Panelists Michael Chertoff, Farah Pandith, and Eric Schmitt discuss 9/11 and how it has shaped our international affairs landscape over the past 20 years. September, 2021.
John Ciorciari: So good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to this policy talk at the Ford School on: Key Developments in Counterterrorism and National Security Since 9/11. I'm John Ciorciari, I'm a faculty member here at the Ford School, and director of our International Policy Center and Weiser Diplomacy Center.
JC: 20 years after 9/11, we have an occasion to honor those who were killed in the tragic attacks of that day, as well as to honor and remember those many who have served bravely, both in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and in the two decades since, trying to prevent or occurrence of those terrible events.
JC: Today, we're privileged to be able to welcome an all-star panel of experts on national security and counterterrorism, to engage in conversation with our own Associate Professor of Practice, Javed Ali, himself a veteran of government service in counterterrorism, in the FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, National Security Council, and elsewhere.
JC: I wanna thank our staff at the Ford School, including Daniel Rivkin and Erin Flores for organizing today's event, and we look forward to an enlightening conversation. With that, I wanna turn over to Javed to introduce our speakers. Thank you for coming.
Javed Ali: Thank you, John, for that introduction. And to reinforce your comments, so honored and privileged to be here hosting this event with three experts and distinguished guests, who I all have had the privilege of either working for, in the case of Secretary Chertoff when he was the Secretary of Homeland Security, or working with, in the case of Farah and Eric, either in government or now since I've been out, since 2018. So again, really glad to be here.
JA: So just before we get into the conversation, I wanted to give everyone a little bit of perspective on our guests' background, if you are not familiar with them, although I suspect that several of you are. First off, former DHS secretary, Michael Chertoff was the secretary of the department from 2005 to 2009. And before that, had a distinguished career as a federal judge and a prosecutor, and has been one of the sharpest legal minds in the country for decades. Following his government service, he then started a consulting group known as The Chertoff Group, and that like likewise has done great things.
JA: Next, good friend of mine, Farah Pandith. For over 20 years plus, Farah and I go way back, and Farah has her own impressive set of achievements. She's held political positions under three presidencies and had a number of different roles across those appointments on foreign policy, international development. And then also was the first ever person in the history of the US government to have a really unique role in countering violent extremism, and I'll let Farah explain that perspective and that background that she brings to this conversation.
JA: And then last but not least, Eric Schmitt, who I would argue is one of the country's leading national security reporters, if not the leading one, and Eric has been a reporter for the New York Times for more than 35 years, and is covered a range of topics from counterterrorism, intelligence, the military, the Pentagon. So again, really, really privileged to have all three of you here.
JA: So with respect to the conversation, we organized it around two broad themes, and I've got curated questions for each of our guests, but that doesn't mean that they can't talk amongst themselves on those questions or provide complementary comments, so hopefully we'll get some of that.
JA: But the two broad themes I'd like to explore, at least in this phase of the discussion, is the first one on governmental reform, because that is one of the most significant aspects of what has occurred after 9/11, is that the significant changes across the national security and homeland security enterprise.
JA: And so we'll spend 15 to 20 minutes on that and then we'll turn to the next theme about the evolving threat landscape, and again, spend about 15 or 20 minutes on those types of questions, and then we'll spend hopefully the last 15, 20 minutes on audience questions, either those that have already been submitted, or ones that will come up during the course of the conversation.
JA: So with that, the ground rules, Secretary Chertoff, let me please start with you. And again, you were the secretary of the department from 2005 to 2009, had the honor of working for you when I was there up until 2007. One of my most indelible moments in government was a late night in August of 2006 in your office, I don't know if you remember, but I certainly do.
JA: But all that said, as you took the position and you were there for all four years in that really intense timeframe, what were your biggest priorities for the department, and what do you think it needed to focus on at that particular time?
Michael Chertoff: Well, thank you, and just not to be too mysterious with the audience, I believe the August 2006 issue involved the famous August 2006 airline plot, where we worked with the British government to prevent a dozen airliners from being blown up, leaving Heathrow to come to North American. And that's a public, it's not even classified.
MC: But it indicates the threats remained even after 9/11, this was 2006, and that the reason there wasn't another 9/11 was because, among other things, the work we did at DHS and with our colleagues all across the federal government and overseas, in making it much more difficult for international terrorists to carry out large-scale plots.
MC: That was really priority one when I came in. I had been on duty at the Justice Department on 9/11, I was involved in the immediate response, including determining who had carried out the attacks, and taking steps to prevent further attacks after the fourth plane went down.
MC: So I came in with that as job one, but has anybody at DHS knows, you never only get to do one job. There were issues involving security across the border, disaster management, and infrastructure hardening and including the aviation sector, and all of those were matters that needed attention.
JA: That's a good synopsis of some of the immediate priorities that you have to tackle when you were the secretary, and again, it wasn't just a singular focus on counterterrorism, there were a number of different topics. But since you've been out of government service now for a decade, how do you think the department has done, not only on counterterrorism, which arguably remains a significant issue, I'm not sure it's the number one issue, but certainly a major issue for DHS?
JA: And how has the department tried to find the right balance with not only some of those topics you discussed back then, but even moreso now, cybersecurity, the relationship between the government and the private sector on these topics? I'm curious to get your perspectives on that.
