How Safe Are We?

Three national security insiders share their perspectives.

The timing of our meeting was no accident. Ten years had passed since planes slammed into the World Trade Center and, just across the river from us, headlong into the Pentagon. Three months had passed since a group of Navy Seals brought a cathartic close to the nation’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. It was time to take stock: After spending billions of dollars in national security infrastructure, waging two bloody conflicts in faraway lands and enduring endless airport security scans, was America any safer?

We met on a muggy night in Washington, D.C., at the finely appointed Pennsylvania Avenue offices of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank dedicated to precisely this topic. Present were three alums whose lives were reshaped by the events of September 11. William Lynn ’76 had just announced these would be the final days of his tenure as the U.S. deputy secretary of defense, the second-highest-ranking official in the Pentagon. Rand Beers ’64, who has advised five presidents on sensitive questions about terrorism and international affairs, now serves as under secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in charge of protecting the nation’s physical infrastructure and its cybergrid. Our host was Nathaniel Fick ’99, CNAS CEO, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and author of One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer.

DAM: I thought we could start with you, Bill, telling us where you were and what you thought when you heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed.

Lynn: I was at home. I was aware of the operation. I was aware that we’d found a compound that we suspected was bin Laden or, probably better stated, for which we didn’t have another explanation. It was all circumstantial that it was bin Laden. [Our intelligence analysts] couldn’t get the right angle on the satellites to get a real shot of him. They went through everything: Could it have been Zawahiri? Could it have been a drug kingpin? And so the president made the decision to go forward. It was obviously uneasy. I was very happy they had backup helicopters.

DAM: And when you heard that it was him?

Lynn: Well, it’s a turning point on the war on terror. As it’s turned out, he had more of an operational role than we realized or expected. So it’s a huge step forward, but it’s not the end.

DAM: Do you think that one man was that important to the war on terror?

Beers: The community has always said, “Don’t overemphasize the importance of a single individual.” But if you want to pick a single individual who is the most important individual, I think people would say, if only from a symbolic perspective, it would be bin Laden. The conventional wisdom was that he was not, day-to-day, involved in operations, providing advice. The presumption [was] that he was basically in hiding and wasn’t able to communicate. But we discovered through the exploitation of material afterwards, and also by the courier process through which we found him, that in fact he was.

DAM: The library, the trove: How important has that been?

Beers: There’s a lot of information there. I think we’ve said for some time that there wasn’t any specific operational information that came out of it, but a lot of insight into how the organization worked: Who were the key actors in it? What were the themes people thought about? And what was bin Laden’s role in the overall organization after the dispersal of Al Qaeda following the Afghan invasion?

Lynn: I think it’s usually the case in intelligence—or almost always—you never find a notebook that has a list of all the operations that they’re about to do and a list of all the people and their home addresses and you just go pick them up. What you get is information that you build on and I think this gave us information about the context, about how they operate, about how they communicate. When you combine it with this whole store of other information, it incrementally gets you closer to closing more avenues they use to conduct attacks.

DAM: Nate, what is the next major threat, the successor to Al Qaeda? Or is Al Qaeda still a major threat?

Fick: I’m not quite ready to take my eye off this particular ball—or to spike the proverbial football—but it did feel pretty good that night, I have to say. I had just gotten off an airplane, so I missed the president’s speech, but I got a call from a Marine buddy I had served with in Afghanistan in 2001 and went out on the front porch and had a scotch and relished the moment. The next night I went out with a SEAL friend who ordered his bourbon “bin Laden style.” I don’t know if that term has entered the vernacular yet, but it’s two shots and a splash of water. I guess I maintain the position that there are more individuals, more non-state actors both good and bad capable of having global impact. And the barriers to entry to high-end capability are falling.

DAM: Bill, do you think the military is nimble enough to transition to these new threats? The lone-wolf threats?

Lynn: I think we’re nimble enough if we know what the threat is. I think that is the hard part. We have—as [former Defense Secretary] Bob Gates has talked about—essentially a perfect record in predicting where we’re going to see a conflict next. That is, we’ve never gotten it right. And if you look at almost any conflict we fought in the last 25 years, you look a year out; you wouldn’t have any idea that we were going to do that. Iraq may be an exception to that, because Bush kind of telegraphed it. Other than that, look at Afghanistan, Panama, Grenada, Desert Storm: All of them, if you were year out, even a few months out, you would [not have predicted]. We used to have a world where there was linearity in the threats. The most sophisticated nation states had the most destructive capabilities, and as you worked your way down the food chain there were people who had evil intentions, but they didn’t have the same capabilities. Now the people at the bottom end of the food chain can have enormous capabilities. In the cyberworld a couple of dozen guys in flip-flops drinking Red Bull can develop quite a suite of capabilities.

DAM: How do you like our chances against another African immigrant with a bomb in his underpants?

Beers: Well, I think that the fact that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula ended up having a global reach capability was a surprise to us. We saw them talk about it aspirationally. But December 25, 2009, was really a wake-up call that there was another important actor who was not the main Al Qaeda—and that we were going to have to pay attention to them.

