John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, spoke today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It has been a busy six months since the President took office, but Brennan stressed that the President has never lost sight of the "single most important responsibility as President" – keeping Americans safe. From his prepared remarks:
To this end, he and Secretary of State Clinton have renewed America’s commitment to diplomacy: rebuilding old alliances; strengthening critical partnerships with nations such as Russia and China; and naming special envoys and representatives to focus on some of most pressing international challenges, from Middle East peace, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, to climate change, to the crisis in Darfur. He has launched a new era of engagement with the world, including committing the United States to a new partnership with Muslims around the world — a partnership based on mutual interests and mutual respect.
To confront the transnational threats of the 21st Century, he has launched new initiatives: strengthening the global non-proliferation regime; promoting food security that fights world hunger and lifts people around the world out of poverty; and bolstering the nation’s digital defense against cyber attacks.
And to refocus the fight against those who attacked our embassies in Africa eleven years ago tomorrow and our homeland eight years ago next month, the President is proceeding with his plan to end the war in Iraq and to defeat al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And to ensure that our counterterrorism efforts strengthen our national security — and not undermine it — he banned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, is proceeding with a new plan to swiftly and certainly deal with detainees, and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Brennan emphasized the significance of the President’s decision to end enhanced interrogation techniques:
At the same time, I have seen — we all have seen — how our fight against terrorists sometimes led us to stray from our ideals as a nation. Tactics such as waterboarding were not in keeping with our values as Americans, and these practices have been rightly terminated and should not, and will not, happen again.
I believe President Obama is absolutely correct: such practices not only fail to advance our counterterrorism efforts, they actually set back our efforts. They are a recruitment bonanza for terrorists, increase the determination of our enemies, and decrease the willingness of other nations to cooperate with us. In short, they undermine our national security.
Brennan went on to say the President "rejects the false choice between ensuring our national security and upholding civil liberties." In this vein, he seeks to maintain a robust dialogue with the American people about the administration’s efforts to prevent terrorist attacks. Brennan explained that the administration’s plan covers two distinct challenges: the immediate challenge of destroying Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, and the longer-term challenge of dealing with violent extremism generally. He explained what the administration is doing to face the first challenge, fighting terrorist organizations:
He is confronting what he has identified as the most immediate and extreme threat to global security — the possibility that terrorists will obtain and use a nuclear weapon. That is why he has taken a number of critical steps: leading the effort for a stronger global nonproliferation regime; launching an international effort to secure the world’s vulnerable nuclear material in four years; and hosting a Global Nuclear Summit next year. The risk of just one terrorist with just one nuclear weapon is a risk we simply cannot afford to take.
To ensure our military has the new capabilities and technologies its needs for this fight, he accelerated the increase in the size of the Army and the Marines, has approved another increase in the size of the Army, is expanding our Special Forces, and is increasing the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets our troops need in Afghanistan.
To ensure we have the timely and accurate intelligence that prevents terrorist attacks and saves lives, we are continuing to adapt and strengthen the intelligence community by expanding human intelligence; strengthening operations; enhancing the workforce with improved linguistic and cultural skills; filling intelligence gaps; improving collaboration across the intelligence community; and promoting greater coordination with foreign intelligence partners.
And to better secure the homeland from attack, we’re taking the steps Secretary Napolitano described last week: enhancing information sharing arrangements with our allies and partners; strengthening partnerships with state and local officials, law enforcement, and first responders; and improving the security of our critical infrastructure, borders, ports, and airports.
Facing the second challenge involves tackling the political, economic, and social factors that help drive individuals to extremist organizations. Brennan said the President’s approach is fundamentally new, and involves five key elements. First of all, the administration will not focus its entire foreign policy on fighting terrorism, but rather, will focus on broader engagement with other countries and peoples. The second element of his approach is a clearer, more precise definition of the challenge. He also seeks a broader, more accurate understanding of the conditions that fuel violent extremism because any comprehensive approach must address these underlying conditions. The fourth element is a recognition that in order to address these factors, we must meet the basic needs of ordinary people, not through military operations, but through social, political, and economic campaigns. The final facet of the President’s approach is to ensure these social, political, and economic factors discourage rather than encourage violent extremism. All of these elements represent a fundamentally different strategy to rid the world of violent extremists and assure the American people are kept safe.