Sunday, July 22, 2007

Meet the Press with the Director of National Intelligence

Tonight I would like to review the more important aspects of today’s Meet the Press interview conducted by Tim Russert. Mr. Russert’s guest was Admiral John Michael McConnell, the current United States Director of National Intelligence. The interview focused primarily on the present threat that is posed by terrorists on the American homeland. The recently issued National Intelligence Estimate, dealing with just such an issue, was used as an informative backdrop and was cited frequently during Mr. Russert’s questioning.

Foremost, I want to declare that I am an avid follower of Meet the Press. I don’t particularly care how the host leans politically. I don’t know a whole lot about Mr. Russert’s involvement in the Scooter Libby investigation and I don’t know much about who he supports politically. I do, however, know that he typically presents interviews that ask the questions that I want to see answered. I haven’t been privy to him pulling punches for members of either side of the political aisle and I trust that watching Meet the Press will satisfactorily employ my time in a valuable method.

The full transcript of the Russert / McConnell discussion can be accessed HERE.

Tim Russert Interviews Admiral McConnell

In the early stage of the interview, Russert asked the Director to explain what is currently targeted by terrorists bent on antagonizing Americans. While indicating the usual and predictable government and largely populated sites as potential danger spots, McConnell also pointed out that terrorists have a strong desire to cause havoc on “economic targets that would have long-lasting impact.” Russert then continuously attempted to move the conversation towards the more popular issue of weapons composed of nuclear, biological and/or chemical agents. It is these economical targets that I want to briefly address.

This is an avenue that scares me. I can’t live my life in fear of facing mortality because a person opposing my nation’s beliefs might cause my airplane to fall out of the sky. I don’t suggest that you do either; in this case, I hold steadily to the premise that if “it is your time to go, than it is, indeed, your time to go.” I do, however, worry that an attack on economical or computer-based infrastructure might cause serious harm to every American’s typical way of life.

What’s worse is that I do not know if we could stop such an attack if one has the knowledge and means to conduct one. With all the technological security available on our side, I still have an uneasy feeling that no such implantation could totally block a massive attack on this sort of equipment. The collateral damage that would be sustained if, say, the networking infrastructure behind the stock market were to go offline, even momentarily, would be, in my view, tremendous. It is this kind of attack that invokes apprehension. Moreover, it is this type of attack that I believe will soon become the preferred weapon of choice among terrorists. They will soon come to realize that on a battleground composed of weapons and blood, America and our allies will eventually win. With this in mind, other tactics will have to be utilized. An attack on economic or technological infrastructure is just one of those tactics that I see coming into play.

Mr. Russert then questioned if America really is any safer today then it was six years ago when we sustained the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. Director McConnell went a long way in satisfying these concerns. He cited, for example, that today “the National Counterterrorism Center, which conducts, three times a day, a teleconference with all the players—federal level, state level, international [in an effort to identify terrorist activity]” is a new tool in preventing such dangers.

It is important to note that there has been progress made in these efforts. As a Republican, I am generally against the development of larger bureaucratic entities. Democrats, on the hand, are quick to point out the continued shortcomings of Bush administration-developed agencies in the War on Terror. Wherever your bias may lie, it is still shortsighted to suggest that some of these new developments haven’t been successful. The Intelligence Director seemed genuinely convinced that we are safer a country today then we were prior to September 11th, 2001. I would have to think we are. Efforts have been made and, as unfortunate as it was that such devastation had to occur to spur these developments, they have been implemented nonetheless and we should be thankful for it.

Maybe the most interesting portion of the interview occurred next. Mr. Russert pinned the Director into a position of having to explain how and why the most recent National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Al Qaeda has grown in influence despite our continued war against their efforts. I found Admiral McConnell’s response quite interesting:

What changed? In Pakistan, where they’re enjoying a safe haven, the government of Pakistan chose to try a political solution. The political solution meant a peace treaty with a region that’s never been governed—not governed from the outside, not governed by Pakistan. The opposite occurred. Instead of pushing al-Qaeda out, the people who live in the—these federally- administered tribal areas, rather than pushing al-Qaeda out, they made a safe haven for training and recruiting.

I am in no position to question the intentions of Pakistan President Musharraf. McConnell would later state repeatedly that Musharraf is one of America’s most reliable allies in the region. However, this answer is a simple explanation to a phenomenon that seems to be high priority for everyone involved to spin. How has Al Qaeda grown? It has grown because the tribal areas of Pakistan have persisted as a breeding ground for such growth.

This isn’t entirely Musharraf’s fault. In fact, the peace that the Pakistani President attempted was probably the most viable solution. This area is one that has been historically out of the control of the federally presiding Pakistani body. And, frankly, Pakistan doesn’t have the ability to quell it through the use of force. American intervention might help, but American intervention in Pakistan (at least on a large, overt scale) is not something currently feasible.

