Experts discuss how changes to U.S. domestic and international policy since September 11, 2011 have enhanced counterterrorism approaches and contributed to preventing planned terrorist attacks.
This session was part of a CFR symposium, 9/11: Ten Years Later, which was made possible by the generous support of Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis.
GIDEON ROSE: Ladies and gentlemen, one of the hallmarks of Council on Foreign Relations events that makes them somewhat more tolerable is that they begin on time and they end on time, so we are going to keep to that track record. I am delighted to welcome you to the second session of the CFR Symposium on 9/11: 10 Years Later. The title of this particular session is "Assessing the Threat: Is the United States Still Vulnerable?" Or, probably better, how vulnerable are we?
A couple of introductory remarks. Please turn off -- don't just put on vibrate or silent, but turn off your cell phones, BlackBerrys, blueberries, anything else you might have -- (inaudible) -- all wireless devices, to avoid interference with the sound system.
This meeting is on the record -- just want to remind everybody of that. And I'd also like to particularly thank Shelby Cullom and Katherine W. Davis for their generous support of this symposium.
We have a really great panel today. We have three people who combine serious expertise, serious experience and real brains, which is -- and sense, I should say -- all of which are unique qualities that are not necessarily widely distributed and certainly not necessarily linked together. Their full bios are in your packets that you have available to you, and I don't want to go through them in too much, but let me just take you through, of course.
We have John McLaughlin, who, after an extremely impressive, lengthy career at the CIA and in the intelligence community is now the Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the Nitze School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. He was formerly the acting director of Central Intelligence.
Richard Falkenrath, who's the Shelby Collum and Katherine W. Davis Adjunct Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at CFR. Nice mouthful there. Richard has had a long career studying and acting on these issues and is the -- was the former deputy commissioner for counterterrorism at the New York City Police Department and was a very high muckety-muck in the Department of Homeland Security during the Bush years.
And Juan Zarate, who is a senior national security analyst now for CBS News and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic International Studies, who also has a long track record of dealing with these issues at the highest level of government. He was the former deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, and has worked on terrorist financing and a variety of other issues.
So it's really hard to think of another panel they could have put together that would've had significantly greater practical experience and intellectual substance to tackle these issues. So with that suck- uppy lead-in -- (laughter) -- let me now play my role as devil's advocate and put your feet to the fire.
Many people who had not paid attention to the terrorist threat were dramatically surprised by 9/11, because they'd never imagined such a thing. All of us had been involved with terrorism studies or terrorist assessments and we knew there was a possibility of something like this happening. Right after the attacks, people who had never thought one could happen were immediately convinced there were going to be many more.
My question to you, each of you: Why in the decade since has there not been another significant, catastrophic terrorism attack in the United States since then? John, let's go left to right here. Or, right side, right to left.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I would say first off your caveat, significant terrorist attack, is important. We haven't been successfully attacked. We've had a couple of near misses, but we have not had a major terrorist attack. We all know that. I would say the reasons are 90 percent hard work, aggressive work, and 10 percent luck. And let me break that down a little bit for you. Let's go to the hard-work part.
Most people don't realize that we were much better prepared after 9/11 to counterattack than was commonly understood. At the end of the Clinton administration, we actually had been asked to put together at CIA a plan to attack al-Qaida in a -- without respect to resource considerations; what would we need to do that? And we had that plan on the shelf. It was never implemented, but it was on the shelf. When 9/11 happened, it came off the shelf. And so by the 15th of September, at Camp David, we were able to put that on the table and it was basically the core document from which the counterattack was mounted.
Second, I think we haven't been attacked because there was, after 9/11, an inflow of resources and an inflow of authorities, if you will -- what we were permitted to do and not permitted to do was much clearer. And also there was great clarity of mission.
Before 9/11, I think I could make the case that there was, if you will, a climate of disbelief that this could ever happen. That climate did not exist in CIA; we were expecting a spectacular attack, but we failed to understand or to detect when and where it would happen. But that all went away; there was clarity of mission.
Third, I think we also in this period of time brought together with the military a kind of integration that had never happened before and which accelerated over the decade and saw its culmination in the bin Laden operation. So that fusion of intelligence and military power brought about kind of unprecedented precision of lethality, which has helped to disrupt that movement.
And finally, I think -- there are many, many things one could say, but finally I would say putting together a worldwide coalition was very important. You heard Phil Zelikow talk about the 2006 attempted airline attack that was -- well, I've talked to the British service about this. The Brits and the Americans worked together on it. This attack was well along; it was serious. Had it succeeded, it would have brought down 10 aircraft over the Atlantic. That would have been the equivalent of 9/11, but it was prevented -- largely because of this coalition, if you will, of intelligence services and governments working together very robustly after 9/11.
And the package bomb attempt that you've heard about, which was thwarted largely because of information provided by the Saudis. I'm not sure we would have gotten that information or even had the relationship to get it in the years before 9/11. That's the hard work part.
The luck part -- remember, we have had -- and I would not be as dismissive of these two attacks as, I think, Phil tended to be in his remarks. The underwear bomber -- had that plane gone down over Detroit, more than 200 people would have died and we would be having a different conversation. Yes, we need to be resilient as Americans and not go into a paroxysm of panic every time something happens, but I don't think we're there yet.
The Times Square bomber -- had that bomb gone off, there would have been shrapnel traveling at 14,000 feet per second through four or five blocks of New York City. The detonators didn't work. And in those two cases, nothing the U.S. government did prevented those attacks. We were lucky; the detonators didn't work.
So I think it's a combination of those things that account for the fact we haven't been attacked again successfully.
ROSE: OK. Juan.
JUAN ZARATE: You know, if I could just amplify, I think despite Phil's admonition that to try to answer this is folly, I think you can answer it in part. And just to build on John's good remarks, I think it has been a combination of extreme counterterrorism efforts, not just in the U.S., but abroad. I think we have to remember the number of plots, arrests and disruption that have happened since 9/11 -- in the dozens, often not spoken of.
Second, I think it's been luck, but certainly, I think you make your own luck. I think in the two failed attacks, you have to keep in mind that these were operatives who were less skilled, less trained, less supported by an infrastructure, were attempting to circumvent measures that have been put in place.
So even in the worst-case scenario -- for example, Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, where authorities weren't aware of him, weren't aware that he had been deployed by the Pakistan Taliban. He had been deployed undertrained, not well resourced, not well supported. You look at the underwear bomber. He'd had to circumvent the existing airport security measures -- as weak as they may be in a place like Nigeria or Yemen or elsewhere. So I think you make your own luck in some ways and we've made it harder for people to get goods, support structure and people in.
Finally, I think it's very important to keep in mind al-Qaida itself. I think al-Qaida has hamstrung itself in terms of its ability to hit the United States in a significant way and I think in two regards. First, I think bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and others were still wedded -- and I think perhaps to his dying days, bin Laden was still wedded to the notion of a spectacular attack. You look at the history and trajectory of al-Qaida, it was a history of escalatory violence toward the United States and the need to have politically, strategically significant attacks on the homeland.
Again, you have to keep in mind their strategy. Their strategy is to actually change U.S. policy, change U.S. opinion. So in the documents in Abbottabad, for example, you have bin Laden musing not only about an attacking on 9/11, but attacking economic targets that would have a ripple effect during the crisis that we're facing economically. And so al-Qaida itself has wanted bigger attacks, has not necessarily adapted as quickly to the notion of using small-scale attacks.
