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Officials in Yemen say they’ve foiled a major terrorist plot to blow up oil pipelines and seize ports in their country. U.S. drone strikes killed seven suspected al-Qaida members yesterday in Yemen. This comes after U.S. authorities warned of possible terrorist attacks against Western targets. The U.S. shuttered more than a dozen American diplomatic posts across the Middle East and Africa. It also issued a global travel alert, citing security concerns. The U.S. precautions were prompted by intercepted communications between al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan and Yemen.
- Paul Pillar non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former CIA National Intelligence officer.
- Mark Mazzetti national security correspondent at The New York Times and author of "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth."
- Philip Mudd senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, former deputy director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center and former deputy director of the FBI National Security Branch.
- Juan Zarate senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, senior national security analyst at CBS News and former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism under the George W. Bush administration; he's the author of a new book, "Treasury's War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. U.S. counter-terror experts are working to learn more about potential al-Qaida attacks. Yemen officials say they foiled an al-Qaida plot in their country targeting oil pipelines and ports. President Obama sought to reassure Americans last night during an appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno. He said Americans should exercise some caution but should live their lives.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about the new threats, Paul Pillar of Georgetown University, Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times and Juan Zarate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Joining us from WKNO in Memphis, Tenn., Philip Mudd of the New America Foundation. I invite you to be part of the program, give us a call at 800-433-8850, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Welcome to all of you.
MR. JUAN ZARATEThank you, Diane.
MR. PAUL PILLARHello, Diane.
MR. PHILIP MUDDGood morning.
MR. MARK MAZZETTIThank you.
REHMGood to see you. Mark Mazzetti, let's start with the fire in Nairobi. The airport in Kenya, are officials saying terrorists are behind that?
MAZZETTIRight now, they're saying no. I think in this climate that has sort of been certainly for the last week or so you would any event like this is going to rise suspicions of terrorism. And actually, the date, today's date is the 15th anniversary of the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. However, all indications so far are that terrorism was not the cause. It was another reason that caused the fire.
REHMSo you had Yemen reportedly foiling a plot, a terrorist operation to destroy that country's oil pipeline, seize ports. What do we know?
MAZZETTIThe Yemenis have said today that they had foiled a significant plot, as you said, to hit pipelines, to kill and kidnap people at ports. They said it was a very complex and large plot. It is at this point unclear whether this indeed was in the works and also whether this is what has caused the terror alert that we've heard since last week. It's -- American officials haven't said much so far.
MAZZETTIAnd the Yemenis also have to some degree an interest in making it seem like this was all going away. They were very angry about the embassy closures, the -- all the news about how unsafe Yemen is, and I think to some degree they are today saying that basically the threat is gone. So we'll have to see what happens.
REHMSo, Juan Zarate, what could have happened had this plot succeeded?
ZARATEWell, you see from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Diane, the ability to actually execute against local targets. You've seen in the past they have controlled territory. They have controlled villages, cities. They've attacked security sites. They are a lethal group locally there in Yemen. So potentially, you could have had disruption to the oil infrastructure. You could have an assault on a couple of key southern cities in Yemen, and al-Qaida really trying to take the offensive back.
ZARATEThey've in some ways been in their heels recently, but this seems to be a moment whether they're trying to take the offensive back. And this is in part what makes this group so lethal and dangerous, Diane. It's a group that looks like an insurgency in Yemen, threatening to Yemen, their infrastructure, their cities, to the Saudis to the north, keep in mind the assassination attempts in the past, attempts on Saudi oil infrastructure there as well.
ZARATEBut they've also become a locus of the global movement. You've seen the movement of al-Qaida inspiration and strategy really shifting to Yemen and the leader there, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who really is a bin Laden protégé and has in mind hitting the United States. And so that's why the U.S., many officials, Saudis and others are so concerned.
REHMBut, Paul Pillar, just weeks ago it seems we heard al-Qaida was no longer a threat. What's changed?
PILLARWell, I don't think we heard that al-Qaida was no longer a threat. You may have in mind the president's speech at National Defense University a couple of months which in my judgment was an excellent statement about how we are to think about terrorism and how we can't have this war so-called going on forever.
PILLARDiane, we have to make a distinction here between the question of, in general, what kind of threat do we face by from al-Qaida or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula versus what we have been seeing this past week, which is a response to tactical information or tactical intelligence about a plot or purported plot that may involve targets in Yemen or elsewhere in the Middle East? We really shouldn't draw grand conclusions based on what we've seen over the past week about this group or al-Qaida in general being more to worry about this week than we are worrying about it last week or last month or last year.
