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The Obama administration’s decision to close nearly two dozen embassies comes from an “abundance of caution” in light of new threats intercepted by intelligence agencies, according to State Department officials. But analysts say those intercepted threats may not be the best way to predict or prevent attacks. We explore the practical and security implications of protecting U.S. properties nearly a year after the deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya.
- Matthew Asada Vice President of the American Foreign Service Association; Foreign Service Officer
- Erik Dahl Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School; Author of "Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond" (Georgetown University Press, October 2013)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFifteen years to the day after the attacks on diplomatic missions in Kenya and Tanzania, new terror warnings have prompted U.S. embassies across the Middle East to shut their doors. It's a seemingly dramatic move that has embassy employees evacuating out of what State Department official say is an abundance of caution. While that caution may seem prudent nearly a year after the deadly attacks in Libya, intelligence analysts say it's not necessarily the ominous chat or the big data collected by three-letter agencies that best predicts attacks.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo what kind of intelligence does keep Americans safe at home and abroad, and what's the practical and diplomatic fallout when the U.S. closes its doors overseas? Joining us in the studio to discuss this is Matthew Asada. He is vice president of the American Foreign Service Association. He's also a Foreign Service officer. Matthew, good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.
MR. MATTHEW ASADAKojo, thank you for having me on.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Monterey, Calif., is Erik Dahl, assistant professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. He's a former navy intelligence officer and author of "Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond." Erik Dahl, thank you for joining us.
PROF. ERIK DAHLThanks for having me.
NNAMDIMatthew, when we hear that 19 U.S. embassies are closed for the week, and U.S. citizens are evacuating countries like Yemen, I think a lot of us have a vision of dramatic airlifts of diplomats and Americans flooding airports, catching flights out while those left behind have no one there to represent them or help them. Jihadist Web forums are capitalizing on that notion, that perception boasting that the shutdown has been a nightmare for the United States. What's the reality when closures like this occur?
ASADAWell, I think what's important is to differentiate between a temporary closing to the public and an authorized or ordered departure when people are actually leaving the country. So you mentioned that 19 posts were temporarily closed. That means they're temporary closed to the public. Our employees are still in place. Their families are still there in place with them, if they were there before. All it means though is that there is no public traffic.
ASADAAnd that's to be contrasted with a situation like in Yemen where you did have official Americans leaving because they were being evacuated, and the posts was drawing down. And that's a message that we repeated to the American citizens as well, because it's important that whatever we're telling our official employees that the Americans citizens in the region know that as well.
NNAMDIFrom a practical standpoint, what does an embassy closure mean for the day-to-day business of an embassy and its personnel even though it's closed to the public?
ASADAWell, we think that our primary purpose of being overseas is to serve our American citizens and to represent U.S. interest and as well to facilitate travel to the United States. But what it means is that when we're closed that our visa applicants can't come in, so that they have to have their visa interview rescheduled, or if we're going to meet with a businessman, that would have to be postponed, or if someone -- an American citizen wants to come in to register the birth of their child.
ASADAAll of this ordinary business would need to be rescheduled for another day. But in the event that something happened to an American citizen, we're still there. The U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Consulate, our officers are still there to serve Americans. And we have procedures in place -- standard procedures rather, when the embassy is closed.
NNAMDII was about to ask. Who should travelers contact if they run into problems while the embassies are closed?
ASADASo each embassy actually has a duty officer that's online, can be contacted 24/7. And there's a way to contact them through the regular embassy channel. And that message would be passed to the duty officer, and then they would visit that person, whether they have been in an accident or perhaps, you know, in jail, arrested or something worse. But there's a way to contact each duty officer in their respective country.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number here. Do you think U.S. missions overseas should close if there's a terror threat, or should they remain open but just under better protection? 800-433-8850. Erik Dahl, the public has been getting a lot of information these past few days about the electronic chatter that's been intercepted hinting at pending attacks.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, that's been followed by a lot of skeptical commentary that this flood of intelligence seems highly convenient following the outcry over the massive data collection efforts by the National Security Agency. But in your study of intelligence successes and failures, is capturing this kind of chatter and other data the most effective tool in thwarting terror attacks?
