I'm just saying that it gets really complicated.

ALDEN: Just to add, I don't -- I don't think I'd disagree with Steve. I think obviously nationality, religion, other factors are something -- are things that need to be looked at in trying to identify people that you want to subject to extra scrutiny.

What I object to is simply saying, "Well, henceforth everyone coming to the United States from this list of countries, regardless of their travel history, regardless of how many times they've been to the United States, regardless of how much we know about them, we are going to subject those people and those people only to special extra procedures." That's a crude sort of measure that I think alienates a lot of people who are otherwise friendly to the United States and does little to improve our security.

So that's my objection to profiling.

BAZZI: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Josh Gerstein with Politico.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Good afternoon. I wanted to see what you gentlemen made of the sort of indignation and near anger that President Obama expressed last Tuesday in his statement about this incident. And when he talked about accountability, what did you take -- (audio break) -- to mean by that, and what kind of accountability do you think is reasonable under this circumstance? If we were to, say, fire the diplomat who took the report from -- the initial report from Mr. Abdulmutallab's father in Nigeria, would that indicate that we have resolved the problem or cleansed the system in some way?

ALDEN: I'm happy to take a first cut at that. I think what the president was frustrated by is -- is the response you get from a lot of agencies when confronted with these kinds of failures; which is to say, "Oh, well, we did everything right, and this was unavoidable." And I think that's the wrong answer. I think that the correct answer is the fact that the attack was so close to being successful and it was only bad luck from -- by the bomber and the heroic actions of citizens on the plane that prevented it from carrying out, I think that was evidence of a failure. And I think the response he was looking for from agencies was to say, "Yes, mistakes were made, and we're going to get to the bottom of it."

On the question of whether you want to hold individuals accountable, obviously, if there were egregious and identifiable errors in procedure made by certain individuals, you want to find that out. But I would really caution against going around the government, firing people. I mean, we have an experience of this, in the State Department after 9/11: Mary Ryan, who was the assistant secretary for consular affairs, was fired from her job because it was her people who issued visas to the hijackers.

QUESTIONER: Right.

ALDEN: And in many cases -- in fact, Mary Ryan had done more than anybody else in the government up to that point to try to improve the watch list system for identifying terrorists so that visas would not be issued to those people. And that sent a message throughout the State Department that, you know, look, when something like this happens, they're going to come after us, and therefore you have to be ultra-cautious about issuing visas.

And I don't think that's a message that we want out there. Yes, people need to be scrutinized carefully for visas. You need good screening systems. But we also want as a country people to come to the United States.

And so, I think, you know, peremptory firings as a way of sending out a message, I think, have a way of backfiring.

BAZZI: Anything to add, Steve?

SIMON: No.

BAZZI: Now, we're scheduled to end at 5 p.m., but there are still some questions on the line, so we can keep going if Ted and Steve can spare a few more minutes.

SIMON: I'm fine.

ALDEN: Sure.

BAZZI: Okay. How many questions do we have in the queue?

OPERATOR: Right now, we have two questions.

BAZZI: Okay. Great.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Daphne Benoit with AFP Wire Service.

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Hi. Thanks for doing this. My question is for Steve. What do we know exactly about the link between al Qaeda Arab Peninsula and the core leadership of al Qaeda back in Pakistan? And has your assessment changed on, you know, the actual state of the al Qaeda network in the world after this failed attempt? I mean, do we still have to consider that al Qaeda is mainly, you know, a series of franchises or is it actually -- you know, are those cells more connected than we thought?

SIMON: Well, I think the connections are there and I think when we use the word franchise, which is a good word, we need to be clear that we're not talking about completely independent and autonomous organizations because franchises are not, and the franchisee and franchisor, you know, both have an interest in the arrangement.

QUESTIONER: Mm hmm.

SIMON: And, you know, if I have a McDonald's franchise, you know, I'm getting something from McDonald's, and in return, I have to do things the way McDonald's wants me to do them. I've got to put the pickle on top of the burger; I can't put it under the burger or, you know, whatever. (Laughter.)

That's kind of a crude analogy, but nevertheless, franchises imply a certain reciprocal interest and responsibility and I think that's what we see here and with AQAP going way back, there was a constant -- you know, a constantly implemented link, you know, and a robust link with core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

QUESTIONER: Mm hmm.

SIMON: And I'll give you a good example.

You know, one example that happens to pop into my mind. When AQAP was doing these attacks within Saudi Arabia -- they were doing the assaults on the residential compounds -- there was a debate between AQAP and central al Qaeda about whether these attacks were okay given the fact that they killed a lot of Muslims.

QUESTIONER: Mm hmm.

SIMON: And, you know, ultimately, AQAP backed off or at least they backed off to the extent where when they carried out an assault against a compound, they would ask the person if they were Muslim before they, you know, killed them. And if they said they were Muslim, they didn't kill them, they went on to someone else. So there was a debate about whether AQAP should be allocating its assets to Iraq, which was sort of the central front for a while instead of operating solely on the Arabian Peninsula.