REHMSo what is intelligence telling us?
PILLARWell, obviously, all of us in the outside can only, you know, react to those who have been briefed.
REHMBut you are a former CIA.
PILLARWell, reading this many stuff years ago that...
PILLAR...but what the analysts would normally be reading is typically ambiguous, confusing, you know, hard to draw conclusions from information. Evidently, what came up in this more recent episode was intelligence that was involved a greater degree of certainty that, yes, there is a plot here that there is something in operation and that it is something that may come about in the near term.
PILLAREvidently, it wasn't specific enough to narrow it down to one target or one particular method of operation when we see, you know, 19 embassies being closed across a couple of different regions. But I think what evidently was different in the information that is being responded to this week was a greater degree of certainty that, yes, something is going on right now.
REHMSo was the U.S. response warranted?
PILLARWell, again, you know, those of us who don't read the current stuff can't make our own conclusion, but I am struck by the fact that members of Congress, Republicans, as well as Democrats, who have been briefed on this, these are mainly members of the responsible committees, people like Sen. Chambliss have been almost unanimous in expressing support for what the administration is doing.
PILLARAnd I take that as a sign that their interpretation of what they've been briefed on is that this is not an overreaction because I think the opposition party if it really thought that the administration was simply overreacting for political reasons would say something much more critical than what we've heard.
REHMPhilip Mudd, Congressman Peter King said Sunday al-Qaida is stronger than at the time of 9/11. Is that true?
MUDDI'd say that's dead wrong. When we sat around the threat table in 2001, 2002, 2003, there were times when I was there at the threat table that I thought we were losing this campaign. And that was because the core of the revolution in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it started metastasizing in places like the southern Philippines, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and then going into Somalia.
MUDDToday, that core is decimated. We see periodic -- and I think Paul got this right. The distinction between tactical and strategic here is significant. We see periodic tactical resurgence in places like Nigeria or Yemen, but that doesn't, to me, suggest that the successes of the counter-terror campaign of the past 12 years have somehow failed. We are in a much better position than we were 12 years ago, and I can't see the world any other way. I think he's dead wrong.
REHMSo, Juan Zarate, your thoughts on the appropriateness of the U.S. response.
ZARATEWell, I think, Diane, you've got to keep in mind we're living in a post-Benghazi period. So I think that has dictated to a certain extent the State Department's caution here and the move to protect our diplomatic posts. But I disagree slightly with Paul and Phil here and both of whom I have great respect for and have seen in action.
REHMYou sound like a member of Congress.
ZARATEI'm not intending to do that, Diane. But I do think this tactical threat comes at a moment of reassessing what has happened to the al-Qaida movement. And I think it comes at a moment of potential strategic opportunity for al-Qaida. That is to say, you have al-Qaida metastasized and embedded in these regional movements, insurgencies, in places like North Africa, in East Africa, in Yemen, in Central Asia, now in the Sinai.
ZARATEAnd, most importantly I think, Diane -- and this is reflected in comments by Mike Morrell, the departing deputy director of the CIA -- in Syria, where Syria really presents a moment of potential rebirth for the movement, it's drawing foreign fighters from around the world, a moment of growing methodology for the al-Qaida fighters and one where they're able to not only take the fight against Assad but really start to adapt their methodologies, trying to win the hearts and minds of their constituency.
ZARATEAnd so this threat comes at a moment where we have to re-evaluate the landscape and it's a landscape of opportunity for al-Qaida.
REHMSo there is a question beneath all of this and, Mark Mazzetti, you might be able to respond politics playing a part in this, especially the criticism of President Obama after Benghazi.
MAZZETTIOf course. Of course, politics are playing a role. They play a role a role in everything. And national security issues have become heavily politicized. The -- as you said, the response to the Benghazi attack has been heavily criticized by Republicans. And this is an issue that doesn't seem to go away for the Obama administration. And, of course, we're approaching the first anniversary of that attack, and so we're going to hear more about Benghazi.
MAZZETTIAnd so as Juan said, you know, in this post-Benghazi world, you are going to see an administration that will err on the side of being more cautious, making it look like they're doing something and so that they don't get hit again or an embassy that they didn't close get hit. I mean the embassy in Madagascar is closed. I mean, there is a whole sloth of American diplomatic outposts throughout the Muslim world that are now shut. That sends a certain message. And so clearly the administration is reacting. As Paul said, there is specificity. They think about timing, but obviously, not about location.