DAM: What keeps you up at night, Bill? What are the threats that worry you the most?

Lynn: Well, the one that has been most focused on: the cyberthreat. As I said, I think it’s asymmetric in terms of our vulnerability. We haven’t seen a full development of this threat. Despite all the attention in the last few months that people pay to Google and NASDAQ and the other intrusions—in fact these are fairly modest. These are basically exploitations. They’re theft.

DAM: There’s been no cyber 9/11?

Lynn: There’s been no 9/11. What we haven’t yet seen—but the capabilities exist—are truly destructive attacks. Attacks that would destroy things. Attacks that would actually kill people. That is possible. The tools exist.

DAM: What would that look like?

Lynn: You could take a power grid down. You can take an air traffic control system down. Trains are automated, you could do all sorts of things. It’s hard to know exactly where it’s going to come. But the capabilities exist. And we haven’t seen anything like that yet, partly because the threat—the capabilities—largely are resident in sophisticated nation-states. But these capabilities are going to move. They’re going to move to rogue states and they’re going to move to terrorist groups. And when they do you’re going to have a merge of capability and intent that I think we have to be very fearful of. What keeps me awake at night is that merge of cyber capability and intent to truly do us harm.

DAM: Nate, is that the same threat you see?

Fick: Well, I’m not in government, so my 18-month-old keeps me up at night. But I do agree with [Rand and Bill]. What can the kinetic attack look like? Look at a pipeline explosion or look at opening a dam or closing a dam. I can remotely control the computer in your car. I can pin your accelerator to the floor. I can disable your brakes. We don’t think of it in these terms, but in addition to the Internet there are all of the network devices that talk to one another. Your refrigerator talks, perhaps, to the manufacturer with updates on how its cooling motor is functioning.

DAM: You don’t think Al Qaeda wants to get into my icebox, do you?

Fick: No. I certainly don’t want to be alarmist. You’re talking to three people who work at places that have either defense or security in their name. When we talk about these issues we need to keep in mind some propensities for error. My view is that policy makers within a government often fall prey to one or more of these. We tend to overreact in the sense that people in positions of responsibility are accountable to citizens and feel the burden, I imagine, so doing nothing and letting the situation develop is usually not the answer the bureaucracy produces. Two others are that we always tend to overemphasize whatever it is we’re talking about. At a conference talking about cybersecurity everyone agrees that the topic under discussion is never getting the right amount of attention; it tends to get not enough attention. Third, we underestimate the equilibrating effect on systems. We tend to compensate individually and collectively.

DAM: Most DAM readers probably interact with the Department of Homeland Security at the airport more than anywhere else. How would you assess how we’re doing there?

Beers: In terms of trying to find a balance between security and commerce, between security and privacy and civil liberties, I think we are moving into a better and better space. We’re trying to do a better job differentiating between passengers who basically represent no risk and whether the no-risk passengers can simply move through the system at a more rapid pace to allow time to focus on individuals who are in a higher-risk profile, so to speak. So I think you’re going to see over the course of the next year or so that what you will perceive at the airport in terms of security will be a lot less than what’s actually occurring. There are still individuals who will get screened or interrogated who will say there was an overreaction. With the Transportation Security Administration every mistake gets magnified and the press just loves it.

DAM: Looking back for a minute, would you say that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made us safer or less safe as a country?

Fick: I think the war in Afghanistan has almost unequivocally made us safer. I think that using military force in Afghanistan was the right answer, but we could have done it differently. If you’d asked me in the fall of 2001, when I was first there, if we’d still be having this conversation 10 years later about large-scale conventional American forces in Afghanistan, I would have said, “Not a chance.” That said, the military and the intelligence community have been remarkably successful in dismantling Al Qaeda as a formal military structure. If you spin the globe and you look at places that are hospitable to non-state actors like Al Qaeda to train and plot large-scale attacks, there just aren’t that many. You can’t do it in Belgium. You can’t do it in Alabama. I think you can recruit and you can inspire in an Internet chat room, but you can’t rehearse large-scale operations in a chat room. You need a place. So I think the war in Afghanistan has made us, on balance, safer. I think the decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake. It was the wrong decision. There are some interesting questions for historians to answer about whether the war in Iraq played any role in the Arab Spring. It’s too soon to tell. I don’t know where this goes, but 10 years on we are not as well off as I would have predicted in 2001.

Lynn: I think the initial decision to go into Afghanistan was right. It was the source of the 9/11 attacks, and addressing it militarily was the right approach.We shouldn’t be there 10 years on because we should have finished it. Saddam was largely contained with the Iraq policies we had.