So, you know, that kind of communication is really significant and it shows that there is a serious link and there's a responsiveness on both sides. And, you know, Yemenis in any case were in Afghanistan in large numbers, you know, during the time when -- you know, the pre- 2001 period. So the links in the personal and organizational level, you know, are pretty robust.

Anyway, you know, to answer your broader question about whether this signifies some change, what have you, I think this doesn't signify change, I mean, it signifies where things are at now. In other words, this attack doesn't represent, at least to my mind, a departure.

BAZZI: Okay. Next question please.

OPERATOR: Our last question comes from Karen Sughrue with CBS "60 Minutes."

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks very much, this is for Ted or Steve if you have any thoughts on it as well.

Ted, you had said that there are all these questions being asked right now about why the information about the Nigerian guy wasn't processed right or distributed right. I mean, can you expand on what was supposed to have happened? I mean, there have been a lot of changes supposedly in how information is shared. Is the National Counterterrorism Center a failure do you think -- the director of National Intelligence? Where do the biggest bottlenecks still exist? And what was supposed to have happened?

Thanks.

ALDEN: I think the real issue here appears to have been one of the speed of distributing this information around the government. I mean, one of the things that John Brennan, the deputy national security adviser for homeland security said over the weekend that I think was correct is that the difference here from what you had before 9/11 is that you don't have agencies deliberately hoarding information and not sharing with each other.

I mean, you saw before 9/11, for instance, that the CIA had been aware of some of the -- two of the 9/11 hijackers who had met with al Qaeda operatives in Singapore, never shared that information with the State Department. As a result they were not on the State Department watch lists that would've prevented them from getting visas.

We don't appear to be talking about that kind of question. I think a lot of those sort of bottlenecks have, by and large, been resolved, that the information-sharing environment is a pretty good one.

What appears to have happened here is there simply was not a very rapid assessment of new information, this information from the embassy was contained in what's known as visas VIPER cable, which is a system that was set up -- I mean, Steve may know about this from his government days -- a system set up after the Trade Center bombings in 1993 to try to provide information back to the State Department and to the rest of the government about people who raised terrorism concerns, and therefore, we might not want to give them visas.

What's puzzling in this case is how that information never made it past this kind of initial master list that the NCTC keeps of names of people who might be of some kind of terrorism concern. These are not all people that we necessarily want to keep out of the country or keep off of airplanes. There are people who we have some reason to believe may have some links somewhere to some terrorist groups that we want to keep an eye on.

The question is, do those people get elevated so that either, yes, this is a person that we want to pull aside for special screening at airports, this is a person we want to keep off airplanes, or in this case, this is someone who possesses a U.S. visa and that visa ought to be revoked. And the question is why none of those things happened. And was it the case that he was, in fact, subject to a careful review and a decision was reached that there simply wasn't enough information to warrant that elevation? Or did the warning that his father gave in the embassy in Nigeria just never gets serious consideration? And we don't know the answers to that yet, and I think that's what this review that the government is doing will hopefully clear up.

BAZZI: Steve, do you want to add anything?

SIMON: I would just emphasize, you know, the last part of that. I thought it was all admirable, but the last part was really key, which is we don't know. We just don't know right now, but it'll come out.

BAZZI: Okay. Well, on that note, I think we're done with the questions. And thank you both, Ted and Steve, and thank you to everyone who joined us on this conference call. And the transcript and the audio, I believe, will be up on the CFR website later on today and also Ted Alden's analysis should be up, actually, right now on the CFR website on many of these issues.

So thank you to everyone.

ALDEN: Thank you.

SIMON: Thanks very much.

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-------------------------

Council on Foreign Relations Conference Call

Subject: U.S. Response to Christmas Day Bombing Plot

Speakers:

Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Presider:

Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Time: 4:00 P.M. EST

Date: Monday, January 4, 2010

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Yes, thank you all for dialing in. I'm Mohamad Bazzi, an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As most of you know, after the failed airliner bombing plot on Christmas Day -- which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a terror group based in Yemen, has claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing -- the United States has come under scrutiny and some criticism for its failure to track this threat despite several warnings in the weeks leading up to the attempted bombing.

Now, in response, security measures have been stepped up at airports around the world, including extra security that will target citizens of 14 countries. Today we have with us CFR experts Ted Alden and Steven Simon on the line to offer their commentary on this situation and to answer your questions.

Ted is the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow here at CFR and the author of the 2008 book "The Closing of the American Border." He's an expert on border security issues.

Steve is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at CFR, and the author of "The Age of Sacred Terror" and "The Next Attack."

Ted, let's start with you. Do you think the United States is taking appropriate measures to deal with the threat at hand today?

EDWARD ALDEN: Thanks very much, Mohamad, and thanks to all of you for taking the time to be on the call. Mohamad, I want to respond primarily to the announcement that you mentioned in your introduction, which is this announcement by DHS yesterday, that it will be requiring extra screening, which in practice will mean either physical pat-downs or scans, if they are available, for all travelers coming to the United States from or through countries of interest.

