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November 15, 2019

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What dangers could terror threats abroad pose to the US?

John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington for more on what the overseas terror threats could mean for life in the United States.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We want to go much more deeply now into the extent of the terror threat overseas and examine what dangers it poses here in the United States.

    For more about that, we are joined now from Washington by John McLaughlin. He was the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency for nearly four years.

    So, as we continue to learn more about how this attack unfolded, the kind of training these individuals had, what should the U.S. be concerned about?

  • JOHN MCLAUGHLIN:

    Well, I think what we have here that should concern us is that there are a larger number of people in the extremist movement now with western passports than at any time in history.

    Look at just Europe alone; there are more than 1,200 Frenchmen there. There are something like 500 Germans, 300 or 400 from the U.K., and that's the tip of the iceberg. And we don't know how many Americans. Perhaps 100 to 200 Americans, are the figures I have seen, somehow involved with the jihad in Syria and Iraq.

    What that means is that there is unprecedented potential for movement toward the United States and, of course, into Europe as well by passport holders who can move freely among the 27 countries of the European Union and as European Union members in most cases be able to come to the United States without a visa.

    So, that imposes on the United States and our intelligence services, our border controls and so forth, a very high standard for detecting movement into and out of this country.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, isn't there — I'm sorry.

  • JOHN MCLAUGHLIN:

    Let's go ahead. No, go ahead.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Wouldn't the United States know who some of these people are and sort of be able to sort of cross-check against a couple of lists saying, OK, this is a German passport holder but he's been in an area in Yemen that is known to have terrorist training camps?

  • JOHN MCLAUGHLIN:

    Yes, we're pretty good at that. The thing I would say, though, is that we are dealing here with thousands of people.

    Now, that said, I think we have probably the best — what's called a watch listing system in the world.

    That is to say, who is not authorized to get on airplanes, who should we be concerned about if not to prevent them from getting on planes, to pull them out of line if we know they are there and do some secondary questioning for them.

    We spent so much time on that since 9/11 that we have a very finely-tuned system for that, as you may have noticed now.

    A couple of these individuals in France were on our no-fly list, so had they gotten on an airplane and come to the United States, in many cases now, we have arrangements with airports overseas to have the manifests of planes traveling here, someone would have picked them out from those manifests as people that we needed to catch at the airport for further questioning.

    So, we are pretty good at that, but what I — the caveat I would say is, we are talking here about an enormous volume of people in a field of intelligence, counter — rather, counter-terrorism, that is, in my experience, the most labor intensive part of intelligence. \

    It's not like estimating a large conventional military force.

    The big change here that I would since say since, say, the Cold War is back then we had to look for very big things in the world — bombers, submarines, whole army groups.

    Now, we have to look for very small things — a single person, a bomb in a suitcase, a liquid on a plane. The requirements are much higher and the potential for someone slipping through is very high.

    And we have some incidents of this in our country, attempted bombing of New York — Times Square in New York and so forth.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what sorts of resources are we talking about? Is the United States equipped to try to make that net as tight as possible?

  • JOHN MCLAUGHLIN:

    Well, we are. But, again, I would have to say, you know, expect someone to get through here.

    I think we are now in an era where the new normal is this kind of attack, and most intelligence specialists will tell you to expect something like this to happen in the United States at some point.

    Now, what we do to stop that, to minimize the chances? Well, the first requirement I think out of the events in Paris is for much closer — we already have close consultation with these intelligence services — but for much closer and tighter sharing of information among intelligence services about everything.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Isn't that already happening?

  • JOHN MCLAUGHLIN:

    Yes, it's already happening, but you always have to look at it in the aftermath of something like this.

    I did a study for the director of national intelligence after the failed Christmas bomber in 2009 and 2010, and, of course, by then our consultation with other services was dramatically better than it was at the time of 9/11, but there were still some barriers that we recommended be removed.

    I suspect there are still some seams, what I would call them as seams, that is where one set of authority bumps up against another set of authorities.

    The simplest example is in the United States where the CIA is not permitted to operate within the United States legally. The FBI is. That's a seam. So, we work very hard to build bridges across that seam quite successfully.

    So, you have equivalent seams that exist among foreign intelligence services, say, an intelligence service in Europe gets information from another service in Europe.

    Can that service then give that information from a second service to us? Or do they first have to go back and ask the service from which they got it?

    Those are the kind of seams that we ought to attack now. We are very good at this but I think in the aftermath of something like this, you always take another look and say, what happened here that we can improve? And I'm sure we're going to do that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. So, the head of the MI5 recently said that, you know, he is concerned with the increasingly level of threat and the decreasing amount of the capability or capacity he has to deal with those threats. That's got to be somewhat similar in the U.S. as well.

    But that sort of intel speak, break that down for a U.S. audience — how is it they see these threats and can't seem to fight them or keep up?

  • JOHN MCLAUGHLIN:

    It's a simple matter of volume. The volume of threat has gone up dramatically in the last four years, five years, in part for a whole variety of complex reasons.

    Terrorists now have the largest safe haven they have had in over a decade when you look at the area in the — essentially, the Middle East and North Africa and the large ungoverned spaces.

    So, many things are behind it, but the volume of people participating in jihadist operations is much greater.

    So, in order to surveil someone, and many commentaries have made this point in recent days, it takes anywhere between a dozen and 30 people to do 24-hour surveillance on an individual so that they don't detect someone surveilling them. So, it's a simple matter of volume, and you have so many — only so many intelligence officers. You know, I would say when you compare the numbers of intelligence officers to the numbers of jihadists for a country like Britain, they are far outnumbered.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right.

  • JOHN MCLAUGHLIN:

    I mean, they have maybe 500 cases that they're working at any given time at a very fine level of detail.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA — thanks so much for joining us.

  • JOHN MCLAUGHLIN:

    You bet.

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