DAHLWell, not really, no. In fact, the way I look at it, big data, metadata, the sort of information that we are learning that the NSA keeps track of, that's not the sort of information and intelligence that stops terrorist attacks or prevents other bad things from happening. To stop attacks, you need little data. You need specific, precise information about a plot and where people are targeting. And that's exactly the kind of data we apparently don't have right now about the threats to our facilities in the Middle East.
NNAMDIWell, there's now more information about the conference call that the intelligence community intercepted that prompted this terror warning. One U.S. intelligence officer told The Daily Beast that the call was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom with all the heads of the major al-Qaida affiliates. Let's talk about what all sides in this situation may have learned from this latest terror threat. Where would you say this falls in the pantheon of information collection? Erik.
DAHLWell, actually it's surprising -- it's interesting how similar this sort of a warning is this past couple of days to the warnings we had before 9/11. Before 9/11, we had many such intercepts that we learned later from the 9/11 commission report and other sources about the summer of threat we called it. But, of course, as we know, all of those warnings did not stop the 9/11 attacks. And, in fact, the embassy in Yemen was closed for a while back in 2001. Our military forces in the Middle East went on higher alert.
DAHLBut again, this sort of a general, sort of strategic big picture warning is not the sort of thing that's going to stop things. The way I look at it, our closing of our facilities and embassies and consulates in the Middle East, that's a blunt instrument. It has costs that we were talking about already. But the most important thing to think about them is that these sorts of things are really not likely to be very effective other than sort of by happenstance. You might deter someone from trying something, but a very dedicated terrorist is not going to be deterred by something like this.
NNAMDIBased on this latest interception, what do you think al-Qaida has learned about its operational security?
DAHLWell, one of the questions people ask about that is certainly whether or not the NSA surveillance leaks and the discussions we're having now have tipped off al-Qaida to techniques that they need to use or avoid. And I think that's possible. But more likely, what we found is that it's the nonprofessional terrorists. It's maybe the domestic, the homegrown extremists within the United States, for instance, who may have learned what they didn't know or didn't expect about what the government is listening in on.
DAHLI tend to think that international terrorists and what is left of the al-Qaida threat, we have a big debate about that, but still we see that al-Qaida is still an organization, it's still moving. It's continuing on and not going to be deterred much by what we're learning -- about what the NSA is listening in on.
NNAMDIWhat's the most useful kind of intelligence we can gather for homegrown cases? Is it huge haystacks of data or something smaller?
DAHLNo. In fact, here we've had a lot of success, and that's the great news. Sometimes, not so much. The Boston Marathon bombings, of course, a terrible example of how sometimes things don't work the way they should, but what the NSA is doing is trying to build these big haystacks as you say. But what you really need, you need that needle in there to find a specific plot in a domestic sense.
DAHLWhat we found since 9/11 is that we actually have good success in infiltrating the groups or having a police informant or a tip from a member of the public about someone who wants to do something within the United States. In fact, in my research, I found about 109 terrorists plots and attempts within the United States since 9/11 that have been foiled. That's the great news.
DAHLThe bad news is that means that right now, today, like all likelihood is, there are several other small groups and individuals around this country who are planning to do something terrible. And we just hope that they are already being infiltrated by our police and law enforcement officials.
NNAMDIMatthew Asada, back to the conference call that the intelligence community intercepted that prompted this latest terror warning, what do you think that the diplomatic community -- the U.S. diplomatic community has learned from this?
ASADAWell, one thing I wanted to comment on that Erik mentioned is that there are definitely costs to being close to business. However, what's important, first and foremost, on the secretary of state's mind is that we keep our people safe and that we have 15,000 foreign service employees around the world, and we have a whole cadre of diplomatic security professionals that are evaluating the threat on the ground, that are in contact with their colleagues back here in Washington, and that they're trying to determine the best way to manage the risk. And that's one lesson that we have learned.
ASADAWe can't eliminate the risk entirely, but we can focus on managing it. And having the diplomatic security professionals on the ground with the language training, with the skills training necessary to do their jobs, that's what's really important in this.