In addition, I don't think al-Qaida anticipated the ferocity of our response. And by "our," again to John's point, I mean as well the international response. They had sleeper cells around the world. They had sleeper cells and agents in the United States. Recall the case of al-Marri, who pled guilty about a year and a half ago.
He was sent forward by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to be a post-9/11 sleeper cell agent to attack. Iyman Faris was here. There are others. There are people in Istanbul, people around the world who were prepositioned.
But I don't think al-Qaida anticipated not only that we would go into Afghanistan with such ferocity and displace their training camps and displace the Taliban regime, but that we would be able to drive an international coalition that would actually suck up, disrupt and dismantle the networks that they'd established. So they weren't prepared for that period.
And so I think all of that played to our benefit. So I think it was a matter of being good, being aggressive, being lucky -- making our own luck -- and al-Qaida's own shortcomings.
RICHARD FALKENRATH: Well, Gideon, I think the premise of your question was correct. We were shocked by the scale of destruction. I think al-Qaida was almost as shocked as we were. And they exceeded even their own expectations of the sort of damage they could cause.
I think there are -- I'd point to four factors why this happened again. One is -- as Juan and John indicated -- offensive action against core al-Qaida in -- originally in Afghanistan just made it impossible for them to operate with the same ease that they could prior to 9/11.
Two, border security. It's just a lot harder for them to get an operative into this country than it was pre-9/11. Three, our own domestic population -- for whatever combination of historic and cultural factors -- just not highly susceptible to terrorism, militancy and extremism. Not absent completely, but it's not like it is some other places in the world.
And four, in the conflicts that have played out in Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, Europe -- al-Qaida has shed a lot of Muslim blood too. In fact, far more Muslim blood than any other religion's blood. And that fact has rebounded against it and made it more difficult for them to exist in other places where previously they could exist more easily. The fact that they've been just as willing to kill Muslims as they have to kill Westerners has hurt them long term.
ROSE: You know, Yankees have just been going through a slump over the last few days -- it ended last night, thank God. (Laughter.) But when this happened and they hit pathetically, as they do, there's always this debate among the announcers: Is it because they're facing such spectacular pitching or because the hitters are just pathetic schmucks; they shouldn't have a job and so forth. And you know, before we break our arms patting ourselves on the back about our fantastic skill in pitching, I'm wondering -- I mean, I realize that the counterterrorism community and the national security officials and the intelligence and security areas are fantastic, wonderful, patriotic public servants.
It seems to me that my guess is that at least some of the people doing immigration -- at least some of the people doing the drug war -- are also pretty competent and dedicated. And there are probably a lot more of them. And yet, it seems we had millions and millions of immigrants who manage to come across the border illegally. It seems to me we have bales and bales of counterfeit drugs. It's like the old joke about how do you get a nuclear bomb into the United States? Smuggle it inside a bale of marijuana. (Laughter.)
Why -- is it really our ability to stop things that have been the problem or is it just that there aren't that many people out there trying to get in and attack us? If they -- why aren't they smart enough to know to go to Mexico first and then just walk across the border?
MCLAUGHLIN: Look, I think -- I'm from the school of thought that says we're still vulnerable. So by no means do I -- from what I said earlier, want to imply that we're out of the woods here.
I always ask myself: What don't we know? And here's an area where -- Phil and I disagree on a number of things, but one area where I agree with him is anyone who's really confident about this, don't believe them, because there are still things we don't know.
Just look at this movement -- whether you call it al-Qaida or whatever. There's at least three layers here. There's the central group, there are the affiliates and then there are the sort of lone wolf people we have to worry about. And in each of those areas, there are some unanswered questions that give us pause. Look at the central group. Yes, they've been hit hard; bin Laden's been killed. You don't want to be the number three guy in that organization. That's a very bad career choice. (Laughter.) But there are still important people on that bench that we can't account for. Saif al-Adel is one. Abdullah al-Masri is another. These are guys with explosives abilities, with WMD knowledge.
Don't underestimate Zawahiri.
Yeah, we all go around saying he's not the charismatic leader that bin Laden was. No one is making Zawahiri t-shirts. But he may be more disciplined. He may be more focused.
Bin Laden was a kind of ethereal figure in many ways. This guy is a street fighter with prison credits and affiliates like the most dangerous one, the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have pledged fidelity to him. They signed up. They said, we're not the leader, he is.
And, remember, Zawahiri is a guy who has always been interested in carrying out a WMD attack and also carrying out smaller attacks than bin Laden wanted to carry out. So don't write those guys off yet.
Then when you come to the affiliates, just take a look at the most dangerous one I mentioned. They do things on the cheap. They bragged in their magazine that it only cost them $4,200 to put together the package bomb operation, but how many millions are we spending to counter that?
This is, second, their strategy -- strategy of a thousand cuts. They have a very explicit strategy.
Third, they do things fast. They were the guys behind this underwear bomber, Abdulmutallab. They got him off the ground in a matter of weeks. This wasn't a long, complicated operation. And as I say, if the plane had blown up, we'd be having a different conversation.
And, finally, they're connected. They're connected to Al-Shabaab in Somalia and so forth. So the affiliates, these guys are serious. They're serious.
And then you have the whole lone wolf issue that we could talk about. And I think I should -- I don't want to go on too long. We could talk about that extensively, but if you just look at the trends over the last 10 years since 9/11, you can count at least 125 individuals in the United States who have been involved in some kind of terrorist attempt, imagination, whatever, an average of about six per year serious, and that average has sort of doubled in the last three or four years.
So there's an escalating tendency in our own country for people -- American citizens like Faisal Shahzad, to get involved in terrorism, inspired by all of this stuff that they read on the Internet and so forth.
So I'm not saying we're out of the woods here, which is not to say we should panic and -- you know, because another important point to think about is that as a country we need more resiliency than we have shown up until this moment in the face of terrorist threats and terrorist incidents.
So we need to be -- maybe take a chapter out of the Israeli book there and understand that the world doesn't come to an end when one of these things happens. But that's where I think we are.
ROSE: Juan or Richard, do you think that the number of potential attackers has been underestimated -- overestimated?
ZARATE: I think so. I think what has happened over time is that their level of capability, their numbers, their ability to recruit particularly in the U.S. has been affected.
But I think John raises a very important point, which is though their level of capability to attack at the high end of the scale, to do another 9/11-style attack may be degraded, what they have done, and what you've seen in particular with the affiliates is an adaptation, an adaptation that's not just based on taking opportunities that are available but also seeing what can be effective.
What is amazing about what strategic innovations are coming out of Yemen -- and I think very dangerous -- is the fact that they're reading the political and social tea leaves very well in the United States, and they saw how aggressively -- how emotionally, how politically we responded to the failed attacks.
And so, as John said, they have thought very clearly about a strategy -- they called it Operation Hemmorhage -- to force the United States -- to bait and bleed and bankrupt the United States in a way that is quite aggressive.
And so, in a sense, the capabilities for that don't need to be extremely high. What you need to do in that context is to remain, from an al-Qaida perspective, very focused on continuing to get around security measures, continuing to attack, continuing to force the United States to expend, and that is a core part of the strategy.
The other thing that they've done very well -- and they've read just as much as we have all of the very good reports that all the think tanks put out -- is the uptick in Americans who have been drawn to the ideology. They've seen it clearly -- obviously -- in the highest of the ranks -- Anwar Awlaki the best example of them -- but they know that the ideology has some purchase, even though it's less popular, even though al-Qaida has less political weight than it once had in the Arab world.
