Obama’s security mindset

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As he has said, the President rejects an absolutist approach or the imposition of a rigid ideology on our problems. Like the world itself, his views are nuanced, not simplistic; practical, not ideological. He understands the complexities and many dimensions of the challenges presented by violent extremism. He understands that preventing terrorists from slaughtering the innocent sometimes requires making very difficult decisions.” –John Brennan, assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism

Security is a big deal in trucking for obvious reasons. All over the world, trucks have been and continue to be used as rolling bombs. On a less explosive but no less nefarious level, they are used to smuggle drugs, weapons, even illegal immigrants across our borders.

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Legitimate truckers, of course, provide the most vital transport method for commerce in the U.S. – they haul 80% of our nation’s freight – and as a consequence must be wary of cargo theft attempts, which threaten both the American wallet and on (thankfully) rare occasions, American lives.

From these perspectives, then, it’s important to know how our new Commander in Chief views security in a broad sense – where and what he thinks poses the biggest threats to the U.S., plus how he plans to confront and thwart them. It’s important, too, to get a read on where President Obama stands on this issue now, after he’s been in office for a while. For what’s said on the campaign trail changes in a big hurry – and rightfully so – once you sit in the Oval Office and start getting the reports on what is really going on out there in the world from security experts.

Whether you voted for Obama or not, nor whether you support the President’s approach to national security or not, is almost beside the point. This is the man in charge, the person elected to call the shots. So it’s worthwhile to get an understanding (and please forgive the sport’s analogy here) of the offensive and defensive schemes in his playbook, so to speak.

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John Brennan (at right), assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, discussed President Obama’s view on national security last week in a speech given before the Center for Strategic and International Studies – perhaps appropriately called A New Approach to Safeguarding Americans – and it makes for some interesting reading (you can view the whole text by clicking here).

Brennan, by the way, is no slouch when it comes to national security issues. His title – “assistant to the president” – is the highest one any White House staffer can hold. He’s a 25-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency and among his career postings served as station chief for the Middle East from 1996 until 1999. In short, he’s a guy that’s “been there, done that” when it comes to dealing with security issues.

OK then – what, then, is President Obama’s security strategy? And how might it impact trucking?

For starters, President Obama’s administration is focusing on three major “initiatives” in order to better confront the transnational threats of the 21st Century: strengthening the global non-proliferation effort to stop the spread of nuclear weapons; promote food security that fights world hunger and lifts people around the world out of poverty; and bolster the nation’s digital defense against cyber attacks.

At the top of the list, though, is the transnational challenge that poses one of the greatest threats to our national security, said Brennan — the scourge of violent extremists who would use terrorism to slaughter Americans abroad and at home.

“I want to note at the outset that my professional and personal experience has greatly shaped my perspective on how best to confront the challenges we face,” he said. “During a 25-year career in government, I saw first-hand the mayhem and destruction that terrorists wreak. I have seen close friends and fellow intelligence officers—good, courageous, heroic Americans—injured, maimed, and killed in terrorist attacks. Eight years ago this morning [August 6] I read warnings that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike inside the U.S., but our government was unable to prevent the worst terrorist attack in American history that would occur on 9/11.”

The President, noted Brennan, sees confronting the terrorist threat as two related but very distinct challenges: the immediate, near-term challenge of destroying Al Qaeda and its allies—those ready and willing to kill innocent civilians—and the longer-term challenge of confronting violent extremism generally.

“First, the immediate challenge—the persistent and evolving threat from al Qaeda and its allies. President Obama is under no illusions about the imminence and severity of this threat,” Brennan noted. “Indeed, he has repeatedly and forcefully challenged those who suggest that this threat has passed. To Americans who ask why our forces still fight and die in Afghanistan, he has made it clear that al Qaeda is actively plotting to attack us again and that he will not tolerate Afghanistan—or any other country—being a base for terrorists determined to kill Americans. To those abroad who doubt al Qaeda’s motives or murderous history, he said in Cairo ‘these are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.’”