REHMMark Mazzetti of The New York Times, he's author of "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth." Short break here. Your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd our first email reflecting, apparently, many emails we've received. It's from Roger, who says, "Just weeks after Congress put government advocates for a police state in the hot seat, we see those very same advocates trumpeting an urgent but non-specific terrorist threat. What a remarkable coincidence," says Roger. "Recall, it was just 10 years ago, the U.S. and allies marched into Iraq in pursuit of the 'threat' of non-existent WMD fabricated by Bush, Cheney and their co-conspirators." Mark Mazzetti, you must get a lot of that.
MAZZETTISure. And we should all be skeptical. I mean, we, as reporters, should all sort of try to find out what's behind anything the government tells us. And, you know, the email does reflect this question about, you know, here we are in the last several months, heard all about the controversies of what the NSA does, how they gather information on American citizens, the phone calls, all that, and then you have the NSA disrupting a plot. So obviously, people are right to be skeptical.
MAZZETTII think of couple of things. One, as Paul said a couple -- a few minutes ago, you are hearing both Democrats and Republicans, even Democrats who have been very critical of the NSA programs, saying that, you know, there is no grand conspiracy here. There does appear to be some real intelligence forcing these closures. Secondly, though, you can sort of separate some of the controversies of the NSA.
MAZZETTISome of those Democrats have said, well, the most controversial aspect of the NSA program, which is the bulk collection of American phone records, doesn't appear to have been the reason why this thing was -- this plot may have been uncovered. It was other thing. So the controversies are still there. The NSA is still on the hot seat and, I think, you know, will be even as it also maybe uncovering, you know, these types of plots.
ZARATEWell, Diane, I think you can understand the skepticism, and I've seen a lot of it on Twitter and such, but I think a couple things need to be kept in mind. First, you wouldn't have the British, the French, the Germans closing their embassies in Yemen being concerned about this. Certainly, those countries wouldn't be carrying political water for the NSA.
ZARATESo I think you have to keep in mind the real environment here. The other thing is I think that the counterterrorism professionals and intelligence officers who worry about these threats every day would prefer not to be having these conversations about how they've learned about this attack. Now, there may be some for political reasons who would.
ZARATEBut I will tell you that the counterterrorism officials who worry about this every day are very upset that, for example, it's known that we have heard the conversations between Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader in Yemen. The fact that we can do that that we did do that is incredibly troubling to people.
MUDDI think there is a broader cultural issue at play here that I hear a lot, both in terms of emails I get and when I speak publicly, and that is in the past 12 years as we enter in the digital age in the 21st century, Americans' trust in government has eroded in some sense. And that is compounded by the fact that people don't have an understanding of what they should expect in terms of personal privacy in the digital age.
MUDDSo you see NSA revelations -- revelations about NSA in bulk collection, and people start to say, I know what government was supposed to do back in the Cold War. But now, when we're supposed to prevent these homegrown plots by people we don't even know are living in our midst, I don't know what I should expect in terms of my own privacy in the digital age. And I think that needs to be resolved by people in Congress, by the president and others. This is not a national security issue only. This is a cultural issue as well.
REHMAll right. Let's move on. Paul Pillar, explain about the resumption of drone strikes in Yemen. What is the U.S. hoping to achieve?
PILLARWell, probably, with these most recent strikes, there is a connection with the -- a reported connection to whatever was the plot that, or alleged plot that underlies the intelligence that led to the closings of the missions. For the most part, the drone program, as has been executed both in Yemen and in South Asia, has been not quite that tactical.
PILLARIt's been a matter of when an opportunity has arisen to take out a bad guy that we've known about for quite some time, the missile is fired. So it's not necessarily in response to a specific plot. But we hear some things this week that this resumption of drone strikes and several strikes in Yemen may very well be related to the reported plot.
REHMHow closely is U.S. intelligence working with the Yemeni government?
PILLARWell, I can't speak to that directly, Diane. But I would -- could only assume that with Yemen as with -- has been our experience with counterterrorist efforts around the world, close relationships with the security services, the military, the national police and internal security agencies is absolutely critical. These are the people on the ground. They are the ones who know the territory.
MAZZETTIOn the question of drone strikes, I mean, I think there may be -- may actually be a connection to this plot, to this uptick in drone strikes. But I think it should be pointed out that -- I mean, the president made clear on his May speech these drone strikes are not going away, that this is an ongoing campaign that they're going to continue.