MC: Well, cybersecurity, which was an issue lurking in the background when I was at DHS, I did get involved in putting in the first cybersecurity strategy in 2008. But this obviously became a much more serious issue for DHS and the country afterwards, and now 12 years after I left, it is probably regarded as the number one threat in terms of potential consequence and likelihood of occurring. And so the department has increasingly focused attention on cybersecurity, even while continuing to be focused on traditional terrorism and other issues like natural disasters coming out of climate change, and even the pandemic. So that was one big change.
MC: I would say the department, and I'm gonna be blunt here, certainly my two successors, Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson, continued the work of making the department come together with unity of effort, honing the skills and technical capabilities, focusing on the major threats, responding to disasters and all the myriad responsibilities, even while respecting the rule of law.
MC: I would say in the last four years prior to the current administration, we had some ups and downs in terms of the department. There was a greater effort on the part of the White House under Donald Trump to meddle in the department and attempt to subordinate it to political goals. There was a great deal of turnover in the senior leadership, without having confirmed officials, but people who are being appointed on an acting basis by Donald Trump and then being removed a very short time later, and that really disrupted the continuity of the department.
MC: And the department in some cases, got involved in some controversial issues at the border, as well as in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, DC. The good news is I think this is now, we are back on the right course, the political element has been removed, and now we have more experienced and sensible and common sense people who are running the department with the authority and the support they need to be able to carry out their mission.
JA: Alright. Secretary Chertoff, thank you for that. Excellent answer on that question. So sticking with this broad theme of governmental reform, Farah let me turn to you. And as I mentioned at the beginning, you've had several roles throughout multiple administrations, and again, crossing different disciplines or different issues within that.
JA: Can you just take a minute for the audience, because you're gonna do it more justice than I will, to explain your position under Secretary Clinton, Hillary Clinton, I believe is the Secretary of State, as that first ever person to hold the role you had? And what you tried to achieve in that position? Let me stop with that, and then I've got a couple other questions for you.
Farah Pandith: Sure. And I wanna just thank you all for having me on this panel, I'm really honored to be having this conversation with the three of you, I respect each of you in so many ways. Javed, I think it's important that your audience remember that when President Obama began his work as president, one of the things that the administration was doing was trying to figure out what worked well around the issue of the ideology. Were there any things that we did in the Bush administration that could move forward, as they were trying to think about how to stop young people from finding the ideology of extremists interesting.
FP: Hillary Clinton heard about what we piloted in the Bush administration in the Europe Bureau, where we were building a field no one had ever heard of, called Countering Violent Extremism, which is soft power, is how to think about efforts that we can put together at a community level to inoculate communities, or at least prevent as much as we can, people from finding this ideology appealing.
FP: And what Hillary Clinton said was, "You did this in the Europe region. I now wanna think about how we can do this globally." And so she created the role of Special Representative to Muslim communities to do just that, to broaden the scope to a global engagement strategy, where we could think about what President Obama said, which was build relationships with Muslims based on mutual interest and mutual respect, but also try to find ways to build networks of Muslims who are pushing back against the ideology of extremists. So is the work that I did from 2009 to 2014.
JA: Thanks Farah, for just a brief explanation of that role. So you were in that position for a few years, I believe, and then sticking with that broad notion of counterterrorism... I mean, countering extremism and other soft power tools, since you've been out of government now for a few years, how would you rank how we've done as a country on that whole broad spectrum of tools and capabilities that are in the traditional counterterrorism toolkit?
FP: Well, I think it's important for us to take a step back and remember where we were after 9/11, which is really important for scope. We had to make sure that an attack like that couldn't happen, and so obviously logically, we were thinking about hard power solutions, we were thinking about the military, we were thinking about going after AQ and all of the work that went into that.
FP: But soon after that became this effort to think about, well, we could stop the bad guys from planting a bomb or doing a 9/11, but how do we make sure they don't have any soldiers? How do we make sure that they don't build intellectual capacity? That work of country by an extremism began in the Bush administration, was accelerated in the Obama administration, decreased in the Trump Administration, and is still active.
FP: For me, names have changed, people talk about it in different ways, but it is the same thing. It's stopping communities from finding ideologies of "us versus them" interesting. And that can be either neo-Nazis or it could be something like the so-called Islamic State, and everything in between.
FP: So how have we done? I wrote a whole book on this because I was frustrated about the fact that we knew early on in the Bush administration that we needed to put our foot on the gas peddle on the ideological component of this war, and we did not. We have done the minimum amount, we've been ad hoc, we have not been consolidated. We've put very little money into the work of building resilience and inoculation.
FP: And what terrifies me, Javed, frankly, is that we got to a place at the end of the Bush administration when we knew what needed to be done. What we should have done is accelerate it really hard. So when you ask the question of where we've been and how we've done, I'm not really thrilled with the answer.
FP: But I think that there is an opportunity for President Biden to take everything that we've learned and to go all in. There is nothing stopping us from scaling all of the pilot programs and projects we've done in this country and around the world. There is nothing wrong with the learnings that we've learned about how people get radicalized.
