Thursday, May 20, 2010

Timing is everything

First the news that broke late in the day, and this comes from Politico.com --

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair is resigning, administration officials confirm. His resignation comes in the wake of a highly critical Senate report this week that laid a large part of blame for the attempted Christmas Day airplane attack on the DNI’s National Counterterrorism Center.

The National Counterterrorism Center was where I was today, as The Washington Center's "Top Secret" academic seminar continued.

The Center is impressive, and as I listened to various speakers I was struck by one element consistent in all of them -- a real belief that they are doing something for the good of the country. Sure, there should be a vibrant public discussion about counterterrorism and the concerns about privacy, but let's not deny that there are plenty of men and women deeply committed to protecting the country.

Our initial speaker of the day (and you'll recall that because of the lack of clarity about on-the-record versus off-the-record sessions at the NCTC that I am intentionally stripping detail from the sessions) was NCTC Director Michael Leiter.

He offered an analogy about the job of counterterrorism that I thought the students were impressed with. He reminded students that local police officers regularly patrol banks, which also are protected by armed guards and alarm systems. Nevertheless, back robberies are a fact of life in this country. In fact, dare I say, we almost take them for granted, considering the number of times they are reported in the news.

Mr. Leiter's point: No amount of security is full-proof; bank robbers strike, and so, too, can terrorists. Let's also not forget about a crucial difference -- terrorists hope to kill more than they hope to steal, but they win the moment fear is ingrained in American society. The more we fear what might happen, the more we are allowing them to defeat us. (And, yes, that point also was made today by our hosts.)

He and other speakers pointed up another important idea (and it is one that I've discussed this week with the students assigned to me) -- just how much security will American citizens tolerate? Consider this: Let's assume the government allowed the NCTC and the security agencies with which it shares intelligence information to hire 300,000 people to protect the country. Those hires could fill any legitimate security role. Are you aware of the privacy and civil liberties concerns that will flow from such a decision?

I think most people understand what the NCTC's mission is -- in Leiter's words, to collect intelligence in order to "paint the most realistic picture" of the various threats the U.S. faces from individuals and groups around the world. Moreover, recognize that while the media and (too many) politicians think of what is happening right now, terrorist organizations are thinking in decades or generations.

The news about Mr. Blair's resignation broke while our groups were returning from the NCTC. Of course, a few of the faculty began to speculate on who his replacement might be. The speculation also has started in the media.

Stay tuned.

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