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Brennan: Post-9/11, U.S. Has ‘Right Balance’ Between Civil Liberties, Security

September 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an interview with Judy Woodruff, White House Chief Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan discusses the strength of al-Qaida after the death or capture of high-level leaders and the difficult-to-detect threat of homegrown terror.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The man tasked with preventing terrorist attacks on Americans, whether at airports or in malls or elsewhere, is the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan.

At the White House earlier today, I talked with him about that, about al-Qaida post-bin Laden and about the face of terrorism now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Brennan, thank you very much for talking with us.

JOHN BRENNAN: Thank you for inviting me here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to start by asking you about a report we’re airing on the NewsHour about the heightened security in this country post-9/11 in public places that may be putting American civil liberties at risk. What is your sense of the – of whether this country has struck the right balance between more security and civil liberties?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I think the president’s made very clear that one of the real tenets of his policy is that we respect, recognize the civil liberties of every American person. And so what he has made very clear to me, as well as to others within the CT community – the counterterrorism community – is that we need to do our jobs the best that we can, but we also have to make sure that we recognize the limits of the law and also that American citizens and persons have these rights and liberties that we need to respect.

So this has been a balancing act over the past decade. I think we’ve struck the right balance. Frequently, though, we have to make sure that we review the programs that are in place to make sure that they’re being implemented appropriately, that there is oversight there. But the guidance is make sure that we do everything possible to protect the safety and security of the American people while at the same time adhering to our constitution as well as our values as a people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are there instances – specific examples of where this additional security here in this country has either prevented or in some way led to – prevented an attack or led to the arrest or capture of somebody who was planning to do something?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, we had the recent example of individual in Texas who was planning to carry out an attack against the Fort Hood personnel who was disgruntled within the military – Naser Abdo was his name. And it was because of the vigilance of a store clerk who was concerned about what that individual was attempting to purchase who brought it to the attention of authorities that then resulted in the authorities investigating and finding that this individual had put together the ingredients for improvised explosive devices.

So rather than, you know, security it’s – vigilance is what we want. And that’s why Secretary Napolitano from the Department of Homeland Security has made such a point about the “See Something, Say Something” campaign. Doesn’t mean that you spy on your neighbors, it just means that we recognize that al-Qaida and other terrorist groups are trying to carry out attacks in the homeland here; and so that it’s the intention that, you know, we have American citizens helping to protect this nation by bringing to the authorities any types of events, developments, incidents that they think, you know, indicates that there might be some terrorist activities at play here.

So, you know, there have been numerous incidents where I think American citizens have brought to the attention of authorities – local authorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about – just one more specific question about this – whether private security companies have – in the work the they’ve done, have led to either preventing an attack or led to the conviction – arrest of somebody who was planning something.

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, a couple points here. One is that we know that al-Qaida and terrorist groups are deterred from a visible security presence as well as from security practices that they can’t determine, you know, the routine for. So that security presence keeps this – the terrorists off balance and is a deterrent.

Terrorists will not go after a target that his hardened by security or – physical or, you know, personnel security. At the same time, we want to make sure that we’re using that security in a smart way and that it is done appropriate – with appropriate deference and respect for, again, individual liberties and the civil rights of people here in the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you the basic question: Is the United States safer today than it was on September the 11th, 2001?

JOHN BRENNAN: Oh, I think without a doubt. This country now has become a much more difficult operational environment for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups – the measures that have been put in place, the better integration of intelligence and law enforcement and homeland security capabilities over the last decade, the proactive efforts that we’ve made overseas to put the terrorists back on their heels – we’ve taken off the battlefield many, many senior al-Qaida and other operational commanders. So both from the threat side as well as from the vulnerability side the advances that we’ve made over the past decade have been just very, very impressive across the board.

We also have worked very closely with our international partners. This is not just something the United States alone can address. So we have developed and enhanced our relationships with many different partner services overseas, building their capacity so they can do what they need to do to prevent those terrorists from coming here to the homeland.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last week on the NewsHour we interviewed the two former chairs of the 9/11 commission, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton. And they agreed that the United States is undoubtedly safer than it was on 9/11. But they also said that they think it’s inevitable – that there will be another successful terrorist attack close to the scale if not on the scale of 9/11.