FP: There's far more we should be doing around putting pressure on technology companies, now that we know what we know. There's far more that we can be doing around mental health, especially for the veterans that have been relating the impact of these wars and how bad actors are recruiting them. Whether it's QAnon, whether it's a Neo-Nazi group, or whether in fact it's something like AQ. So I think that there's a huge opportunity for President Biden to show learnings in a real way. I think that the problem has been focus, money, and commitment and attention on what we call the "war of ideas".
JA: Before I close on the questions with you, Farah, do you think just based on measures the Biden administration has taken or documents they've released, that they're already moving in that direction? Or do you think it's still more aspiration? I don't wanna put you on the spot.
FP: No, it's fine. As we both do have great respect for so many of our former colleagues who are doing this work right now, and I know that they have spent a lot of time talking to people like us who've been in the trenches, and also civil society to get expertise from them. So they're not starting from a zero knowledge base.
FP: But I think one of the things, the big learnings that I experienced in traveling to nearly 100 countries when I was special representative, is that the US government tends to be regional, and we tend to think that something that is happening in one part of the world is something very peculiar to that, and we're not seeing what is fundamental, which is, for digital natives who are learning about themselves and are navigating through their identity, they are not regionally focused.
FP: Somebody in Norway is learning an idea from Indonesia, somebody in Malaysia is connecting to somebody in Guiana. So we've gotta be smarter about demographics, digital natives, so millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha. We need to be forecasting in a better way. What I think the biggest role the Biden administration can plant right now is to go all in on cultural intelligence, understanding the signals that are happening within these demographics, so that we can predict behavior and we can predict how people are thinking about identity and belonging.
FP: So I look at this and I think to myself, "If we were to be serious about the ideological component of the war, there is a plan ahead that we can do." And I think when you ask the question about whether or not those in power right now are doing it, I think they're asking excellent questions, I think they are right to be thinking about what now is the term of our...
FP: "Whole of society", give me a break. We've been saying that for 15 to 18 years. Of course it takes every element of society. So I wanna see us do it, but I wanna see us do it at scale.
JA: Farah, I think you've just written your job description to back to the Biden Administration.
FP: Thanks a lot. You're really sweet to offer that.
JA: Exactly. Alright. Well, thank you for sharing your insights on that. Again, such an important topic, we're only scratching the surface of it. But Eric, let me transition to you. So just to go back to my introduction, you've been one of the country's leading national security journalists, if not the one, for several decades now. You are intimately familiar with how, especially the military has gone through a transformation on counterterrorism, and even homeland security from the PR 9/11 to the post-9/11 era.
JA: So even looking at it from a 10-year snapshot from September 11, 2001, to what I consider a really interesting time mark, to the death of Bin Laden, for that 10 years, because that was arguably, probably the point where we have a sense of the highest level of achievement in the global counterterrorism campaign. What do you think were some of the big changes for the Pentagon and the military in counterterrorism, even over that 10-year stretch?
Eric Schmitt: Well, Javed, first of all, thank you for having me and for allowing you to join my two esteemed colleagues. It's great to be on this panel. I think to address your question, you have to go back to 9/11 and just, you cannot underestimate how little the United States government really knew about Al-Qaeda that day.
ES: I mean, of course there were niches in pockets of the government that had focused on that because we had had the Al Qaeda attacks in East Africa, the East Africa embassy bombings. You'd had the bombing of the USS Cole. But this was very much seen as a somewhat of a backwater. And so, on 9/11, you had people running around the Pentagon for certain, really not understanding what this organization is about.
ES: I think it took a few years before not just the Pentagon, but the government as a whole could kinda sort out, "What is this organization? How does it operate? And how do we take it down?" And the whole notion, and this was something that people like Stanley McChrystal and Bill McRaven focused on at SOCOM, was, to defeat a network, you have to combat it with a network.
ES: And it was the notion that the military, of course is gonna be very important in this role, the kinetic role of going after the bad guys in the ground, teaming up with intelligence that's gleaned from the intelligence community. But it also focuses on diplomats, and it focuses on new players, I think, that people may not have been involved or may not have thought at least.
ES: People like the FBI sending agents overseas to work with their partners in foreign capitals, and departments like the Treasury Department, which I think most Americans at the time, and maybe even today, might not think about it, play an instrumental role in taking down the finances of terrorist organizations.
ES: And so it took a few years before the government could really be clicking and thinking about this as a holistic approach to how you take down a terrorist network. In some cases, yes, it was through a drone strike, but in other cases, it was choking off the finances of a hawala network and basically drying up the finances for fighters and other things going on that.
ES: So you're right, by the time the death of Bin Laden happens a decade later, this is a very well-oiled machine going after the terrorists we've seen. But as Farah has so accurately pointed out, I couldn't agree more, it still did not address some of the core issues, in particular, the ideology.
ES: If there's a bumper sticker here, "It's the ideology, stupid." That we have to continue, whether it's right-wing extremism or Islamic extremism, this still is the most difficult thing to tackle. And as we see, whether we're looking at extremism now from the Sahel to Somalia, to other parts of the world right now in Southeast Asia, this is one of the most challenging aspects, not just for the United States, of course because this is not a global effort.