I've -- there's a briefing that I've written on this issue -- it's about to be posted on the CFR website -- that goes into a little more detail. But the short version is that I think that this is an ill-considered response that will do more harm to the United States than it does good.

And why do I say that?

My conclusion comes out of the research that I did for my book, which looked at the development and the consequences of visa restrictions and other border security measures after 9/11.

For the book, I interviewed most of the Bush administration officials who were involved in the time at the White House, at DHS, at the Justice Department and at State.

And just by way of background, to simplify, there were two sorts of post-9/11 responses that came out of the Bush administration, with respect to transportation and border security measures.

The first was, we are going to try to go after the citizens of bad countries and make it difficult for people from those countries, to come to the United States, and improve our security in that fashion.

And the second one was that we were actually going to try to figure out who the bad guys were. As Brian Peterman -- he's a Coast Guard commander who was in charge of border and transportation security at the White House after 9/11 -- the way he put it to me was, we needed to handle people individually, because there are bad people coming from what we consider good countries.

So these were really the two ways in which the Bush administration tried to deal with this problem. The first response -- let's put in place special measures for citizens from bad countries -- led to a number of programs that I think in retrospect have turned out to be very harmful.

The worst of these was the NSEERS or special registration program. It was set up in 2002 and required lengthy screening upon arrival for all male travelers from predominantly Muslim countries and required them to check out of certain airports.

What that meant is that no matter how many times you'd come to the U.S., or even if you were living here but not yet a citizen, you'd have to run this gauntlet every time you came to the United States.

And not surprisingly when you look at the numbers, travel from these countries to the United States fell sharply after 9/11, hasn't come close to recovering since.

The second approach -- let's figure out who the bad guys are, to the best of our abilities, and try to target those individuals -- led to a whole series of developments that we've become very familiar with over the past week or so.

These include the watch lists, information sharing within the government and within allies, and the advanced information that DHS requires on all passengers getting on airplanes to come to the United States.

We get far more information on incoming airline passengers than we did a decade ago.

And the reason for developing those systems was that any crude screening system based on nationality was just going to be too easy for al Qaeda to defeat by recruiting elsewhere.

And the classic case of this, of course, is the failed shoe- bomber, Richard Reid. He carried a British passport. So he's not an individual who would have been identified under this new system the TSA has set up effective today to do special screening of individuals who come from or travel through these countries of interest.

And these targeted -- just to finish up -- these targeted systems have the virtue for the most part that security inspectors are not hassling people without some good reason. There needs to be some reason to pull someone aside for extra scrutiny, not just everybody who fits a certain class of individuals.

So, you know, as I spell out in more detail in this brief, which is going to be up on CFR.org momentarily, this incident over Christmas was a failure of the targeting system, with lots of information out there about Abdulmutallab and it wasn't put together in a way that it should have been put together. And the challenge is to make this targeting system work better, and that's what the various reviews that are under way in the administration right now are about.

But adding another crude system that just targets everyone from these countries is going to be ineffective and it's going to hurt larger U.S. interests in a struggle that requires keeping and winning friends as well as deterring enemies.

Let me just make one final note and I'll stop on that. If we had put this kind of system in place -- you know, let's say we're going to give extra pre-flight scrutiny to people coming from countries of concern. If we'd done that on December 24th, Nigeria would not have been one of the countries on that list. Nigeria was not one of the countries initially targeted under the NSEERS special registration program. So if we'd put this in place with what we knew December 24th, Abdulmutallab would never have been picked out and targeted. So I think it just underscores that these kinds of measures are not the most effective way to respond to the sort of failed effort that we saw in Detroit on Christmas.

Thanks. I'll turn it back to you.

BAZZI: Thank you, Ted.

We're now going to turn to Steve Simon, who's going to address some of the issues around the changing nature of the al Qaeda threat today, and also U.S. policy towards Yemen.

Steve.

STEVEN SIMON: Thanks.

These are going to be, you know, more or less scattered observations which many of you have probably made yourselves. But for conversational purposes, let's start with al Qaeda.

You know, there's been I guess a controversy that was reflected in the moderator's introduction about whether al Qaeda still counts or whether, as some experts have maintained, this is really a completely distributed operation at this point, with little reference to the core al Qaeda that brought us 9/11 and other terrible attacks.

And you know, the conversation on this has unfortunately dichotomized the possibilities. And I think what this incident shows is that the truth perhaps as usual lies somewhere in the middle.

Al Qaeda, core al Qaeda, seems very much to have been involved in this, although the actual attacker was radicalized, you know, well outside of Pakistan but well within the Pakistani diaspora. And I'll get to that in a minute.

So lesson one for me or observation one is that al Qaeda is still very much in the picture. The second is that Abdulmutallab is exactly the sort of guy that core al Qaeda has been trying to recruit and has recruited in the past.

And you know, to me, he resembled most closely Ramzi Yousef who was also an individual -- an engineer trained in Britain who targeted aviation and who also attempted to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993.

Ramzi Yousef was an engineering student -- not at University College London, as was Abdulmutallab, but at University of Wales at Swansea -- but rather similar to this guy, expect perhaps for their institutional affiliations.