There's something resonating in Western populations, or in subcommunities, and they're trying to draw on that. And so that's why you've seen the new Inspire magazine. That's why you've seen what I call sort of the casting-the-net-widely approach to try to get people to attack where they are as opposed to fighting in the hinterlands in Chechnya or Yemen or Somalia, fight and attack your fellow citizens.
And so, in some ways we have to adapt our sense of the threat taxonomy.
You still have to worry about the high-end attacks. You still have to build defenses against potential WMD, potential flash-point attacks that are strategically relevant. But you have to then contend with the smaller-scale attack.
And, as John said, you have to, as a society and, I think, a polity, be prepared for how you respond and make sure that you do not overreact, that you're not baited and bled into overreacting in a way that actually benefits the enemy.
ROSE: Richard, do you really think that we're -- are we facing the -- you know, the threat that we have been told we're facing, or is it less than --
FALKENRATH: Well, we've been told a lot of different things. I'm not sure what conventional wisdom to react to.
The interesting thing about this problem, though, is the extent to which the assessment of the threat can vary with the actions of literally a handful of young men. So one to four, 20 or something men can pull off a plot that results in casualties and vividly portrayed on the media, and our assessment of the problem can shift radically as a result of that.
So our assessments are extremely sensitive to very, very small events in the grand scheme of things. So I tend to not pay a whole lot of attention, frankly, to, you know, gross counts of how many potential radicals there are. We're dealing with the extreme tail of the distribution; you know, five, six standard deviations from the norm, as the part of the spectrum that we actually have to worry about in counterterrorism.
ROSE: OK, let's actually now take it from there, which is, to the extent that that is the case, are the best measures to deal with that tiny little stretch at the far end of the tail, are they ones that necessarily involve leveraging the math of ordinary citizens and ordinary lives?
One guy tried to light his shoe on fire and billons of man-hours are lost in the successive decade because everyone is taking their shoe off at airports. Another guy tried to light his underwear on fire, and I'm surprised we still are allowed to go on with our underwear on. (Laughter.)
Is that really the best -- whereas anybody could get on a private plane and do whatever they want and probably could fly it into something if they wanted to, or put it in a container and so forth. Are the measures -- are the best ways to stop that tiny handful of people by making everybody else's life incredibly inconvenient?
ZARATE: If you wanted to describe this as a public health problem, which your question suggests you should, then clearly no. I mean, no way does that aggregation of lost hours justify the potential expected loss. But it's not public health, right? It's something different.
It's a geopolitical threat to our sovereignty and our sense of who we are in the world that's caused by deliberate action on the part of a few people who hate us. And the bureaucratic response to it is not done by, you know, Harvard sociologists weighing pros and cons and expected values versus expected losses.
The fact is, is that when you are in a position of responsibility in the counterterrorism apparatus -- say, running airport security -- and John McLaughlin walks in and says, guess what, they just figured out how to put a bomb in their shoe that's big enough to bring down a pressurized airframe at altitude that our current metal detectors can't detect -- over to you, pal; figure it out. And you're like, well, thanks a lot, John, for telling me this. Now I have to go figure out something else to do.
So what do I do? Everyone takes your shoes off, put them through the thing, because that's how decisions get made in security bureaucracies. And the same thing happened after Abdulmutallab.
There's a bomb-maker in Yemen, or maybe he's in Saudi Arabia, who knows how to make a non-metallic bomb that is -- you know, can be molded in various anatomical ways that are not obvious, right, that is big enough to bring -- it was almost used to assassinate the Saudi minister of interior. And the exact same bomb, same bomb-maker, same ingredients were used by a Nigerian flying to Detroit; almost brought that thing down.
And now the guys, the poor guys who run TSA, one of the most thankless jobs in the world, have to figure out how to deal with this latest little innovation. And if they had the luxury of doing an expected value calculation, they could probably say, OK, I'm not going to worry about this one. But they don't. They have this assessment right there. And the assessors are really good at describing it, so they have to respond.
MCLAUGHLIN: You know, another way to ask your question, Gideon, might be, how will we know when this is over? And I don't -- it can't be over yet. And I think the reason is there's a pattern in what Richard was just talking about. And the pattern is they figure out our vulnerability and then they operate on it.
So they figure out that you can't bring box cutters through and metal things through the detector anymore, so they go to liquid. We figure out the plot in 2006, that you can bring in liquids and make a bomb on a plane in the men's room or whatever. So now they can't bring in liquids. That's harder.
So then they go to things like, you know, C-3 explosives in your underwear, which, until we had these new detectors -- and even they aren't completely reliable, I think, in picking that up -- now they know we're looking for that. So then they go to package bombs because they know it's hard to get into the passenger compartment, but we're not as good at what goes into the cargo hold. So you go -- you know, you take the next step. OK, now we're on to that, and what's the latest thing you've heard? Bombs implanted surgically. That's weird, but they're serious about that. That's a serious report. That is not a fantasy. So they've gone to that.
So it kind of takes you to the -- and I think if we were to relax our standards on aircraft, we'd had aircraft going down all over the world because that's still their weapon of choice, if they can get to it.
And you come to this question of, well, when is it over, when does it end? That's the one that I don't think any of us know. I mean, my way of thinking about it is a little bit analogous to the way we think about communism, which is, it's over. There are still a few communists in the world but no one believes anymore. That's gone. It's over. It's a nuisance, although one could worry a lot about what the North Koreans could do with, you know, their weapons and so forth. But fundamentally the communist threat as a communist threat is gone.
And we're not yet at the point where the terrorist threat has become the nuisance or the insignificant thing that no one believes in any more, that one could say about communism.
ZARATE: if I can just riff off that point, because I think ideally where you'd want to be -- and you hear, for example, John Pistole, the head of TSA, talking in these terms, and you hear Secretary Napolitano speaking more and more about resilience, is counterterrorism is risk management, to Rich's earlier point. That assumes, though, you can adjust the risk calculus.
You know, the predominant risk calculus post-9/11, built on the notion of prevention at all costs, never again in the homeland, provides a maximalist framework. And to draw that back -- and this is something Phil was talking about earlier -- to draw that back, to reframe that risk calculus has social and political cost.
So certainly I think an ideal screening, airport screening program has more intelligence built into it if you have it available, more targeted in terms of who gets extra scrutiny, et cetera. It affects who you decide to let go from Guantanamo, are they going to return to the battlefield or not, how risky is it. It affects, you know, everything about the counterterrorism framework and approach.
The trick, though, is, how do you move that rheostat? How do you affect that risk calculus, especially in a post-10-year anniversary environment where you've killed bin Laden, you've weakened the al- Qaida core, you've done just about everything possible to create these layers of defense. What does that readjusted risk calculus look like? And I think we have to ask ourselves that, and I think we have to allow a little bit of political space for that discussion to happen.
I think it's just very risky politically. You can't imagine -- I would never have when I was at the White House, and I can't imagine anyone at the White House now would advise the president to be talking in these terms or even acting in those terms to change policies to affect it. But at a certain point you have to have, as I said, a threat taxonomy and risk that's attached to it.
But to John's point, when the enemy, or even scraps of the enemy are continuously trying to affect your economy, your sense of safety, I don't know when that rheostat happens.
