Eric Schmitt Q&A: Terrorism, 9/11, Al Qaeda

Eric Schmitt, New York Times senior writer and author of “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda” presented to DCFR recently. The following is a brief interview with DCFR president Jennifer Warren.

Jennifer Warren: What group in the U.S. government do you think has had to change the most to adapt to the threats of terrorism we now face in the world?

Eric Schmitt: In the campaign against terrorism, all U.S. government agencies have had to change since 9/11 to adapt to the threat to humanity. Perhaps the agency that had to change the most is the FBI. It’s gone from being largely focused on traditional crime, white collar crime, and other types of crime to being designated as the chief domestic counterterrorism agency for the U.S. government; that has meant a whole shift in resources, and change in the approach to how they combat problems. Since the beginning, the FBI has been focused on what they consider “the case” and how you build evidence for a case in a court of law, whether criminal or civil.

These efforts are quite different. They are chasing terrorists, and acting more like an intelligence agency, collecting information and analyzing it without necessarily acting on it right away. The mindset of the FBI has had to change and its use of resources. Many more intelligence analysts have been added to work alongside agents in the field for the right combinations.

JW: Would this be considered a change in culture?

ES: Absolutely. There is a shift from being a very prominent and pre-eminent law enforcement agency (which of course it still is) to also being a domestic intelligence agency, working closely with other partners in government and overseas partners. The FBI now sends scores of agents overseas and has offices overseas to work with the law enforcement agencies of other countries, tracking down leads that could eventually link to possible terrorist-type operations in the US.

JW: Do you think the U.S. government has cracked the DNA of terrorist organizations? Or is this a fast-mutating organism that replicates and adapts?

ES: I think the U.S. deals with terrorism much better than it did around 9/11, while still having a long way to go. In our book, we describe this as a new kind of Darwinism where the U.S. government has developed an approach, a counterapproach to combat terrorists. But the terrorists are an agile, adaptive enemy, particularly Al Qaeda. You see the terrorists trying to evade the technical surveillance advantages the US has and our counterterrorism approaches. The U.S. understands more what Al Qaeda is. It’s a networked organization made up of various components. You can attack individual components. You can degrade the overall effectiveness of the organization without having to tackle it all at once. But, you’re dealing with a very nimble enemy. Certainly the Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan has been hurt. However this fight will go on for many years.

JW: Over the last couple of years, how would you characterize the war on terror related to Pakistan with its role as a supplier of terrorists and a friend the U.S.?

ES: Pakistan poses probably one of the toughest foreign policy challenges for the US government today. It has been a partner with the U.S. since 9/11 in tracking down various Al Qaeda elements that are inside Pakistan. Some of the top leaders of Al Qaeda have been found there obviously, including Osama bin Laden this last May. But as you said, Pakistan, particularly its spy service the ISI, has also been one of the main sponsors of organizations that are fighting Americans in Afghanistan, such as the Taliban, amongst others.

The long-term interests and strategic interests of Pakistan and the US are not completely aligned. The U.S. obviously has more short-term interests. President Obama has already announced that the bulk of U.S. troops will withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. Pakistan looks at this in a much longer time frame. They worry about their arch-enemy India having more influence in Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves; so they are willing to support some of these militant groups, who are acting as their proxies against India and its growing interest in Afghanistan. It creates a great deal of tension in this relationship. It’s not a relationship however that the U.S. can afford to walk away from because of the nature of Pakistan and the number of militant groups that are operating there, and oftentimes working for a common cause on certain operations. Perhaps most worrisome, Pakistan has over a hundred nuclear weapons and it’s facing off against its rival India, which is also a nuclear arms state. This is one of the main reasons why the US has to remain engaged with Pakistan, even as it draws down its forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

JW: What do you think about the idea of exposing too much about intelligence in the public domain?

