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Manchester attack reveals risk of ‘soft targets’

May 24, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
British security forces continue their hunt for the people responsible for a deadly bombing in the city of Manchester. What investigative capabilities do UK officials possess? William Brangham talks with former White House National Security official R.P. Eddy, co-author of “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we return to the Manchester attack and the ongoing investigations happening in Britain.

William Brangham takes a deeper look.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As British officials continue to piece together who was behind this attack, and to try to stop another from occurring, we wanted to take a closer look at just how the U.K. handles counterterrorism.

For that, I’m joined by R.P. Eddy. He served on the staff of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, where he worked closely with British officials. And he is the author, along with Richard Clarke, of “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.”

R.P. Eddy, thanks very much for being here.

I wonder if you could just start off telling us the distinctions that U.K. intelligence and terror officials have as compared to, say, U.S. officials?

R.P. EDDY, Former White House National Security Official: Well, overall, it’s a fairly similar system.

There is probably two key differences. One is, it’s easier to open up investigations and surveillance on individuals in the U.K., British citizens or others, than it is in the United States. The second thing is that we have an inverted model.

In the United States — for example, here, I’m sitting in New York City. The NYPD would go out and collect much of the intelligence about a terrorist attack, potential terrorist attack, and then the FBI would make the arrest, depending on the maturity of the intelligence collection in the city.

In London, in the U.K., it’s opposite. The Metropolitan Police Service or the local police would actually do the arresting, where MI5 and MPS would do the intelligence gathering.

But the key difference is, it’s easier to begin surveillance on people of concern.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And the U.K., I know, also has a wide network of CCTV cameras, where I know that that’s been a relevant tool in prior terror investigations.

R.P. EDDY: It’s a massive difference.

So, they adapted the use of closed-circuit televisions much earlier than we did in the United States in our major cities. And in every terrorist investigation since the ’80s, CCTVs have been hugely useful in very quickly figuring out who was behind it and wrapping up the cell.

That and the laws, most of these things are children of growing up in the era of the IRA threat. So they addressed their terrorism threat and got over some of their learnings earlier than we did.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Even so, with all those tools, it’s clear that the U.K. officials missed this particular plot.

And it seems to me that this is just an indication of how difficult it is to identify individuals or maybe a group of individuals who are trying to plot quietly these types of attacks.

R.P. EDDY: Well, let’s say there’s probably two big reasons for that. The first one is technological.

And you have heard a number of U.S. government officials and British government officials over the last three or four years bemoan the fact that it’s much easier now to encrypt your communications on your cell phone or over the Internet to a military-grade level than it used to be.

So, in some instances, we’re blind as we try to do collection on those signals intelligence. So that’s the first reason that it’s a little harder, or much harder.

The second reason is, ISIS is different than al-Qaida. Now, part of why they’re different is, they’re interested in — or they’re more willing to allow or to foster what you would call retail attacks, small attacks by lone wolves or people who are just sort of getting converted into extremism by ISIS, whereas al-Qaida, as we know, is more interested in large-scale attacks, taking down huge buildings, blowing up embassies, doing things simultaneously.

So the latter model, the al-Qaida, is easier to find, requires more planning, and, of course, requires larger cells, requires more training.

The ISIS model, of being an idea of mass destruction, is much harder to catch. Someone can be just converted into extremism over the Internet. They don’t even have to meet anybody, and they can go off and carry out smaller, harder-to-surveil, harder-to-stop terrorist attacks.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The theater that was the site of this attack is what’s known as a soft target, a place where the security apparatus is just not that robust.

How do we as a society writ large go about trying to harden places like that? Either we do that to try to prevent these types of things or we just, in some level, try to become accustomed to the fact that this might be a more common occurrence.

R.P. EDDY: Well, we should never become accustomed to it. And I would say, editorially, I don’t think we should allow these conversations that say, oh, it was only 22 people, look how many died from dirty water the same day.

Those are both horrible things, but they’re different. Terrorism, these terrorist acts, terrorize, and they change things politically and they change our way of life.

So, can we accept that our soft targets are going to be hit? No. Is it very, very hard to protect these soft targets? Absolutely. Think about the last time you went to the airport. When you got through TSA, the magnetometers, you had a degree of safety. But as you waited in line, queued up, 50 or 1,000 of you, you are a very soft target.

The same thing happens at theaters. The same thing happens at football games. So it’s a very unfortunate reality that we really can’t secure everything. And ISIS is sort of well-situated by allowing or fostering these smaller attacks to hit us at that weak point.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, R.P. Eddy, thank you very much for your time.

R.P. EDDY: Thanks for having me.