One of the interesting things about Abdulmutallab is his affiliation with what most people would regard as mainstream Islamic organizations, although ones that, it must be said, have their roots in the Muslim Brothers; and that includes the umbrella group to which his University College London Islamic students' group belonged.

So you know, there is -- there's a difference there between a Ramzi Yousef, who seemed to operate outside of these institutional frameworks, and Abdulmutallab, who was radicalized seemingly within that kind of a framework -- but in other respects, very similar and very suggestive of the kind of person that AQ wishes to recruit, because they're essentially cosmopolitan people who can travel anywhere and can handle themselves in demanding situations.

The third observation for me was the role of Yemen in Pakistan and Nigeria, on the one hand; that is to say, countries that have very weak law enforcement. Of course, Yemen -- that's the understatement of the year, but nevertheless, they're countries where, you know, you can sort of do what you want. And those are the sorts of countries, of course, that the United States has been concerned about for a long time precisely for the reasons that have brought us together in this call.

The other country involved here, of course, is Britain.

And you know, they've got a really big problem with radicalization.

And the cross-fertilization here is kind of interesting, where you have this Nigerian Muslim in what's essentially a Pakistani diaspora context. And you know, there again you have the fertile ground for contact with people who are al Qaeda or have some contact with al Qaeda back home.

Let's see, just to run quickly down the list of some other observations. Aviation is still a favorite target. This is really striking to me. It's just an irresistible target. And it's irresistible I think perhaps because it's so challenging, as much as it might be said to be irresistible despite the challenges.

I think, you know, this is the target par excellence for a lot of reasons. But anyway that struck me. And lastly what struck me was how hard it is to stop this kind of thing.

And in part, and I'll just close on this note, at least this part of the presentation -- I've been asked to speak a little about U.S.- Yemeni relations as well -- the last point here is that this enemy, al Qaeda, is incredibly resilient and adaptive.

And the move towards body bombs is a really good example of this. You know, the one that preceded -- the body bomb attack that preceded this and which also did not succeed was the attempt of al Qaeda -- in particular al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, with which this attack has been linked -- the group tried to kill Muhammad bin Nayef, who is the head of Saudi internal security.

And there the bomb was actually secreted inside the body of the attacker.

And, you know, this attack reflects the same determination and ingenuity. And those are hallmarks, to my mind, of al Qaeda.

On U.S.-Yemeni relations, you know, it's really -- it's really difficult. You have a Yemeni government for which terrorism is the least of its problems. You know, it's well understood, I think, that, you know, they're facing -- that that government is facing two insurrections. One is more incipient than the other, but nevertheless, they're serious problems not just for the stability of the country but for its very integrity.

So those are the sorts of things that the government is worried about. And particularly with the northern insurrection, the government finds it useful to use the kind of people whom we really don't like to defend its interest up there. That is to say, they seek out Sunni radicals who will take special exception to the Shi'ite composition of the rebellion in the north.

So, you know, there are structural obstacles to U.S.-Yemeni cooperation right there. And then there are other issues; you know, lack of training and competence, in addition to problems with motivation.

Now, having said that, you know, the U.S. has operated perhaps not with impunity in Yemen since 2001, but with a relatively free hand. And that situation doesn't appear to be threatened. I think, you know at the end of the day, Saleh, the president, will want the U.S. in his corner, in part precisely because he's weak.

In any case, the U.S. is expanding hugely its economic and its security assistance, which means more Americans in country, which could have, you know, a blowback effect that we might not entirely like. But, you know, the bottom line is that the U.S. has decided to invest ever more heavily in the stability of the current government and in an infrastructure -- a U.S. infrastructure in that country that will assist in the fight against AQAP, al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.

And with that, I'll close.

BAZZI: Thank you, Steve.

I'm sure we have many questions, so we're going to open this up to questions.

The Conference America moderator will let you know your position in the queue. And please identify yourself and your news organization. Thank you.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the "1" key on your touchtone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they're received. If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, press star-two. Once again, to ask a question, that is star-one.

Our first question comes from Jonathan Weisman with the Wall Street Journal.

QUESTIONER: Hi, gentlemen. Thanks for doing this.

I'm curious. You know, since the Predator strike in Yemen in 2002 -- and that strike was very public, it created a lot of controversy, and then we didn't hear much since then. And I'm trying to figure out if the -- what kind of assets the United States still has. Is it still operating an active Predator program in the area? And what impact did that particular strike have on U.S.-Yemeni relations and Yemeni willingness to cooperate in our hunt for al Qaeda there?

BAZZI (?): Steve, do you want to take that question?

SIMON: Well, you know, judging by the raids that were conducted in December, in one of which you'll recall Anwar Awlaki was supposed to have been killed -- it turned out he wasn't. He was the preacher who has been linked actually both to Abdulmutallab but also to Major Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter.

Judging from those raids, there's a fairly robust U.S. presence in Yemen that, you know, carries out raids and uses, you know, all the techniques at their disposal to assist Yemenis in attacking AQAP. And you know, these resources include missiles and other weapons.