FALKENRATH: Gideon, to something John said -- see, in this country people tend to think about this problem this way, but I think we should recognize that we are sort of unique this way. I mean, most other countries in the world don't think about the terrorism problem the way we do and are perfectly happy to make the, you know -- if they could choose not to have to comply with U.S.-led airport screening regulations, they probably wouldn't, and in fact many do not.
Now, there's a lot of other parts of the world that their government apparatus and their people are just far more relaxed about this and willing to treat it more like one of many, many risks they face and they just have to sort of live with.
MCLAUGHLIN: But to adjust that risk calculus, one of the prerequisites would be a much closer consultative relationship between the executive branch and the congressional branch than we have today, and that's -- that's part of what you were talking about --
ZARATE: And a much less risk averse environment in government, which -- (inaudible, background noise) -- penalized if there's ever any kind of --
ZARATE: And a willingness on the part of Congress to actually take some responsibility for what happens, right? You look at the votes for the Patriot Act, for the authorization for use of military force, post-9/11, these were resounding majorities, and yet people tend to run away when responsibility has to be laid somewhere.
ROSE: Richard, a dozen years ago you wrote a book, or more than a dozen years ago, a book on WMD terrorism, and I wanted to ask you. Afterwards when you got interested in terrorism, you said, I don't really care about terrorism. I care about the WMD aspect because that's -- only with that could it really get huge and powerful and important, and I'm a security guy, not a terrorism guy.
FALKENRATH: Gideon, I was 27 years old when I said that. I mean, you do dumb things when you're -- (laughter).
ROSE: No, no, no. But I'm -- on serious point. I shouldn't put it that way. Back then we thought of terrorism as a relatively small thing, as relatively limited kind of threat, and we thought of major national security threats as the big gig. And so WMD terrorism represented the nexus of those two things together, and that was of course the nexus that Iraq represented supposedly to the administration.
What we've been talking about now has not been WMD terrorism. It's been old-fashioned hijacking or an old-fashioned bomb, or the combination of the two. The question of WMD terrorism, I'd like to put that back on the menu. Do you think that we are more or less -- what is the risk level of WMD terrorism, not just a C-4, you know, in your crotch, something like that, not just a plane going down, but something truly catastrophic. How is that risk now compared with what it was, let's say, before 9/11?
FALKENRATH: A complicated question. It obviously hasn't been eliminated. It's still there. Much of what we do to counter ordinary terrorism is also useful for countering the most high-end conceivable terrorism, weapons of mass destruction terrorism. They're not exclusive in any way. There's a few specialized things that you do that help.
And so I think, you know, al-Qaida had an anthrax program pre- 9/11. It continued a little while after 9/11, actually two anthrax programs. It's conceivable that that, if it had advanced a little further, they'd have been as successful with that program as they were at training pilots in U.S. flight schools, that we would be now in a complete counterbioterrorism world, if that is what had happened. And that day still may come. I mean, this is -- the fundamental aspect about these technologies is they permit mass destruction when someone crafty enough and capable wants to use them that way. So that threat will never go away.
The means of accessing those weapons is rising, meaning it's getting easier and easier to do this over time, and that is a trend which I believe is essentially inexorable, so it will continue. And so we have to remain vigilant and counter these threats whenever they crop up. But we live with this risk, along with a bunch of others.
You know, in the '90s there was a small group of people who paid any attention to terrorism, a few academic experts and then a few folks like John McLaughlin and Richard Clarke in the executive branch who were focused in on it, but it was by no means a top-tier issue, in truth, for the United States, for the U.S. government, as it became later.
Weapons of mass destruction were, but we had odd areas of focus. And so in the '90s there was this enormous focus on the acquisition of ballistic missiles by Iran or North Korea or whomever, as a potential delivery vehicle for weapons of mass destruction. And back when I wrote that book in the late '90s, I was actually reacting more to the debate about proliferation and what seemed to me an odd preoccupation with ballistic missiles as a means of delivery as opposed to sticking it in the cargo container or anywhere else, not some deep insight about al-Qaida or terrorists, that's what they might do. It was more like a response to what we were arguing about in Washington in 1996.
ROSE: (Inaudible) -- see the WMD terrorist threat now.
ZARATE: Let me just make a quick point about it is important when we look back to 9/11 to remember that, you know, part of the reason it was such a deep and resonant tragedy for us, and made it different in kind from the European experience, was the magnitude. And then in understanding response, the counterterrorism framework put in place, and then other policies and the Iraq war, et cetera, it was the context of the concern about the WMD intersection with terrorism.
If this cataclysmic attack as it had been growing over time should be taken to its maximalist form, it had WMD context. At the same time, you had the anthrax threat, you had A.Q. Khan being revealed as a major proliferator, not only to nation-states but potentially nonstate actors. And so it was in that context, then, that you had the counterterrorism framework, the prevention framework emerge as the predominant national security paradigm. So I think that has to be kept in mind in terms of the response.
I think -- you know, one of the dangers we have moving forward, especially if we grow too al-Qaida-focused or too al-Qaida-centric, is you lose the potential threads that are happening beyond that network, so to speak. For example, we know that Lashkar-e-Taiba has had interest in nuclear capabilities. They are closely tied with the Pakistani establishment. We know that a flash point of an attack of any sort -- any magnitude between India and Pakistan always runs the risk of escalation and war. And so -- and potentially nuclear war. So that becomes incredibly important.
If you look at the proliferation of biolabs and the ability of even two or three, you know, well-schooled bio-scientists and experts to create pathogens with mass effect -- you know, again, have contagion coming out here in theaters -- to do that on a broad scale doesn't necessarily require an al-Qaida, it just requires some motivated, dedicated individuals with enough resources.
And so I think one of the dangers moving forward is that we start to lose the potential for these more dramatic threats emerging from places that we're not looking and that may be outside the al-Qaida framework.
MCLAUGHLIN: I'll just add a couple of small thoughts to that. It's a tough question. It's -- if you ask any major political figure or counterterrorism figure today, what's your biggest worry, you just almost automatically get the response: the conjunction between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. But we can't visualize this yet, just like people couldn't visualize a major terrorist attack, really, until 9/11 happened, or in cyber, we haven't had a cyber Pearl Harbor yet, so it's all kind of theoretical. It sounds scary, but we haven't seen it.
And so that makes it a little hard to think about the question, Gideon, except that -- so many years in intelligence, I worry about everything. You know, Bob Gates used to say that the definition of an intelligence officer is someone who, if they smell flowers, they start looking for a coffin. (Laughter.) So I have to fight that tendency all the time.
But having now yielded to it, let me say -- (laughter) -- you know, there's about 2,300 tons of highly enriched material in the world -- uranium and reprocessed plutonium. It's scattered among at least 40 countries. We know it leaks out. The IAEA can document at least 15 cases that I know of.
In 2003 and 2006, we, the intelligence community working with foreign assistance, picked up amounts of highly enriched uranium coming over the Georgia border about the size of a deck of cards, I would say. It takes something about the size -- what would fill a typical water pitcher to actually make a bomb, and something that would fill -- of plutonium, a glass about that size, I think, to make a bomb.
That's the long pole in the tent in getting to a nuclear capability, is the material. And that's what we know. So, again, as an intelligence officer you're always saying, well, what don't we know? Those are the things we've detected. And might we be surprised someday? It would come as a terrible surprise that they could do this.