ES: Anytime we come across classified information, as we do at the NY Times and in this book, we always contact the government agency responsible for the information—be it the CIA, the defense department, or other agencies. We communicate our plans in using the information in the story. If they have reason to believe this information and its publication could jeopardize national security, American lives on the ground, servicemen, or jeopardize tactics, techniques, or procedures that the government may want to use again, let us know. That’s not to say the government has the right of censorship over this, because in many cases the terrorists already know of the techniques being used against them. In fact, the U.S. government sometimes may want these techniques to be known because it could have a deterrent effect.

In our book, we were very careful, as we are everyday, in dealing with classified information. If there is some objection, the government can make a legitimate case as to why that information shouldn’t be included. With the cutting edge topic of cyber terrorism, there were some details that we excluded from the book at the request of the government. We don’t feel the reader is any less informed for that. We don’t know exactly the details that could help terrorists defend themselves against the surveillance or cyber operations the U.S. agencies are now able to conduct.

JW: From a 20,000-foot view, do you think anything could have been done differently or more effectively than was done from pre-9/11, the decade following, and even now?

ES: The 9/11 Commission is a great document to review as to what didn’t go right obviously and all the failures of the government. In many ways, the U.S. government didn’t understand what Al Qaeda was or how it operated. So when terrorism hit, many in the government were taken aback. There were many clues that Al Qaeda was planning to attack the U.S. forces. Just before the time of 9/11, there was the bombing of the USS Cole warship in Yemen by Al Qaeda. The 1996 attacks of Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia was carried out by the terrorist group Hezbollah Al-Hejaz. In the Clinton Administration, officials had identified Al Qaeda as a serious risk. President Clinton countered this to a degree but it wasn’t something the government felt warranted sending troops into Afghanistan for. Even when President Bush came into office, they were not focused on terrorism as a priority either. Terrorism was something that happened overseas. Domestic terrorism, like Oklahoma City, affected us, but the Bush Administration in early 2001 is much more involved with missile defense and rogue missiles coming from North Korea or the rising potential threat from China.

JW: So was a full blown-out war the best strategy?

ES: Certainly it was understandable and probably necessary to go into Afghanistan initially to kick out Al Qaeda and topple the Taliban government. What didn’t happen though was to finish the job, as these terrorist elements fled into Pakistan. The US took its eye off that ball before it was completely finished, and shifted over into Iraq, which was not a terrorist haven at that time. The government had its issues with Saddam Hussein, of course, but that’s a whole different story. Iraq did not become a terrorist threat or magnet until the U.S. invaded Iraq, and it then became a draw for jihadis and terrorists all over the world, particularly from the Middle East.

In the meantime, the job in Afghanistan/Pakistan was not finished so you allow that element of the Taliban to regenerate, rearm, restock, and basically come back again. We are fighting them again because we didn’t finish that fight early on, when we had them really down and out.

JW: What year was that exactly?

This is 2001 and early 2002, when Al Qaeda and Bin Laden flees from his Tora Bora hideout in northeastern Afghanistan in December 2001. The last vestiges of the Taliban government are also falling by that time. You have your last major battle with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan early 2002, March or so. But by then the government is already starting to shift its attention, focus and resources to a war in Iraq, which starts a year later.

JW: So a decade is lost in a way… What methods, ideas, and/or practices did you find most effective in addressing, combating and deterring the long war on terror?

ES: We call it a holistic approach in the book. This is a combination of the traditional approaches of using the military—bombs and bullets, and what spies do very well, but also it incorporates more efforts of different federal agencies engaged in the campaign against terrorists. It’s actually the agencies you normally wouldn’t think of. In the State Department, for instance, diplomats are much more involved in embassies, trying to help those countries identify the root causes of terrorism. They are developing fine-grained strategies tailored right down to the neighborhood level and how to address the problems.

The FBI is now sending agents overseas to track down terrorists. Interestingly, Treasury is very important in stamping down the financing element for terrorists. You want to be able to use different tools at different times, like choke off their funds, if that is the optimal tool. You don’t have to always send in a SEAL team.

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