Chairman McCaul's Remarks at CSIS on the Administration’s Counterterrorism Policy
To watch video of the speech, click HERE.
An Assessment of Counterterrorism Policy
Center for Strategic International Studies
Chairman Michael McCaul, U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security
July 31, 2013
Over a decade ago, Americans came to know their new reality. No longer were only foreign dictators or rogue regimes threatening our security interests, but instead, an anti-American fervor was spreading within a group of mobile, deadly, extremists.
Americans have adjusted to that reality. They understand that the enemy camp is not headquartered in Berlin or Hanoi, but is a transnational terrorist coalition that seeks to inspire others all over the world to commit horrific attacks against civilians on our shores and abroad. This enemy has required the American government to change the way it looks at homeland security, terrorism and war itself. It has required us all to adapt, to engage and to persevere.
Just a few months ago, President Obama challenged the notion of this conflict continuing by saying, “this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
I watched the President deliver this speech, and his emphatic words unilaterally declaring that the war on terrorism is winding down, al Qaeda is defeated, and now we can return to a pre-9/11 mindset with a law enforcement approach to defeating terrorism. As a former Federal prosecutor and person who has receives intelligence briefings on the terrorist threat, his rhetoric was both unreflective of the current threat and out of touch with his Administration’s current actions.
Indeed I heard retreat after retreat and a nebulous explanation for the way forward. I wanted to hear the Administration’s policy, and that policy never came.
Proclaiming the war is over is a popular thing to do politically. However, misleading the American people with a false narrative does them a disservice. The reality is that the threats we faced on September 10th exist today, and they have changed and grown more threatening in many respects. Al Qaeda now is more decentralized, geographically dispersed and has utilized technology to recruit and expand its influence. In short, the battlefield is everywhere.
The President likes to deliver speeches. What he may not realize is that his words have a practical application. The Administration’s narrative that the threat is diminishing is a dangerous one. Publicly downgrading the real threat, which is growing, emboldens our enemies and sends a signal that we lack resolve.
Perhaps even more importantly, this rhetoric has a tangible effect not only on our troops, but intelligence officials in the field. It affects their morale and their belief in their government’s backing. Rhetoric has a ripple effect and it impacts the efficacy of our counterterrorism efforts. Words do matter; and the President should be more careful with them.
My goal today is to examine where rhetoric and reality meet. What counterterrorism steps is the President actually taking? What does he mean when he says he looks forward to engaging Congress to “refine, and ultimately repeal, the Authorization for Use of Military Force’s mandate”? What does he mean when he speaks of the need to close Guantanamo Bay, but not the roadmap for doing so?
After the President outlined how we cannot prosecute many detainees because we cannot use the evidence against them, he says simply that “once we commit to a process of closing Guantanamo Bay, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.”
What does the President’s confidence mean? What the President does not seem to realize, is that his rhetorical statements do not constitute a counterterrorism policy. The day after this speech was given, drone strikes continued, the legal framework for transferring prisoners was not developed, and terrorists abroad didn’t give up their fight. As much as we despise terrorism, words cannot simply wish it away. We need a multi-layered long-term counterterrorism strategy.
Today, we are no more clear on the President’s policy, and that lack of clarity isn’t just confusing, it is dangerous.
The Administration’s Narrative has several premises. The first is that returning to a pre-9/11, law-enforcement centric counterterrorism posture is an option in 2013. President Obama frequently compared the threats to us today to those before 9/11, saying in his speech at the National Defense University that, “as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.” This position directly contradicts reality and the threat briefings I have received.
The landscape is very different now, and al Qaeda franchises growing in safe havens like Libya, Mali, Syria and Northern Africa pose an even more dynamic threat to our security. Al Qaeda is a global threat with global ambition. The idea of going back in time to when we discounted the precursors to a large scale attack – such as the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing, the U.S.S. Cole attack and the attacks on our embassies in North Africa – would leave us more vulnerable today than we were a decade ago.
