tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

National security expert says we’re much safer

The United States is a safer place today than it was five years ago, retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey told a business audience in Des Moines, Iowa on Sept. 18. McCaffrey is a national security and terrorism analyst for NBC News and writes a national security column in the Armed Forces Journal. He is the president of a consulting practice based in Arlington, Va., and he is an adjunct professor of international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

A year ago, I had a chance to interview McCaffrey when he was in Minneapolis. (See my November 4, 2005 blog entry.) Hearing him speak again earlier this week, McCaffrey largely re-iterated the message he delivered a year ago.

In Des Moines, McCaffrey urged his audience to review the web site maintained by the U.S. State Department, where 42 organizations are identified as terrorist groups that threaten U.S. national interests. He noted that the majority of these organizations are funded by criminal activity. One group is smuggling cigarettes out of North Carolina and selling them in New York, generating “tens of millions of dollars for a middle east terrorist organization,” he said.

The Taliban, which is operating in Afghanistan, is funded largely by its sale of opium and heroin. Last year, McCaffrey said, Afghanistan produced 582 metric tons of heroin, which is more than 90 percent of the world’s supply. “If you want serious resources as a terrorist organization, you have to get involved in the drug trade,” said McCaffrey, who noted the convergence of international crime, drug money and terrorism.

Many of the 42 identified terrorist groups, McCaffrey said, “are Islamic extremist groups who have hijacked Islam and have attempted to explain their terrible animosity and frustration with their own governments, which frequently they characterize as incompetent, corrupt and hypocritical toward Islam.” Americans are having a difficult time understanding the situation because “we don’t want to see it as a war of Islam against the West, nor do we believe that’s the case.”

The State Department web site also lists governments which it believes sponsor terrorism. Five years ago, seven countries were on the list –- North Korea, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Cuba. At the time, the United States thought five of those countries had weapons of mass destruction, McCaffrey said.

“We should understand that WMD capability is still resident in many of these states,” McCaffrey said. “There are probably 30 nations that could rapidly develop a nuclear weapons capability. Our concern is, can any of these 42 terrorist organizations gain access to that technology?” McCaffrey called North Korea and Pakistan particularly harmful due to their potential for proliferating such technology.

McCaffrey called the threat to the United States “considerable,” but described a three-pillar approach the country is using to defend itself.

The first pillar is made up of the country’s law enforcement agencies and its intelligence services. He called the CIA and the FBI among the greatest agencies in the world. Despite widespread international displeasure with American foreign policy, McCaffrey said the CIA continues to enjoy tremendous access to sensitive information. The FBI, he said, which traditionally has responded to criminal activity, is in the process of transitioning into a pro-active agency which prevents terrorist actions before they occur.

The second pillar, McCaffrey said, is the United States’ armed forces. He called the American soldiers in Iraq today the “most courageous, competent force we have ever fielded.” American armed forces, he said, are tactically nimble and very powerful.

The third pillar is the country’s domestic counter-terrorism effort. The Department of Homeland Security brought together 22 government agencies into one department of 177,000 people. Although much more work needs to be done, McCaffrey said progress has been made in many areas. “The nation’s 104 nuclear power plants are immensely better defended, and the nation’s aviation system has gone from unprotected to being pretty well defended,” he said.

Border patrol, McCaffrey said, is one of the greatest homeland security challenges. He said there are currently 12,000 border patrol officers. “Why would you think you could defend America’s 304 ports of entry with a force that is a fraction of the size of the New York City police department?” he asked. He said the border patrol needs 45,000 people.

The Coast Guard also is understaffed at its current level of 32,000 people. “That force ought to be 75,000 people,” he said. And the National Guard, he said, is not equipped to keep up with the demands that are being made of it. He said the National Guard needs more military police brigades, light infantry, engineering and medical resources and fewer F-16 aircraft and M-1 tanks.

“At the end of the day, the great question asked every 9-11 is going to be: Are we any safer? It’s a silly question,” McCaffrey summarized. “Of course we are. We have made enormous strides internationally and at home to better set ourselves up to protect us from these new forms of terrorist threat. To a large extent it’s working.”

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