MAZZETTIIt's continuing in Pakistan. As much as maybe the administration had signaled that they were really changing course on drone strikes, there's very little evidence so far that there's been a significant change. So I think on the drones, as Paul said that, you know, in some cases, there is known information about a specific person that leads to the drone strikes.
MAZZETTIBut as we've seen in Pakistan as well, and to some degree, in Yemen, the drones are sometimes used with imprecise intelligence. They're not quite sure who's on the ground, these so-called signature strikes, which are used when they have a suspicion that people are up to terrorist activity. But they don't know specifically who it is. So this is the bigger is the U.S. response through drones, what has that done, if anything, to radicalize maybe populations in Yemen and Pakistan.
REHMHow do you answer that, Juan?
ZARATEWell, I think that's a serious concern. It's been a major part of the debate in Pakistan. It's certainly been a debate in political circles and among the populace. And I think it's a serious question. You've heard counterterrorism in military officials raise as a concern of the blowback and the radicalization that that has.
ZARATEBut I think you've seen this -- the resumption of the drone strikes, and it runs somewhat counter to some of the rhetoric we've heard from the administration recently. Secretary Kerry just recently said that the administration is very, very close to stopping the drone strikes in Pakistan. They had to retract that. In the NDU speech the president gave, he have indications that we wanted to restrict further the way that we use the drone strikes.
ZARATEThis indicates that that's really not the case. And I think what you have is this tension, dynamic tension between realizing that this is not a strategic solution and may have the blowback you're asking about but is often a necessary tool especially in a moment like this where we have a potential threat brewing and targets to hit. And that's what you see with the administration's drone strikes.
REHMPhil, do you want to comment?
MUDDJust quickly, you know, I think Juan is right. This is not a long-term strategic solution. Intervening in a country from long range and killing people on the ground has the potential long term obviously for alienating people. But when you're tactically dealing with a threat in a place like Pakistan or Yemen, you have few practical choices especially when you have a partner that lacks you to the will and capability to intercede against a group.
MUDDYou don't want to put U.S. forces on the ground, and you don't want to do nothing because that raised the potential that in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or against the U.S. embassy in (word?) going to have an attack. So that leaves one option, and that is intervention from the air. That's a drone.
REHMSo do we know how capable al-Qaida is in the Arabian Peninsula to wage attacks outside of Yemen? Paul.
PILLARWell, I think of the so-called al-Qaida affiliates, there's a consensus that I share that AQAP, al-Qaida and the Arabian Peninsula, probably is, number one, the most capable. And number two, because of this connection with the leader of that group, with bin Laden in the past, is the one that's most oriented toward bin Laden's hit the far enemy, that is to say hit the U.S.'s brand of ideology.
PILLARWith many of these affiliates, the focus is much more on local conflicts. I think that's true of a lot of the groups in West Africa. So in short, yes, there is a capability, and something like the underwear bomber incident, Christmas Day 2009, was indeed a close call.
MAZZETTII think that's right. They seem to be the most capable of the various al-Qaida affiliates that should be said. They also have pretty dismal track record of actually -- of, you know, being successful in their plots. I mean, the underwear bomber Christmas Day 2009 wasn't successful. A few months earlier, they tried to kill the Saudi intelligence chief.
MAZZETTIThey managed to blow up only the bomber himself. They tried to send bombs through printer cartridges, those, they were foiled. So they keep trying, and they almost get there. But they haven't managed to actually pull something off in a significant say.
REHMI think Americans were really surprised to hear about the closings of so many embassies. What do we know about the intelligence that led the State Department to do that? Philip Mudd.
MUDDThe problem you face after Benghazi is that the ability to handle risk in Washington still remains quite low. So if you deal with information that's highly credible, that is, it comes from a source that's unimpeachable, al-Qaida leadership, for example, and that information is not clear enough to tell you that you should close two or three embassies, but there is a threat across an entire region.
MUDDYou're sitting there in a room saying, look, this information is too vague to take perfect action. But if we don't take broad action, we'll be criticized if anything happens. And so I'm sure people, especially after Benghazi, were sitting back saying, we're going to be critiqued for this. But we're between a rock and hard place, and we're going to move.
REHMBut now the threat is worldwide. Juan.
ZARATERight, Diane. And I think one of the things that concerned counterterrorism officials is that the intelligence seemed to suggest that -- this was an al-Qaida call to arms to access the networks it has in what we're starting to call the arc of instability. To see what attacks could be generated, driven out of Yemen perhaps, but also perhaps out of the Sinai, perhaps out of North Africa, out of Iraq, et cetera.
