National Security

Securing the Future: Register for the Fifth Annual Aspen Security Forum

December 2, 2013  • Clark Ervin


The Aspen Security Forum is the premier forum for high-level government officials, industry leaders, leading thinkers, and noted journalists in the fields of homeland and national security. This past year, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, many of the 150 Aspen Security Forum speakers  examined the idea that the April 2013 attack might represent a “new normal.” In 2014, experts will return to the Aspen Meadows campus July 23 to 26 to pick up where they left off. To join the upcoming conversation, register here.

This past summer, discussion surrounded recent developments on the homeland security front, as seen in the videos from event. The Forum began with talk of the combined efforts of the Bush and Obama administrations having been devastatingly effective in knocking the centralized Al Qaeda organization, which attacked the US on 9/11, on its heels. Complementing that offensive strategy, a wide range of defensive measures (detailed in the video “Putting Out Fires Before They Spread”) have been taken in the dozen years since to harden obvious targets, like the aviation sector and iconic government buildings.

The upshot is that, while certainly not impossible, it is highly unlikely that another catastrophic attack on the homeland could be pulled off today. As a result, Al Qaeda is now more determined than ever to show it can still carry out spectacular attacks on US soil. The hardening of “hard” targets has only made attacking relatively “soft” ones, such as sports venues and shopping malls, that much more appealing, and, therefore, far more likely to occur.

Furthermore, what was once a lethal but localized threat concentrated in the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan has now spread like a cancer throughout the world. Policymakers now worry even more about regional Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, and North and West Africa than they do about Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, and what remains of the “Al Qaeda core.” And, this is to say nothing of terrorists, and potential terrorists, already inside the United States, both foreign-born ones like the Tsarnaev brothers and homegrown ones, who are the hardest to spot of all.

Perhaps former Attorney General John Ashcroft summed up the terrorist threat environment best when he countered the president’s assertion — in the video entitled “The Threat Matrix,” found here — that the war on terrorism, like all wars, will eventually end. “I think we are still at war,” Ashcroft told the audience on the Aspen Meadows campus. “I don’t know when I will be able to say when we are not at war. But, as long as they are continuing to hit us and allege that they are at war, I think we are.”

As the country’s leading experts in the intelligence community gathered, disgruntled government contractor Edward Snowden still lurked in the bowels of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. The disclosure of the vast extent of the NSA’s acquisition of phone records and Internet traffic in its hunt for terrorists loomed large at the conference. The continuing controversy surfaced the age-old tension between security on the one hand and liberty on the other more starkly than any incident in recent memory. It also raised the question of whether we have now overcorrected for the pre-9/11 failure to “connect the dots” and to share critical intelligence with all relevant players.

Moderating journalists — such as CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and John King, The New York Times’ David Sanger, Fox News’ Catherine Herridge, and NBC’s Michael Isikoff, among many others — asked whether the US now collects too much information (seen here in the video “Mission Accomplished?”)­­ and shares it, among and within agencies, too broadly. Others asked whether we have now outsourced too much (click here for the video “Clear and Present Danger”) of the government’s core national security function to contractors.

Outgoing National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander strongly defended the agency’s surveillance program (read his comments here in a transcript from the event), arguing that it is a “reasonable approach” that properly balances security and liberty. But, the ease with which a relatively low-level contractor was able to access huge troves of the government’s most prized secrets prompted the director to promise to make another such compromise harder. “We’ll close and lock some server rooms so it takes two people to get in there,” he said. During the talk “Clear and Present Danger,” Alexander defended the secrecy with which the program has been cloaked, putting it bluntly, “We are not trying to hide it from you; it’s to hide it from those who walk among you and are trying to kill you.”

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero pushed back hardest against the government’s contention (as seen in the video “Counterterrorism, National Security, and the Rule of Law”) that Snowden was a traitor who has done unprecedented harm to the country. “I think he did this country a service,” Romero argued. “I have not said this publicly until this point. I think he did this country a service by starting a debate that was anemic, that was left to government officials where people did not fully understand what was happening.”

The conversation continued with a focus on the unrest roiling the Arab world and its implications for security here at home, with a particular emphasis on developments in Egypt and Syria. Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency David Shedd argued during the talk “The Military and Intelligence: Out of the Shadows” that terrorist groups were gaining strength in Syria and will pose a danger to the United States and its interests for years to come. “They will not go home when it is over,” said Shedd. “They will fight for that space. They are there for the long haul.”

If there was any doubt before this summer’s Forum that the line between “homeland” security and “national” security is, at least, indistinct, and, at most nonexistent, the “wintering” of the “Arab Spring” has made this crystal clear. Given the unsettled security environment around the world and the negative trend lines, terrorism will likely continue to be at the top of policymakers’ agenda next year for the fifth annual Aspen Security Forum (from July 23 to July 26, 2014) as well. Register here.

Clark Kent Ervin is the director of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program. Before doing so, he served as the first inspector general of the United States Department of Homeland Security.