Finding the terror needles in the domestic haystack

How do intelligence and law enforcement agencies investigate and prevent domestic terror attacks like the Orlando shooting? Judy Woodruff talks to former National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter and former FBI terrorism investigator Ali Soufan for some perspective on national counterterrorism protocols.

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    And some perspective now on how intelligence and law enforcement agencies try to find and stop people like the Orlando killer.

    We turn to two men with extensive experience in counterterrorism operations and investigations. Michael Leiter was the director the National Counterterrorism center from 2007 to 2011, during both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. And Ali Soufan was a supervisory special agent with the FBI, where he worked on both domestic and international terrorism investigations. He now runs a security and intelligence consulting business.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    Michael Leiter, to you first. Based on everything you know, how do you assess the job that the FBI and other government agencies did in looking into what they heard about Omar Mateen?

  • MICHAEL LEITER, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center:

    Well, let's start with the premise that this is a very hard job.

    As Jim Comey said today, they not only have to find needles in a haystack. They have to predict which pieces of the hay will eventually become needles. I think what Director Comey said was that they did a fair amount of information of this individual in 2014, to include running operatives against him, doing surveillance, doing electronic surveillance.

    And all of that led them to conclude that this wasn't a threat. And that really suggests to me that if there had been almost anything there at the time, other than hearsay, they would have continued the investigation. So clearly they didn't predict this one right. I think it's still too early to know whether at the time they should have done more.


    Ali Soufan, in looking at what the FBI did, we heard Director Comey they did a 10-month investigation. What would that have involved?

  • ALI SOUFAN, Former FBI Terrorism Investigator:

    Well, I think we heard from Director Comey that they put someone undercover, they put a source on the individual, they probably investigated his criminal record.

    They did probably a thorough investigation to see if he is connected to any ongoing investigation or any individuals who are suspected terrorists or are part of any investigation. They probably checked his digital footprint. They saw if he has contact with suspicious entities or terrorist entities.

    They probably looked into his phone record. And at the time, the assessment was that he is not connected. And by law, the FBI has to close that investigation. If they can't articulate that that investigation, there is probably a reasonable suspicion or probable cause to have the investigation going, then they could have had a full investigation.

    But at the time, it seems that there was no indication whatsoever that that individual was involved or connected to suspected entities.


    Michael Leiter, how much harder is it to find something on someone when they don't seem to have a single allegiance? At the end, Omar Mateen talked about ISIS, but, earlier, his co-workers had said he talked about al-Qaida.

    He mentioned the al-Nusra. He befriended a man who had gone off to fight for the al-Nusra Front. How much more difficult does that make it?


    It makes it much harder.

    We used to say the U.S. is a melting pot for a lot of reasons, including in the terrorist minds. Allegiances and dalliances that would never occur overseas because of the purity to allegiance to Hezbollah vs. ISIS would never occur, but here in the U.S., when you have a confused and clearly deranged individual, searching out almost anything, almost any ideology, any group that gives them a feeling of worth and ultimately justifies these horrendous acts of violence.

    So it makes it that much harder, because you don't have a clear path to follow. There isn't — they aren't fitting the mold that we often expect to see with other terrorist groups and individuals overseas.


    So, Ali Soufan, should there be a rethinking of these watch lists and what it takes to be on one or be taken off of one?


    Well, I think if he is a subject of an initial investigation, he is going to be on a watch list.

    And if that investigation is closed, he will be removed off the watch list. I think Michael is right in what he mentioned. We're talking about an individual, in this case, for example, who seems to be so confused.

    One day, he claims to be a member of Hezbollah, which is a Shiite organization. Another day, his family is connected to al-Qaida. And then he praised just before he was killed an individual who was a suicide bomber for al-Nusra, an entity that is not in good terms with ISIS.

    And then he gave his regards and admiration for the Boston bombers, two individuals who have nothing to do with ISIS. ISIS in this case appeared to have no idea about what this guy did. They didn't control his operation. They don't appear to be directing that operation.

    And even their alleged claim of responsibility was based on circular media, was based on what they are gathering of U.S. media regarding that operation. So now we have a case of an individual who went to do his crime and at the last second he said, oh, by the way, I am ISIS.

    And now we look at it not as a hate crime, but we're looking at it as a terrorist — rightly so, as a terrorist massacre.


    So, Michael Leiter, what does that say for future efforts on the part of investigators? Because we keep hearing that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of young people around this country, mostly young men, who may be sympathetic, may hear something in ISIS or another of these groups that they are interested in. What does it say about future efforts to ferret these people out before they do something?


    Judy, you and I have sat here after San Bernardino, after Paris. This is an incredibly hard fight.

    And we really revolutionized how we did counterterrorism post-9/11. And we have gotten so much better at working against complex plots overseas. But I think we're approaching the point where we have to seriously consider how we revolutionize counterterrorism now to optimize our ability to find these.

    And it would require huge changes. It would require a lowering of the bar to do surveillance in certain operations. That is out canning against the grain of the post-Snowden era. It would require a huge increase in resources, both for the FBI and state and local law enforcement. And it might also require diminishing the ability to obtain firearms.

    These are all big choices. And as tragic as this is, it still isn't clear to me that we have the political will to go down that path.


    How do you see that, Ali Soufan? What does it take to make the efforts of law enforcement more successful at finding these people before they act?


    Well, I think, first of all, I agree with what Michael said.

    But, since 9/11, we have been very successful tactically in combating the threat. Unfortunately, when it comes to the ideology, we haven't been that successful. We have been behind the eight-ball. We didn't do much to counter the incubating factors that is leading into this. We haven't been countering the ideology and countering the narrative as we should online.

    And I think we need to develop some kind of 21st century policing model where we can include the community inside the pipe, that they feel that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem, not to say that specific communities around the nation haven't been working very closely with law enforcement.

    For example, most of the disruptions that took place in the last few years, significant number was based on tips from the community. But I think we need to develop a 21st century policing model that includes a way to, you know, promote the idea of, if you see something, say something, in specific communities around the United States.


    Ali Soufan, Michael Leiter, we thank you both.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.

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