NNAMDIWe got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on intelligence and thwarting attacks on U.S. properties. We're inviting you to join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Is the U.S. government doing enough to protect our diplomatic missions overseas? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Do you know anyone traveling or posted in hotspots overseas? What do you hear from them following these terror warnings? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about intelligence and thwarting attacks on U.S. properties with Matthew Asada, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association. He's also a Foreign Service officer. Erik Dahl is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and a former navy intelligence officer. He's author of "Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond."
NNAMDIYou can call us at 800-433-8850. Erik, you mentioned and we all remember what happened in the months leading up to 9/11, there was chatter and data that was intercepted but for various reasons did not prompt the kind of preventive action we're seeing today. How has communication between the data collectors and decision makers improved since then?
DAHLOh, a great deal. In fact, I think, an even better example to show how far we've come better than 2001 is the months before the East Africa embassy bombings. And I'm glad you mentioned earlier that this is the 15th anniversary of those deadly attacks. Before those attacks, we also then had considerable warning. In fact, some warnings about the very precise, specific kind of attack that ended up being launched at our embassies in both Kenya and Tanzania but especially in Washington, our officials didn't listen.
DAHLThey weren't receptive is the way I look at it. And that's not going to happen today. We certainly can debate whether or not today we are overreacting in the Middle East, but we certainly can also agree, I think, that we're taking the threat much more seriously today, and that's probably a much better approach.
NNAMDIMatthew, as we've both mentioned, this is the 15th anniversary of al-Qaida's attacks on diplomatic missions in Kenya and Tanzania, we're also approaching the one year anniversary of the attack on the embassy in Benghazi, Libya. What do the legacies of these tragedies feel like when you're actually doing your job overseas?
ASADAIt reminds us of the danger that's out there in the world and the unpredictability of it. All of us that joined the service know that whether it's in a place like Benghazi or whether it's a place like Nairobi, that these things can happen. And so for us, it's to honor our colleagues that we lost, whether it's a year or 15 years ago, but also to remember that we're out there to serve our country and that the people that's out there right now accept those risks.
NNAMDII was particularly interested in the statement yesterday by the Yemeni embassy in Washington. That statement said, Yemen has "taken all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of foreign missions in the capital." Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, host countries are responsible for the security of embassies, but for the U.S. doesn't that convention really have an asterisk on it depending on where the embassy is?
ASADAWell, first and foremost, the responsibility does less with that host nation, and so we rely on them as our partners, and we evaluate each and every situation as to their capabilities. So it's like conversation that takes place every day, both here and Washington and, more importantly, on the ground. But it's something that, again, if we don't feel that we're able to work with our local partners, then we have to maybe re-evaluate the situation then.
NNAMDIYou've worked in posting in Afghanistan and Pakistan among others. What is it that makes an embassy feel secure, thick walls, military presence?
ASADAI don't think thicker or higher walls are going to protect you from the danger that's out there today. What's really important is having contact with the people and engaging. And I think that Secretary Carey said it best, in May 20, when he spoke to an audience of employees going out to these high-threat posts. He told them that we will not pull back. We must engage. And that the Marines overseas are there not just to protect classified information but they're there to protect the people. And that was a message that the Foreign Service family very warmly welcomed.
NNAMDIAre diplomats allowed to take their families to posts in places like Yemen, Iraq or Afghanistan?
ASADAUnfortunately, those three countries that you did mention, the threat situation is such where they cannot go with their families. And so of all of our posts right now, we have around 275 posts around the world, there are a small number of them where it strictly is employees only. No family members, no spouses, partners, children.
ASADAThere's others that are on different levels. Maybe family members that are over the age of 18, no kids, no minors or maybe when your spouse is working at the embassy, then they can come with you. But the department has wisely determined that there are some places where it should be employees only.
NNAMDIHave you been posted in hotspots overseas? Are you a member or were you a member of the diplomatic service? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or if you know anyone traveling or posted in those hotspots, what are you hearing from those people following these terror warnings? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIErik, can we talk about Boston? The FBI was tracking the brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon but somehow the actual bombing slipped through its fingers. Why was this or was this an intelligence failure, and if so, why?
