US safer 12 years after 9/11, but threat has evolved, experts say

Wednesday - 9/11/2013, 4:20pm EDT

Chad Sweet, chief executive officer, The Chertoff Group

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Mike Brown, vice president and general manager, public sector at RSA

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This year, conflicts past, present and future are casting a shadow over the anniversary of the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. While President Barack Obama and other federal leaders hold remembrance ceremonies, others are examining how well the government is countering today's biggest threats.

Are we safer now than we were 12 years ago?

According to Chad Sweet, the chief executive officer of The Chertoff Goup and former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, the results speak for themselves.

"If anyone asks themselves the question on the day after 9/11 ... would you have taken a $1 million wager that 12 years from now that we'd have less than 100 casualties on U.S. soil while still remaining an open and free country, I think many of us would never have been willing to take that bet," Sweet told Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Wednesday. "But that's exactly what's happened. It's an astonishing accomplishment and it's a real credit to the men and women of our military who kept the threat abated abroad as well as the homeland security team of the FBI, DHS and others that are protecting us here at home."

The methods the U.S. uses to counter terrorism have evolved since 9/11. At the same time, the nature of terrorism has evolved as well, Sweet said.

The materials gathered from the assault on Osama bin Laden's compound revealed a heated debate going on between the older and younger generations of al-Qaida operatives. The younger generation was pushing for lower level attacks that would radicalize isolated individuals, while bin Laden wanted to focus on large, iconic attacks.

"Ironically, by killing bin Laden, we've almost unleashed a generation 2.0, which is more of a decentralized cancer that's matastisized and these isolated individuals who are being radicalized over the Internet, as we saw in the case of Nidal Hasan in Fort Hood or the Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston bombing — that is an extremely real threat," Sweet said.

Recent revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance of American citizens have raised concerns about whether the government has intruded too far on the public's civil liberties in pursuit of terrorist suspects.

Sweet pointed out that the NSA does not target Americans through its 215 Program when it aggregates metadata, despite what press reports may lead one to believe.

"If you think about a haystack, in order for you to search a haystack, you have to have the hay," he said. "What that program does is it aggregates hay and it removes any personally identifiable information. So, it only has phone numbers. It doesn't have any names or addresses. It doesn't even have, despite what you've heard in the press, it doesn't even have geolocation on there. So, what that has done, we believe, has struck a balance between not violating individual citizen's civil rights. Access to the haystack still has to go through oversight that all three branches reviewed and approved. All three branches continue to audit and which follow the standard [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] court procedures."

In 2012, the 215 Program was only accessed about 300 times and yielded 54 successful disruptions. "If you think about that, that's a very strong result," Sweet said. "Three hundred accesses and you get literally 54 thwarted plots. That's a very impressive track record for this program. I think we are striking the right balance."

Sweet argued the opposite lesson was learned in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston.

"These programs were not able to be used to monitor these two individuals. ... He was actually posting openly on Facebook and had radical, violent Islamist imans on his website," he said. "This is after the Russian intelligence agency had tipped us off. So, the question there is, do we need to do a program if someone's out there in open public stating these things? Is that fair game? I think we should have a debate about that as a nation and set a policy."

Beyond the threat of an attack by a lone-wolf operative, DHS handles state- sponsored terrorism on a variety of fronts.

"To be blunt, al-Qaida is very dangerous, but Hezbollah is really what I call 'The A-Team,'" Sweet said. "If you look at the plots that they've successfully excecuted and the way they do it, they're almost a paramilitary-type organization and an extension of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. So, Hezbollah is backing and fighting to support Assad in Syria. If we do an attack to oppose that, there is a very real possiblity that there will be activation of Hezbollah cells within the United States to extract retribution upon us."