US safer 12 years after 9/11, but threat has evolved, experts say

This year, conflicts past, present and future are casting a shadow over the anniversary of the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. While President Barack Obama and other federal leaders hold remembrance ceremonies, others are examining how well the government is countering today’s biggest threats.

Are we safer now than we were 12 years ago?

According to Chad Sweet, the chief executive officer of The Chertoff Goup and former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, the results speak for themselves.

“If anyone asks themselves the question on the day after 9/11 … would you have taken a $1 million wager that 12 years from now that we’d have less than 100 casualties on U.S. soil while still remaining an open and free country, I think many of us would never have been willing to take that bet,” Sweet told Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Wednesday. “But that’s exactly what’s happened. It’s an astonishing accomplishment and it’s a real credit to the men and women of our military who kept the threat abated abroad as well as the homeland security team of the FBI, DHS and others that are protecting us here at home.”

The methods the U.S. uses to counter terrorism have evolved since 9/11. At the same time, the nature of terrorism has evolved as well, Sweet said.

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The materials gathered from the assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound revealed a heated debate going on between the older and younger generations of al-Qaida operatives. The younger generation was pushing for lower level attacks that would radicalize isolated individuals, while bin Laden wanted to focus on large, iconic attacks.

“Ironically, by killing bin Laden, we’ve almost unleashed a generation 2.0, which is more of a decentralized cancer that’s matastisized and these isolated individuals who are being radicalized over the Internet, as we saw in the case of Nidal Hasan in Fort Hood or the Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston bombing — that is an extremely real threat,” Sweet said.

Recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of American citizens have raised concerns about whether the government has intruded too far on the public’s civil liberties in pursuit of terrorist suspects.

Sweet pointed out that the NSA does not target Americans through its 215 Program when it aggregates metadata, despite what press reports may lead one to believe.

“If you think about a haystack, in order for you to search a haystack, you have to have the hay,” he said. “What that program does is it aggregates hay and it removes any personally identifiable information. So, it only has phone numbers. It doesn’t have any names or addresses. It doesn’t even have, despite what you’ve heard in the press, it doesn’t even have geolocation on there. So, what that has done, we believe, has struck a balance between not violating individual citizen’s civil rights. Access to the haystack still has to go through oversight that all three branches reviewed and approved. All three branches continue to audit and which follow the standard [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] court procedures.”

In 2012, the 215 Program was only accessed about 300 times and yielded 54 successful disruptions. “If you think about that, that’s a very strong result,” Sweet said. “Three hundred accesses and you get literally 54 thwarted plots. That’s a very impressive track record for this program. I think we are striking the right balance.”

Sweet argued the opposite lesson was learned in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston.

“These programs were not able to be used to monitor these two individuals. … He was actually posting openly on Facebook and had radical, violent Islamist imans on his website,” he said. “This is after the Russian intelligence agency had tipped us off. So, the question there is, do we need to do a program if someone’s out there in open public stating these things? Is that fair game? I think we should have a debate about that as a nation and set a policy.”

Beyond the threat of an attack by a lone-wolf operative, DHS handles state- sponsored terrorism on a variety of fronts.

“To be blunt, al-Qaida is very dangerous, but Hezbollah is really what I call ‘The A-Team,'” Sweet said. “If you look at the plots that they’ve successfully excecuted and the way they do it, they’re almost a paramilitary-type organization and an extension of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. So, Hezbollah is backing and fighting to support Assad in Syria. If we do an attack to oppose that, there is a very real possiblity that there will be activation of Hezbollah cells within the United States to extract retribution upon us.”

DHS will be monitoring for state-sponsored cells within the U.S. and preparing to “roll them up” or follow them to get more intelligence. Sweet said.

“But, I think it does highlight the very real threat today in a world where a nation like Syria doesn’t have international ballistic missiles that they can fire at us, one of the few tools that they have that they can exact retribution on us is by doing low-level terrorist attacks that incite fear within our borders,” Sweet said.

The second area of attack is cyber.

“Whether it’s the terrorists’ threats out there or other others associated with that, the way that they can be successful in an asymmetic way is to hurt us, and that makes cybersecurity even more important,” said Mike Brown, vice president and general manager for the public sector at RSA.

A former Navy rear admiral, he told the Federal Drive that part of the maturation of the cybersecurity process for agencies is learning how and where to implement continuous monitoring.

“You’ve had the perimeter defense that’s been put in place,” Brown said. “Things that we’ve seen in the past for both the Department of Defense and the civilian agencies. But now it’s how do you continuously assess your effectiveness in that environment? Do you understand what the risks are and what your individual priorities are?”

NSA, the agency with the greatest insight into cybersecurity, has worked in recent years to build trust within the private sector. However, revelations from Edward Snowden about the agency’s surveillance practices may have impacted the NSA’s ability to gain trust in the area of cybersecurity information and threat sharing.

Brown said that’s why transparency is so important.

“As long as we can clearly articulate that there are procedures in place, that there’s oversight, that you’ve got the right authorities,” he said. “I come from the perspective that is a good thing because our adversaries are coming and abusing our own privacy. So, when we look at it from our cybersecurity strategies and the products and the things that we’re doing, either as a company or working with multiple companies or working in a public and private partnership type of venue, it is about what steps can we do to protect the individual privacy or the intellectual properties of companies.”