Former counterterrorism czar cites creeping complacency

By Chris Strohm

May 26, 2005

Former U.S. counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke said Thursday he fears the government and public are falling into a false sense of complacency about security needs while Iraq is becoming a new breeding ground for terrorism against the United States. He also believes another wave of attacks will eventually hit the country.

"It's been 44 months since 9/11 and there is, in some locations around the country and in popular opinion, a growing sense of complacency," Clarke said during a keynote speech at the 2005 Government Security Conference in Washington. "We can't get back to normal. We can never get back to normal."

Clarke cited several examples of how he believes the government and public are letting down their guard, including resuming general aviation at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, allowing airports to replace federal passenger and baggage screeners with private workers, and failing to adopt regulations for chemical plants that have lethal gases.

Clarke said the main reasons for complacency are that there has not been another attack in the United States and the government consistently talks about how many senior al Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed.

"Someday they will come back; there will be a second wave," he said. "And if we are complacent -- if we think because we've [crossed] out all the names on our chart, if we think that we don't have to reduce our vulnerabilities and improve our security here at home -- we will suffer another major attack."

He cited four main indicators to gauge whether the terrorist threat still exists: the number of attacks in the world; the number of terrorists; the amount of money they have; and the amount of support they receive in Islamic countries. He said all of these indicators are on the rise, proving that the terrorist threat is growing.

"If you believe that we're destroying al Qaeda and its related organizations, I think you're wrong," he said. "If you believe that even if we succeeded in doing that we'd be OK because there are no other threats in the world, I think you're wrong."

He also said he is worried that a second generation of terrorists is growing up in Iraq while the U.S. government focuses on capturing or killing known insurgents like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is the most wanted man in Iraq.

"What I fear happening today is that while we are all happily crossing out al-Zarqawi and others on our organizational chart of al Qaeda, we have alienated the Islamic world, our popularity is at an all-time low [and] we have destroyed whole cities in Iraq like Fallujah."

He said if 1 percent of people from Fallujah grow to hate America, then that would be enough "to pose a major threat."

"Whether you think we should have gone into Iraq or not, I think you need to accept the reality that we may be converting parts of Iraq into a new breeding ground for terrorism. There are over 40,000 insurgents now in Iraq," he said.

Clarke also said some actions by federal agencies and Congress are encouraging complacency.

The Homeland Security Department announced this week that it plans to reopen Reagan National Airport to certain precleared general aviation aircraft. The airport was closed to general aviation after the 9/11 attacks, mainly at Clarke's request, he said.

"I don't think it should reopen for general aviation," Clarke told reporters after his speech. "I think that if the Defense Department or the Secret Service sees a general aviation aircraft now going toward the White House ... they know it's a problem because no general aviation aircraft should be there."

"If, in the future, general aviation aircraft are allowed in that zone ... then you won't be sure when you see an aircraft whether it's hostile or not," he added. "By the time you figure out whether or not it actually did go through the security procedures, it could hit the White House."

Clarke objected to the use of private screening companies, saying the creation of the Transportation Security Administration represented "the one great thing that we have done since 9/11 to increase security" and "an example of how the government can work."

TSA is accepting applications from airports to replace federal screeners with a privatized workforce. Congress required the agency to give airports the option of using private screening companies again, as long as those companies provide screening services that are at least as good as the federal workforce.

Clarke noted that the government has yet to mandate security improvements at chemical plants, and a report this week from the Government Accountability Office shows that federal efforts to secure cargo coming into U.S. ports are lacking.

"There's complacency when people see the federal government not responding to obvious threats," Clarke said.

By Chris Strohm

May 26, 2005