You know, I can't go into a lot of detail on some of that. But you know, the U.S. also has naval vessels offshore. There are a lot of U.S. assets available for these purposes. And they are used.

You know, we're just, I think, become inured to Predator strikes and Reaper strikes, in the years between the killing of Abu Ali al- Harithi in 2002, in Yemen, and nowadays where we carry out numberless such strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the last year where -- if I'm not mistaken, in 2009, we killed something on the order of 300 al Qaeda people, not counting others who were in the vicinity when the missiles hit.

So you know, they've become an instrument of choice for U.S. counterterrorism operations. And you know, Yemen is, like the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a very good place, as it were, to use these kinds of weapons.

QUESTIONER: Thanks.

BAZZI: Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Francine Kiefer with the Christian Science Monitor.

QUESTIONER: Ted, this is for you.

I was wondering what you think of the full-body scanner idea.

ALDEN: Well, you know, I -- the main problem is, it's expensive to deploy and difficult to deploy in some different airport environments. And it raises privacy concerns.

But I think certainly, you know, used selectively in a targeted way, it makes sense.

I think there's no question that, had Abdulmutallab been pulled aside and scanned or otherwise checked, that this explosive device that he was carrying would have been revealed. So I definitely think it has its place.

But we continue to look for a technological silver bullet that is somehow going to respond to all plausible threats, and that is not the right way to look at the Homeland Security enterprise. There are an infinite number of potential ways to carry out terrorist attacks and potential targets. And so we, the United States, have to be as adaptable as al Qaeda is in terms of trying to identify potential plots, people carrying out those plots, and respond on the basis of that information.

So I think, you know, we continue to hope that there will be one perfect solution out there. And there isn't. That's why we need to take a careful look at what went wrong in this case; why, despite the information that was available on this individual, he wasn't targeted for special scrutiny; and try to improve those systems so they will work better the next time, rather than imagining that there is some single system that's going to solve this problem for us.

BAZZI: Okay. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Tom Frank with USA Today.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for doing this. And hi, Mohamad.

Question for Steve Simon: Why do you think that aviation -- and it seems particularly international aviation, transatlantic flights to the U.S. -- remain such an attractive target?

SIMON: I think for a few reasons. One -- and this is -- I don't know if this is really an explanation -- but you know, people think that terrorist techniques sort of follow a wave pattern, and you know, if there's a technique that seems particularly effective, it'll catch on, and it'll just dominate the mode of attack for a while, maybe years before fading in favor of some other form of attack. And right now, we're in the age of aviation attack.

But more specifically, the airlines symbolize countries.

They're -- you know, they signify the nationalities that operate and own those airlines. So, you know, it's a symbol of sovereignty, in a way, that can be attacked.

An aviation attack's particularly horrifying, I think, because there's no possibility of escape. If you are attacked, you will die. You're also in a confined circumstance, which adds to the horror of it; you know, the claustrophobia of being attacked inside an airplane. And, you know, the fact that if your target goes over -- goes down, you know, over water, there's the added horror and the tactical benefit of the evidence and in fact the victims just disappearing.

So, you know, I think for these reasons it's -- you know, it's still attractive.

And going back to the wave thing, I think the -- you know, the effectiveness of the 9/11 attacks really gave aviation attacks generally a new lease on life. They were just perceived to be phenomenally successful, as indeed they were.

BAZZI: Ted, is there anything you would like to add on this?

SIMON: I mean, I agree with Steve, though I think, you know, certainly aviation attacks have been a popular target, but not exclusively, by any stretch. I mean, we've had, of course, the subway bombings in Madrid and in London and a number of hotel-related attacks. So I think there are clearly other targets that al Qaeda has in its sights, but that said, I certainly agree with Steve's comments about the particular attractiveness of aviation.

I think the other thing that makes it attractive is that the United States and other countries have put so much effort into protecting aviation targets, so that if al Qaeda succeeds in carrying out an aviation attack, it just, from their perspective, further highlights the inability of the United States and other countries to respond effectively to the threat that they're posing. So they're attractive for that reason as well.

BAZZI: Okay, next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Caroline Cooper (sp) with HDNet.

QUESTIONER: Hi there. Just to follow up on the question about the full- body scanners, I'm just wondering, Ed, if you'd weigh in on how good a job TSA is doing.

I mean, understanding that maybe that's the silver bullet, but why didn't we have these scanners more widespread in place?

ALDEN: I mean, I think, you know, there are really two reasons. I think one has been cost. These are expensive systems to deploy. And the other has been airline configurations -- I mean airport configurations. (You know ?), having the space to set up full-body scanners that you can put everyone through is difficult in a lot of airport environments.

And the other thing to remember, of course, is that this -- you know, this flight was boarded from abroad, from overseas. And so the question arises: Do we, the United States, want to require this technology for use on everybody boarding flights to the United States? And I think we just have not reached that point yet where that was seen as necessary for security reasons.

But they are -- you know, they're gradually being deployed more widely. I think they will continue to be deployed more widely.