DAHLWell, I'd say, if you define an intelligence failure as the inability of our authorities to prevent something bad from happening, then yes, it is. But I don't think it's a culpable failure because when you compare the intelligence that we, at least, what we know of so far that was available, the information available before the Boston bombings and you compare that with, for instance, the information that we had on Zazi. That was the guy in 2009 who was stopped attempting to conduct attacks in the New York City subway driven from Denver to New York City.
DAHLIn that case, in the Zazi case, we really had him down cold. We've been surveilling him, monitoring him. He was being tracked as he drove across the country on his way to New York. We knew just what he was trying to do. We didn't have that sort of information in Boston. And I think what will probably turn out to be the most significant factor is that for whatever reason, they just did not blab about it to someone at school or at the gym who then talked to a cop or called 911 because that's usually what stops plots within the U.S.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Keith in Washington, D.C. Keith, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KEITHHey, Kojo and your guests. I'm a little nervous. My daughter is over in Kampala, and they were to fly out this Friday from Nairobi. Up until late last night, early this morning...
NNAMDIYes, for those of our listeners who may not aware of it, there has been reporting of a fire at the airport in Nairobi, Kenya, and so that all passengers flights in and out of Nairobi have been suspended. They say, at some point, they'll soon be able to resume cargo flights, but they don't know about passenger flights. So go right ahead, Keith.
KEITHYeah. And up until that, I was OK with the situation as far as the heightened terror alert for Northern Africa and the Middle East. But now, I'm concerned because we got an update this morning from the State Department, and they're saying that they are going to either reroute or delay the departure time. And I'm concern that they may have to travel north in Africa to get through a certain airport to get them to France and then here home. Needless to say, I know the embassies are protected, but what about routes there out in the field?
NNAMDISo your daughter is now still in Kampala, Uganda?
NNAMDIAnd she is there for communicating with embassy -- U.S. Embassy officials there?
KEITHI just talked to her. She is actually at the embassy, and they are discussing what the group plans -- alternate plans on returning.
NNAMDIMatthew Asada, why should Keith feel confident that his daughter will be safe?
ASADAThey're in good hands, Keith, with my colleagues there at the embassy. I can tell you that we are very concerned for private American citizens, and we want your daughter to get back home here to the United States.
ASADASo we're going to monitor what the situation is and see about what the best routing is for her to return home. And as you probably already know -- I just want to put out there for your other listeners, Kojo -- travel.state.gov, travel.state.gov, you can see all of our travel warnings, advisories, information about different countries. And it's a real one-stop shop for any American citizen looking to go overseas.
NNAMDIKeith, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you and your daughter.
NNAMDIOn to Kathy in Fairfax, Va. Kathy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHYYeah. Hi. I grew up a Foreign Service brat during the Cold War era when everything was actually felt pretty safe. I spent happy time in Islamabad, Pakistan. And I'm just listening to your show as I was driving home. You're talking about the Marines and the Marine guards. They used to teach us how to swim at the InterContinental (unintelligible). You know, they'd hold you by your ankles and drop you in the water. That's how we learned to dive. We just had a really good time back then. I don't -- sorry.
NNAMDII know it's very emotional.
KATHYI get emotional because my school is -- it was closed on 9/11, and it was a total international school, about 150 kids. It was a really good time to be a kid in the Foreign Service. And I'm -- it's sad how everything is, you know, sorry, I was...
NNAMDIWell, maybe not everything has changed. Matthew Asada, I'm sure, can offer some reassurances that it can still be fun and interesting to be a Foreign Service kid depending on where you are, right, Matthew?
ASADAWell, Kathy, Foreign Service brats, as they're known, are really part of the Foreign Service family. And we've realized that it's important that we have schools for the children. And when I was in Lahore, for instance, I was on the board of the Lahore American School. And we worked with the school to ensure that they, too, could become safe environments for kids these days.