ES: That's the other big change, is that it has to be an international effort, as Farah pointed out, and that with the terrorist networks now so digitally connected right now, and so digitally savvy, so much moreso than Al-Qaeda was, not only in 2001, but even on 2011, this has to be a principal battleground for going after the terrorists of the future.
JA: Eric, thanks for that perspective. And I think there's a lot we've talked about in this relatively short amount of time, just even on this notion of the governmental approach and the changes that were going on post-9/11, how significant that was from the pre-9/11 perspective. And then that evolution, I would argue, continues to this day, and perhaps we can talk about that in the Q&A.
JA: But before I leave, and I wanna pick up the second theme on this evolving front landscape, I'd be curious if between the different perspectives you all shared, was there anything else that you wanted to talk about in this notion of governmental reform? Or things that you think that our federal government should be doing in the counterterrorism space that we're just not yet at the right level or at scale, not enough resources?
FP: Javed, we've been talking about what the White House needs to do and other things that an administration puts in priority. I wanna look to the legislative branch of our government as well. I think that there's been a giant failure in the legislative branch to understand all the contours of what the Secretary, Eric and I have been talking about today.
FP: It has been an uphill road to get people to focus on the connection points that we've been talking about, on what we need to do for preparedness. We are seeing that right now in a horrifying way, in the way Congress is planning and thinking ahead. But imagine in the days, in the years after 9/11, when you try to get them to think about prevention, it's like their eyes glaze over, they don't wanna put any money into it, they don't wanna think about what you're saying, and I think that's a real problem. And so if you're thinking about government reform, that's a piece of it as well.
MC: Well, to that point, I think Farah is absolutely right. One of the... The only recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that was not adopted at all, was streamlining congressional oversight respect to the department. And there are dozens of committees now that claim jurisdiction over part of the department.
MC: And the result of that is you don't get clear authorities, clear legal guardrails, and a single point of contact in each of the two houses where you can have interaction with the department. And that has been a real crippling effect on our ability to fully maximize what the government's resources could be used to do to minimize this threat.
JA: Thank you, Secretary Chertoff, for that. Eric, anything on the legislative front?
ES: No, just I couldn't agree with my colleagues more, it's an absolute mess right now, and I think it needs to be focused. We kind of seen what's happened just as recently as January 6th and the response to that, and I think it's quite frightening really how lawmakers sadly have gone to their partisan corners, rather than addressing the threat, as I think lawmakers certainly tried to do immediate after 9-11, we're seeing just the opposite now, and I think it's leading us down a very dangerous path.
JA: Alright, thank you for that. Everyone for that. Let me turn to this next broad theme of threat landscape, and while as I direct questions to our guests, I'd also like to remind people to submit questions via YouTube in the chat function, if you want to ask questions, but please go ahead and do so.
JA: So let's turn to the threat landscape. So Eric, let me ask you a couple of questions, and one would think that... The recent policy decisions about Afghanistan and what has played out on the ground is probably at the forefront of a lot of people's minds who are watching or listening to this.
JA: So with that assumption being made, how significant do you think the US withdrawal is from Afghanistan, and what do you think it means in terms of opening the door for a resurgence for groups like Al-Qaeda, and even more worse case or disturbingly, their ability to launch attacks against the West, like we've seen in the past?
ES: I think they withdraw from Afghanistan and the subsequent takeover of government by the Taliban is really an inflection point here for the counterterrorism fight. And not just for Al-Qaeda, but also for ISIS and its affiliates. I think you've seen this just over the last several days and weeks, both sides now are claiming victory out of this. Clearly, Al-Qaeda is doing so because of its close affiliation with the Taliban.
ES: And despite some Taliban leaders insistence that they're not... This isn't going to be the way it was 20 years ago, and their close ties with Al-Qaeda then. And certainly Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, just over the weekend, have made quite the hay of the propaganda of this online, in looking at how they might take advantage of this.
ES: But at the same time, you have ISIS-K, which is an affiliate of the Islamic State, that probably most of your viewers are familiar with through its activities formally in Iraq and Syria, now claiming a major victory by the deadly bombing just a couple of weeks ago in Kabul that killed 13 service members and over 170 Afghans.
ES: And while it may be, you might argue that it's gonna be very difficult for either one of these organizations to immediately say, pose a threat to the homeland, but what this does is it energizes a network of affiliates, that didn't exist 20 years ago. That right now, these both of these organizations are, have had their time when they were ascendant.
ES: Certainly Al-Qaeda was that way until the death essentially of Bin Laden. Then you had Islamic State's rise. It's caliphate was defeated, at least on the ground in Iraq and Syria. But now we're kind of back to where it's kind of game on for both of them right now, and I think they see this as an opportunity. It's gonna be interesting to see what the response will be. Will this be a catalyzing event for both sides to draw recruits, to draw funding, to draw attention. Or will this kind of slide away and be more of a blip?
ES: That's obviously one of the big things the Biden administration is concerned about, is it says one of the few things its longer-term goals and focusing on Afghanistan is the so-called "over the horizon threat", and how are they gonna contain this. But just today in Washington, the DNI, Avril Haines, talked about how the main threat right now is not from Afghanistan, but it's from threats in places like Yemen and Somalia and Iraq, those are where this kind of more dispersed terrorist threat has gone to. And I think that's, we're gonna go on a watch to see what will be the effect of Afghanistan on those affiliates and branches, of both these organizations here.
