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What Information Do Intelligence Agencies Need To Keep U.S. Safe?


It's been two weeks since the terror attacks in Paris. And we've learned more about the people who planned and executed those attacks and how easily they moved around. We're joined now by Bruce Hoffman. He's a professor at Georgetown University where he's director of the security studies program. Professor Hoffman, thanks so much for being with us.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: You're very welcome.

SIMON: Did the Paris attacks reveal anything to you that we should've known or was a revelation to you?

HOFFMAN: What struck me and was especially worrisome about them is that the perpetrators seemed to have used encrypted communications, readily available, downloadable apps like Telegram, for example, to orchestrate and organize a plot. When - look, after all, the French authorities knew that the country was under threat. There had been aborted plots, even by the same mastermind of the Paris attacks, Abdul Hakim Abaaoud (ph), going back to January. So it's not that the French authorities and, indeed, authorities across Europe weren't tracking him, but taking advantage of these communications techniques, he was able to set up, basically, plan and implement a devastating attack.

SIMON: And to the best of your knowledge, is the U.S. similarly vulnerable?

HOFFMAN: Yes, I mean, this is something that FBI Director Comey has been warning about for some years - the multiplicity of threats, firstly. I mean, 10 years ago, we basically had one enemy that was in two places - Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, we have multiple enemies. Al-Qaida hasn't gone away, but ISIS has emerged as the main one with its variegated branches spread across North and West Africa, South Asia, the Caucasus and so on. This has put, I think, tremendous pressure - and it's not just on the United States. The French are experiencing the same phenomena where law enforcement and intelligence are having to track an exponentially larger number of terrorist suspects and actual known terrorists than, I think, ever before.

SIMON: There's some officials and analysts who've blamed Edward Snowden. I wonder how you feel about that.

HOFFMAN: Well, certainly his revelations beyond just the big data mine, even the data aggregation, at least according to line analysts that I've spoken with across the intelligence community - not just the senior-level people but the people who are doing their jobs day-to-day. In the aftermath of those revelations, they have pointed to the fact that their jobs have gotten much harder at a time that terrorist groups themselves have become more geographically diffuse and more diverse and larger in number.

SIMON: I don't have to tell you, Professor Hoffman, at the same time, there were a great number of Americans who were chilled at the idea that the government could monitor their communications.

HOFFMAN: There's always going to be a trade-off in striking a balance between preserving our fundamental civil liberties and rights that make the United States the country that it is but at the same time, empowering the authorities to prevent and interdict terrorist attacks. The problem is, I think, them doing their job is getting harder. We're in an era of diminished resources, certainly. And that has come together and made us, you know, I think, facing much greater challenges in responding to a threat that's unfortunately growing and is a much higher level than we've ever seen it in the past.

SIMON: Professor, last question, and I apologize if it's personal. Knowing as much about this as you do, do you live any differently because of it?

HOFFMAN: I was across the street, actually, from the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into it 14 years ago. So unfortunately, on a variety of levels in the past decade and a half, terrorism has become very personal experience for me, not least when I was in Iraq with the Coalition Provisional Authority. But the answer is no, I live my life the same. I advise people still to travel, not to be intimidated. Terrorism only works if we become fearful of it. And also, it only works if we compromise our fundamental civil liberties and rights. So I think we have to be mindful of the threat, we have to take it seriously, we have to be prepared to effectively counter it. But at the end of the day, though, we shouldn't change our lifestyle. We shouldn't change the fundamental way that we live as Americans.

SIMON: Bruce Hoffman, director of the security studies program at Georgetown. Thanks so much for being with us.

HOFFMAN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.