- - Tuesday, December 8, 2015

“No known terror threats.” This could have been said a minute before the mass shootings in California. When we hear these same kind of words from our senior officials — most recently in the context of the Thanksgiving holiday and the president’s recent Oval Office address — we really should be alarmed at the literal meaning of them.

Why? The terror threats that have killed thousands of us over the years have not been “known,” nor is this likely to change unless and until we make some fundamental policy and program adjustments in our basic approaches to national security.

We get very little good human intelligence, or HUMINT, on pending terror attacks. This is nothing new and reflects the breakdown of the CIA’s ability to collect human intelligence. I first wrote about this almost 10 years ago in The Washington Times and nothing much has changed. Meaningful improvements are still 10 to 20 years away. However, we will never have effective HUMINT operations until and unless basic structural changes are imposed on the intelligence community. For some useful examples, we should study how the Chinese, Cubans and Israelis collect HUMINT — because compared to them, we seem to be perpetual rookies.

As far as our basic cybersecurity goes, we are the most inviting “soft target set” in the world. This is because most of our “critical infrastructure” is in our private sector. The irony is that — so far — the best we can do is to urge the private sector to tell the Department of Homeland Security about cyber-attacks. This approach has not worked well in the past, as corporate leaderships don’t want to disclose cyber-penetrations because of adverse customer and investor reactions. If we are really serious about our cybersecurity, we must enable more proactive measures, including “stress testing” of our most critical cyber-infrastructures, both public and private.

A proven and effective approach to defending against “unknown” terror attacks should be structured around carefully managed “red teams,” chartered to think and plan like terrorists. Red teams are used to develop patterns of activity indicative of terrorist planning. Then, rather than data mining, which involves searching for statistically significant patterns, red team-developed patterns are used to search for those specific patterns. We did some of this right after Sept. 11, 2001, and discovered some rather shocking things about how vulnerable to terrorism attacks we really were. However, the intelligence bureaucracy typically does not encourage red teams, mostly because they tend to expose failures and shortcomings that someone could be blamed for. However, it’s much better to discover weaknesses before an “event” such as Sept. 11 or Paris, than after it, which we typically do as a result of a 9/11-type Commission. Even then, too much of the effort seems focused on avoiding responsibility for what happened. You don’t believe me? Who on our side was most responsible for failing to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks? Anyone?

Over the past 75 years — and especially true at the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack — we seem unable to take meaningful action against even an obvious and imminent threat until after we are attacked. This general approach must change if we are to survive the next century of asymmetric warfare against us, presently manifested as terrorism. What other shapes might this kind of threat take in the coming decades? This analysis will require the attention of our very best national security experts and should result in new strategic policies that include focus on the attribution of dangerous acts by lesser entities than states — whether state-sponsored or not.

Nothing in our policies should act to limit massive lethal action against threats simply because they may also have a religious connection of some kind. Closely behind this issue is a more fundamental one: Is it possible for all of Islam — or even most of it — to truly assimilate into other societies, especially democracies? So far, the European “experiment” that began various Islamic assimilations in the 1960s has not worked well, with the recent Paris violence as dramatic proof. What is needed is a modern Islamic reformation of some kind, such as other religions have engaged in over the spectrum of history. The rest of the world should both encourage and hold Islamic leaders responsible for such a process, which could easily take several decades.

Likewise, and in this same respect, we need to have a critical review of our policies and relationships — all of them — with Saudi Arabia, the long-term financial and ideological benefactor of much of the religion-based terrorism emanating from the Middle East. In fact, it has never been a surprise to find that Saudi money is directly or indirectly behind activities detrimental to our most fundamental national security interests. This simply cannot continue for the long term and we need to think seriously about the need and criteria for regime change — for a number of reasons. The status quo in Saudi Arabia may be in no one’s best interests — other than the royal family.

Likewise, our threshold for misbehavior from Iran, especially with regard with their 30-plus-year “covert” nuclear weapons program, should be very low. Credible information that the mullahs have renewed or continued their nuke weapons program should be compelling, if not presumptive, grounds for immediate and massive military intervention. Bottom line: Iran simply cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons because they will most likely use them, directly or indirectly, on us.

There are a great many serious terror-related threats we should be worried about, especially as we posture to choose our next national leadership. Just as important, we have lots of basic policy work to get our national security house in order — if we hope to survive the next wave of terror attacks against us, especially the ones we won’t “know” about.

Daniel Gallington served in senior national security positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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