ASADABut I hear what you're saying. It is -- difficult times are changing but, well, some things continue, and we still, again, have our Marines overseas. And we have been very lucky that the administration is pushing forward with efforts to increase the number of Marines, again, that are overseas to help protect our people and our facilities.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kathy. You, too, can call us, 800-433-8850. Have you ever had to evacuate a country because of security threat? Call us and tell us what happened, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIErik Dahl, the massive prison breaks in Pakistan and Iraq in recent weeks have been cited as among the reasons for the heightened security abroad. It's, I guess, amazing that our intelligence agencies can act so quickly on data and private chatter among the extremists. But when it comes to holding in on intelligence about looming prison breaks, things seemed to kind of slip through the cracks. What's going on here?
DAHLWell, that's exactly right. And that shows how different the problem of intelligence and counterterrorism is overseas compared with -- within the United States. Overseas, we have to rely so largely on our partners, often in dangerous parts of the world, obviously with the State Department, our intelligence officials work. We're not in charge. And even though we have considerable capabilities around the world, there are many things that we don't know and we can't know.
DAHLWithin the United States, it's sort of the opposite problem. We have the ability -- and we're learning more recently about what the NSA has been doing -- to understand our own culture, our own people and watch ourselves much more closely. So in some ways, the data collection problem is not so big domestically. But domestically, we have such important issues about civil liberties, and whether we've struck the right balance between security and liberty within the U.S.
NNAMDIAnd that debate continues to rage here in the wake of the leaks of NSA documents. But talk a little more about the NSA data collection program. You say, even though there are such great controversy about it at home, that it is important for preventing terrorist attacks?
DAHLWell, I think it is, although I was surprised, as most Americans were, to learn about the extent of these programs. Even I'm a former intelligence officer, I'm not involved in doing any event today. And I am concerned. But I realized that in the intelligence business, we sort of have to -- whenever we're looking for someone, something, looking for Osama bin Laden, looking for a terrorist plot, it's sort of a two-stage effort.
DAHLThe first stage is a broad search, looking for any clues such as when we were looking for bin Laden. We have to try to hunt down every clue possible. But then in order to actually find something, prevent a plot, you need that specific piece of information that you get from, first, that broad clue. And that's the needle in the haystack. So I think the NSA is probably doing the right thing, from an intelligence and threat perspective, building those haystacks. I just don't know whether they're going to be able to use those either overseas or in the U.S. where it's even more problematic, to find those needles.
NNAMDIHere's Carla in Washington, D.C. Carla, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLAHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. This is the first time I've ever called in anything. But the reason that I called is that I have a pointer for the man whose daughter is in Kampala. She can fly from the Kampala Airport to the Haile Selassie Airport in Addis Ababa, and then from there to Europe. So that's a very good, direct route. The other thing is I happened to have been in Tanzania, in Dar es Salaam, at the time of the bombing.
CARLAAnd my husband called the State Department to let them know that there was a bombing there. They didn't know, and that is a truly amazing story. Anyway, I'll take my answer off the air.
NNAMDIHow soon after the bombings that your husband call?
CARLARight after. I was in Tanzania, and I called my husband on my cellphone. So I was in Tanzania, and I was about a mile away from the embassy and in the Aga Khan Foundation. And as soon as I could get through on a landline to my husband, I called my husband back here in D.C., and it was like four o'clock in the morning here. He called the situation fast at the State Department. They didn't know anything. And what they said was really interesting. They said, oh, well, it's just coming over the wire now. But he told them first that there is a bombing.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much. I have to accept your word for that story 'cause we're running out of time very quickly. Matthew, it is my understanding that you have taken two years off of postings around the world to do this job as vice president of the American Foreign Service Association. You'll be going back to overseas postings when?
ASADAWell, the president, Bob Silverman, and I both started our term on July 15, and we're going to be at the union for the next two years. And so in two years' time, I'm very much looking forward to going back overseas, hopefully, to a place like India, Germany, Canada or somewhere else out there.
NNAMDIMatthew Asada, he is vice president of the American Foreign Service Association and a Foreign Service officer. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIErik Dahl is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. He's a former Navy intelligence officer and author of the book "Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond." Erik Dahl, thank you for joining us.
DAHLThanks very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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