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New People and Not-So-New Policies to Treat the al Qaeda Cancer

There is always something happening in the homeland security arena. Every day there are threats from Mother Nature, terrorists, and the unforeseen that can cause the dominoes to fall in communities large and small, but it is worth noting two big changes that have occurred in terms of policy and personnel.

Prior to the July 4th holiday, the Obama administration revealed its new Counterterrorism Strategy. Introduced by White House Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, its overall architect, in a speech on June 29 at the Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., the National Strategy for Counterterrorism is another evolution in the country’s strategic thinking on an issue that literally exploded in front of us during the 9/11 attacks of nearly a decade ago.

For as much as then-candidate Barack Obama campaigned for the keys of the White House on a theme of “change,” there is not much difference from the points and strategies offered by the Bush administration. And that should not be a surprise. Candidates of every political stripe say time and again how they will do things differently from their predecessors and opponents. After the election and upon taking office they finally get a good, hard look at this thing called “the In-Box” that is filled with some very difficult issues, and discover that with respect to the policies and ideas of the people they replaced … well, they just may have been on to something.

That seems to be the case here. For all of the 2008 campaign rhetoric about closing Guantanamo and opening up new dialogues with Muslim nations and people, this strategy focuses on the crux of our nation’s and world’s counterterrorism problem – al Qaeda. All it does differently from its predecessor strategy from the Bush Administration is recognize the evolution of al Qaeda from a purely bin Laden-driven enterprise to a murderous distributed franchise of sorts. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq – once the primary epicenters of al Qaeda action – no longer hold the monopoly on troublemaking. Now places such as Yemen, East Africa, Algeria, the Arabian Peninsula and more are becoming the hotbeds of exporting potential threats to the U.S. homeland.

As great as it was to eliminate Osama bin Laden in early May and deliver him to a watery grave, the cancer of al Qaeda continues to grow in places around the world. How we treat those cancer outbreaks will be the source of plenty of debates around the world, in Congress, the media, and elsewhere, but there is no denying that al Qaeda remains in the “In-box” of this president and potentially his future successors.

Through use of new media tools and more, bin Laden and his disciples have continued to export their murderous theology to a much wider distribution than even the pre-9/11 days. Instead of just a few people huddled in a cave somewhere in a remote part of the planet listening to some hate-filled CDs about killing Americans, now any al Qaeda wannabes disenchanted with life can find the message of the day or a listing of potential targets on their laptops or smartphone screens.

Keeping an eye out for just those types of persons will be the responsibility of Matthew Olsen, as the new director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Nominated to replace Michael Leiter, one of the handful of people from the previous Bush team that transitioned into and stayed with the Obama administration, Olsen has the opportunity to build off of the solid foundation that Leiter and his team have built since NCTC opened its doors.

While Leiter’s tenure at NCTC had its share of critics, there is no doubt he’s leaving on top. As one of the very few people in on the bin Laden take down operation, Leiter is pulling a John Elway moment and retiring at his highest point. It’s a comparison that he even mentioned when his resignation was announced. While still a young man (he’s 42) with many more positive contributions that he can make to the nation or the private sector – whichever path he ultimately follows – it would be hard to top being part of the decision team that took down one of the world’s most infamous killers. It was his Super Bowl moment.

Olsen’s distinguished background in the intelligence, judicial, and military circles will be consistently and constantly drawn upon in undertaking a job that is as thankless as it is herculean. If something happens, such as another plane-riding underwear bomber, or a car bomb enthusiast parking a vehicle at a busy intersection, fingers will be pointed squarely at him, accompanied by shouts of “Why didn’t you know about this?”

On top of that are all of the very valid legal and civil liberties concerns that people have about what the NCTC does.

His position, like the counterterrorism policies of which he will be a part, require perspective, experience, and balance. Without them, neither the people nor the programs that are there to protect the homeland from harm can be successful. In the end, that is the only major metric that matters when you’re fighting a cancer that has countless abilities to spread and cause us harm in innumerable ways.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...