JA: Just to kinda stay on this point before I transition to Farah for a different part of the threat issue. In your reporting or discussions with, reporting on the military, discussions with folks in the military, do you think they are concerned that if there are similar policy decisions to thin out or completely withdraw from all the places that you just talked about, do you think that just only heightens the risk from these additional places in addition to Afghanistan?
ES: I certainly think so, and clearly the Biden administration, since it's coming in, it's been undergoing a review of its, of global forces, military forces, and where it would be most appropriate to have those forces right now. President Trump obviously withdrew some 700 troops from Somalia, there's now a proposal inside the Pentagon to restore some of those troops back into that country.
ES: Because there is an early example of how "over the horizon" may or may not work. Most of the trainers have moved out to nearby Kenya or Djibouti, some of the drone strikes have resumed under this administration in self-defense, but I think talk of withdrawing forces or drawing down forces existing in Iraq, for instance, or Syria, I think a lot of military commanders would see that as a mistake right now, and further embolden some of these terrorist organizations as a sign of US withdrawal.
JA: Alright, Eric, thank you for that. So Farah, let me turn to you. So contrasted with this discussion about the international terrorism, most principally the Jihadist element of it, first Al-Qaeda and then ISIS, and that has ebbed and flowed, as Eric has said, over the last 20 years. How would you evaluate the threat of domestic term here in the United States? And do you think that it has had an equally long timeline and we just weren't paying as much attention to it? Or do you think it's a more recent manifestation.
FP: I think that the threat landscape in America is more serious than people can imagine, and I think you have to look at what we've learned over two decades around how things can ignite quickly. No, there's no way for us to look at the last two decades and say we got it right in terms of predictive analysis of how bad.
FP: We underestimated the so-called Islamic State. We thought we could contain the ideas. We've gotten it wrong, and I say that with respect to my former colleagues, and the reason why it's important to understand this is because now we have a hybrid threat. We have the threat of neo-Nazis and White supremacists. Everybody saw what happened on 1/6.
FP: To Eric's point, we're not seeing the kind of political response from Congress that you would have expected after an attack on our Capitol. And so we're in a very weak posture around the, not only just the understanding but the seriousness of the growth of White supremacy in our country. We've seen the connection point with White supremacy with other White supremacist movements in other parts of the world.
FP: Now you add to that horrible toxic environment, what we've just heard from Eric in terms of AQ, in terms of ISIS, in terms of the Taliban being a beacon for all kinds of groups to come forward who are radicalizing in the name of Islam. You have one-fourth of the planet that is Muslim that they are looking to for their future recruits. You have neo-Nazis who are looking at former vets, they're looking at women, they're looking at other groups to be able to radicalize them for a pure nation.
FP: So to me, you have now, 20 years after 9/11, two competing forces that, and this is actually quite sick, it's both "us versus them ideology", but they're also, to Eric's point about how savvy all the extremists are, they're learning from each other. So they're using memes, they're ping-ponging with memes, they're riffing off of each other, they're using logos, they're using video tactics that they know work.
FP: You see a discipline in the way in which they're recruiting that didn't exist prior to 9/11. In what they wear, in how they speak, in what their messages are. This does not bode well for the future, because we have now civilians who, some of whom have been trained in the military, alongside with a technology revolution that with a swish of the finger, you're getting everything that you're getting, and we all know what the algorithms are doing, so you're down a rabbit hole. What does this mean for our safety? Which is ultimately what you mean by the threat environment.
FP: Safety comes in two buckets as far as I'm concerned. One is, God forbid, a Boston bombing, a 9/11, a thing like that, that you're trying to prevent. But I think the biggest mistake for the United States is that we have been wrong in the way in which we have not included into the threat environment what's happening within societies and the societal sink holes that have been exposed.
FP: Because what these bad actors are doing, whether they are neo-Nazis or they're the so-called Islamic State, is they're pulling apart societies around "us versus them", and the impact of that you are seeing in kids who are as young as seven. And so the final point I just wanna say on this in terms of predictive and how we think about the threat posture, I remember talking with Secretary Chertoff soon after I left government in 2014.
FP: And I said to him, I was in his office with a white paper that I did with a colleague in London. And I said, "I really think we ought to be doing some more work around how women get radicalized." Nobody in government is listening to this. Secretary Chertoff did, of course, because he is who he is, and he said, "Well, what should we do? How should we think about this differently? What needs to be... What should we be doing to prepare and prevent women from getting radicalized?"
FP: And I wanna leave us with this idea of the prevention thing, where are the places we haven't done the work, that we need to do the work to make us more safe within societies, not just to prevent a terrorist attack, but to also prevent our societies of being pulled apart even more.
JA: Yeah, thanks Farah, for that very sort of passionate rundown on the challenges with the domestic terrorism, and the interplay with the international terrorism. Very quickly, I think two reflections of that symbiosis, I guess, if that's the right term, is some of the loudest voices in the extremist digital space in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover were White supremacists and neo-Nazis here in the United States who where championing that.