BAZZI: Okay. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Robert Flint with Dow Jones News.

QUESTIONER: Yes, I'd like to ask both of you if enough emphasis is being placed on potential terrorists getting visas to the United States. Isn't that the place where we could head it off directly? If they don't have a visa, they don't get to check in at airports anywhere around the world. Isn't the place to put the emphasis in stopping potential terrorists from getting visas to the United States?

ALDEN: Mohamad, if I could -- if I could respond to that one first, perhaps, because this is a topic I've paid a lot of attention to.

BAZZI: Sure.

ALDEN: There has in fact been a huge amount of effort put into trying to prevent terrorists from getting visas. This was one of the primary focuses of the U.S. effort after 9/11. And one of the unfortunate consequences of that effort was that we gave fewer visas to everybody. The number of visas issued for travel to the United States plummeted after 9/11, and only had just recovered to pre-9/11 levels before the recession hit.

And that has consequences. That has economic consequences when tourists don't come here. It has diplomatic consequences when foreign students who might eventually be leaders of their nations don't come to study here and they go to other places. So that's a tool that you want to use in a discriminating fashion.

The issue in this case is why Abdulmutallab's visa was not reviewed in detail after information about him started coming forward. He was granted a visa in London in 2008, at a time when there was no evidence that he had been radicalized. It seems to have been a reasonable decision at the time. The question is why, when his father approached the U.S. embassy in Nigeria and bits and pieces of other information came forward, that the U.S. didn't move to revoke his visa at that time. And that's currently under investigation in the State Department, and I think is one of the legitimate questions to ask about what went wrong in this incident.

SIMON: Well, the only thing that would answer that is, you know, most embassy visa sections -- well, not most, actually, but most in the countries that we're talking about are swamped. They deal with an enormous volume of visa applicants. And, you know, the review process is probably never as thorough as you'd want it to be.

The complicating factor is that, you know, if you're dealing with a network that's really very clever, they can find ways of, you know, essentially corrupting embassy, you know, employees to get visa approval.

So, you know, it's a necessary front line, and for the most part, it's probably pretty effective, but it's not going to be perfect, and, you know, you have to look at the State Department visa operations as part of a bigger interlocking system of defensive measures, none of which is going to be perfect, but, you know, in some kind of totality or synergistic whole, they're going to keep you safe.

BAZZI: Okay, we're ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Alexander Privitera with N24.

QUESTIONER: Yes. My question is two-fold. It's a follow-up on why the target is -- the target of choice seems to be aviation, in big part, because if the evidence disappears, why would al Qaeda want to target planes?

I mean, it could take months or even years to find out that they actually targeted a plane. And isn't it true that trying to target planes seems to be a quite low-tech solution from their point of view and that some of these al Qaeda operatives seems to -- seem to be pretty badly prepared for their task, from their point of view?

SIMON: Well, you know, that's a good question. You know, my feeling is, first, for all the reasons that we've already discussed -- not to mention, you know, the fact that you do commit mass murder. And if it's a mass-casualty attack you're seeking to inflict, well, it's a really efficient way to achieve that goal. But, you know, the horror of everyone disappearing is that, you know, one wants to get the bodies, at least in our culture, but, you know, in most cultures. You just -- the thought of the victims simply disappearing forever and being irretrievable, even as remains, adds a special horror.

The evidence disappearing is good because, you know, the thing is, even if you're taking credit for an attack, which is what al Qaeda, let's say, would be likely to do, if the forensic evidence isn't recovered, then links back to the networks or cells that put together and carried out the plot are going to be difficult to suss out, are going to be difficult to investigate.

So, you know, I think, again, for those reasons, it's a pretty good option.

Now, as far as, you know, the attackers themselves failing: In the case of, say, Richard Reid and this guy, you know, failing to bring down the airplane, well, you know, it's bad luck. But, you know, we had bad luck on 9/11, and, you know, they had bad luck on Christmas Day. That's the way the cookie crumbled.

BAZZI: Okay.

Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Nathan Guttman with The Forward.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, hi. I'd like to ask Ted about the issue of -- actually both of you about the issue of profiling, ethnic and racial and religious profiling.

Do you think this question will be raised more frequently now? Do you think we will hear more calls, such as the one we heard from Newt Gingrich, to employ these methods in airport security in the United States?

ALDEN: The answer is yes. I think we're already hearing that and we will hear more of that. My real concern about profiling, and you can -- you know, there are reasonable civil liberties and other concerns about profiling.

My real concern about it is that in its crude form, it doesn't work; that simply adding up a number of characteristics about individuals and saying, those are the individuals we need to scrutinize -- you know, be that nationality or religion or ethnicity or any other quality -- just isn't a particularly effective way to identify the people you're worried about.

What the U.S. government -- DHS and other agencies have been working on for a long time is more sophisticated targeting systems, in which you look at things like an individual's travel patterns. You look at how the ticket was purchased. You look at past relationships if you have evidence of that.

