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Ambassador: U.S. Taking Europe Terror Threats ‘Very Seriously’

October 4, 2010 at 5:44 PM EST
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator for counter-terrorism, about the advisories issued to Americans traveling to Europe.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on the U.S. government’s advisory to Americans abroad, we’re joined by Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism. Welcome to you.

Could you help us understand the level of certainty in these threats? For one thing, are there specific individuals that intelligence services are now seeking in Europe or elsewhere?

DANIEL BENJAMIN, State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism: You know, I can’t comment on what’s in the intelligence specifically.

But I can tell you that we looked at this information. This has been cumulative — it’s been building up over a period of weeks and even months — and decided that this was the appropriate moment to issue this — this public alert.

And we are coordinating, cooperating very closely with our allies in Europe. And we’re taking this all very, very seriously.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you tell us whether it appears to be a kind of homegrown terror, that is, European nationals who go to Pakistan or elsewhere for training?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Again, I can’t get into the specific intelligence. It quite clear that al-Qaida and its allies have a variety of different options that they can resort to. They have been targeting Europe and the United States for quite some time. And, as I said, we thought this was the appropriate time to issue this alert.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about today’s drone missile attack in Pakistan, and then recent ones in the last month? Is there a direct tie that you can tell us about?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: I’m — I’m afraid that, as you know, the U.S. government never discusses these intelligence activities, drone strikes. So, I’m going to have to pass on that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. So, we heard Attorney General Holder say that the — there are no particular indications that Americans are being targeted right now. You made a decision here not to raise it to the highest level of warning. Why not? And what exactly are you, therefore, asking Americans to do in taking precautions?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, we are not asking Americans to cancel travel. We are advising Americans that it is a heightened threat level, and that they should take appropriate precautions and consider doing things like not spending excessive amounts of time in large public transportation buildings, stations, and the like, not hanging out at public demonstrations, moving purposefully wherever they’re going, taking very basic sorts of precautions.

Again, no one is canceling travel. I’m going to Europe later this week. Secretary Clinton will also be traveling to Europe. General Jones, the national security adviser, is in Europe as we speak. And this travel alert is set to run for at least 90 days. And the president plans to travel to Europe during this period, too.

This is really about giving Americans the information that we as a government owe them, so that they can take the appropriate precautions.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I assume, I’m sure this is a tough balancing act. Is there a concern that if the alert is as broad and nonspecific as you’re necessarily making it, how helpful is it?

I read today a quote from Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. He says: “I’m not sure what it says, beyond the fact that the world is a dangerous place. And we already know that.”

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, it is a balancing act that we are undertaking, of course.

If we had more specificity, we would include more specificity in the alert. We do know that there is significant plotting going on, and the information had built up and had reached a level where we felt that our legal obligation — and, remember, we are required to do this by law — that our legal obligation indicated that we needed to tell the American people and tell people who are traveling to Europe and people who live there that they — that it’s Americans living there — that they should know this and that they should take appropriate cautions.

JEFFREY BROWN: And were there serious discussions there about exactly what level to raise it to and what exactly you’re able to — you’re clearly careful here with us, for understandable reasons. So, explain a little bit more about the thinking of this balancing act of warning people, but not scaring people.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, as I said, we have a legal obligation. And no one has an interest in panic, nor is panic indicated here. It’s not appropriate.

We felt that we had this information. It’s been building up, and we needed to pass it on. There was no thought really towards jumping to the higher level of warning, which would actually suggest that people cancel travel. Really, there was no thought of that.

But we did think that it was appropriate to pass on that there was a heightened threat level. And, of course, as you noted, a number of other countries have done the same. I think that that indicates that they share our concerns.

JEFFREY BROWN: But my understanding is that neither Germany nor France have raised it to — have raised their levels in the last days or weeks. And we heard the German interior minister just a while ago saying that he referred to this as a high-abstract danger.

Are you confident that governments are on the same page here? Is there any danger of confusion to the public in the different messages?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: No, I think we’re very much on the same page. There really has been very close coordination with others.

I would add that, although the French have not technically raised their level, their interior minister and the head of domestic intelligence there have spoken about the light flashing red lately, which is far more alarmist than anything we have said, and that the threat level is at a peak there.

So, different countries obviously have their different traditions for handling these things. But I don’t think there’s any question but that everyone is taking the current situation very seriously.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, you referred to I think the 90-day legal period for this. How do you know otherwise when to rescind it? When might that happen? Could you rescind it earlier than that?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: You know, frankly, it’s a very good question. I think that we do this as a matter of course.

The question really will be whether or not it gets renewed. The typical course of these things is that they will expire after a certain amount of time. The real question is whether we continue to receive information that suggests that it needs to be maintained. And that, of course, is something that we will be watching very closely.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Daniel Benjamin at the State Department, thank you very much.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: My pleasure.