So the dynamic here is one nearly undeniable. Any solution is a tough one. However, in my view, one solution is currently being played out: Allow Al Qaeda to grow in these tribal areas of Pakistan. We can’t prevent it, but we can provide battlegrounds outside of America to destroy these newly formed participants. Those battlegrounds exist in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I think it true to suggest that we are killing them as they develop. If you disagree, endeavor to ask Abu Musab al Zarqawi or Sheik Abd Al Rahman. Both were high ranking Al Qaeda in Iraq officials and both are now dead.

However, on the same note, Mr. Russert was successful in coercing the Intelligence Director into admitting that the Iraq war has been a thriving recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. However, concerning that subject Admiral McConnell described it as “mutually beneficial.” He then went on to demonstrate that Islamic extremism exists throughout a large segment of the world and, because of the Iraq situation, Al Qaeda has been able to unite these extremists in ways not available before.

However, the use of the term “mutually beneficial” by the Director reflects my point above. Islamic extremism has existed for quite a while now. As we all know, the collapse of the World Trade Center wasn’t the first attack on American soil. That being said, the situation in Iraq has allowed those who wish to do so to unite in their terrorist cause. Should this necessarily be seen as a bad thing? I believe there is a direct correlation between the development of unity between Islamic radicals and Coalition Forces’ ability to systematically destroy them. It is much easier to follow the network of terrorists when they are connected by less isolated degrees. As long as they stay inter-weaved with each other and continue to send agents of this web to battlegrounds such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the more likely that American and ally forces will be able to travel from one terrorist to the next, effectively killing or capturing them. In this sense, the development of Al Qaeda as a unified body is, in fact, “mutually beneficial.”

Mr. Russert moved on to the subject of American-justified torture. This has been in the news recently as the President has signed a new order specifying what actions can and can not be performed when attempting to coerce information from suspected terrorist individuals. For obvious reasons, Director McConnell couldn’t be completely forthcoming on what tactics are now permitted. However, he did say something that I have never considered before. It is worth noting:

Because, because they [suspected terrorists] believe these techniques might involve torture and they don’t understand them, they tend to speak to us, talk to us in very—a very candid way.

Without context, this statement may seem a bit grim. One would almost infer that the Director is suggesting that America does conduct methods of torture. That is not what he is suggesting. The point he makes is much more interesting.

America has the luxury of not having to conduct torture. However, the enemy that we face has proven to be far from adverse to such acts themselves. So when they are captured by Americans, the only method of interrogation they understand is the method that they employ themselves; the use of torture. Simply by assuming that they will be tortured, the suspected terrorists tend to divulge information without our forces needing to conduct any sort of harsh measures.

The problem, as I stated in a previous blog, is that Americans have such in-depth access to the strategies that we implement and that journalists dig so deep that we are losing the advantage. It is paramount to our successful continued employment of interrogation for the terrorists to not know what to expect. If torture is being conducted then those involved must be held accountable. On the same note, however, there is value in keeping our means secret. This secrecy, in and of itself, allows us not to have to utilize rough provisions. As soon as the enemy is 100 % sure that America will only treat them with kid gloves, we lose the edge. I often wish that media, while staying true to their duty to inform the public, would also hold themselves accountable to the greater consequences of their reports.

And, finally, on the issue of Iraq, Mr. Russert instigated Admiral McConnell into explaining the relationship between Al Qaeda and sectarian violence. Mr. Russert asked:

In terms of the violence in Iraq, which is—which creates more of the violence—which is the greater cause for violence, sectarian conflict or al-Qaeda?

The Director did an excellent job of clarifying that the differing aspects of violence in Iraq are mutual in their existence. Pundits are quick to describe the situation in-country as a “civil war.” Opponents of this description tend to depict the conflict as being a battle between terrorists and their enemies. Admiral McConnell explained that one ultimately led to the other:

And al-Qaeda is the, the one that takes—is the organization that attempts purposefully to serve as an accelerant, attacking things like the, the mosque, the grand mosque that was destroyed over a year ago, and then revisiting with attacking the two minarets that were still up. The whole purpose is something massive against the Shia or against something the Shia holds sacred to act as an accelerant to stimulate, stimulate the violence.

The choice of the word “accelerant” is apt. Based on my experience in the country, I can attest that there is no civil war on-going in Iraq. In fact, I believe that the typical Iraqi, whether Shia, Sunni, or other, is prepared to embrace stability. It is extremists who, by overstepping the boundaries of their own belief systems, are instigating the in-fighting. As soon as calm settles in, a terrorist conducts an operation to upset this condition. Sectarian violence ensues in response. The key to slowing this trend is to establish multi-sectarian government within the country and destroying those on the edge bent on destabilizing the process. I feel that is exactly what is occurring. It is taking time and it is an effort that is quickly wearing on American patience. However, I hope that candid discussion such as that presented by Admiral McConnell will develop in Americans the ability to visualize the objectives sought through our continued presence in the region.

I would absolutely love to hear your own reaction to the Director’s discourse. Feel free to respond via the comment form below or by email. Also, if you found my assessment of Admiral McConnell’s words at all stimulating, you may also find some interest in my dissection of the current “surge” strategy in Baghdad accessible in the second part of THIS edition of Educated Soldier.

Thank you!

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