National Security

Experts Share 2016’s Intelligence Insights

January 5, 2017  • Alison Decker

Top-level present and former government officials, industry leaders, and nationally noted journalists discuss questions of national and homeland security every year at the Aspen Security Forum. Read below for some of their most critical insights.

A Candid Conversation with the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

In a rare interview and his debut appearance in Aspen, CIA Director John Brennan surveys the global security scene and tells it how he sees it.

CIA Director John Brennan

“The amount of destruction that has taken place in Syria has been devastating. And then there’s the rebuilding process, both from a security standpoint as well as the construction, the health needs of the people … One of the most devastating aspects of this conflict is that we’ve lost an entire generation of individuals. Syrians and Iraqis have not been able to go to school. They’ve been brought up in an environment of militarism and violence. That’s all they know. They don’t have any skills that they can use when peace returns to those countries. So this is a long-term problem. And we need a plan as far as stabilization, security, rebuilding, administration, and then having governments in the capitals that are going to truly represent the multi-sectarian nature of the people that are there.

They don’t have any skills that they can use when peace returns.

This is more of a global menace than Al-Qaeda, quite frankly, ever was. ISIL is not just a terrorist organization. It has established its own government. It has control over these very large areas and it also has utilized the digital domain in ways far superior to Al-Qaeda. This generation of terrorists are ones that have grown up in a technologically rich world. And so they have made very sophisticated use of all the different types of communication systems, and they have put together a structure and infrastructure in Syria and Iraq that is quite difficult to attack and uncover. And so, the world can be their playground, in many respects, unfortunately.” – John Brennan

Peril on the 38th Parallel

North Korea continues its underground nuclear tests, and there are indications that it has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead. Sanctions and threats have seemed only to embolden the volatile young leader in Pyongyang. Professor at Wellesley College Katharine Moon discusses the region.

Professor Katharine Moon

“These institutional meetings that Kim Jong-un is convening are actually positive signs in some ways. They hopefully will make the society a little bit normal, with institutions of governance, even if they seem like rubber stamp institutions to us.

North Koreans now see themselves as a nuclear state.

The United States has to face up to the fact that under Kim Jong-un we’re dealing with a different kind of North Korea in terms not only of its ambitions, nuclear and otherwise, but also of its identity. His grandfather, Kim Il-sung, started the nuclear program. They wanted one for a long time. But neither the grandfather nor the father educated the society to see itself as a nuclear state. North Koreans now, not only the regime, but the people, see themselves as a nuclear state. So, denuclearization, which is basically the US government’s initial requirement for dialogue … I think that is a misleading and also a wishful-thinking kind of policy.” – Katharine Moon

A Chat with the Secretary

In his final months in office, the Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson gives us his assessment of the state of the nation’s security.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson

“I always tell our people that in this evolving threat environment, we have to anticipate the next terrorist attack, not the last one. There is a temptation to surge resources in response to the last attack. If it’s an airport, we focus on airport security. If it’s a public gathering on the street, we focus on public safety on the street. If it’s a nightclub, we focus on nightclubs. I tell our people constantly we’ve got to focus on the next attack. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack and looking for a grain of hay before it becomes a needle.

Rhetoric that vilifies American-Muslims and Muslims in general is counter to that effort. It is counter to our homeland security efforts. It is a setback to our homeland security efforts. Given the nature of the threat we face – and I keep saying this – it is critical that we build bridges to these communities so that they are encouraged to root out, identify, intervene when they see somebody who is going in the wrong direction.” – Jeh Johnson

The View from the West Wing

President Obama’s Chief Counterterrorism and Homeland Security Advisor, Lisa Monaco, shares a view from inside the White House on the evolving threat posed by terrorist groups and violent extremism, as well as how the Administration leverages all elements of national power to address that threat.

“I think it’s important to remember ISIL presents what I call a hybrid threat. It is at once a terrorist group most assuredly, engaging in directed and complex attacks like we saw in Brussels and Paris and other places. It is an insurgent army undertaking military tactics and operations and taking swaths of territory. But it is also a social phenomenon. Its ability to utilize the online space and to digitize the threat that we face is a new phase of the threat that we face. We’re in a moment that’s different from ones that I’ve seen.

ISIL is trying to do directed attacks and complex attacks, but they’re also extolling their followers and their adherence to undertake attacks wherever they are. To do so without needing to travel, to train, to become vetted, or undergo any type of discipline – but rather to undertake terrorist attacks using the tools of our everyday life. To use a gun if they have a gun, to use a knife if they have a knife, to use a truck if they have a truck.

How do you detect when something goes wrong in somebody’s mind and something resonates within them to commit a violent act? That means we’re going to have to rely a great deal more on our communities, on giving them the tools to intervene, to identify, and work with individuals who are on a path to radicalization. It means we’re going to have to work in greater numbers and with greater urgency with the private sector, with those who have developed the platforms that are frankly being misused to peddle this venom and brutal messaging from ISIL.” – Lisa Monaco

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