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john brennan

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Deputy director of the CIA under George Tenet, John Brennan headed the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and its successor, the National Counterterrorism Center, until retiring in 2005. Here, Brennan assesses America's anti-terror efforts, including improvements in information sharing, the post 9/11 government reorganization and remaining challenges -- chief among them being there is no one in charge of overall strategic anti-terror planning and implementation. Brennan also talks about the threat Al Qaeda still poses and whether a sleeper cell within the U.S. is a real danger. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted June 3, 2006.

What does [the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)] do?

The National Counterterrorism Center is the government's effort to try to put in one place experts, technology, databases, capabilities that run the gamut on the terrorism challenges facing this country. ... It has access to more data related to terrorism than any other government department or agency. ...

... What was the advance you made [at the NCTC]?

... A lot of intelligence reports are put out by individual agencies, and they're sent to different agencies. But a lot of these government agencies have a lot of internal information -- cables that they send to themselves, internal items that are not shared with others. In the NCTC, the access is to all of those individual networks, which means it has access to not only information that they share with others but [that] they have kept to themselves as well. ...

But it doesn't access local [law enforcement] files. ...

The NCTC does not have direct access to the nonfederal databases and systems. ... The U.S. government has made a lot of progress on horizontal information sharing -- the different departments and agencies are now accessing and sharing information better among them. But vertical information sharing or access -- federal information that is made available to state and local law enforcement and the reverse -- ... that system is not in place yet.

... But there's also been a problem on the other side of it. You were head of the National Counterterrorism Center -- or its predecessor [the Terrorist Threat Integration Center] -- at the time of ... information coming from the Southwest that there were some Chinese individuals who infiltrated into the United States with the design of doing a dirty bomb in Boston. That got shared pretty quickly.

Some people claim that there is in fact too much information sharing, because you share now information not just of a reliable type, but also of bogus information. ... In many respects, the nation and the federal government and others are being overwhelmed with data. You need to have a system that not only facilitates the sharing of information but can also exploit that information, filter that information, understand that information. ...

... What was the reaction, and what happened to that information?

I think there were different reactions. At the National Counterterrorism Center, we looked at the information; we were asking a lot of questions about it. ... The worst case scenario was that there was something that may have been Al Qaeda-inspired. ...

It had some specifics there, names, ... some photographs, and so when you have some specificity like that, it seems to give more credence to it than it deserves. Things happen very quickly in this environment, so ... it moved down the process, and there were people at the end ... that felt as though they had to go to battle stations. ...

But this is the cost; this is the price that we have to pay at times. There are going to be times we're going to have to go to battle stations even if the information is of dubious quality because we don't want to take that risk, because if we can save one life by taking these extra measures, we need to do that.

[Is there a] danger of being at the mercy of your enemy?

You certainly could if you do that in every instance. But a lot of times there is information that comes in where people don't go to battle stations. But as I said, that had some specificity to it, and there were some individuals that felt ... that they needed to act. But you can't overreact to every bit of information. Otherwise, you're just going to burn your resources so quickly.

Boston, Baltimore, New York subways --

Because of [five] years of no attack, it doesn't mean that we've passed the danger zone. In fact, we may be entering a more dangerous time now.

Yeah, it's constant. If our enemies really wanted to tie us up in knots, they would feed us a lot of disinformation. I think the intelligence community has gotten a lot better at identifying that which is credible and that which is not. ...

But isn't some of this fire hose of information, which includes unreliable information, being passed on because people are afraid to hold on to it, this hot potato that there may be an attack?

Right. A lot of people in a lot of agencies want to make sure that they're not going to be the one who makes the decision about whether information, even if it's unreliable, does not get passed on to others. I think that is a wrongheaded approach. ...

... You were involved in creating the terrorist watch list through the NCTC, right? ... Does it work?

It works, I think, very well. There [are] still improvements that need to be made. But prior to about two years ago or so in 2004, there were over a dozen databases in about nine different federal departments and agencies that were part of the watch-listing system. It was dysfunctional because they were not interconnected.

No organization, no architect[ure].