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I have tremendous respect for the 9/11 commissioners and I met with many of them last week when they issued their report card and with Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean. And I think that they’ve done a great service to this nation by identifying the areas that we need to continue to address, and I encourage them to continue to do so. I don’t say that another attack is inevitable. I like to think that every day we’re going to try to uncover any type of terrorist activity that’s out there and take the steps to thwart any type of planning that might result in an attempted attack. But inevitability is not something that I ascribe to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one of the things they cited was the aviation screening system in this country. I mean, for example, they said that the – that our detection – whatever we have in this country right now in the way of detection devices is not yet at the capability of what the terrorists can do in terms of hiding a bomb.

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, clearly, the terrorists have been very innovative and inventive as far as improvised explosive devices, miniaturizing them, concealing them in different types of items. We try to stay ahead of that. We have our own research and development efforts on the technology front to be able to better detect, thwart and disrupt these types of efforts. So this is going to be a very dynamic environment, both the terrorists trying to adapt to us and we’re trying to stay ahead of them.

And I think we have done a pretty good job in terms of technology that we’ve brought to bear, the behavioral specialists that we’ve been able to bring to bear so we can detect people’s behavior that is indicative that they might be up to something.

So it’s a combination of things. It’s not – there’s not a silver bullet out there that’s going to make us safe. What we’re trying to do is to have technology, to have people, to have redundant security measures that allow us – or to optimize our chances of stopping an attack.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But they express particular concern about the screening system that they say is just not up to the point – up to the level that it needs to be to detect what the terrorists are capable of doing.

JOHN BRENNAN: I think we always have to strive to be better. And if that’s what they’re saying, then yes, I agree with them. What we need to do is to continue to advance our knowledge of IED technologies and creative types of applications that the terrorists are looking at right now. We are trying to make sure that it’s intelligence-based. So as we get information about the types of mechanisms that the terrorists might be trying to use, we are adapting our procedures accordingly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They also cite the growing problem of the lone wolf, or – and self-radicalization in this country. Is that as great a worry now as is that of organized terrorism?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think – and the president has said – the lone actor, the individual that is out there that might decide to carry out an attack, either with an IED or with a weapon or a gun, these are – this is a concern of ours. And it’s sometimes more difficult to detect because an individual can do this on their own, in their house, and plot and plan and scheme and acquire materials, and then just one day decide to get up and, you know, carry out an attack. We had an instance yesterday in Carson City, Nev., where someone just decided to open up with an automatic weapon and unfortunately killed several individuals. It looks as though the individual was mentally unstable.

But this is the type of thing that’s difficult to guard against. And that’s why the “See Something, Say Something” Campaign, the effort to say, you know, this person is acting differently or it looks as though that they’re up to no good – this will give the authorities the opportunity to check something out. Now, the authorities have to do it in the right way, but again, I think this is a whole-of-nation effort that we’re encouraging.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is it fair to say you’re spending as much time worrying about that now as you are organized terrorism?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think we have to look at all the difference of vectors – attack vectors that are out there, those that are coming from al-Qaida, those that are coming from allied groups, those that might be inspired by overseas terrorist rhetoric and propaganda but might incubate here in the United States. So that’s the challenge that the intelligence community has, the law enforcement community has, to look at all the difference sort of options out there. Every day they’re faced with new leads, new threads that they have to pull.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Al-Qaida – is there reason to believe that they are planning – a credible reason to believe they’re planning an anniversary attack of some sort? And I ask because of this FBI bulletin that went out last weekend about the threat of small airplanes.

JOHN BRENNAN: Yeah. Well, we know from the material that was recovered from the bin Laden compound that bin Laden was looking at the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as an opportunity to strike yet again at the U.S. homeland. Our intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies have been very, very diligent in looking at all the different potential actors out there. We are – feel that we’re on top of it right now. We know that al-Qaida wants to try to hit us here in the homeland again. They have been thwarted numerous times. But it’s not just al-Qaida; there are other groups that have taken up the mantle of al-Qaida.

So we are on our vigilance. And we have made a number preparations in anticipation of the 9/11 anniversary. But it’s not going to stop on the 9/11 anniversary; we’re going to maintain this vigilance and continue to do everything possible to protect the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there clear evidence now that the death of Osama bin Laden clearly set al-Qaida back?

JOHN BRENNAN: It think bin Laden’s death as well as the death of other senior operational commanders – Ilyas Kashmiri, who was responsible for putting together plans to attack Europe and the United States; Atiyah Abd al-Rahman; there is the arrest that the Pakistanis carried out recently of Younis al Mauritani – these are individuals that were determined to carry out an attack against Western interests, including in the homeland here. Taking them off of the battlefield, capture, and their deaths, has really set al-Qaida core – the senior leadership of al-Qaida in Pakistan – back significantly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you characterize right now the strength of al-Qaida? We heard Secretary Panetta say this summer that the U.S. was within – was within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaida. Is that realistic? And what would that look like?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, you have al-Qaida core, which is the senior leadership, which is in the FATA area of Pakistan, which really has taken it on the chin significantly as a result of our and Pakistani efforts. That has been degraded significantly over the past couple of years.