JA: Which again, it's hard to envision that 10 to 15 years ago. And then there is another neo-Nazi/White supremacist group that is active not only in the United States, but overseas, called The Base. They take their name from Al-Qaeda, they just don't believe in the global jihadist ideology. So just two very small examples of that.
JA: Okay, Secretary Chertoff, with just a few minutes on the formal questions, I wanna close with you. So given these different perspectives from Eric on the international terrorism side, and Farah on the domestic one, at least from the purposes of counterterrorism for homeland security, where do you think that balance should be now or in the next five to 10 years? And what do you think the department is doing about it?
MC: I agree with both what Eric said and Farah said, about the nature of where this is coming from. And as President Bush said at Shanksville on September 11th, either... Although they have nothing in common in terms of their professed ideologies, in fact, in their hatred for government and desire to tear down institutions in the rule of law, both the global jihadist extremists and the domestic White supremacist extremists have a lot in common.
MC: In fact, if I have to sum it up, I'd say the animating force between both groups is nihilism, just the desire to destroy and tear down, and glory in violence and destruction. And that's very difficult to deal with. But the solution set is a little bit different. There's obviously an issue of trying to de-radicalize or get people to drop some of this.
MC: As it relates to Jihadism and international terrorism, we've done a good job of building a series of defenses of our borders, and our ability to collect and even be kinetic overseas, is stronger than it was prior to 9/11. So without minimizing the threat of a resurgence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, I do think we have the muscle memory that will allow us to address this using a bunch of capabilities, that frankly are better now than they were 20 years ago.
MC: Domestically is harder, because our collection abilities are limited by the law, because we're not accustomed to looking within, because social media, which is one of the main mobilizing forces, brings with it a whole set of First Amendment concerns that make us nervous about monitoring what's been done online. Even when people are going online and announcing to the world that they're about to commit violent crimes.
MC: So we do need to build an architecture that is respectful of civil liberties, but recognizes we need more visibility into this domestic extremism. And a lot of this is gonna be community-based, it's gonna be going to not just law enforcement, but community social services, religious institutions, and asking them to cooperate when they hear somebody talk about wanting to commit an act of violence.
MC: I think it was a former Marine with PTSD who killed a family he didn't even know a couple of days ago. And I think either his wife or girlfriend who later said, "Well, he'd been talking about going out and killing people." But she never told anybody. One of the things I do think we need to do is build off-ramps, find a way to encourage people to come forward. And as they used to say, "See something, say something," without feeling that if you're reporting to a loved one or a friend, it's gonna result in them going to prison, which is very hard for somebody to contemplate doing.
MC: But if we could come up with alternative solutions, to take people who look like they're teetering on the edge of violence, and de-program them like we used to do with cults, that might be an alternative that people would be much more willing to call upon when they begin to see someone that they know heading in a very dangerous direction.
MC: So I think we need to think through the issue of de-programming and de-radicalization. Again, how do we deal with balancing civil liberties and the fact that we do have to look at threats from within. And we also need to engage with social media and have a serious conversation about their responsibility in terms of not becoming weaponized and sources of inspiration for acts of terror.
MC: Finally, let me say this. The one thing with domestic terrorists that is the opposite of what we dealt with with global terrorists is, when we had 9/11, everybody in the country came together, Republican, Democrat. I remember being a couple of days later in Congress, seeing them all standing with each other, we had a 9/11 Commission. Eventually, there were disagreements, but there was a unity of purpose.
MC: The idea that we had January 6th, which had it succeeded, would have resulted in the death of members of Congress, and literally the first time that an election had ever been stopped, including the Civil War, and the fact that there are members of Congress now who don't wanna look at that, and saying, "Nothing to see here," that is an element of the threat and the challenge that is new and very frightening.
JA: Thank you, Secretary Chertoff for that, and I agree with all the points that were raised here. This is such a dynamic environment, both on the domestic and international terrorism, side, and as a long time student of terrorism, even before I came into government or terrorism analysis. And now that I'm out, I just think the next 20 years are gonna be equally as complex and challenging as the past 20.
JA: So with that, let's turn to some of the audience questions. We've got some good questions going in. I'll open it up, some of these are not directed to anyone individually. But one question that's come through is, "Can we finally start treating terrorism as a criminal problem or criminal gang problem, and find leadership outside the military to lead counterterrorism?" I'm reading that verbatim, I'm not trying to editorialize.
MC: Let me answer that. I think actually, we have built most of our counterterrorism based on civilian leadership. We've basically, as you know, Javed, we've looked at the FBI on the investigative and prosecution side, we've looked now to DHS on the building defenses and hardening. And the military and the intelligence community's role has largely been external.
MC: I will say obviously, we're dealing with terrorist platforms in Afghanistan or in Somalia, that's not gonna be a DHS issue, that's gonna be DOD issue. But I don't think we've put the military out front in a good deal of this. I think it's been actually a lot of civilian leadership.
ES: I think you look at the approach, certainly it began with the Obama administration drawing down forces, we've seen throughout, this has been the goal of the, certainly the military, is to reduce its footprint so that you have small numbers of forces that can enable, help and enable indigenous security forces to contain these kind of threats, to treat them as a criminal type of gang.
ES: The problem is when these threats spill over borders and become regional problems, or then become international problems. At least in the overseas threat. What we've been talking about today, however, when you're talking about digitally savvy networks, where there obviously are no borders, that becomes much more challenging and a much more difficult problem to thwart.