Right. And now there is an architecture that's in place, and the National Counterterrorism Center feeds information to the FBI-administered Terrorist Screening Center [TSC] so that airports and ports of entry and local police have access to the master watch list of all individuals who are known or suspected to be transnational terrorists.

They can call in, or it shows up in airports?

They can do an immediate search. They can just log onto the computer that they have and run the name, and all the variants will come up. It's a much more effective and efficient system now.

Even though we hear these constant complaints from people who say their name is in there because their name is the same as some other person's name.

Sure. Early on there were a lot of false positives and a lot of individuals who were pulled aside for secondary questioning, whatever. They've worked out a lot of that. There are still false positives. ... Sometimes individuals will come across a port of entry with a very similar name, similar date of birth, even similar nationality, and so therefore they are going to be pulled aside for the questioning to determine whether or not they are identifiable as the terrorist. ...

... But the other side of the coin, according to local police, is, for instance, [9/11 hijacker] Mohamed Atta was pulled over for speeding, and the cop in Florida didn't know who Mohamed Atta was. Even if he had been [on] the terrorist watch list, his computer would not have had direct access to that. ...

That's where the imperative of a national architecture is just so obvious. ... The federal government and others need to be able to pulse the system so that if an individual's name comes up, we can find out whether a Mohamed Atta, in fact, was already in Florida or in the United States. ...

... So it doesn't surprise you that New York City and its police department decided, because of all of this confusion, from their point of view, "We're going to take over for ourselves; we're going to do it on our own."

It doesn't surprise me that there are a lot of initiatives going on, whether it's the New York Police Department or other places. They have to address their own individual requirements and needs, but over time the result is going to be ... a lot of different things that are going on that are sufficiently different that they're not able to interact with one another. Can the NYPD interact the way it needs to with the Department of Homeland Security [DHS], with the FBI or with the Oregon State Police? ...

... Is it a turf problem?

Well, people could call it a turf problem. It really comes down to [the fact] that there is no overarching master plan or blueprint right now at the federal government level for how the different federal departments and agencies are going to be interacting with state, local and law enforcement agencies. ...

There's no master plan?

Well, there's no overarching master plan because of the complexity of the system. ... There's been a lot of progress -- don't get me wrong -- on the counterterrorism front. The counterterrorism community is much further advanced than any other as far as integrating information at the federal level and even with the state and locals. But you're talking about a larger system; you're talking [about] a national architecture that really needs to facilitate the flow of information. ...

Isn't that the Department of Homeland Security?

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 established the Department of Homeland Security. It gave the department a fair amount of responsibility and authority, ... but nowhere in that legislation does it take away authority or previous responsibility from another department or agency. ...

The government structures of the United States at the federal level and the state and local levels were put in place in the 20th century; ... this is now the 21st century. A lot of the departments' and agencies' and bureaus' responsibilities have not been able to keep up with the tremendous changes that have taken place in technology now. You can move at the speed of light from one coast to another coast, from the United States to abroad. ...

Are you saying that the reorganization either wasn't necessary or just wasn't done with the right plan in mind?

... What I'm saying is that there needs to be a step back: Here's a look at what the overarching landscape looks like and how these individual initiatives come together. There's still a lot of confusion at the federal level in terms of the [FBI's] responsibilities versus the Department of Homeland Security, versus the National Counterterrorism Center's and others', because the legislative initiatives that set them each up were done individually. They were not done collectively.

... You've written that there was basically an overreaction in this reorganization. Is that what you think happened here?

... There was about four months or so that was used to draft up the ... Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 that set up the Office of the Director of National Intelligence [ODNI] and others. Four months in drafting legislation on something as complex as the intelligence community was not nearly enough time to understand the problem, and so a number of the changes that were put in place did not take into account the complexity of the system. ...

The question I hear from people out there is, "Who's in charge?"

Well, that's a good question. The director of national intelligence [DNI], John Negroponte, is in charge, at least according to legislation. But he needs to exert the muscles that [were] given to him in the legislation; I feel he's starting to do that. There's been a lot of expansion of the Department of Defense's intelligence responsibilities over the last year, some of it very worthwhile because [of] their needs [as] the war fighters. But I think there are also a lot of areas the Department of Defense is moving into that [are] inappropriate, in fact, for defense to encroach [upon]. ...