I can tell you all the reasons why it's hard to make a nuclear weapon, and there are articles now -- scholarly articles -- being written on why terrorists can't do this. And certainly for an implosion device it would be extraordinarily difficult. For a simple gun device, I'm not sure, with proper help, or could you use that material in a dirty bomb? Yeah, you could.
So, you know, I don't want to be the "nightmare scenario" person here, but I think a serious answer to the question has to be it's still worth worrying about. And as a policy matter it's -- I very much support what the president is seeking to do, and I think what his predecessor sought to do as well, but particularly Obama has sought to -- through his nuclear initiatives -- to document, locate and have policies intended to help secure all of this material that's in the world out there, because not all of it is -- some of it's secured well, some of it's secured by a night watchman.
It all has to be transported. When you transport something, that's when you can steal it. So that's my --
ROSE: That's very cheery, John.
MCLAUGHLIN: I can tell a joke now, if you'd like. (Laughter.)
ROSE: I guess at least we can be confident that they're not going to get the water pitcher on the plane.
MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. (Laughs.)
ROSE: So at this point we have to turn it over to our wonderful members and guests who are going to jump in with their own views and thoughts and questions. I want to invite members and guests to join the conversation now. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it; stand, state your name and affiliation, and limit yourself to one concise question. We'll get as many as possible.
Yes, over here first.
QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm Roger Haviv (sp). I am an ordinary citizen.
John, being part of the policy that is shaping counterterrorism into the future, I would like to -- I would like to draw a parallel between what has happened the past 15 or 17 years or so with what is happening today as far as our national security is concerned and terrorism and counterterrorism. The 9/11 attack was a climax of a series of events that took place, as we all know, starting -- not to go back into history any further, back in 1982 when 200 and some odd change Marines were massacred in Beirut. And I would like to pay a tribute here to those souls that went to defend freedom in that part of the world.
Other more serious or less serious events took place, including not to -- not to forget the bombing that took place at the World Trade Center, at the foundation of the World Trade Center, and then followed up by --
ROSE: And the question --
QUESTIONER: There is a socioeconomic event that is taking place and has been taking place and is reaching a climax again, and yet we -- for some reason or another, we defy reason by ignoring it, and that socioeconomic opportunity that has been developing and has been a fertile ground for terrorists, both organizations and otherwise, is what we are calling to be a "spring" -- the millions and millions of people that have demanded political and socioeconomic changes in that part --
ROSE: The Arab Spring. OK. But we need to keep moving --
QUESTIONER: -- (inaudible) -- we are doing with that as far as policy to mitigate the risk, knowing that it is not as sexy or as measurable as, you know, airplanes and --
ROSE: Does the Arab Spring generate or spur or combat terrorism? What are -- what is the relationship between the Arab Spring and the terrorist threat?
MCLAUGHLIN: Well, the conventional view is that the Arab Spring demonstrates the bankruptcy of al-Qaida's appeal, because al- Qaida has encouraged people to overthrow by violence and by attacking, whereas in the Arab Spring they overthrew by showing up in the street and demanding things that we would all call universal values -- liberty, freedom, so forth. So in a way, it demonstrates the bankruptcy of al-Qaida's appeal, many, many people say. And articles are being written making that point.
The caveat that has to be put in that is something Henry Kissinger said, which is -- I'll quote two people, Henry Kissinger who said: This is act one of an act three play -- OK -- and my friend Bruce Riedel in Washington who said: These people are now where France was in 1789 -- the point being this is the opening move. And given the aspirations and given the depth of societal problems in a place like Egypt -- I have a lot of friends in Egypt, where you've got -- well, I don't have to go through all the data for you, but you have very high unemployment. If you put in all the underemployment and the fact that they don't measure female employment, it's probably 50 percent. It's high. So the potential for disappointment and disenchantment at some point in this process is very great. And that's where al-Qaida could find opportunities to exploit. And already the group that Juan and I have talked about, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is already in its Inspire magazine writing articles about how they're preparing for that day.
So bottom line is, this doesn't look good for al-Qaida now. There might be opportunities for them in the future, I think.
ROSE: Juan --
MCLAUGHLIN: It's the biggest subject of our time, so one could go on and on about it, but --
ZARATE: I think that's absolutely right. I wrote a piece on this called "The Battle for Reform with Al-Qaeda."
MCLAUGHLIN (?): OK.
ZARATE: It came out this summer in the Washington Quarterly -- little plug, sorry --
MCLAUGHLIN (?): Yeah.
ZARATE: -- but exactly that -- I think the question of when does disillusionment, chaos, frustration actually benefit al-Qaida at a time when al-Qaida has actually been marginalized, but is this potentially a strategic moment for them?
The one thing I would say is, from a counterterrorism perspective, I think this is the most important period that we've seen since 9/11, in part because you have the death of bin Laden, which is strategically relevant, has the ability to create fractures and fissures within the movement that have been under the surface but that bin Laden has sat atop. So his removal is not just a symbolic act. It actually affects the cohesiveness of the global Sunni jihadist cause.
Secondly, you have the Arab Spring erupting, with the ideology of al-Qaida playing no apparent part, and with the potential for democrats and dissidents to actually take an upper hand in a way that marginalizes this ideology and the notion of reform by violence or by jihad, which is really at the core of what al-Qaida's talking about, including -- Ayman al-Zawahri has put at least seven statements about what the Arab Spring means to al-Qaida and how the Western puppeteers will no doubt not allow real reform to happen. So they're already setting the stage, from a narrative perspective, to take advantage of the disillusionment.
But I think this is a key strategic moment for the United States where we have to continue to hit them with all of the aggressive kinetics, continue to defend, but also hit ideologically and support the democrats and dissidents in ways that doesn't taint them inadvertently.
ROSE: Down here in the front. Which -- either of you. (Let's -- both of you ?) down here in the front.
QUESTIONER: Yeah. My name is Roland Paul. There's one form of terrorist technique that you haven't addressed, and I wondered how you would, let's say, quantify it, and that's the MANPAD(S) technique, meaning the shoulder arm -- shoulder-mounted attack on a(n) aircraft.
ZARATE: I'd say -- OK, you take that, because, you know, you hear all the -- we used to do, back in the '90s, all these terrorism things, and you'd have every kind of technique mentioned that somebody could think of, and you'd think, that can't happen, and you realize, oh, my god, it can happen, you know --
FALKENRATH: Well, this was --
ZARATE: This doesn't seem to happen --
FALKENRATH: -- his was attempted against an Israeli airliner in the Horn of Africa, and is another case where John and his, you know, intelligence colleagues would come over and have these assessments of how many shoulder-fired infrared heat-seeking missiles have been lost from wherever and, you know, where the grip stocks are, are their batteries still charged and whatever.
We would actually -- I remember doing a briefing for Bush on this, and at some point you get inured to these threat scenarios that come up, and yes, I -- you could construct a really bad MANPADS scenario where you take down a civilian airliner or two or you cause the spontaneous self-grounding.
If of civilian in an area where you think the MANPADS are on the loose -- there are reports coming out of Libya that they've lost a bunch more too. And you know, chances are eventually, you know, someone will take down an aircraft like this and there's -- from a(n) immediate defensive system, all the defensive techniques on civilian aircraft -- totally impractical. We -- that's -- at least it was studied eight years ago when I was still in federal government.
MR. : Studied again.
MR. : Studied again.
MR. : (Absolutely ?).