Brennan also pointed out that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are under tremendous pressure. “After years of U.S. counterterrorism operations, and in partnership with other nations, al Qaeda has been seriously damaged and forced to replace many of its top-tier leadership with less experienced and less capable individuals,” he said. “It is being forced to work harder and harder to raise money, to move its operatives around the world, and to plan attacks.”

Nevertheless, Brennan noted, Al Qaeda has proven to be adaptive and highly resilient and remains the most serious terrorist threat we face as a nation. “The group’s intent to carry out attacks against the United States and U.S. interests around the world—with weapons of mass destruction if possible—remains undiminished, and another attack on the U.S. homeland remains the top priority for the Al Qaeda senior leadership,” he explained.

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President Obama’s “anti-Al Qaeda” policy, if you will, is simple – disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda and its allies. “That is our mission … and to win this war against al Qaeda, the administration continues to be unrelenting, using every tool in our toolbox and every arrow in our quiver,” Brennan added.

That includes: using U.S. military forces to push the Taliban out of key population areas in Afghanistan; confronting al Qaeda directly in partnership with Pakistan to inflicting significant losses; sharing intelligence resources In East Africa and the Trans-Sahel region to deny al Qaeda safe havens; working with and through the international banking community to deny resources and funding to the al Qaeda network and the businesses that support them; and finally successfully prosecuting terrorists and their supporters in the courts of law.

“I would add one personal observation,” Brennan stressed. “Over the past six months we have presented President Obama with a number of actions and initiatives against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Not only has he approved these operations, he has encouraged us to be even more aggressive, even more proactive, and even more innovative, to seek out new ways and new opportunities for taking down these terrorists before they can kill more innocent men, women, and children.”

More broadly – and here is where trucking should pay attention – President Obama is focusing on tighter security for U.S. borders as part of the overall effort to confronting what he has identified as the most immediate and extreme threat to both global and domestic security—the possibility that terrorists will obtain and use a nuclear weapon. “The risk of just one terrorist with just one nuclear weapon is a risk we simply cannot afford to take,” stressed Brennan.

Better homeland security, he noted, includes: enhancing information sharing arrangements with U.S. allies and partners; strengthening partnerships with state and local officials, law enforcement, and first responders; and improving the security of our critical infrastructure, borders, ports, and airports.

“Our homeland security efforts include working aggressively to prevent and prepare for bio-terrorism, which is why the President’s budget makes major investments in our public health infrastructure, including new technologies to detect attacks and new vaccines to respond in a crisis,” said Brennan. “And I would note that our coordinated response to the H1N1 virus—across the federal government, with state and local governments, and with the private sector and the public—and our extensive preparations for the coming flu season will ensure that we are better prepared for any future bio-terrorist attack.”

Finally, though, there is the overarching “mindset” President Obama is pursuing in his national security policies – an effort to establish clear, more precise (and perhaps more narrow) definitions of these challenges.

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“This is critically important. How you define a problem shapes how you address it,” said Brennan. “As many have noted, the President does not describe this as a ‘war on terrorism.’ That is because ‘terrorism’ is but a tactic—a means to an end. Confusing ends and means is dangerous, because by focusing on the tactic, we risk floundering among the terrorist trees while missing the growth of the extremist forest. And ultimately, confusing ends and means is self-defeating, because you can never fully defeat a tactic like terrorism any more than you can defeat the tactic of war itself.”

For that reason, Brennan said, the President does not describe these broad security efforts as a "global war."

“Yes, al Qaeda and other terrorists groups operate in many corners of the world and continue to launch attacks in different nations. And yes, the U.S. will confront al Qaeda aggressively wherever it exists so that it enjoys no safe haven. But describing our efforts as a ‘global war’ only plays into the warped narrative that al Qaeda propagates … reinforcing the very image that al Qaeda seeks to project of itself—that it is a highly organized, global entity capable of replacing sovereign nations with a global caliphate. And nothing could be further from the truth.”

Will these both broad and specific national security strategies do the job? It surely seems they cover all the bases. One thing is for certain, though – trucking will still have to do its part to keep its end of the supply chain safe and secure from terrorist activities.

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