... The Pentagon activities -- that's part of what you see as everybody being [in] the battle without an overall strategy?

Yes. Everybody is trying to do their best to harness their capabilities and resources to uncover the terrorist target that is out there, so I don't fault them, whether it's DoD or FBI or Homeland Security or others. They really want to do everything they can. The problem is, though, that there is not this overarching game plan that they're all operating within. And so, as DoD moves forward with an initiative, frequently they'll bump into an FBI initiative or program or capability or a DHS system or network. There needs to be an overarching blueprint that is all going to come together on it, and right now there isn't. ...

... Are we safer today?

You know, "safer" is a relative term. What do we know? Right now we have a much better ability to detect individuals who are trying to cross our borders. We have a much better ability to monitor the activities of Al Qaeda members overseas because we're working much more collaboratively with other national services, intelligence and law enforcement agencies worldwide.

There's been a lot of progress. From that perspective, we have certainly enhanced the security measures and safeguards that are in place. Are we safer? That depends on whether or not there is some type of operational activity out there that has moved forward and is in the process of being developed and deployed. I don't know.

I hope that there's not. I hope that there's no operational activity going on. I am convinced, though, that Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda sympathizers and allies and associates worldwide have things under way. Are some of those plans destined for the United States? I bet you there are individuals who are plotting right now to carry out attacks.

... The Bush administration says there hasn't been an attack in the last five years, and these reforms and other things we've done are the reason there hasn't been another attack.

We are very fortunate that there hasn't been a repeat of 9/11, because there has been some tremendously good work done by all the different elements involved in intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement. They really have done a very good job. The United States is much more of an inhospitable environment for Al Qaeda to operate [in] now than it was prior to 9/11.

However, our concept of time is different than Al Qaeda['s]. Al Qaeda continues to hearken back to the Crusades. They look at things in terms of decades or centuries or even millennia. The fact that there hasn't been an attack in the U.S. homeland since 2001 is a relatively short period of time. Al Qaeda means "the foundation." [Osama] bin Laden, when he set up Al Qaeda in the late '80s and early '90s, really saw it as being the wellspring from which the future Islamic fighters would be able to reclaim the caliphate, whether it's this decade or next decade or next century.

... Is part of the problem that we haven't explained to people that, while we lost a battle on 9/11 and we've won many since then, that sooner or later, we're going to lose one?

I'm not somebody who says, "It's not a question of if; it's a question of when." I think that every day when we get through without an attack, it is a victory. I like to think that we're going to have day after day of victories. There may be an attack in the future -- it's not a certainty. If we do our jobs, if we do what we need to do to stop these types of attacks from taking place, we're going to keep the American public safe. But we need to make sure the American people understand that this is not something that's going to go away tomorrow, and because of [five] years of no attack, it doesn't mean that we have passed the danger zone.

In fact, we may be entering a more dangerous time now. There may be operational activities going on that we're totally unaware of. I was very concerned about what happened in London in July of [2005], the railway attacks that resulted in several dozen deaths, when four individuals who were U.K. citizens, born and raised in Leeds, carried out attacks against the British subway system. They were under the radar screen of the British police. ...

That could be happening here in the United States. Something could be taking place in a small town or city in the Midwest or in the Northeast [among] individuals who have decided, for whatever reason, that they're going to carry out an attack, that they're going to blow themselves up because of what Al Qaeda stands for.

You mean the enemy is among us.

It could be. The enemy very well may be within our midst, because bin Laden's message and his threat is not just who he can send to the United States and deploy to carry out an attack. It's to encourage, to energize, to activate ... extremist Islamic sentiments, to carry out acts on his behalf. ...

... A lot of the American Muslims that we talked to are pretty alienated with some of the cases that have been made, some of the publicity about their community.

It's very unfortunate that there may have been some heavy-handed measures in the aftermath of 9/11, because we didn't know what we faced here. If there were actions that were taken that shouldn't have been taken against American Muslims, then that's a real problem, and we should not do that.