FALKENRATH: So totally impractical. There is no option there. And when an aircraft takes off and it's flying, it is a great, big hot signature, and if your heat-seeking missile can lock in and hone on it, you will likely bring it down. And that's one risk among many that we face.
ZARATE: But wait a second. Now --
MCLAUGHLIN: One other thing I could add -- just would say that there's some consolidation in the face that, as Rich indicated, our government has spent a lot of time thinking about this and focusing on it. I don't know that everyone came up with great solutions, but I think we've sensitized airports around the world to the issue.
And the problem is, you could design an aircraft with equipment that would -- as a military aircraft, would deflect that attack. It's too expensive. Just can't do it. Just cannot be done.
FALKENRATH: And it -- they don't like putting them on the aircraft, because they are often active heat-countering devices. I mean, they generate heat themselves, in many cases, which can interfere with the operation of the aircraft.
But this study, John, that you referred to -- I remember when we were doing this in federal government --
MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. Yeah.
FALKENRATH: -- then at the NYPD I was on the other end of it, and it was silly. They -- I remember briefing this and then -- and now seeing on the other side of it, it is like someone did a study of JFK airport, of all the places you're most likely to stand to shoot down the aircraft that's taking off --
FALKENRATH: -- and why don't you guys go send a patrol car around there every so often -- a little more often?
Right? And -- (laughter) -- OK. Is it really -- affecting the risk that our aircraft are facing, if someone has a MANPAD? I don't think so.
MCLAUGHLIN: Well, there's two -- there's two things that counterterror specialists wonder about; and this is in the category of, as Phil was indicating earlier, things that no one can know: Why haven't they done this? They tried it, as Rich indicated. Why haven't they done it successfully? It may simply be that they're not that good at it, that they aren't -- who knows. We don't know why they haven't tried this more successfully.
And the second one is: Why haven't they made more progress with biological weapons? Because all of the barriers to culture, acquisition, delivery techniques and weaponization are basically down, with advances in biology that are commonly available these days to a technician, not to say a Ph.D.
So those are two sort of puzzles that I don't think anyone has the market cornered on answers.
ZARATE: Well, wait -- thank you, Roland (sp), for that question, because it's a -- this is a -- you could multiply that question by a dozen, because there are at least a dozen ways you could commit terrible acts of sabotage or heinous terrorism --
MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. Yeah.
ZARATE: -- that you could sit there and say, you know what? That's plausible; yeah, that's possible; no, we can't really defend against it, but we choose not to obsess about it, or whatever. And figuring it -- that's why this whole question that I got into before about what -- if you don't use a cost-benefit analysis in gauging the response, how do you decide which campaign? Well, let's get more. But that's a -- you know, it's really easy -- everybody here could be as blase as Richard was about the heat-seeking, you know, shoulder- fired missiles, about a variety of other things, but we choose not to be blase about some.
MCLAUGHLIN: Well, terrorists calculate what your response is going to be. I mean, they -- this is one reason why I think they called off -- I believe -- some earlier attacks they were planning in the United States -- we know that from some reporting -- because they thought it was too small, that it wouldn't -- they -- this was back years ago. And their thought was: Look, you attack the United States, they're going to come at you big-time. This -- we don't want to draw that kind of response with a small attack.
But this MANPAD thing kind of fits the model of hitting us where it hurts economically, because it would induce a fair amount of panic and it would probably oblige us to spend a lot of money. So I hope they're not listening now -- (laughter) -- because it's one of those things we could all have a theory about why they haven't done it, but thankfully, they haven't.
ZARATE: And just one final about -- we did not not address this in some way.
ZARATE: You know, there were all sorts of things that were done to talk about risk mitigation around airports. There's all sorts of things -- buy-back programs, destroying a lot of MANPAD stockpiles.
MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah.
ZARATE: We had a dedicated envoy for just this issue, to travel around the world and meet with officials to get them to agree to hand over MANPADS. So there was a whole effort. That said, you know --
MCLAUGHLIN: Well, that's a very important point, though, that Juan is making, that people have not been complacent or dismissive about this.
ROSE: I'm not sure I can see a MANPAD, (but I certainly like saying "MANPAD" ?). (Laughter.)
Over here, in front. Lots of jokes come from that. (Laughs.)
QUESTIONER: Anne Nelson, Columbia University. We've been talking about this pretty much in the American context, but targets have included Britain, Spain, Africa. Do we have any sense of relative shifts in targets in their evaluation?
ZARATE: Well, I think you've consistently seen Europe being a target for al-Qaida -- both from al-Qaida core. For example, think back to just last winter, when we were worried about a Mumbai-style attack in Europe -- quite worried about it; and by the way, a threat that hasn't been fully dismissed yet -- coming from al-Qaida core; combined with the fact that you have groups like al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, in North Africa, that in some ways has as its far enemy left the United States, and more the French and more Southern Europe as part of their modus operandi.
And so Europe in particular remains in the mythology of al-Qaida or al-Qaida affiliates a very rich target base, combined with something Rich alluded to earlier: the notion that you have ready recruits in a more radicalized environment; and especially, you talk about the British populations that have been exposed to the ideology since the '90s at a grassroots level. You know, there's more opportunity in places like Europe, and certainly we continue to see attacks around the world.
I think it bears mentioning, just this week you had arrests in Germany, arrests in Sweden, related to potential al-Qaida-related plots; consistently, arrests in Turkey, which never go well reported -- arrests around the world that demonstrate that there still is activity that you need to worry about.
Again, I think it can be viewed as manageable, but I think you have to keep in mind that this is really an international effort and continues in many ways abroad just as much as it does here.
ROSE: And one of the things you see with the al-Qaida franchises outside of sort of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the ones in the Horn of Africa or Maghreb, Arabian Peninsula is often a debate internally about whether they should be attacking, as Juan says, the far enemy or concentrating with local grievances. And one of the really interesting things about the Abdulmutallab plot was that was the time when a franchise, in Yemen in this case, decided to reach -- sort of project its threat abroad, into the continental United States in that case.
The best case study of this was actually in Saudi Arabia in 2003, 2004 where there was a real vicious debate among the al-Qaida cell in Saudi Arabia about whether they should sort of be patient and stage from there against Europe and the United States or attack the horrible Saudi regime. And it finally -- this is a gross oversimplification -- the local affiliate, the franchise in Saudi Arabia said: Forget you guys who want to attack the foreign enemy; we're going after the royal family. Fateful error on their part because once they did that, the royal family got serious and decimated them quite quickly, whereas before they were more or less willing to tolerate their existence. That says interesting things about the Saudi royal family as well, which we won't get into right now.
Yes, over here.
QUESTIONER: Hi, Bob Lifson (sp). On the cost-benefit issue, it's not sexy to talk about it, but one of the huge costs in this process has been the cost of banks on the Bank Secrecy Act and the cost of monitoring the movement of money around the world, though I don't think people appreciate the enormous cost on banks and the burden on small banks particularly from -- for that. In fact, I would -- I would just add parenthetically that it might be that the FDIC agents who were so involved in that were not focused on what they should have been focused on in terms of the banks at the time in derivatives and the like. And so I would ask you all whether, in your experience, that's been valuable or warranted and whether the cost-benefit analysis would call for more of the same.
ROSE: Juan, I'm going to direct that one to you since you're the guy who put all those nasty, costly regulations into effect.
