COLORADO SPRINGS | The new commander of the U.S. military's homeland security forces is stepping up cooperation with Mexico in an effort to stem drug trafficking and related violence.
Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., in his first newspaper interview since taking over in May as commander of U.S. Northern Command, said he is worried about the potentially devastating effects of a cyber-attack and that he remains concerned about the growing terrorist threat of what he termed "shot-on-goal" attacks, like the recent attempted car bombing in New York's Times Square.
On Mexican drug violence, Adm. Winnefeld said he has increased the priority for dealing with drug cartels, which continue to operate in the United States. "I'm ramping up the priority on our very close partnership with Mexico, a very interesting nation with some very courageous political leadership right now," he said.
Adm. Winnefeld said the "struggle" over Mexican drug trafficking and violence is taking place in several different areas, or "theaters," including inside the United States, in Mexico, along the U.S. border with Mexico and near Mexico's southern borders, as well as in the seas near the U.S. and Mexican coasts.
"So as you examine those theaters, where are the decisive theaters? The two real decisive theaters are the U.S. and Mexico," he said. "Inside the U.S., [it's] reducing demand for drugs, for example, with reducing the movement of weapons and cash to the south into Mexico, and also going after the tentacles of the cartel's networks that have found their way into the U.S., to include gangs and the like."
The U.S. military is working with Mexico's military and police forces to provide training and equipment, and to help set up an intelligence center, he said.
Adm. Winnefeld said the U.S., rather than simply providing training, is working toward "shared experience, because we really are co-equal partners in this thing."
"Our relationship is on a very good trajectory, military to military," he said, noting meetings last month in Mexico with senior military and defense leaders.
In particular, the Mexicans have asked for Northcom's help in setting up a joint intelligence center, like those formed by the U.S. military in Europe and Asia.
"They'd like to know how we put together fusion cells like we have done overseas that are able to bring all forms of intelligence together and connect it with operations so that they can be much more effective and efficient in the way they take on the cartels," Adm. Winnefeld said.
Adm. Winnefeld made his comments as President Obama plans to reform U.S. immigration policies, a politically charged issue.
Arizona's government recently enacted a state law that allows police to check immigration status with probable cause, after stopping someone on other grounds.
In May, Mr. Obama ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to increase security, and the administration is seeking $500 million to improve border protection and law enforcement efforts.
On the terrorism threat, Adm. Winnefeld said the danger that terrorists will obtain and use weapons of mass destruction continues to be a paramount worry.
"I would say that the thing that we all worry about most is a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist," he said. "If they had it, they'd use it if they could. And so we try to do everything we can, in conjunction with our partners, to prevent that from happening. And we also have a very important role at this command in mitigating the effects, if it does happen."
Terrorists also are stepping up use of a tactic that he termed the "shot-on-goal" approach.
"We have to be perfect 100 percent of the time — the old cliche. They only have to get it right once," Adm. Winnefeld said. "The Times Square attack would have been a fairly small attack, but it would have been a very high-profile thing that would have thrown a scare into the country.
"So we worry about all those potential places where there could be a potential shot-on goal," he said.
U.S. Northern Command also plays a major role in defending against the threat of a weapon of mass destruction attack delivered by a "rogue nation, such as North Korea or Iran," he said.
The command is "on track" with this role and is the "trigger puller" for interceptor missiles deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Fort Greely, Alaska, he said.
Adm. Winnefeld said the command was on alert for any type of North Korean missile tests, as had occurred on previous July Fourth holidays. However, there were no signs that North Koreans were preparing to test-fire a long-range Taepodong or other missile. "At the moment, we're not seeing any indication that they would be testing a long-range missile," he said during the interview, conducted June 28.
Adm. Winnefeld, who is Northcom commander and leader of the joint U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), defended the Pentagon's decision to shift the NORAD operations center from the protected underground facility at nearby Cheyenne Mountain to an underground facility at Northcom's headquarters, adjacent to Colorado Springs Airport.
The proximity has raised concerns among security specialists that a hijacked aircraft could be used to attack the operations center and knock out strategic missile-warning and aircraft-monitoring capabilities.
Adm. Winnefeld said there is a danger but that it is minimal.
"I wouldn't change a thing that we have right now," he said. "It was a smart move to build the headquarters that we did in this building, which happens to be underneath the ground here outside my window.
"No place is 100 percent secure, but that is secure from almost any kind of attack, realistically, that we could see," he said. "Now, if someone got on an airplane and got incredibly lucky and dived in on the exact spot on this building, would they take out the command center? Probably. But I think the odds of that are pretty small. And if they did, I've got really good backup."
The Cheyenne Mountain complex is still used by NORAD and Northcom as a backup facility, along with other command-and-control nodes across the country.
Adm. Winnefeld said he is working hard to improve the command's partnerships, whether it be with state National Guard or civilian agencies, such as the Homeland Security Department and law enforcement agencies.
Asked what keeps him awake at night, Adm. Winnefeld said he is most worried about "the unknown unknowns," such as terrorists working on some type of novel attack for which the United States might not be prepared.
"Remember, terrorist organizations like to use our freedoms against us," he said. "They are not going to give up, so we have to be constantly thinking what's next."
Adm. Winnefeld said he also worries about a computer-based cyber-attack that could disrupt vital services and systems.
"I refer to it as the ultimate long-range weapon of mass destruction, because a kid at a computer could be doing this," he said.
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