The Administration has labeled the Fort Hood massacre, in my home state, “work place violence,” explained Benghazi away with a protest to a video as opposed to a coordinated al Qaeda-driven attack, and removed words like “violent Islamist extremism” from their vernacular. It has downplayed the role of Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere, even after the deadly bombing in Argentina. With each attack, the Administration appears to distance itself from who’s behind it.
One must ask themselves why they would go to such lengths to avoid calling the threat what it is, and I see several explanations. The Administration may think that by taking the “War on Terror” and “Radical Islam” out of the conversation, it will help end the conflict. But in reality, you cannot defeat an enemy you are unwilling to define.
Dictators and terrorists will never be appeased by mere rhetoric, in fact, they will be emboldened by the softening of our language because they see it as sign of weakness. Ultimately the dramatic departure in lexicon, I believe, serves to bolster the President’s desired legacy as a peacemaker ending Bush’s wars.
The narrative of going back to a pre-9/11 mindset is ultimately dangerous for one reason. It didn’t work. Viewing terrorism as an investigation by law enforcement after the fact instead of a preemptive, coordinated effort by the intelligence community and our military didn’t work to prevent 9/11. We need a multifaceted approach to be successful in preventing large scale attacks on the homeland from overseas, in addition to a coordinated counterterrorism approach to combat terrorist attacks on our soil that stem from conflicts overseas, such as Fort Hood and in Boston.
Changing the definition to sculpt one’s legacy does not protect America; it doesn’t secure our interests and in fact opens us up for additional terrorist attacks. Our enemies have a say in when this war is over, and they have not given up their quest for a global Caliphate.
Great leaders do not tell their constituency what they want to hear; they tell them what they need to know. The American people deserve to make informed decisions, and they do not deserve to have the real threats against them obscured, or our real efforts to combat them diminished. The President has not given the American people enough credit. They are strong, and they deserve to know truth.
Now, more than ever, we need this kind of leadership.
Policy of Contradictions:
Just weeks after President Obama attempted to define his counter-terror policies, he conducted deadly drone strikes in Pakistan. The timing of this is telling. It is clear that the Administration is not drawing down its campaign, but is instead transitioning to a covert war.
What the President is doing is trying to have it both ways. The Administration is telling the American people that the struggle is over and he is the one who brought it to an end while at the same time fighting this enemy through different means. For example, the President has discussed more robust vetting for drone use, but all the while has increased their use without changing the status quo.
Make no mistake; I believe Presidents must have the authority to conduct targeted drone strikes as well as other tactics abroad against al Qaeda and associated forces, and these strikes have decimated high value targets, however the President’s use of this campaign undercuts his argument that core al Qaeda has been decimated. The concept of “core” al Qaeda is, in my opinion, a false construct. Al Qaeda is an ideology; it is an ideology that cannot be taken out by drone strikes alone.
The inconsistencies found in these pronouncements versus the actions that followed have left Americans with a nebulous understanding of both the threat and what is being done to counter it. Failed diplomacy in Egypt, an inconsistent red-line policy in Syria, threatening to leave Afghanistan prematurely and an absence of direction in Iraq has left us where we are today – in an increasingly unstable environment with an Administration intent on ‘leading from behind’ on all fronts.
On that note, I’d like to talk more about diplomacy – because it is something the President likes to talk about. The President speaks frequently about the importance of diplomacy, but when opportunities for diplomatic leadership present themselves, the President is visibly absent.
This Administration has followed the “wait-and-see diplomacy” mantra -- recently demonstrated in Egypt and Syria -- that translates to watching governments do as the please, until there are few diplomatic options that can help. Past opportunities for American leadership and influence have been wasted, including failing to bolster the cries for democracy from Iranian citizens during the 2009 elections with public, vocal support.
Concerted efforts to negotiate directly have also proven unsuccessful. Recently the White House had a tense diplomatic exchange with Afghan President Karzai, when Karzai called the president to task on the Administration’s attempt to meet with the Taliban without including the Afghan government.
This diplomatic failure was a huge setback in our efforts to work with the Afghan people and Karzai, who is a difficult but necessary partner in our efforts to secure Afghanistan. Moreover, the Administration’s response of floating the idea of a “zero option” is even more troubling, because it points to a frustrated, unplanned exit, instead of a responsible continued strategy.