But it is clear that Islamic extremism is a force that has manifested itself in many different parts of the world -- in Europe, in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, in Central Asia, in Africa and in the United States. As a result of what's going on in Iraq, a lot of the sentiments among those Islamic extremists have become more emboldened and more anti-U.S., so therefore, it's not a question of profiling; it's a question of making sure that we're going to be vigilant, to make sure that those individuals and groups that are dedicated to cause us harm are not going to be able to do that. ...

... The bureau has said there hasn't been a cell structure or a network uncovered in the U.S. -- maybe individuals. [The] real danger may be homegrown groups similar to London. Would you agree with that?

You know, the term "sleeper cell" is an interesting one. I've heard people say there have been no sleeper cells identified in the United States. Well, a sleeper cell by definition is sleeping; it is awaiting instruction, direction, authorization. So I believe that there are some individuals here in the United States that are operating on behalf of Al Qaeda. ...

The biggest threat would be something like a WMD [weapons-of-mass-destruction] attack of some kind?

That's the concern that keeps me up at night at times [and] when I was the head of the National Counter[terrorism] Center: what I didn't know; what our intelligence might not have been able to detect; what might be going on in some laboratory here in the United States. We saw what happened with anthrax in the month after 9/11 and how that gripped this country into a panic.

There are certain scenarios when you think about weapons of mass destruction ... that can really cause mass panic in the United States, which would have devastating economic consequences, devastating political and other consequences. ... The real potential damage is just mind-boggling as far as the scale. 9/11 was a tragedy; it was awful, but there's a lot worse that Al Qaeda could do. ...

... Let's talk about what we do know. Any evidence that anyone has tried to import fissile material into the United States or acquired any in the United States for that purpose?

Well, we know that Al Qaeda has made attempts to acquire these materials.

No evidence that any has entered the U.S. or is in the U.S.?

Not to my knowledge.

Any biological material or element of a biological weapon?

Not to my knowledge.

Is it possible that Al Qaeda just, in a sense, used up its capacity on 9/11?

It certainly is possible, and I hope that's the case. If I were to be a betting person, I'd say they probably have been frustrated in their efforts. But the world is a big place; there are a lot of Al Qaeda elements out there in different parts of the world. It doesn't take a lot right now to fabricate those materials. ...

... [9/11 Commissioner] Tom Kean now reads that counterterrorism [as defined] by the FBI includes animal rights groups, prison gangs, various organizations of different kinds. He's concerned that we're losing our focus on this international conspiracy, that it's become a political tool.

It very well may have become a political tool, because a lot of individuals have their own sort of pet projects that they want to pursue. ... What are the parameters of terrorism? Who qualifies as a terrorist? Is it just Al Qaeda? Is it an Iraqi national who picks up arms against the coalition forces out there? Is it an animal rights activist who carries out attacks against British targets? Terrorism is a convenient catchall phrase right now that is used, and I think we really have to have some distinctions between the different types. ...

You're not a supporter of the phrase "war on terror"?

I don't like the term "war on terrorism." There is a military aspect to the counterterrorism effort; I think there should be a global campaign against terrorism and terrorist attacks.

[I] make the analogy to pollution: There are a lot of things that are downstream that kill you; the pollutants themselves, those are the terrorists. But pollution is caused by upstream factors and conditions. There has been a spawning of more and more terrorists over the past decade. Why? There are a lot of upstream conditions where there's economic discontent, political disenfranchisement, ideological reasons, other types of things that are fostering the growth of terrorism and terrorists. ...

Since 9/11, we've been focused downstream. We've been shooting those terrorists that have gotten down that can kill us. We've been stopping them in their tracks. But we have to look upstream and stop those factors that are contributing to that continual supply. ...

... Have we been playing into bin Laden's hands with some of our policies?

In some respects, you would think that it's not going that badly from his perspective, from an ideological perspective. Right now in the Middle East and a large part of the world, there are no competing ideologies or isms to Islamic political extremism. ... Right now in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia, if you are a young, deprived Muslim, what do you gravitate toward? You gravitate toward a religious ideology that provides you some hope for the future. ... So I think the United States needs to be looking much long[er] term to see how we can counter that ideology of Islamic extremism, which is a growing one. It is a cancer that has metastasized worldwide, including here in the United States.