You bring together a number of bits of information to try to say, this is someone who we ought to take a second look at rather than just saying, well, everyone traveling to the United States from Saudi Arabia or from Pakistan or from Indonesia, we are going to scrutinize them, because their passport is from a country that we're worried about.

That I think has been shown to be ineffective. And I think there are significant diplomatic and economic consequences, negative consequences for the United States, from that approach. So to answer your question, yes, I think there will be more call for profiling. And I think that's precisely the wrong response to this failed attack.

BAZZI: Anything to add, Steve?

SIMON: Well, you know, not really.

I'm not as skeptical of profiling as all bad.

You know, if you're taking into consideration a lot of factors -- country of origin, you know, religion and things like that, or at least religion as evidenced by, say, name -- it's just going to be taking into account, not perhaps in terms of some formal profiling process, but you know, no one who is doing the sorting, if I can put it that way, is simply going to be oblivious to those factors.

And you know, the thing is that coming up with an alternative is kind of hard. And you know, it -- the comments that were just made, you know, called to mind one of them which has become a factor in the Abdulmutallab case, and that's the purchase of tickets for cash. You know, when I was in government and, you know, we kind of dreamt that one up as an indicator and, you know -- but it's flawed, because if you look in the current case, in country like Nigeria, you know, or Ghana or any of these countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, cash is the way people do business. Credit card fraud is rife. It makes those kinds of plastic transactions very problematic. So you know, what do you do when you got all those people coming up to the counter paying cash?

I'm not saying that, you know, this becomes irrelevant, you know, or disproves the utility of alternatives to profiling. I'm just saying that it gets really complicated.

ALDEN: Just to add, I don't -- I don't think I'd disagree with Steve. I think obviously nationality, religion, other factors are something -- are things that need to be looked at in trying to identify people that you want to subject to extra scrutiny.

What I object to is simply saying, "Well, henceforth everyone coming to the United States from this list of countries, regardless of their travel history, regardless of how many times they've been to the United States, regardless of how much we know about them, we are going to subject those people and those people only to special extra procedures." That's a crude sort of measure that I think alienates a lot of people who are otherwise friendly to the United States and does little to improve our security.

So that's my objection to profiling.

BAZZI: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Josh Gerstein with Politico.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Good afternoon. I wanted to see what you gentlemen made of the sort of indignation and near anger that President Obama expressed last Tuesday in his statement about this incident. And when he talked about accountability, what did you take -- (audio break) -- to mean by that, and what kind of accountability do you think is reasonable under this circumstance? If we were to, say, fire the diplomat who took the report from -- the initial report from Mr. Abdulmutallab's father in Nigeria, would that indicate that we have resolved the problem or cleansed the system in some way?

ALDEN: I'm happy to take a first cut at that. I think what the president was frustrated by is -- is the response you get from a lot of agencies when confronted with these kinds of failures; which is to say, "Oh, well, we did everything right, and this was unavoidable." And I think that's the wrong answer. I think that the correct answer is the fact that the attack was so close to being successful and it was only bad luck from -- by the bomber and the heroic actions of citizens on the plane that prevented it from carrying out, I think that was evidence of a failure. And I think the response he was looking for from agencies was to say, "Yes, mistakes were made, and we're going to get to the bottom of it."

On the question of whether you want to hold individuals accountable, obviously, if there were egregious and identifiable errors in procedure made by certain individuals, you want to find that out. But I would really caution against going around the government, firing people. I mean, we have an experience of this, in the State Department after 9/11: Mary Ryan, who was the assistant secretary for consular affairs, was fired from her job because it was her people who issued visas to the hijackers.

QUESTIONER: Right.

ALDEN: And in many cases -- in fact, Mary Ryan had done more than anybody else in the government up to that point to try to improve the watch list system for identifying terrorists so that visas would not be issued to those people. And that sent a message throughout the State Department that, you know, look, when something like this happens, they're going to come after us, and therefore you have to be ultra-cautious about issuing visas.

And I don't think that's a message that we want out there. Yes, people need to be scrutinized carefully for visas. You need good screening systems. But we also want as a country people to come to the United States.

And so, I think, you know, peremptory firings as a way of sending out a message, I think, have a way of backfiring.

BAZZI: Anything to add, Steve?

SIMON: No.

BAZZI: Now, we're scheduled to end at 5 p.m., but there are still some questions on the line, so we can keep going if Ted and Steve can spare a few more minutes.

SIMON: I'm fine.

ALDEN: Sure.

BAZZI: Okay. How many questions do we have in the queue?

OPERATOR: Right now, we have two questions.

BAZZI: Okay. Great.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Daphne Benoit with AFP Wire Service.

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Hi. Thanks for doing this. My question is for Steve. What do we know exactly about the link between al Qaeda Arab Peninsula and the core leadership of al Qaeda back in Pakistan? And has your assessment changed on, you know, the actual state of the al Qaeda network in the world after this failed attempt? I mean, do we still have to consider that al Qaeda is mainly, you know, a series of franchises or is it actually -- you know, are those cells more connected than we thought?