Beers: I have a lot to say about that. As you know, I resigned [as White House advisor] because of the war in Iraq. First, [after 9/11] consensus existed on a global basis. We forfeited the opportunity to change the international security architecture as a result of the shift out of Afghanistan to Iraq. Second, our entry into Iraq introduced the question as to whether or not the United States invasion was intended as a stepping stone to an invasion into Iran. Would that have changed the whole nuclear equation with respect to Iran? I don’t know. But it certainly complicated the security question with respect to our relations with Iran because we introduced a military force on their border that might just turn right and keep going. The “what ifs” for me are enormous.

DAM: We’re having this conversation in the aftermath of the budget debate around the debt crisis. Bill, you’ve dealt with budgets before. How significant a threat is this environment to the ability of the Pentagon to defend the country?

Lynn: Well, you start with the problem, and the problem is we’re spending a lot more than we’re taking in. Actually, the budget disparity is so great it rises to the level of a national security problem. You never see for any length of time a nation that’s weak economically stay strong militarily. So we need to address that problem. The key is to do it smart, and doing it smart means making considered judgments about what it is you want to do and what it is you’re willing to give up in national security—what risks you’re willing to take. It also means you need to ramp changes in. You don’t want to do abrupt changes. This second half of the debt deal, which would have a sudden and abrupt sequestration, would be very destructive. You’re talking about a $100-billion-a-year cut, essentially overnight. I don’t think you can absorb that without doing true damage to national security.

DAM: For people who live far from Washington and have passing understanding of what these fights are like, what does it look like when you’re trying to make a decision about a weapons system or an aircraft or an engine? How ferocious are these battles from your vantage point?

Lynn: There’s always going to be politics involved, particularly once something’s gotten started and generated jobs, but that’s a problem as old as the Republic. The original continental Navy was supposed to have seven frigates that were going to be built in one shipyard in one state of the same design. Well, the Continental Congress got ahold of that, and instead we had seven different designs for seven different frigates built in seven different states. The problem hasn’t changed much since then.

DAM: Do you think the military is bloated?

Fick: You cast this in terms of national security. I see it as an opportunity. You should never miss the opportunity afforded by a good crisis. We’re in an inflection point now where maybe there’s the popular will, the political will to do some things that weren’t possible before. In a lot of ways the defense budget is a microcosm of the broader federal budget, and you have a growing entitlement problem. Healthcare premiums for military service members haven’t changed since, I think, 1994. That’s crazy. Military personnel, as in any large organization, is your biggest cost, yet we tend to talk about weapons systems. We have a military system that is in many ways the legacy of an agricultural or an industrial economy, where if you did 20 years you’re a broken man. So you have military personnel retiring at age 38 and the United States is paying them and paying for their healthcare for the rest of their lives, which for a lot are working lives with opportunities for 30-year careers. We need to talk about changes that may actually result in a stronger, more capable force.

DAM: What about other threats on the horizon even if distant: Space? China testing its first aircraft carrier?

Lynn: Space is definitely an important area for national security. We utilize it for navigation, for targeting, for communications. Will we have a war fought exclusively in space? That seems unlikely to me, but could a broader conflict migrate? Almost absolutely. One Chinese aircraft carrier is going to have very little effect on our security. China is going to have military capabilities. What you do not want is to have the U.S. and China military capabilities come up against each other. You want to have an economic competition where you can manage disputes when they arise. Between two powers like the United States and China they’re going to arise.

DAM: What kind of threat to national security does climate change present?

Fick: Look at the Arctic and the possibility of free navigation there for much of the year. Maybe the Northwest Passage becomes a reality. The Russians in particular have been fairly assertive in making a claim, so the Navy is certainly interested in it. There are anecdotal data points to start thinking about: Small island nations setting up sovereign wealth funds to buy land elsewhere and planning to relocate national populations; more intense weather patterns in conjunction with cities like Karachi with 12 or 15 or 18 million people on the coast. Does that present scenarios the U.S. military has to respond to? Sure, but I don’t see it as a looming Hollywood-style crisis.

Beers: I’d go a step further. If the weather patterns change significantly, we’re going to have a pattern of natural disasters that will complicate our economy in the ways that a Katrina or massive flooding have. If patterns change and that leads to larger areas that are no longer able to cultivate food to supply populations, and the world is no longer in a position to aid those people, we’re going to have migrations. I don’t have an answer to what is implied, but I think that will affect the world economy and will affect more than just the nations in which the problems occur.

DAM: Any parting shots?

Fick: I’ve got one for you. We have several million of our citizens now who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, and these people are coming home to communities all over the country, and I think we collectively owe them something. Dartmouth, actually, is really doing more than its share in this regard. Former President Jim Wright deserves a lot of credit for bringing a whole bunch of veterans to campus and giving them a whole lot of support, both financial and social. A Marine who served under me—Michael Stinetorf, my machine gunner—just graduated from Dartmouth in June, which is a huge tribute to him and to the College. It’s an important thing for the place to do, and I think every community and institution in the country should be thinking about ways that they, too, can help us reintegrate and benefit from this whole generation of people who fought for our country.

Matthew Mosk is a reporter with the ABC News investigative team in Washington, D.C. A 2011 Emmy nominee, he lives in Annapolis, Maryland.


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