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Amid Heightened Security Fears, U.S. Faces a ‘Battle of Ideas’

December 23, 2010 at 5:08 PM EDT
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Parcel bombs went off at two embassies in Rome Thursday, heightening fears of terrorism attacks during the holiday season. Margaret Warner talks to former CIA official John McLaughlin and counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke for more.
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MARGARET WARNER: For an assessment of all this, we turn to John McLaughlin, who served as the CIA’s deputy director and then acting director earlier in the decade. He now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism adviser in the Clinton and early George W. Bush administrations, he is now a consultant.

Welcome back to the program, both of you.

How serious is the terrorism threat to Americans today, beginning with you, John McLaughlin, as compared to a year ago?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, former acting CIA director: I think it remains very serious, in the sense that, if you just look over the last year or so, we have seen increasing involvement by American citizens in terrorist plots.

We know that al-Qaida affiliates in particular in places like Yemen are actively plotting and have had some success. The package bomb threat that you referred to, all of this, I think, means that we still are very much in jeopardy here.

MARGARET WARNER: Very much in jeopardy. And do you see the threat evolving, though, in this way?

RICHARD CLARKE, former U.S. counter-terrorism official: The threat is evolving.

As John said, we’re now getting these self-actuated Americans who reach out and try to get in touch with al-Qaida, and sometimes do get in touch. Sometimes, they get in touch with the FBI pretending to be al-Qaida.

If you look at the number of times that’s happened this year, it’s very alarming. And that’s new. And you also have now more than just al-Qaida. You have Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Even al-Qaida in Iraq, the remnants of that were involved in the attack last week in Sweden.

So, there are multiple strands, and they all want to attack either in Western Europe or in the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when the Iraqi officials gave this warning, which they said was based on captured insurgents, they said they were — somebody was plotting a Mumbai-style attack, a big, spectacular one.

Do you think that’s still within the capability of al-Qaida, or is the threat now from sort of multiple smaller-scale ones?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: It’s both.

The Mumbai attacks in 2008 were probably the most significant terrorist attack of the last — since 9/11, I would say. This is a case where 10 people for 60 hours held many people hostage, 170-something people died, more than 500 injured and wounded.

So, al-Qaida looks at that and says — and other groups look at it and say, that was a — a low-cost, very effective attack. It got a lot of attention. And, of significance, an American citizen was heavily involved in that. David Headley was someone who carried out a lot of the reconnaissance for that attack between 2006 and 2008.

So, that’s an attack that’s worth looking at from our standpoint. How do they operate? What do they do? And from their standpoint, I think we have to take seriously the likelihood that they will try this in Europe, and possibly in the United States, although I’m not aware of any particular information that — that says that’s about to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: How good a handle do the FBI and other U.S. government entities have on this new phenomenon — not new, but growing phenomenon, of homegrown radical — radicalized Americans, often of foreign descent?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, so far, they have had a very good handle on it, but it doesn’t take much for one to get by them.

And you can’t expect them to catch all of these plots. They have had a remarkable record this year of catching plots. But the point that al-Qaida is making is: We, the al-Qaida, can do small things that cost a little bit of money, and you, the United States, have to react massively, and it costs you hundreds of millions of dollars.

And so they do the shoe bomb, we react. They do the underwear bomb, we react. They do the parcel, the FedEx-UPS bomb, we react.

MARGARET WARNER: From Yemen, yes.

RICHARD CLARKE: A lot of what John Brennan was talking about, these great new improvements, are all reactive to those kinds of plots. They’re not proactive.

And al-Qaida is right. They do a small thing — none of those attacks, by the way, succeeded. And despite the fact that none of them succeeded, we’re all inconvenienced in airports, and the taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let’s turn to those enhancements. And I know you’ve both taken a look at these. And we know about things that are very visible, like the TSA screening.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Sure.

MARGARET WARNER: But what about all these measures they talked about, improved information-sharing…

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: … something called pursuit groups?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us a flavor of what these are and how significant you think they are.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well…

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think — do you agree they’re just reactive, as Richard Clarke says?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, they’re reactive in the sense that the community, the intelligence business, the intelligence profession, has really gone to school on these attacks, particularly when there’s been a close call, like the underwear bomber last December.

I actually carried out a study for the DNI on that particular attack over last winter. And a lot of these enhancements result from that and the study done by the Senate and the study done by some — by the community itself as it looked at these.

Pursuit groups, let me just pick out one or two. Pursuit groups, what that is , is a group of people whose job it is to take these little fragments of intelligence we get which are not very revealing, but which suggest that something is about to happen, and then start pulling the strings on those, that is, asking themselves: How can we learn more? How can we task that information? How can we illuminate that and expand it to understand more fully what’s about to happen here?

So, that’s something that’s a direct result of the Christmas attempt last year, which was marked by the fact that there was a lot of fragmentary information which, had it been put together, would have led to an action to prevent that from occurring. So, that’s what that is about.

MARGARET WARNER: And a related item was improved — enhanced procedures dealing with these watch lists. Now, what does that consist of?

RICHARD CLARKE: It’s back to this business of data-sharing and getting analysis right.

But it’s all reactive. It’s all defensive. And where we really should be putting our attention is going on the offensive. It’s 10 years after 9/11, and we’re still worrying about al-Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what do you mean “on the offensive”?

RICHARD CLARKE: So, there are two ways to do offense. One is fighting the ideological struggle, the battle of ideas. And we’re not doing a very good job of that.

Obviously, people, even in the United States, are being persuaded by al-Qaida’s propaganda. And there’s no propaganda counterweight yet, an effective counterweight. We can play defensive games until the cows come home. If we don’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t go on the offensive in other ways, it’s just a matter of time until one of these attempts succeeds.

MARGARET WARNER: But, in the meantime, as people are looking at the holiday season, they do want these defensive measures in place as well.

RICHARD CLARKE: Of course. Of course.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think these are an improvement?

For instance, Secretary Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, said on ABC this week, if the same set of circumstances existed with Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, he would not — how did she put it — he would be stopped from getting on that plane in Amsterdam to Detroit.

And she wasn’t talking about body scanners. Is that right? Is the info-sharing at least that airtight now?

RICHARD CLARKE: It’s better.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: It’s better.

I would have a little less certitude on that question. I think she has a point. What I — the way I would say it is that, if we had today the information that we had then on that individual, that person would get a much closer look.

Going to Dick’s point, though, there’s no formula for perfection here. They would get a much closer look, and I think the chances are genuinely increased of catching those people. But no one would argue that one won’t get through.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, very briefly, is cargo still an Achilles’ heel here?

RICHARD CLARKE: It is. They have done a better job, reactively, because there was an attempt. It’s a little bit better, but it’s still not fully secure.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s still a hole in the system.

All right, Richard Clarke and John McLaughlin, thank you both, and happy holidays.