ZARATEAnd so that general call to arms, I think, is what was so concerning to U.S. officials and explains the geographic scope here because these are affiliates that have reached from West Africa to South Asia. And so that's why you've seen the closures of diplomatic post in that region.
REHMSo are you all saying that the NSA had nothing to do with these disclosures? Paul Pillar.
MUDDWell, I don't think we're saying that at all. I mean -- but as I think Mark commented earlier, distinction has to be mad between the NSA programs that have been the subject of all the controversy, which involves collection here in the United States and the normal sort of mission that that agency has been doing for years and years, which is to say intercepting of communications overseas.
REHMOK. But if the NSA is doing such a good job, why don't we have more specific information? Mark.
MAZZETTIWell, I could defer to my colleagues here. I mean, I think that it's difficult to get any kind of -- if you're looking at trying to foil a terrorist attack, it's probably unlikely rare that they get a specific time, a specific place, a specific manner. So you get little pieces of intelligence, and they say, you know, through a mosaic, you put these together and you try to foil a plot. So they got communications that seems between two Syrian leaders that seemed to indicate a timing but, obviously, not anything more precise.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Back to the skepticism. Are these threats going to make Americans more wary of the NSA or more willing to accept the presence of the NSA in their lives? Philip Mudd.
MUDDI think Americans are really going to struggle with this over the next decade. It's not about the NSA. It's about the question of if you want to understand a network of individuals in the 21st century, those individuals are going to use ATMs. They're going to be on smartphones. They're going to be on email. They're going to be on phones. Some of that's accessible by NSA, some of it by Amazon, some of it by Verizon.
MUDDIf you expect security agencies to understand human activity in the 21st century, that's increasingly digital, even more so, significantly more so, than it was 10 years ago. Everything we touch is digital. So it's going to be this question about saying, we expect the security services to be preventive, to stop everything, but we don't want them to look at our data. That's not a balance that you can strike short term. We're going to have to have a conversation about this.
ZARATEI think Phil's absolutely right, and I think the key question, Diane, is, what's our risk tolerance? The modality post 9/11 has been one where we are demanding of the government to be preventative, to stop attacks before they happen. The whole movement for the FBI is to move toward a more intelligence gathering preventive model versus a post facto case building model.
ZARATEAnd so we have to have a discussion about that because the expectations on government, at least in the post 9/11 era, has been one of being preventative, and that means looking at information, understanding patterns. If we ought to shift that expectation, we're going to have to shift our risk tolerance and our expectations of government.
REHMMark, if there is a worldwide travel alert, does that mean that some American cities are beefing up their own security -- New York, for example?
MAZZETTII think there has been some evidence and reporting of beefing up around airports in some of the major cities. Again, it's a question of how vigorous the response should be. I think the assumption is that this plot would take place overseas. And so there is more effort generated overseas -- for instance, hardening up embassies in east -- Middle East and North Africa.
MAZZETTIBut there is -- and the alert is more geared towards Americans traveling abroad than traveling inside the United States. However, you are seeing, I think, some evidence of, you know, greater caution inside American cities, particularly in airports.
PILLARState and local officials are subject to the same political conditions and public expectations that, as Mark and Phil mentioned earlier, national officials are too. So I expect if you're the mayor of a big city, those same thoughts that Phil was describing a moment ago are going to go through your mind as well. If something happened in my city, even if it were totally unrelated to what's going on in Yemen, but it was something involving terrorism, and I could not point to measures, protective measures I had taken, I know I would suffer politically.
REHMSo what do you think city states around the country, this country, might do, Juan?
ZARATEI think in some cases, Diane, as New York has done in the past, is they're demonstrating for deterrent purposes that they have security in case there are cells or operatives who are thinking about attacking. I think they're trying to gather as much information as possible. I think one of the lessons learned over the past decade is that you can't assume that the intelligence you see in front of you is necessarily a reflection of the totality of the plots that may be out there.
ZARATEAnd so officials, although they're focused overseas, will want to see and understand what may be happening as a reflection of that plot or as an inspiration from that plot here in the homeland. And so you're going to see big cities like New York and L.A. doing things probably visibly and then somewhat more covertly to understand what's happening in their environments.
MAZZETTINo, that's right. I agree with both Juan and Paul on this. I think that -- we saw just several months ago an attack in Boston and the -- how easy it was for a couple of people to create mass terror inside of an American city.
REHMHas security been beefed up in the New York City subways?
