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White House top priority on raids: Go after those who ‘seek to do us harm’

October 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Two raids in Africa over the weekend resulted in the capture of an al-Qaida leader, now being questioned by U.S. military. Jeffrey Brown sits down with White House Counterterrorism Adviser Lisa Monaco to discuss the standard for determining terrorist threats and whether or not Libyan officials were consulted prior to the raid.

JEFFREY BROWN: We discussed the raid in Libya and its aftermath with President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco. Welcome to you.

In his press conference today, the president said where we’ve got active plots and active networks, we’re going to go after them. Was there an active, imminent threat in the case of al-Libi?

LISA MONACO, White House counterterrorism adviser: Well, I think, Jeff, what you saw here was a demonstration of the incredible professionalism of the men and women of the armed forces in conducting the raid that occurred over the weekend. And al-Libi did pose a threat to the United States as a senior al-Qaida member and somebody who is also charged in an indictment for his role as part of the al-Qaida worldwide conspiracy.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the questions that arises in a case like – is there a clear standard in determining when the U.S. goes into another country like this?

LISA MONACO: Well, I think these determinations are always made with great care, but also with the appreciation for the incredible precision and dedication that our armed forces and our – in fact, our entire national security and intelligence community brings to these operations. And the standard is one to go after those who would seek to do us harm. And what you saw in the case of the al-Libi raid was, frankly, the unrelenting focus of the United States government to go after and to not forget, no matter how long it takes, to go after those who would seek to do us harm.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so was it more for the past – what he had done in the past that he was indicted for, or was it for some kind of imminent threat that he was involved in?

LISA MONACO: Well, I think with the case of al-Libi, he certainly poses a threat and did pose a threat. He’s now in the custody of the United States military. But he did pose a threat as a senior member of al-Qaida, but he also, as has been said and has been demonstrated, is a charged al-Qaida member.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s being held on the ship. Today you had Libya’s prime minister say that he should be tried in Libya. You’ve had Republicans say he should be sent to Guantanamo. We’ve seen civil libertarian groups say he should be read his Miranda rights and treated as a – as a criminal under U.S. criminal law. What exactly is his status?

LISA MONACO: His status right now is that he’s being held by the United States military consistent with the laws of wars and with the authorization for the use of military force. What this raid demonstrated and what this operation demonstrated is our top priority is to go after those who do pose a threat and who do – who do – who do seek to do us harm, but also to always first, if we can, capture and obtain intelligence from those individuals.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you expect him to be – to be brought to trial in United States?

LISA MONACO: So I’m not going to get ahead of that process. But what I will say is that our first priority is to get intelligence from him. And as we’ve seen in other operations of this kind, as with Warsami, who you may remember, was also captured by our armed forces in a very professional raid there as well, that our goal is to get intelligence, and then ultimately to prosecute the individual.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I ask you because there’s obviously this question now about whether it’s a kind of legal limbo to keep him on a ship in international waters, avoiding Guantanamo on the one hand, avoiding U.S. courts on the other. Is this a set strategy of the U.S. government now?

LISA MONACO: Well, I think what it shows is a very clear strategy by the U.S. government to use all the tools, frankly, in our toolbox to disrupt threats, to go after, consistent with the rule of law, individuals who pose a threat, to get intelligence and then ultimately to make a decision about what the best disposition is for that individual and to prosecute and hold people accountable, no matter how long it takes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one of the lingering questions in this case is did the U.S. have the cooperation, support and/or backing of the Libyan government in the raid?

LISA MONACO: Well, Jeff, we always consult with nations with whom we have strategic relationships, as we do with the government of Libya. I think what you saw today is Prime Minister Zeidan made statement that he values the relationship with the United States and that the United States is a supporter of the – of the Libyan people, as we are. And we will continue to be so, to help them build their capacity to address security challenges.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m not sure how to read that, though. Before the raid, was there the OK or the support from the Libyans?

LISA MONACO: Jeff , I think – I’m not going to get into our consultations that happen in – all over the work with partners and with other governments. But what I will say is that we support and will continue to support the strategic relationship we have with the Libyan government.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And what’s the situation now? There have been threats on social media from Libya and North Africa about reprisals.

LISA MONACO: Well, it’s always a concern. And I think you’ve seen the president has talked about this, about the diffuse and diverse threat that we face. And it’s one that we will continue to go after and we will not stop from that. But it is also one that we have to face with a multitude of tools, whether it’s direct action and capture operations like you saw over the weekend, whether it’s with the use of lethal force when no other tool is capable to be used, or when it’s working in partnership with other governments and building capacity; we’re going to use all those tools.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And I do want to ask you about the raid in Somalia, which did not – which did not get the target. Is there any more information about whether he was involved in the Nairobi mall killings?

LISA MONACO: He was not involved in that.

JEFFREY BROWN:  He was not?

LISA MONACO: And there was not that information. And this – and this – we have no information that he was involved in that – in that attack, and this raid was not conducted based on the Westgate Mall attack. I think, there, again, that’s an example of the incredible precision and professionalism of our armed forces and the restraint that they showed, as the Department of Defense has talked about, with tremendous care for not inflicting civilian casualties.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Is that – is that in fact what happened, that they ran into more than expected civilians and pulled back?

LISA MONACO: I think what – as the Department of Defense has said, they undertook this operation to go after an al-Shabab commander, and ultimately, they made the decision to disengage, and it was a decision made and an operation that was undertaken with tremendous precision and care.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me just ask you finally – briefly – how should Americans understand the terrorism threat now in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa? Do these groups have the capability of acting beyond their region, including reaching to the U.S.?

LISA MONACO: Well, Jeff, that’s something we’re always going to be concerned about. I think what we have seen – and the president talked about it today – is groups that may have a regional focus, but we have to be concerned, ultimately, always about their ability to go after our interests and our personnel and our facilities in that part of the world but also their ability to project a threat against the United States, and we will continue to go after that threat.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re not sure yet – you’re not saying or you’re not sure right now about whether they have that capability?

LISA MONACO: Well, we’re always going to be concerned about that, certainly the threat that groups can pose to our personnel and our interests within a particular region, the region of East Africa, as well as their ability to project to the homeland.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Lisa Monaco, White House counterterrorism adviser. Thanks so much.

LISA MONACO: Thanks for having me.