Michael Chertoff speaks on global security challenges
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Michael Chertoff

Michael Chertoff, former US Homeland Security Secretary, spoke at VIF on the subject of ‘Global Security Challenges - Lessons of the Past year’ on 7th December 2009. Introducing the speaker, VIF Director Ajit Doval in his introductory remarks praised the efforts of Michael Chertoff which have till date effectively thwarted any more terrorist strike on the soil of US.

Secretary Chertoff began with emphasising that it has been a little more than one year since 26/11 attacks in Mumbai and the event of that day serves as a reminder about the challenges of terrorism that pervade throughout the globe.

“As I look back, it's perhaps useful if I talk about my own experience living through September 11, 2001. The approach that we took after 9/11, I think, may bear some instructive elements to the kind of challenges India faces today based on its recent experience in November 2008”, Chertoff said. 

He recalled that on September 11, 2001, he was the head of the criminal division at the US Department of Justice - equivalent of chief prosecutor for the US federal courts. In that capacity, it was Chertoff’s responsibility to determine who carried out the attack, track anybody who was part of the conspiracy and most importantly work with other elements of the United States Government to put into effect a new architecture to prevent future terror attacks.

Secretary Chertoff went on to list institutional lessons that the US authorities drew from the failures that led to September 11, “so that we could take steps to make sure that those failures were not repeated.” Three lessons were concluded almost immediately:

  • There had been a failure on the part of the institutions of the United States Government to combine and integrate the individual bits of intelligence which might have pointed the way to detecting and hopefully frustrating the attacks of September 11.  “The expression that we used was 'failure to connect the dots',” Chertoff remarked. 
  • The United States Government had been mistaken in treating Al-Qaeda and it's declaration of war against the United States as merely a police matter - as something that could be dealt with in a traditional way the law and enforcement address trans-national criminality. Chertoff said: “By regarding this declaration of war as if it were as a merely a law enforcement matter we did not fully use the tools that were available to us -the elements of national power to strike at the terrorists in a way that might have preempted their attack against us.”
  • There was no existing mechanism for planning and coordinating operations in emergency situation among civilian agencies, unlike the case with military agencies. Every agency performed its own functions. They were not knit together in a way that led to joint planning, and they were not knit together in a way that allowed the US government to execute a unified unity of efforts in responding to an attack that had occurred in a military context rather than a civilian context.

With these lessons, Chertoff outlined the crucial step that the US took to reduce the risks of another 9/11.  It put into effect the legal and institutional architecture necessary to enable the security agencies “to connect the dots”. This was to collect and integrate intelligence information in a way that would maximize rather than impair their ability to identify threats before they could be materialized. 

Chertoff explained the core idea behind this new approach: “In the 20th century when we were concerned about acts of war that might be launched by an unfriendly power using bombers and missiles, we relied on radars and early warning systems to protect ourselves to identify threats. But radar does not work in an era of asymmetrical warfare where the threats comes under cover of civilian garb and doesn't announce itself with the traditional weapon of war. So the tool in the 21st century that is analogous to radars and intelligence is the ability to collect and infuse information that allows us to see that the threat is approaching in an undetected fashion.”

In order to allow the security apparatus to collect and fuse information in a better way, the US took certain vital steps.

  • The PATRIOT Act was passed. The new law removed the legal and institutional barriers that had previously prevented the US authorities from combining law enforcement information and the intelligence information as a single fused unit that would allow all of the US security agencies to view the same information and to integrate it together.
  • The government created some formal institutional mechanisms to encourage the integration of the information. This led to the birth of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) comprising intelligence analysts from the 14 intelligences agencies which make up the US Intelligence Community. Chertoff underlined that the purpose of it was not to create a single monochromatic viewpoint of what the analysis is but to allow everybody to look at the entire pool of information before they reach the analytic conclusions.
  • The government created an incentive to make sure that analysts actually got the work done. To that end, a number of mechanisms were created to follow up on intelligence collection. “When you collect intelligence and you don't do anything with it, it's essentially an empty effort. The purpose of collecting intelligence is not to titillate yourself with knowledge about what's going on in the world of terrorism, but is to take action,” Chertoff said.

Secretary Chertoff remarked that in post 9/11 period, the US government abandoned what he called “the binary choice” that views threats as either being civilian law enforcement threats or military threats which were dealt usually in traditional national security  framework. A new approach of using all elements of national power to combat terrorism was adopted.

At the end of his talk, attended by the representatives from various countries and former top civil, military and intelligence officials of India, Chertoff drew contours the current threat picture as it relates to terrorism.

  • The world continues to see the emergence of safe havens evolving around the globe within which the terrorists can continue to go about their business of recruiting, planning and launching attacks against freedom loving people. The frontier areas of Pakistan have for several years been a safe haven.
  • In the old days, national security threats emerged from defined national regions. Now, security threats are no longer posed by nation states. Advances in network communications, especially the internet, have allowed individuals and groups of terrorists and their sympathisers from different parts of the world to work together, to plan together and to facilitate terrorist operations.  We now have a virtual enemy, and not merely an enemy located in one or more nation states.
  • Related to this is the worsening idea of communication systems enabled radicalisation. The Internet has become a tool through which people can virtually indoctrinate and train and ultimately solicit terrorist acts around the globe.
  • Yet another dimension of the increased danger is that the technological leverage the 21st century capabilities bestow upon even a small group of terrorists. Earlier what a single terrorist or a group could do was not existentially threatening. They could set off a bomb or carry out an assassination, but the terrorists eventually getting their hands on Weapons of Mass Destruction accentuated the levels of threat posed by even the small groups. We now live in an era when modern technology gives even a small group of people the capability or potential capability to kill not just thousands but tens of thousands and more.
  • Up till the Mumbai attack, most of the traditional style of the attack being carried out by Al Qaeda and similar groups were essentially some variation of bombing. Whether it was truck bomb or an individual suicide bomber or use of aircraft as essentially a flying bomb, the attack was focused on kinetic discharge of a single explosion or a series of explosions. But what 26/11 revealed is a technique of combining the use  of weapons like guns and bombs in a rolling dynamic commando-style assault which proved to be a very successful disruptive mechanism.

Secretary Chertoff concluded that all these issues are particularly acute for India, which happens to be “in a very dangerous neighbourhood”. “All of this suggests that India, more than most countries, needs to be mindful of the lessons that we have learnt in the past and the challenges we continue to face in the future.”

He suggested that the world has got to come up with some strategic responses to the growth of safe havens and the growth of radicalized thoughts. “In view of 26/11, we have to develop and refine joint plans among police, military officers and first responders and the private sector for dealing with such attacks,” Secretary Chertoff concluded his remarks.

Event Date 
December 7, 2009
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