MAZZETTIAppears to be, yes.
REHMOK. Short break here. When we come back, time to open the phones for your calls, your comments.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones first to Jacksonville, Fla. Therese, you're on the air.
THERESEYes. I just wanted to make a comment. I'm concerned with the futility of four decades over diesel war games at this point, what we're going to give up in our privacy, what we give up economically and what the Middle East is giving up to human life. And it's time for Americans to question why we're really there. And when is it that we ask, are we the enemy? Are we operating on behalf of petroleum? And we need to really question all of that before this goes too far, before we are finally struck and before we can't stop.
MUDDWe are struggling, I think, and we're in the midst of a major transition in the Middle East between our requirements for security in this country, in other words, security in places like Egypt or in places like Syria, and the shift toward Democratic culture where you see people elected in places like Egypt that make a lot of Americans uncomfortable.
MUDDMy personal view is American value say, when the people speak, we have to respect what they say even if they elect people in the Gaza Strip or Egypt that we don't like. So I think securing America means in some way stomaching the fact that people in that region are electing Islamists that maybe we don't like but they represent the will of the people. We've got to choose security or the will of the people.
ZARATEWell, I think, the caller raises some fundamental and important issues and, I think, reflects sort of a tiredness in the American populace. I think we all feel it. You know, what measures are we going to take? And I think -- the president talked about it last night. I think there is a real tension here because clearly the administration has to react to threats, and we have to react to what's happening in the region. We have interest in the region. It's not just oil, but it's other interests.
ZARATEBut at the same time, we can't overreact, and we can't have our concern over these kinds of threats dominating our foreign policy or national security. And in a sense, that almost gives the terrorists a victory as well. Foreclosing our diplomatic doors, in some ways, we're limiting our influence. And I think we've got to be careful about that.
REHMJuan Zarate is the author of a new book coming out next month "Treasury's War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare." Paul Pillar, are you as concerned as Juan is?
PILLARYes. But I think in response to the questions that Therese raised, the most important aspect is how U.S. involvement overseas can sometimes be counterproductive where, as she put it, sometimes we become the target, become the enemy. And that figures into policy and all sorts of questions. What do we do about Syria? What are we going to do about Afghanistan post-2014? And these are the longer term issues of how we are perceived and how extremists may exploit, you know, U.S. presence and U.S. activities in ways to get right to this terrorist topic.
REHMLet's go to Brunswick, Md. Perry, you're on the air.
PERRYThanks, Diane. I think we're all familiar with Benjamin Franklin's quote, "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both." But my question, basically, is -- it seems to me there's some hypocrisy about the disclosure of information which, perhaps, ought not to be disclosed and during World War II might never have been disclosed to the press in response to repeated 24/7 questions.
PERRYFor example, the raid on Osama bin Laden. We then had a movie based on details. We had intensive discussions and disclosures about SEAL Team Six, which was partially destroyed in some kind of accidental or retaliation incident because the information was out there. Then we have this -- Snowden discloses the information. He is a criminal.
PERRYBut when we have threats that shutdown embassies around a whole region and we're told it's because we overheard conversations, that person who said that to the press, should they have said that, really? Or should they have said, we have information that led us to do it? And the press should just accept it and just go on to something else.
MAZZETTII mean, I think that the press should never sort of just accept things that were told by anyone. And we should be skeptical, and we should, you know, bounce it off to other people. I think that we are in this environment right now where it is, you know, investigative reporting, national security reporting has become very difficult because of various crackdown information, crackdown in leaks.
MAZZETTIYou know, I think you'll see, even the last several days, the information that various news organizations eventually reported about the communications, the administration actually tried to keep the press from reporting that. So it was not a sort of handout to sort of make the NSA look good. It was -- but these issues come up all the time, and this question of what the press should or should not report, especially when these issues are fundamental about life and death, I mean, I think we deal with it every day.
REHMIs there any indication as to when these embassies might reopen? Juan.
ZARATEWell, this is the difficult choice for the administration, Diane, because if we don't get more information, if authorities don't see more detail about threat, they're going to have to make the calculus this weekend as to whether or not to keep some of those embassies and consulates closed. Keep in mind we've been through this before. In 2010, there was a very serious plot believed to be targeting western interest in Europe. That came from al-Qaida core.
ZARATEThere was talk of operatives being in place, Mumbai-style attacks. There was a travel alert, if you recall back then, lots of concern. That faded away. Nothing ever manifested. We never got more detail, and it just sort of faded away. The travel alert lapsed, and we went on our way. And the difficulty here for officials is, if we don't get more information, what do we do?