SIMON: Well, I think the connections are there and I think when we use the word franchise, which is a good word, we need to be clear that we're not talking about completely independent and autonomous organizations because franchises are not, and the franchisee and franchisor, you know, both have an interest in the arrangement.

QUESTIONER: Mm hmm.

SIMON: And, you know, if I have a McDonald's franchise, you know, I'm getting something from McDonald's, and in return, I have to do things the way McDonald's wants me to do them. I've got to put the pickle on top of the burger; I can't put it under the burger or, you know, whatever. (Laughter.)

That's kind of a crude analogy, but nevertheless, franchises imply a certain reciprocal interest and responsibility and I think that's what we see here and with AQAP going way back, there was a constant -- you know, a constantly implemented link, you know, and a robust link with core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

QUESTIONER: Mm hmm.

SIMON: And I'll give you a good example.

You know, one example that happens to pop into my mind. When AQAP was doing these attacks within Saudi Arabia -- they were doing the assaults on the residential compounds -- there was a debate between AQAP and central al Qaeda about whether these attacks were okay given the fact that they killed a lot of Muslims.

QUESTIONER: Mm hmm.

SIMON: And, you know, ultimately, AQAP backed off or at least they backed off to the extent where when they carried out an assault against a compound, they would ask the person if they were Muslim before they, you know, killed them. And if they said they were Muslim, they didn't kill them, they went on to someone else. So there was a debate about whether AQAP should be allocating its assets to Iraq, which was sort of the central front for a while instead of operating solely on the Arabian Peninsula.

So, you know, that kind of communication is really significant and it shows that there is a serious link and there's a responsiveness on both sides. And, you know, Yemenis in any case were in Afghanistan in large numbers, you know, during the time when -- you know, the pre- 2001 period. So the links in the personal and organizational level, you know, are pretty robust.

Anyway, you know, to answer your broader question about whether this signifies some change, what have you, I think this doesn't signify change, I mean, it signifies where things are at now. In other words, this attack doesn't represent, at least to my mind, a departure.

BAZZI: Okay. Next question please.

OPERATOR: Our last question comes from Karen Sughrue with CBS "60 Minutes."

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks very much, this is for Ted or Steve if you have any thoughts on it as well.

Ted, you had said that there are all these questions being asked right now about why the information about the Nigerian guy wasn't processed right or distributed right. I mean, can you expand on what was supposed to have happened? I mean, there have been a lot of changes supposedly in how information is shared. Is the National Counterterrorism Center a failure do you think -- the director of National Intelligence? Where do the biggest bottlenecks still exist? And what was supposed to have happened?

Thanks.

ALDEN: I think the real issue here appears to have been one of the speed of distributing this information around the government. I mean, one of the things that John Brennan, the deputy national security adviser for homeland security said over the weekend that I think was correct is that the difference here from what you had before 9/11 is that you don't have agencies deliberately hoarding information and not sharing with each other.

I mean, you saw before 9/11, for instance, that the CIA had been aware of some of the -- two of the 9/11 hijackers who had met with al Qaeda operatives in Singapore, never shared that information with the State Department. As a result they were not on the State Department watch lists that would've prevented them from getting visas.

We don't appear to be talking about that kind of question. I think a lot of those sort of bottlenecks have, by and large, been resolved, that the information-sharing environment is a pretty good one.

What appears to have happened here is there simply was not a very rapid assessment of new information, this information from the embassy was contained in what's known as visas VIPER cable, which is a system that was set up -- I mean, Steve may know about this from his government days -- a system set up after the Trade Center bombings in 1993 to try to provide information back to the State Department and to the rest of the government about people who raised terrorism concerns, and therefore, we might not want to give them visas.

What's puzzling in this case is how that information never made it past this kind of initial master list that the NCTC keeps of names of people who might be of some kind of terrorism concern. These are not all people that we necessarily want to keep out of the country or keep off of airplanes. There are people who we have some reason to believe may have some links somewhere to some terrorist groups that we want to keep an eye on.

The question is, do those people get elevated so that either, yes, this is a person that we want to pull aside for special screening at airports, this is a person we want to keep off airplanes, or in this case, this is someone who possesses a U.S. visa and that visa ought to be revoked. And the question is why none of those things happened. And was it the case that he was, in fact, subject to a careful review and a decision was reached that there simply wasn't enough information to warrant that elevation? Or did the warning that his father gave in the embassy in Nigeria just never gets serious consideration? And we don't know the answers to that yet, and I think that's what this review that the government is doing will hopefully clear up.

BAZZI: Steve, do you want to add anything?

SIMON: I would just emphasize, you know, the last part of that. I thought it was all admirable, but the last part was really key, which is we don't know. We just don't know right now, but it'll come out.

BAZZI: Okay. Well, on that note, I think we're done with the questions. And thank you both, Ted and Steve, and thank you to everyone who joined us on this conference call. And the transcript and the audio, I believe, will be up on the CFR website later on today and also Ted Alden's analysis should be up, actually, right now on the CFR website on many of these issues.

So thank you to everyone.

ALDEN: Thank you.

SIMON: Thanks very much.

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