When President Obama took office in 2009, he made one of his first trips to Egypt to talk about “A New Beginning”. In this speech he spoke about democracy among other topics and how the US and the Muslim World were going to start over. Upon returning from his trip, the President started work on his 2010 budget and gave the Egyptian people a “New Beginning” by dramatically reducing support for democracy promotion programs that could have helped stabilize the region.
The same audience he promised a new respectful relationship with, the same group he promised American leadership for democracy to, saw the President’s policy of contradictions play out in front of them. Ironically these cuts made Egypt the least funded country in the Middle East in terms of democratic programs.
Then the Arab Spring came and Egypt fell into political and economic chaos. The country didn’t have the tools needed for the leadership transition. It became clear that the democracy and friendship the President touted in 2009, was nothing more than hollow rhetoric. Ultimately the damaging of this relationship is significant because we cannot put at risk the stability that Egypt provides the region, which include the enforcement of longstanding peace agreements, most importantly those brokered by the Camp David Accords.
Recently, the second time since the Arab Spring that Egypt faced political uncertainty, the Administration again was visibly absent, choosing to ‘analyze’ the situation instead of taking a position in order to promote stability. The White House’s refusal to act will not help deter the chaos in Cairo. Its wait-see-policy of diplomacy has again backfired and made us both an unreliable partner and diminished our ability to shape the future of one of our most important allies in the region.
Syria has cascaded into a sectarian proxy war – but this too did not happen overnight, and is a case study in the ramifications of inaction. In two short years, Syria has become the centerpiece of al Qaeda’s training strategy.
The Administration saw the bloodshed, and waited. They read the reports of chemical weapons being used, and yet the President stalled again. They talked about redlines, and when those were crossed, they waited.
The bottom line is they waited too long. Ally after ally, including France, the UK and countries throughout the Middle East, asked for America to lead, to lead a willing coalition to stop the bloodshed in Syria. Yet the President waited.
As accounts are coming in, from both US forces monitoring the civil war, to our close allies in the region that have been feeling the negative effects of a wait and see policy, the civil war is moving toward a more unsalvageable outcome, an outcome which will negatively affect U.S. national security and the security of our closest Middle Eastern ally, Israel.
President Obama has waited so long to get involved, any help given to the Syrian rebels is now fraught with peril. The once-identifiable forces of moderation are now camouflaged and have been infiltrated with jihadists from around the world. Now we are faced with a hotbed of instability in which anti-American radicalism is festering, with no simple solution.
Chemical weapons have been used. These weapons are unsecure and now pose increased risk to the United States and our allies. The greatest risk, however, comes from the reality that Syria has become the Mecca for jihadist around the world. Those secular forces that once could have been bolstered by this Administration have been left to fend for themselves, and today their influence is undermined by the various terrorist groups currently fighting in Syria. Where there was once a choice to positively influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war, today there are really no good options for resolving this conflict.
Afghanistan & Iraq:
I want to talk about a place now, where we have been directly involved for quite some time. I want to commend our soldiers who have made great gains in Afghanistan. I want them to know we are all proud of them, thinking about them, supporting them and praying for their success. I want them to know we are behind them now more than ever. Starting the job is often more simple than finishing it.
I want to also tell them that we are not going to withdraw prematurely and undermine their efforts. I want to tell the Afghan people that we have fought for and beside that we will not abandon them. And I want to tell this Administration that their failed diplomacy will not, and cannot be allowed to endanger our future with Afghanistan; that the “zero” option is not only counterproductive, it is dangerous.
While our men and women should come home as soon as possible, the President has given our enemies in Afghanistan a timetable for withdrawal. In doing so he has told the Taliban when to seek retribution. Just yesterday, the Pentagon reported to Congress that Afghanistan will need “substantial” long-term military support for the Afghans to hold off the Taliban insurgency.
We know the danger in leaving Afghanistan unattended. We have seen it before. When the Soviets pulled out, and our covert operations ended, the unforgiving landscape of Afghanistan became a safe haven for Taliban-supported al Qaeda terrorists. If we fail to leave a force capable of conducting counterterrorism operations in cooperation with our Afghan partners, al Qaeda will return and we will be back where were before 9/11.