ZARATEBecause the threat is still out there that al-Qaida wants to hit Western interest. It has these regional affiliates with some degree of capability. Some of it may not be as grand as some contend. But the threat will still be there, and I think a key question in the coming days is, how much longer do we close our doors, and when do we open them again?
MUDDLet me take the listeners inside the threat (word?) for just a moment. When you get threat information that's this vague, the likelihood that you're going to be able to resolve it with a specific piece of information from a terrorist group that says, that threat has now been resolved, that likelihood is low. So you got two options. One is to take the operatives off the battlefield. That might be the intent of some of the drone strikes we've seen recently. The other is to say, all right, we batten down for a few weeks.
MUDDAs Juan said, we can't do this forever. One last thing, I thought it was quite interesting that on the travel warning, the government put an end date on that at the end of August. Back when we're doing this years ago, you would start a threat warning, and then you sit in a room saying, I don't know. How do we get out of this? Well, now they're going to get out of it, I suspect, by saying, we haven't seen anything over the month. At some point, we have to return to normal, and that normal, defined by us, is the end of the month.
PILLARIt is, in fact, typical not just of the threat that we have now but through the years of a threat being implied by the intelligence has gathered, then nothing happens and then we really don't know afterwards whether there wasn't a plot to begin with, or there was, and the bad guys saw the responsive measures and decided to stand down and plan something else for some other day. Sometimes we get further information to reach some conclusions. Usually, we don't.
REHMInteresting. To Cleveland, Ohio. Hi, Dan.
DANHi. How's it going?
DANOK. I've been sitting here listening to these gentlemen, and I...
REHMDan. I'm sorry. Are you on a speakerphone?
DANHang on one second. Thanks for your patience.
DANOK. Is that better?
DANOK. I've been sitting here listening to these gentlemen. I'm listening to people from Washington for the last 12 years and beyond that. And, you know, I'm hearing them speaking the same sense of, like, this dichotomy, like, bad guys and then at the same sense talking about drone strikes. And I just want -- are they still ingrained in this culture in Washington and in the military industrial complex that they don't draft the idea that to some people and the people that they're targeting, they are the terrorists?
REHMAnybody wish to comment?
PILLARThat is a problem of perception of something like a drone strike. It is why the drone strikes -- even if we confine our purview just to counterterrorist objectives -- work in two ways. On one hand, they can take out of commission known terrorists. On the other hand, they can be the source, and have been the source, of resentment and radicalization.
PILLARAnd that is a balance that our leaders have to strike. It reflects, I think, or it is reflected in the stated intent by the president and others to reduce the incidents of drone strikes even though we've seen this latest surge in response to the threat information in Yemen.
REHMBut whatever happened to diplomacy? We had diplomacy in place for decades and decades to try to work out some of these problems. Has that effort pretty much dissipated? Mark.
MAZZETTIWell, we've seen since Sept. 11 attacks is basically war. We've seen an ongoing war, and it's actually been not in just Iraq and Afghanistan. It's been a war around the world. It's been a war outside of declared warzones, in Pakistan, in Yemen, in parts of Africa. I mean, this has been the response to, you know, terrorist groups that the argument is cannot be negotiated with and -- but there is evidence that, obviously, the response can fan the threat even more. It can radicalize.
MAZZETTIYou know, there's anecdotal evidence certainly in May of 2010. A man tried to blow up a truck bomb in Time Square, and he was unsuccessful. But when he was in court, he said the reason he did it was he's of a Pakistani decent. So the reason he did it was because of the drone strikes in Pakistan. Now, you know, it's hard to know yet, I think, what impact this really aggressive, intense war outside of the warzones has had on this, and I think it may be some years before we know blowback could be.
ZARATEWell, maybe I can be accused by Dan of being part of this establishment, but I happen to believe that we're dealing with a group, a network that is at war with us. And that's -- that was the reality before 9/11, reflected on 9/11 and thereafter. One only need look to the conflicts in Nigeria, Somalia, Syria to understand this. And I think one of the things that happens too, Diane, is people don't see some of the successes that have happened. People have forgotten already the 2006 transatlantic plane plot.
ZARATEAl-Qaida wanted to bring down 10 planes flying over the Atlantic. That was a very serious plot disrupted by the British, the Pakistanis and the Americans. There was diplomacy behind that, intelligence cooperation. That was important. But we're dealing with a transnational network that is committed to attacking us.