ZARATE: Yeah. (Chuckles.)
QUESTIONER: By the way, Juan, Philip said -- yeah, you are the guy who knows the answers.
ZARATE: Yeah. (Chuckles.) Not sure if I know the answer, but I'll try to answer.
I think the government, especially the folks at Treasury who broadened and deepened the Bank Secrecy Act -- Title III of the Patriot Act is basically an expansion of the anti-money-laundering system: Know your customer, new segments of the financial sector now subject to the same types of regulations that banks were in the '80s and '90s for the drug trafficking, et cetera -- enormous cost on the -- on the private sector, in particular, as you said, smaller businesses, money-service businesses like the Western Unions and even smaller organizations. So I think there's -- this is an area where you always need to be calibrating.
That said, the system actually has worked quite well. If you look at not just folks like me who work in the system, but, you know, objective views of whether or not we've actually done a good job of protecting the financial system and disrupting terrorist financing, it's actually been enormously effective. And frankly, it's been enormously effective most of all because of the enlistment of the private sector. The fact that the private sector has been viewed as a partner in the effort has been incredibly important.
This is now translated, by the way, to how we apply financial pressure to rogue regimes, Iran and North Korea. Part of the reason these things are biting -- not to say they will ultimately be successful, but part of the reason they're biting is that the private sector has taken it upon themselves to determine that they're not going to do business with people they don't like or don't -- can't account for or otherwise are engaged in bad business practices. So in a sense, the system has shifted. It's put a burden on the private sector, but it's been enormously successful.
The reporting requirements, by the way, are enormous on the private sector. And one of the sort of distortions that has been created, unfortunately, is sort of an incentive for the banks simply to report everything and let the -- let the government figure it out. That's a system that always has to be tweaked because that is a problem. But those reports turn out to be valuable not just for terrorism but for other -- (inaudible).
FALKENRATH: And that's the key point. It's valuable for lots of things.
FALKENRATH: For terrorism alone, the countering terrorism finance work I think is well past the point of diminishing marginal returns to investment. So there -- it's not worthless by any means -- quite useful -- but the marginal investment there gets you less and less because these plots are pretty cheap. The one -- the area in contrast -- and I've been a broken record on this for eight years -- where you have increasing returns to investment is countering terrorist travel, where you target the travel documents and the passenger screening systems and the manifests and that sort of thing, where there's still a ton more to do and is much, frankly, more lightly regulated than the global financial system.
ZARATE: Just one quick point. Rich's point about the cost of these attacks: Part of the reason you engage in this, from a strategic standpoint, is not just to prevent the attack. You want to do that; you don't want money to flow into an operative's hands, clearly. But the real reason you do this is to cut the budget of these organizations, to hurt their bottom line so that they're less able to have global reach. Al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah -- these group have budgets. They have line items. They have to spend on recruits, on widows and orphans within their organization, infrastructure. What you want to do is force them to make strategic choices about what they're spending money on. You want to cut their money so that they're not able to develop a WMD program; instead, they have to worry about paying the widow of one of their fighters.
So I think that's important to keep in mind when we think back over the last 10 years, that we've used this tool to actually strategically impact al-Qaida's ability to operate globally.
ROSE: You don't usually get a chance to get a bomb maker in your discussion, so let's go to Richard Garwin. (Laughter.) A real terrorist.
QUESTIONER: Dick Garwin, IBM fellow emeritus. Sometimes an agenda actually interferes with effective counterterrorism. So I'd like to pick up Richard Falkenrath's emphasis on the ballistic missile acquisition by foreign countries in the 1990s.
I was a member of the Rumsfeld Commission in 1998 on the ballistic missile threat to the United States. And we did get into our report, but we didn't emphasize, that any of these countries we were talking about who might in five years acquire long-range ballistic missiles -- any of them already had hundreds or thousands of short-range ballistic missiles or cruise missiles that from ships either of their flag or other flags could threaten U.S. cities with all of these agents of mass destruction by firing from a few hundred kilometers of the shore. Sure, they wouldn't get Omaha, but there are a lot of cities on the West Coast and the East Coast.
But I do believe that the reason there was this emphasis was because of the ballistic missile defense lobby, which ignored the existing short-range threat in favor of the long-range threat -- which we couldn't counter -- in favor of building something that would be effective against China or maybe Russia -- (chuckles) -- even though our government has always denied that was the purpose. So I think that interferes with effective defense, with effective counterterrorism as well.
Another example is that the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in the early days said: We have this threat; ballistic missiles could deliver nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons. Then it was shown that the right way to deliver biological weapons with long-range missiles -- with multiple -- hundreds of little bomblets. And now you don't hear from BMD that they can eliminate the biological threat from ICBMs, because they can't. They're being honest, but they're not being candid.
ROSE: Well, this is a good point. There is -- there are some who would argue -- and sometimes I think this myself, although I wouldn't cop to it today -- that there's a bit of threat inflation going on from a domestic lobby, either political or the industrial or so forth, that hikes the terror threat or suggests that we respond to it in extremely hyped-up ways. Do you guys see -- not that any of you would be involved in that, obviously -- but do you see any pressure in the discussion of these issues from groups with issues other than purely security concerns at stake?
MCLAUGHLIN: I don't.
FALKENRATH: I don't really. I suppose you could find some contractor somewhere who, you know, advocates a point of view for the motives you suggest. But by and large, I don't think that's a big factor in counterterrorism.
It really comes down -- I mean, I -- to me, it always was just after 9/11, the motivation was: This can't happen again, end of story. And so you did whatever you had to do to prevent it from happening again. And now we're at a time when the calculus is murkier, for some of the reasons we've discussed here. I don't see anyone advocating pumping up the counterterrorist budget for questionable purposes.
ROSE: But you see that --
FALKENRATH: Maybe on the homeland security side it's --
ZARATE (?): You see it in the media, in the popular media some. And certainly, there are some people who do it who are -- who are as -- (they're cleared in the truth ?) about it and talking about it. It's not like -- I think the only time that it's really been directly politicized was probably the 2002 midterm elections, when it is -- really was a big issue in those elections.
Today, between the parties, there is substantial consensus on how to deal with this problem. And you look at some of the harshest things that certainly the Bush administration was doing on counterterrorism in the second term: The Obama administration has continued every one of them, and in fact, in certain areas, intensified it.
So the use of drones in Pakistan; that not only has it continued, it's up. The targeting of terrorists by name; not only has it continued, Americans are now on the list.
Anwar Awlaki. I mean, think about it. A constitutional law professor of the Democratic Party adds a U.S. American to a list of people who can be targeted by name. All right?
Electronic surveillance. The FISA Modernization Act of 2007 essentially ended the debate over that one. Military tribunals. The congressional actions, again, of 2007, 2008, basically confirmed this is the law of the and, and now President Obama, despite an early effort by the attorney general to end the Guantanamo process, has embraced it and is proceeding with that process.
So when you get to the nuts and bolts of counterterrorism, there's substantial consensus these days.
MCLAUGHLIN: Although something Rich said leads me to say, are -- maybe to take your question a slightly different way -- are we really responsible in our public discourage about counterterrorism? Probably not entirely. In other words, there is a certain hysteria that comes into it versus the kind of clinical discussion that you really want to have about it.
But I think we're becoming sensitive to that. I see signs of that.
ZARATE: Just very quickly, I think there's also sloppiness as to how we talk.