JA: Farah, anything from you on that question?
FP: Well, no, I was just gonna echo what Eric said about ideology has no borders. I think that this... And I understand and respect why we have to do this and talk about the domestic landscape and the international one. As far as I'm concerned, it is all connected. As we think about how to fight terrorism, it isn't stopping terrorist acts from ever happening on planet Earth, it is so reducing the number that we can manage them. That goes for the ideology as well.
FP: And so I think we have to think differently about exactly what Secretary Chertoff was talking about in terms of the local solutions and getting partners on the ground to help. The problem has been that the only entity that is actually organizing in a way that's at all systematic, and it needs a lot of work, as I mentioned earlier today, is government, and I think that's wrong.
FP: I think we need to be thinking differently about how to build capacity of civil society, philanthropists, businesses and others at the grassroots, so that they can surge the inoculation piece. And also critically, to the issue of what Secretary Chertoff was talking about, when you see something, where do you go? There is no one in the United States that has an outlet for that.
FP: I think that these are moments where we can stand back and say, "What can we build today that can help on this longer thing?" One of them is in fact these kinds of off-ramps that we've been talking about for a very long time.
JA: Farah, before I close on this question, I wanna ask you, because as someone who has traveled, as you said yourself, to I think over 100 countries, and was on the ground and seeing different frameworks and models of how other countries were trying to combat the same types of issues. Who do you think is doing a better job than the United States on this front? And to the degree that you just described, not using necessarily just the hard power toolkit, but a very different unconventional or soft power.
FP: Every country in the world is gonna talk about how special and distinct they are and how their approach is just very different and it can't be just like anybody else's. So that's one problem that we have. We know a couple of really basic things. One is that identity and belonging is at the center of everything.
FP: You don't start going on to the internet asking questions about how to join a neo-Nazi group if there's something not happening within you. That is true for AQ, that is true for... So this journey, every country has now 20 years later understood identity and belonging is at the core.
FP: Okay, how they deal with that. There are countries in Europe who are putting, particularly the Nordic countries, are putting more money into the social components that Secretary Chertoff was talking about, giving money to NGOs to actually do this work. We are... We, the United States, are asking NGOs to do the work that we can't do, and that is right, because government has no authenticity and credibility.
FP: But we're asking them to do it on dimes, and they have to spend their time raising money to keep the lights on and pay people's salaries. There are other parts of the world, like the Nordic countries, for example, that get that they have to give NGOs far more capacity monetarily to be able to do it.
FP: So when you ask this question, for me, it's not like, "Oh my gosh, Malaysia has the best program on how to stop people from joining ISIS." Or, "Canada got it right on whatever." Everybody has strengths with regard to how they're working with civil society, we've gotten to a place where we also know importantly, the role of technology.
FP: And with this, you know, the region that has done better on the technology problem is Europe, because they've gone hard on the social media companies, and they're making those companies squirm. And that's what we should be doing too.
JA: Okay, great. Thanks, Farah, for that. Wasn't trying to put you on the spot, but just given your global perspective, I thought you had a really interesting insight on that. Okay, there's some really good questions that are coming in too, so let me turn to these next. With about 10 minutes left, we're not gonna get to all of them.
JA: But one question to you Secretary Chertoff first, and again, Eric or Farah, you can jump in, "Thoughts on the lasting impacts of the Patriot Act, now that we're coming up on the 20-year anniversary of the Patriot Act, and implications of what that has meant from a domestic security and privacy and civil liberties perspective?"
MC: That's a very misunderstood statute. Basically, it did two things. It allowed information sharing between the intelligence community and the law enforcement community, which has been prohibited earlier. So that we didn't have the situation which occurred prior to 9/11, where on the intelligence side, there was some indication that there was somebody in the US being trained, which were learning how to fly a plane, perhaps because they were connected to Bin Laden. And that never got communicated to the law enforcement people. So bringing down the barriers for information sharing was important, and remains to this day a positive development.
MC: The other thing it did is it expanded to some degree the legal processes that were available for getting information about potential terrorist acts, in a way to make it symmetrical with what we were doing with drug dealers. So they broadened subpoena power, or the equivalent of subpoena power for the FBI, and there were other collection tools that were made available.
MC: The controversy that did arise at one point, is that the Bureau took its ability to require information and started to require it in bulk, basically have the telecoms turn or the ISPs turn all of the metadata, not the content, but all the metadata over to them on an ongoing basis.
MC: I don't think that was envisioned, and then that was eventually trimmed back under the Obama administration. And so that particular characteristic of controversy was dealt with. But I think it balanced the information sharing, and the adaptation of tried and true law enforcement tools to terrorism, made sense.
JA: Right, and Congress, multiple administrations now have had opportunities working with Congress to significantly modify it or repeal it, and that up until now has not happened, so it'll be interesting to see how much longer it's on the books. Okay, another really good question. And before I leave, Farah and Eric, anything on the Patriot Act, or surveillance, privacy in the US?
JA: Okay. Another really good question on this blend between terrorism in the physical world and then cyber-directed or enabled terrorism, which I would argue we haven't yet truly seen. So the question is, "Is physical terrorism a dying phenomenon? And given the way that the technology spectrum is evolving, should we anticipate more actual acts of terrorism enabled through cyber tools or capabilities?"