The residual effects of withdrawal without a counterterrorism footprint moving forward can been seen today in Iraq, where increased sectarian violence spilling over from Syria and the growth of al Qaeda affiliates has led to instability and increased militancy. While the Bush Administration negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement, when it expired, the Obama Administration failed to do so, abandoning them with no stabilization assistance or advisors for securing their democracy moving forward.
The Abu Ghraib prison jailbreak last week is the latest example of instability that directly affects the homeland and illustrates the growing level of operational sophistication of al Qaeda in Iraq. Among the hundreds who escaped last week were top al Qaeda leaders, a catastrophe reminiscent of the Yemeni prison break which led to the formation of AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) – the franchise that sent the “Underwear Bomber” to Detroit.
All of this comes as the President fights to close Guantanamo and send these inmates back to prisons overseas. These prisons, particularly the ones that were raided this week in Pakistan and Libya, demonstrate that our counterterrorism partners are still grossly ill-equipped to deal with holding militant prisoners. These criminals not only emerge from prison with a vast network of jihadists in the surrounding safe havens throughout the region, but also with a vengeance to continue plotting attacks.
The President, through either his hubris or his inability to make decisions, has put America’s and Afghanistan’s future in jeopardy. Threatening to pull out of Afghanistan early will not support the objective of a safe America. It will take us back to 1989 when the complete retreat of forces resulted in a safe haven exploited by al Qaeda and the Taliban. Merely floating the idea of a “zero option” is destructive to our security mission there, and poisonous to our diplomatic mission not only in Afghanistan, but our around the world.
How we exit these theatres of war will create a ripple effect that will wash up on our shores. This is about more than protecting the President’s legacy as someone who “ended” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is about making sure that what our soldiers fought for persists; that the gains they brokered, are not lost.
I understand Americans are tired. Our fight against terrorism has taken a toll on us as individuals, as families and as a nation. I read the reports, and I have travelled to the battlefields. But I want to talk about someone I met who knows the price of this fight even more personally.
In an army hospital, I stood by the bed of a young man who was bandaged and bruised, but not broken. Just days before he lost his leg in a roadside bomb attack. We talked about a lot of things, and as I left, he left me with a request.
He asked me if he could go back.
He knew the job wasn’t done and he wasn’t going home until it was.
That soldier, and that sentiment, is why I know we will persevere.
We cannot let fatigue undermine our mission. The fight against terrorism will change – it already has. Many of our men and women have come home and many more will soon. But terrorism is an enemy unlike any traditional military opponent. Our leadership in the international fight against terror, and our multi-pronged approach to it, must be maintained. Anyone who thinks that al Qaeda, and its worldwide affiliates will back down, is wrong.
Great leaders are the ones who step up and convince nations of why and how they must tackle hard, even devastating realities. One cannot lead if they refuse to accept reality.
Months ago we were hit by another terrorist attack in Boston. Men who followed the words of radical Imams and al Qaeda terrorists overseas built a bomb that mirrored those used by the Taliban in Pakistan to murder and maim innocent Americans. The Administration would like for you to believe this was coincidence, or perhaps an isolated event, but it clearly was not. What happened in both Boston and Fort Hood are not isolated events, but are tied to the greater movement we must face today.
Terrorism and our fight against it is our reality. That being said, we have the technology and intellectual and tactical tools to confront it.
Fighting terrorism today, at the most simplistic level, needs a cohesive international and national strategy. We cannot afford to go back to a pre-9/11 strategy of seeing terrorism as a domestic, law enforcement only issue, but we can’t proceed with just a military strategy either. Nor can we refrain from using words to describe the issue at hand, such as “terrorism”, “Islamic extremism”, and “radical Islam”. We must call it what it is and use every tool at our disposal to fight it.
Finally, we must proceed boldly, not apologetically. We must make decisions based on the realities of a lengthy struggle, not the desire for it to end. We must lead this nation honestly, knowing full well the challenges ahead.
That is what our democracy demands, and that is what the American people deserve.