A number of years ago as I clutched to the window ledge of car driven by a man whose eyeglasses seemed to have been made from the bottoms of coca cola bottles, I asked this security service official why his country’s “counterterrorist” services were so good at preventing terrorist attacks in his country. His answer was direct: “Because they (the terrorist) are not now that smart, but someday they will be.”
That day has long since arrived.
The date can be marked with the coordination and execution of the 9/11 attack. In retrospect, the logistics were quite astonishing; it was executed with immaculate precision, not on their own turf, but on ours.
A report by Anna Mulrine written about two months ago, but just arrived at my desk discussed how we confront terrorism has been transformed
The title of her article: “New encryption technology is aiding the terrorist, intelligence director says.” The intelligence director she refers to is the non-descript, bi-speckled James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). In that position he answers to and is directed by the President .He also serves as the advisor to not only the President himself but the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council in matters that relate to our national security. He also is head of a 16 member national intelligence community. Interestingly, federal law mandates that he also be an active-duty commissioned officer or have experience in military intelligence. The bottom line is that when this man speaks, we should listen very carefully.
A cautionary note: Critics claim that in crafting the legislation that created the DNI, it provided inadequate powers to improve the performance of the US Intelligence Community. Namely, the legislation creating the DNI left other important security agencies untouched. The need to hold onto power never changes.
This past week we are faced with mass murder in Orlando. This is the worst domestic attack of its kind in American history. We know there was a lone killer, born in the United States. The suspect, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, is a Muslim American of Afghan descent, and law enforcement agencies were investigating whether he had ties to or was inspired by Islamist extremism. An Islamic State group claimed the impetus for the attack, and across social-media outlets, Islamic State supporters cheered Sunday’s mass shooting, and called for more attacks on the West.
All this brings me to Ms. Mulrine’s report that new encryption technology is benefiting the terrorist. The playing field is becoming level. General Clapper noted — “The Edward Snowden” leaks, if nothing else, fast-tracked the sophistication of encryption technologies by “about seven years.” And that is nothing but bad news for United States’ national security.
Clapper noted that the Islamic State is “the most sophisticated user by far of the Internet.” And they accomplish that because they have the resources and ability to go into the market place and purchase software that will “ensure end-to-end encryption” of their communications. In turn, he noted that this “had and is having major, profound effects on our ability” to collect intelligence, “particularly against terrorists”. This raises a particularly American long standing issue.
The publicized conflict between national security, privacy issues and those companies who refuse to divulge their user’s information creates — rightfully or wrong — road blocks in the fight not merely to stop but to at least contain the terrorist act. It increases the tension with those supporting the need for advanced security against cyber-attacks. Recently as February Clapper cited cyber-attacks as a greater threat than terrorism – and the blunt opposition to law enforcement against the development of so-called unbreakable encryption software that, they say, could hinder their search for terrorists. That said, he warned of yet the next step in this conflict with the development of an unbreakable encryption: it would “give the terrorists a pass” in its operational ability. Think of those consequences and one can only shudder.
Clapper warned that ISIS has clandestine cells that are plotting more terrorist attacks in Germany, Italy, and England. This can only lead to the question: what if ISIS is defeated at home, how strong will they remain in plotting attacks abroad. Barbara Star, the CNN Pentagon Correspondent quoted a high racking counterterrorist official saying that ISIS “is not an army, It’s not about religion, it is not even a movement. It is a label covering mad and upset young man who can just say they are part of ISIS.” How does any part of law enforcement respond to that?
To this end, the United States is stepping up efforts to promote more intelligence sharing. In my previous blog, I wrote of the proposed creation of a Secretary General for Intelligence within the NATO structure to improve not only how intelligence is shared but to expand its view of how analysis and information is shared. In the meantime, since the attacks on Paris and Brussels in January of last year, the US intelligence officials have learned that ISIS is clearly taking advantage of the migrant crisis in Europe, Clapper said. Nothing new was reveled in that statement but it doesn’t make it any less unsettling.
All this presents a daunting task for Europe, Clapper warned. There is a “fundamental conflict” between European Union incentives that drives the agenda to promote openness and free movement of people and goods with privacy. This “in some ways is in conflict with the responsibilities that each country has as a nation-state to protect the borders and securities of their nations and peoples.” This is all complicated by this week’s election in the UK weather or not to exit the EU. Even before the vote, the mere thought of exiting the UK has exacerbated normal volatility in the world’s stock markets and will have enormous bearing upon the security of all nation-states. Scotland has announced that if there is an exit by the UK from the EU, it will reexamine if it wants to remain within the UK; there are rumblings that it would also have lasting negative effect on peace in Norther Island. And there has been one assassination of a young member of the British Parliament.
If I were a “doctor” having just concluded a physical examination of these issues in the U.S., I would be more than merely concerned with its continued well-being. We live in a different world since 9/11 –The terrorist is not uninformed. The terrorist is sophisticated. The terrorist has learned to master the techniques utilized by the most advanced governments. The terrorist has learned to take advantage of the chaos in the Mideast, its flow into Europe and the political and social tensions around the world. The state of the patient’s national security “health” is not merely “not very good”—it’s in jeopardy of further very concerning deterioration. Political hysteria, in some quarters, does not address the problem.