ZARATE: You know, we equate a "Jihad Jane" threat with a Najibullah Zazi New York subway threat.
MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, that's what I --
ZARATE: They're not the same. So I think that's right. I think we're getting more sophisticated.
The one area where I would say you see the private sector reacting to the government is this notion that the government is in a zero-tolerance mode. And so to Rich's earlier point about particular incidents that then drive a reaction from the government, you see the private sector then react to that impetus. but I don't see it being driven by the private sector. I see the private sector reacting to that political calculus, profiting from it, no doubt, but also then trying to help the government deal with what it's trying to deal with.
ROSE: We have time for just one more, in the back there.
QUESTIONER: This will be a good ending question. I just wonder are we both maximalizing and minimalizing the threats; minimalizing in that terrorism's just a tool that non-state actors use to achieve whatever ends. And if we're focusing entirely on the radical Islam element of it that's most familiar, you know, we'll never protect against the Norway or the Terry McVeigh or any of the others. So are we even attempting to think of it in terms of a threat that is one that any non-state actor anywhere in the world, including at home, will use?
And then maximalizing it on the -- is there any possibility, from any of your views, that the will o' wisp of perfect security -- and Gideon will remember this from -- you know, Joe Nye used to say the only perfect security exists in a maximum security prison and the grave, and we don't want to live in either place.
So is there any sense that that maximalist agenda of perfect security or "never again" is or will be shifted, particularly in light of the first part of what I asked, which is, this is a ubiquitous reality, not a Muslim or a group of non-state actors confined to a certain religious and geographic part of the world?
MCLAUGHLIN: Well, it's kind of what I meant --
ROSE: And your final remarks. Bundle them in.
MCLAUGHLIN: It's kind of what I meant when I said a big question is when is this over, when does it end. And I think your question has part of the answer, which is, terrorism as a phenomenon will probably never end, just like crime will never end. We stamp it out, we get it to a manageable level, but there will always be some level of -- it will be a tool that someone, for some aggrieved purpose, will always use. So that's that.
Then in terms of perfect security, no, we're never going to have that. Not in my lifetime have we had it. I can't imagine that we will.
Again, if you want an intelligence officer to fantasize about future threats, I'm happy to do that, because, you know, we're in the midst of a technological revolution now that is unprecedented in world history. And I could go into some details on that, but fundamentally the question to ask about that is, if ill-intentioned minds have been able to do things with the technology we've had up till now, what might they able to do with the things that are coming about through miniaturization of circuitry, robotics and all of the unimaginable technological advances we're going to have in the future? But at some point we'll have computing power that you've got now in your cell phone in something the size of a dime, and Lord knows where that will lead if you have an ill intention to use it. So.
I don't think I have any concluding remarks, other than to say that I think this has been a pretty good discussion. And I would end by just saying there's a lot we don't know. You know, as an intelligence officer, I'm always schooled to ask, what do I know, what don't I know, what do I think?
I think today I've tried to tell you kind of what I know and what I think, but there's a lot we don't know about this phenomenon yet. And we have a tendency to fall into -- all of us, the media and people in the government and people like myself who speak publicly, we have a tendency to fall into a higher level of certainty in our talking points, if you will, than I think the case merits.
So I think we all need to kind of keep our eyes open. And maybe the most important thing right now is something the Homeland Security Department is actually stressing, which is, trite as it may sound, this idea of "See Something, Say Something" is really important, really important, when you think that's how we detected the bomb in Times Square. And if one of the big threats coming onstream is the potential for, if you will, one-off terrorism, the "Lone Ranger" terrorism, that kind of thing, not to turn us all into informants -- this isn't East Germany -- but you understand my point. It's very important for people, I think, to keep their eyes open and to be aware and to say something if they have suspicions.
ZARATE: I think it's absolutely necessary for any society, but in particular our society, to consistently evaluate our sense of the risk: how we manage it, what that risk calculus is -- again, as we said earlier, I just think politically very difficult to do in the context of what we can imagine the future may bring in terms of what al-Qaida or other terrorist groups may try to perpetrate. So I think, you know, that's a very difficult task, but one that we have to be conscious of all the time and try to (rheostat ?).
I think one of the things we need to do is, you know, have a sense of what is, you know, a fundamental threat to our national security -- what is existential, in many ways.
One thing we haven't talked too much about here is this notion of Americans who are being radicalized. And the one thing I wanted to point out is I think we cross the Rubicon the moment we have an American citizen commit a suicide attack of significance in the homeland -- which we've never had. We've had American suicide attacks in Somalia, from the American Somali community. And we've certainly seen that evolution in the British context -- British citizens, obviously, with the 7/7 attack. We have not yet dealt with that as a country.
And I think one of the things I stress when I talk about these issues is that we need to be very careful about how we as a society deal with each other, so that al-Qaida in its various permutations, or other groups, don't succeed in strategically renting our society, to the extent that Muslim Americans, for example, feel targeted, feel to be other, and that becomes a persistent sense of identity other than the identity of being an American citizen first and foremost. That to me is a strategic victory for al-Qaida, at the end of the day.
Recall that bin Laden on 9/11 wanted to create a Muslim awakening, where he wanted people to question their identity; for them to be Muslim, violently, and to the exclusion of others, in the first instance, to -- in the opposition of others. And so we can't allow our society to do that. And so, you know, I put that in the same ring of threats as WMD terror. We can't allow ourselves to fall prey to a renting of society.
The final thing I would say to the -- to the minimis point -- and this will sound as an apologist view, but it's more a philosophical view -- post 9/11, I took not only the war on terror to be a framework to allow legally, bureaucratically, politically, internationally, a more aggressive approach to what we were doing, but it was also a philosophical statement about the unacceptable nature of terrorism in the 21st century. Given the ability of a small group of actors to have cataclysmic geopolitical impact with terror, which we've seen in the past with the anarchists and others, but with the ability and the potential for WMD terror, what the administration -- I think what the U.S. government was trying to drive was a sense that terror should go by the way of slavery and piracy, and should no longer be viewed as a legitimate form of political expression or a means of national liberation.
If there's going to be attacks against civilians, cataclysmic attacks, as we saw on 9/11, that should be marked as unacceptable, it should be fought, it should be ideologically rent from all of those things that are acceptable in international societies. So that's one thing that I think is often lost in the debate about the terminology of the war on terror, and something we need to keep in mind.
ROSE: Richard, last word.
FALKENRATH: The maxim was perfect security point: I think there are really only a handful of sectors in American society where we expect perfect security. The airports are one; presidential protection is another; maybe nuclear power plants are a third. They're -- and they're sui generis. But by and large, this is still a largely wide-open country that doesn't look -- seek perfect security in any way, and never will.
Second, I think this problem of counterterrorism is a serious problem. I've worked on it extensively in the last decade or so. But I think it's ultimately a manageable problem, and it's something that when professionals are properly organized and equipped with resources and legal authorities and show up at work serious about their jobs, this can be handled and the issue can recede from the top tier of American foreign policy and domestic politics. And frankly, I think that's desirable. This is certainly not the central organizing principle of American foreign policy. Ultimately I think it'd be ideal for it not even to be in the top tier, as long as professionals are showing up into the jobs with the tools and equipment and authorities and skills they need to do their job well, and then we can manage it and get on with the many other challenges that we face.
ROSE: I think that's a great note on which to end. I want to thank all of our panelists and I want to thank -- (applause, inaudible).
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