MC: Javed, let me take that. First of all, physical terrorism is not dying. We haven't seen a 9/11 scale attack, but that's been because we've been much better at detecting those things and preventing people from overseas to come into the country in numbers that would allow them to carry out a 9/11.
MC: But the problem is not going away, we continue to hear stories of people bringing up guns or getting behind the wheel of a car and committing an act of terror against individuals or just innocent bystanders. But the cyber area is an increasing area, we have seen cyber terrorism. There was an effort in the last couple of years to actually disable a water pollution filtering system in Florida, which had it not been discovered, would have resulted in people drinking polluted or tainted water.
MC: The Iranians attacked the banking industry, in retaliation for some of the sanctions, with a Denial-of-Service attack. I think increasingly, we're gonna see cyber be a vector of conflict. So again, the problems are multiplying, they're not being subtracted.
JA: Farah or Eric, anything on the cyber threat?
ES: I would echo that. I agree with Secretary Chertoff, you're not gonna see a decrease, I think, in the physical terrorism, just because of the spectacular nature of it, and seeing an explosion or a truck driving down a boulevard in Barcelona or something like that, it's a very visceral, scary feeling, frankly, for many people.
ES: What you are gonna see though, is maybe a larger impact on a wider number of people from these cyber attacks. Just look at the impact that the gas pipeline had, just on the East Coast of the United States recently. That's... And again, now we're drifting into state-sponsored or state-enabled terrorism, and looking back to the future almost and how that might work out.
ES: So you're not just talking about individual groups, but perhaps criminal gangs assisted by or enabled by nation states that are rivals for the US. And so that's a very dangerous trend as well.
JA: Farah, anything on that?
FP: I was just going to say, I think we... To the theme of underestimating non-state actors also, they are studying the landscape as carefully as they can. They've learned a lot. They watch our reactions. I think we have consistently described certainly the Taliban or AQ or ISIS as "ragtag group of" fill in the blank, and it diminishes from a consciousness level, what that threat might be. Because they don't look like us, they live differently than us.
FP: But I think that's such a disaster, a mindset that's a disaster, because they too are reading Sun Tzu, they too are studying the things that our generals and military officers learn at West Point. They are studying it carefully because human nature ultimately hasn't changed that much. They know what to do. So to Eric's point, the spectacular nature of an event is not going to go away any time soon.
JA: So we probably have time for... I'll try to make this the last question, and have it wrap up a bunch of different themes here, even though it's just one question from the audience. But we've covered this broad landscape on governmental reform and the threat, and part of I think what I've heard over the past almost hour is that there's still a long way to go for the US government to make more progress in both of those spectrums of counterterrorism.
JA: But one question I think that ties some of this together is that, and Farah, I'll ask you first, but given that, how do you see the role of women and minorities and diversity in the US national security field? And do you think that it's still a space where there needs to be a lot more work that could have positive effects on these other two things that we've talked about? Hopefully I'm trying to package that question up with some of these other things.
FP: Well, we could have done a whole hour on this, at least. I mean, are you kidding me?
FP: Yeah, I'll just be very clear. We are not diverse, there are very few women. It is ridiculous that in the 21st century, we are asking this question. There are not enough women around the policy table, not to speak of diverse women, or diverse actors of any kind. So we gotta do more. We have improved, but we gotta do more.
FP: Why does it matter to CT stuff? Because the way in which you look at culture, the way in which you understand differences within the within, means that you can't have the same kind of people around the table. And I think we would do ourselves a favor if we thought about things, not just what languages do you speak, which is the first thing everybody says, but rather the heritage and the background and the perspective that you bring to the table as you think about the contours of human society.
JA: Yeah, great. I know you had a lot to say on that, Farah. No, we're only, again, kind of scratching the surface. Secretary Chertoff, Eric, anything on that question that I posed to Farah?
MC: I think the more voices and more backgrounds that are represented, the wiser the decisions.
ES: I think you've heard Lloyd Austin, it's taken 'til 2021 to have the first African-American Black Secretary of Defense talk about you cannot run an effective department as large as the Department of Defense, unless it reflects the society in which it serves. And I think he's finding out just how difficult that is in a major department like his, but he can speak with such strong moral authority, I think from his own background and his own personal stories, building on the likes of others in the past, certainly people like Colin Powell in the Defense Department, that space. But he faces some real challenges, I think, in tackling that kind of environment in the Defense Department.
JA: Alright, we're only about two minutes away from 5 o'clock, but rather try to jam another question in, I think we'll just call it an hour. But thank you again so much, Farah, Eric, Secretary Chertoff, for joining the Michigan community in this conversation. It's unfortunate, Secretary Chertoff and Farah, you couldn't be with us in person, but hopefully we'll be able to extend another invitation to you and get you out here.
JA: If you haven't been to Ann Arbor before, Eric will continue to host you later this evening here in Ann Arbor and look forward to that. So thanks everyone again for being with us, thanks everyone who joined in online or on the phone, and we will see you again shortly. Thank you.
MC: Thank you.
ES: Thank you.
FP: Thank you.