[Is it that the] image of the United States is feeding terrorism?

The image of the United States abroad cannot be a military image. Unfortunately, if you go in the Middle East right now and you're watching CNN, whatever else, you see U.S. troops, and the impression that a lot of folks have is that this is an attempt by the United States to occupy, colonize or pacify the Iraqi people. ...

I never had any problem going through the Middle East in the '70s and '80s and '90s because the sentiment was sort of positive. Over the past half dozen years or so, the sentiment in the Middle East has been a much more negative one toward the United States, because we're viewed as almost imposing our will. This is where I think, again, the forces of Islamic extremism have really been able to tap into that anti-U.S. sentiment. The United States has a long way to go to repair its image and to get back to the way it was viewed as rebuilding Europe after World War II. ...

... We've used the blunt force of the U.S. government to address this problem.

That's absolutely right; we have. We've used the blunt force of the United States government to address the post-9/11 terrorist threat. Unfortunately, we've used the blunt force of the government, in some respects, to perpetuate the threat.

... How do you determine the difference between ideological discussion, sympathy, support possibly or naive collaboration in some way?

Very difficult to determine. Obviously, the individuals who carried out the attacks in the London subway, at some point, their discussions among themselves ... matured all the way to actually becoming suicide bombers. So when does it actually move from discussion or thought to actual operational activity? It varies. No two operational activities or attacks, terrorist attacks, are exactly alike. The Madrid attacks went through all the trimesters in a period of about six weeks; it moved very, very quickly. ... The 9/11 attacks, though, took several years, in fact, to mature and to develop. ...

... In the Lodi case, the officials announced this case as the "presence of Al Qaeda in the Central Valley" in California. Then the director of national intelligence cited this case as some kind of Islamic extremist conspiracy. Would you call that overhyping?

I don't know exactly the words they used. Government officials have to be very careful about not even unintentionally exaggerating the nature of the information or the threat. ... Terrorism itself can be a rallying cry for political purposes, and I don't think that we should hype the threat in order to gain political advantage in any way; [I don't think] anybody should do that. There is a legitimate concern about terrorism. However, you don't want to overhype it, and I think there has been some of that over the past couple of years. ...

You were in the government when government officials said that there was a danger of a dirty bomb being set off in the United States, and we had apprehended this individual. That scared people. Now they're not charging anybody; it isn't what it seemed to be.

That's why words have to be chosen very carefully in terms of whether somebody was actually planning to carry it out, whether there was information related to a possible threat, whether it is information obtained from a dubious source. It has to be put in a proper context, because if it is just whittled down to a one-line statement, it can mislead the American public. ...

... The FBI says that to prevent future acts of terrorism, ... they have to find the people in the communities who have the sympathy, who might do something. There's a fine line there between entrapment, freedom of expression and dangerous activity.

Yeah, there is going to be a fine line for many years to come. The fact that such devastating terrorist attacks can be carried out by a small group of people, even one person really, has forced the bureau and other organizations to do everything they can to uncover it, at whatever cost. But at the same time, they're trying not to violate one's individual rights and privacy.

... Terrorism crosses the border into the U.S. How do you balance the issues of privacy and civil liberties in a terrorism world where U.S. persons are involved?

For many years, there was a real distinction between how terrorism cases were handled and how criminal cases were handled in the United States. The FBI obviously pursues investigations against U.S. persons involved in criminal activity without any real problem, but they still have to follow the rule of law, and they have certain rules and regulations that they have to abide by.

Terrorism is something that is sort of new to the shores of the United States, and therefore there was always a concern that intelligence, national intelligence and particularly the CIA and the National Security Agency [NSA] should not turn [their] collection activities inward to the United States. Now, since 9/11, there needed to be a better balance to make sure that our capabilities are utilized in order to identify what terrorist threats might exist within the United States.

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posted oct. 10, 2006

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