But you have other al-Qaida elements: Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is mainly in Yemen right now; you have Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is the Sahel area of Africa; Al-Qaida in Iraq. And so these franchises are active. They’re carrying out attacks against locals – the Yemenis, you know, the Iraqis and others. And, also, there are elements that are trying to carry out attacks against us – American interests in those countries as well as to try to do things in the homeland here.

So those franchises are active and to – we have al-Qaida core on the ropes, but that doesn’t mean that these other elements are not able and determined to carry out an attack. And – you know, we – yes, we are concerned about what they might try to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It doesn’t sound like that’s within reach, the strategic – the strategic defeat.

JOHN BRENNAN: The phenomenon of terrorism that al-Qaida manifests and represents, I think, is going to be many years – a many-year effort. So we cannot relent. We cannot, even with the death of bin Laden – and if we get Zawahiri and others, that is not reason for us to relax.

There is a core of these extremists that have this distorted concept of Islam and are determined to carry out attacks in the name of Islam. They’re murderers, and we need to do everything possible to eliminate the threat that they pose to us, but also work with the countries overseas to make sure that they build the institutions as well as provide for their people, you know, the opportunities that will make the terrorists’ ideology blatantly bankrupt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In that vein and just quickly, you did roll out this summer a new administration counterterrorism strategy, you – in late June, essentially making or talking about a more targeted, strategic, surgical approach rather than using big armies.

Some former Bush administration counterterrorism officials have said the danger in that is by focusing so much on al-Qaida as a group, that it perhaps blinds this administration to the kind of ideology that could go to many – in many, many different directions and be much less focused than on one group. How do you answer?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, I think that criticism represents a misreading of the strategy because we say very clearly that al-Qaida and its affiliated groups represent the most serious threat to U.S. interests, and I don’t think there’s a debate on that. We also say, though, that there are other terrorist threats that are out there, that we need to maintain our focus on and, although we’re doing a lot against al-Qaida and their affiliated groups, we’re doing also a lot against other groups.

The fact that we have not experienced attacks at the hands of the other groups, I think, is testament to the effort that the United States has under way in many different parts of the world. So although we’re not, you know, engaged in this global war on terrorism, our counterterrorism efforts are evident in numerous places throughout the world. We’re working very closely with our Asian, African, Latin American partners. We’re trying to make sure that these terrorist threat(s) do not become more serious and they gain capability.

And I think the American people will be quite proud of what this government – when I say this government, I’m talking about since 9/11, over the last, you know, 10 years, what successive administrations have done, what the professionals within the counterterrorism community; intelligence, law enforcement, military and Homeland Security – these are Americans who work, you know, night and day, 24/7, to protect their fellow Americans. And you know, today – you know, 9/11 anniversary is a day for remembrance of the victims of 9/11, but also, I think, it’s a day to remember just the sacrifice and the services that patriotic Americans have – what they’ve done over the last decade.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, just turning some of these last questions – in fact, this whole interview – on its head, there are those who say that there’s been too much emphasis on security, that there – that the American people have been frightened too much, that there’s been even a climate of fear that has come out of Washington since 9/11. Is it possible that – is it possible, I guess I want to ask, to hype the security threat out there?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think, unfortunately, some people do hype it, and they do overreact when there is an incident – if we capture somebody, arrest somebody – and they say, oh my goodness, the system failed; look what happened; he was in Times Square or whatever. I think what we need to do is to make sure that we’re able to convey to the American people that this country is strong, we’re able to deal with these challenges, we’re a resilient nation, just like we were able to recover from the 9/11 attacks, that we’re going to face these challenges and sometimes, you know, some of these terrorists might get through the perimeter of security.

But we need to maintain our focus on them and, you know, rather than screaming for – oh my goodness, I want someone’s head to roll as a result of a – you know, a failure here, I think what we need to do is to get – take away lessons from all of these experiences, do what we can to bolster our security and move forward and, you know, set a shining example for the rest of the world about how we’re dealing with the challenge to our security in a way that respects the rule of law, but also is true to values that are not just near and dear to the American people, but I think near and dear to people throughout the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Brennan, assistant to the president, thank you very much for talking with us.

JOHN BRENNAN: Thank you, Judy.