ZARATEKeep in mind that when the Boston attack happened, there were three interesting arrests around the world, a plot from al-Qaida against the train system in Toronto, a plot in Spain disrupted with the arrests and a plot in Indonesia, all at the same time. And I think people just forget that this is a group that is actually committed to violence, attacks and, frankly, doesn't really want to negotiate with us. They want to achieve their ends.
MUDDI think the fact that Secretary Kerry has been out there recently saying, you know, these attacks might end very soon, reflects that people in government are aware of the balance between ensuring security for America. When you can access al-Qaida and the travel areas of Pakistan with conventional forces and when the Pakistanis can't mitigate threat, you either got a choice of letting the plot proceed or using drones. And so I know the theory but practically -- the theory of blowback.
MUDDBut practically speaking, there aren't many options. The last thing I'd say to Dan is, you know, we're not security professionals, and we're not the military industrial complex. I am you. I live in Memphis, Tenn. I'm American. I grew up at a high school in Miami, Fla. I played baseball. We tried to do the best with a bad hand. And that bad hand is people who contemplate the murder of innocents in American cities. We either move, or we let those plots proceed. It's not easy.
REHMPhilip Mudd, senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, former deputy director at the CIA Counterterrorist Center. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And finally, to Herndon, Va. Hi there, Carolyn. You're on the air.
CAROLYNHi. Yes. Thank you for taking my call.
CAROLYNI was always curious when I hear discussions about the Middle East. I've heard a number of times that traumatic incidents to a nation, such as 9/11, polarize -- actually, they bring everybody together and then they tend to polarize people. And I sort of think of that in terms of the politics of the nation right now that seem profoundly polarized.
CAROLYNAnd then also related to what your guests were talking about the trust of the American people. And I was wondering just on a very -- we have a lot of these conversations about very specific things like drone strikes. And I was wondering if your guests had anything to say about the very large sort of situation of, like, the national psychology in our reaction to this sort of things.
MAZZETTII think it's a very interesting point because the caller is right. There is this fatigue in the country of 12 years of war but also this fatigue about, you know, the big wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so the Obama administration came in and sort of pledged an end to the big wars but has very much embraced the secret wars, has embraced drone strikes. And I think that this policy does, to some degree, reflect the public mood.
MAZZETTIIf you look at polls, Americans don't want American troops in Syria, but they're happy to send drones to go kill people in Syria. Those are what the polls say. And so the drones are, sort of, to some degree the sort of where Americans want -- how they want to deal with the threat because it's remote, it's impersonal, it doesn't involved American lives. It seems like it's cheaper. And so this is this moment we're at right now.
REHMDo you think people are happy with drones, Paul?
PILLARI would agree with Mark that as the poll show it's something that's far away, and the people have thought hard about it, get into the questions we addressed in response to the previous caller. But for most Americans, that's not the main concern. They get more exercise like the -- over things like the privacy issues involved in the NSA collection operations.
REHMAnd here is a tweet to that effect, which says, "I don't want to live under a national security state any more. It's sucking the life out of this country. Fear is not living." Juan.
ZARATEYeah, Diane. This is the danger of these kinds of episode, frankly, that people are just not only tired but are very worried, and it builds a sense of mistrust. I completely agree with the person who tweeted that we've got to be very careful here. But I do think that we do have to have a real debate because the question is, what are we demanding of our government in terms of what we prevent?
ZARATEHow serious is this threat, especially as it evolves? And can we move past sort of the old paradigms and also the politicization of the issue where the game in Washington is a game of gotcha instead of worrying about this balance between privacy and security?
REHMPhilip Mudd, last word.
MUDDYeah. I hate to say this, but I'm with Juan on this one. I thought we took a step forward with Boston. Boston's strong and mourning the dead and grieving the loss of life and injury but moving on. In this case, the step back after 12 years, that this is politicians in Washington saying, this is the biggest threat from nine -- since 9/11.
MUDDFirst of all, it's not. Second of all, the responsibility 12 years in from -- in this campaign is to say, we have a lot to do in this country in terms of the economy, in terms of public health. We can deal with this threat. As the president said, think about it, be careful, but move on. I thought this was a step back the past few days.
REHMPhilip Mudd of the New America Foundation, Juan Zarate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, author of a forthcoming book, "Treasury's War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare." Mark Mazzetti, national security correspondent at The New York Times and author of "The Way of the Knife," and Paul Pillar, he's at Georgetown University, former CIA National Intelligence officer. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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