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Ex-Counterterrorism Chief: Cutbacks Raise Risk Of New Attacks

Jul 21, 2020
Originally published on July 21, 2020 5:22 pm

A recently ousted counterterrorism chief says the country is risking the gains made against terrorist threats by cutting back resources with little or no public debate. In an interview with NPR, Russ Travers also expressed frustration at the poor state of relations between the intelligence community and the Trump administration.

"If people believe that conditions have so changed and the threat is so diminished that we can go back to the way things were [before the 9/11 attacks], so be it," said Russ Travers, who served as acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

"I just personally don't believe that's the right answer. And I don't like the quality of the discussion that has gotten us to this point," Travers told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of All Things Considered, in his first broadcast interview since leaving his government post.

Travers, who joined the intelligence community in the late 1970s, said he's never seen such bad relations between intelligence professionals and a presidential administration.

"I've been doing this for 42 years. I have never seen longtime civil servants removed because they had opinions that were different than the administration," he said.

The National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC, was set up in the wake of the 2001 al-Qaida attacks. Because government agencies failed to adequately share information prior to those attacks, the center was designed to coordinate government efforts. Many officials working there are on temporary assignment from other agencies, like the CIA or the National Security Agency.

Travers said it became increasingly difficult to properly staff the NCTC as agencies sought to keep their staffers for their own expanding missions, such as growing cyber threats.

"I felt that we didn't have adequate resources to do the missions that we've been given," Travers said.

He sought to outline his concerns at a March 18 meeting he requested with Richard Grenell, who had recently been named acting director of national intelligence.

"We exchanged pleasantries and he tells me that my deputy Peter Hall and I, we're both out," Travers said. "I went in as the acting director of the center and I came out not being such anymore."

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that Travers was offered other jobs, but chose to retire. Travers says that was not the case. During his brief time as director of national intelligence, Grenell announced plans to scale back the NCTC, reportedly cutting the workforce by about 15 percent.

Critics of President Trump say the episode reflects his ongoing friction with the intelligence community, whose findings the president has sometimes challenged or rejected. The president's tenure has been marked by a rapid turnover of top officials and, according to the critics, an inclination to favor political loyalists over intelligence professionals.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

You said that you didn't have adequate resources to carry out the job that you'd been given. What did you not have?

The law said that NCTC (National Counterterrorism Center) would be the primary organization in the government to do analysis of international terrorism. It would also have a strategic, operational, planning function, which essentially meant kind of integrated whole-of-government stuff. So we were doing this as a common concern for the government and we simply were not resourced to do that as departments and agencies started drawing down their commitments to NCTC because the country was going through this kind of re-evaluation of threats.

To play devil's advocate, al-Qaida is not the organization it once was. ISIS is not the organization it was just a few years ago. Why shouldn't fewer resources be devoted to fighting terrorism?

I actually believe that's true. As you say, the threat is not what it once was. There needs to be a rationalization of resources against terrorism. I think we could do that. But it does require a change in mindset in that not every department and agency needs to do everything.

Can you give me an example of something that you saw not getting done because you didn't have the resources?

Every day we would get upwards of 15,000 names. We had to sort through those, decide who is of concern. That ultimately percolates down to an organization that has to make a decision about who gets on an airplane. What happens if a police officer stops them? Do they get a visa? This is not cheap. And so the question ultimately is one of risk. I would be completely on board if if we had that conscious, informed discussion about how much risk are we or are we not willing to accept. My fear is that we are kind of stumbling into, "let's just cut resources and things aren't going to get done."

You're raising the question of whether the U.S. is prepared for a major terrorist attack. We haven't had one since 9/11. But if there was one in the works, is the U.S. back to where we were before 9/11?

The American public needs to know that the counterterrorism enterprise, in my opinion, is the best example we had ever of thinking whole-of-government. We took the fight overseas. We pushed borders out. We made the homeland more secure. I'm worried that people kind of want to move on from terrorism. I don't think we're going to see an attack tomorrow. I'm probably more concerned about a few years down the road.

A few days after you were ousted, nine former senior leaders of the intelligence community wrote an open letter in The Washington Post and talked about "the deeply destructive path being pursued by the Trump administration." As somebody who had a front-row seat, what do you think are the consequences of those tensions?

There are always tensions. I do think that it's far worse in the current administration. It's not healthy. The intelligence community, for the most part, is a behind-the-scenes player. They will often carry a message that policymakers don't want to hear. But I've never seen it like this. They were telling senior intelligence officials that they need to "go to school." I just don't think that's helpful. I certainly don't think it's appropriate.

In that letter, the former senior intelligence leaders also wrote that your removal sent a message that, "Every current officer sees that speaking truth to power in this administration is an immediate career killer." Do you think that is the message being sent?

I do. I've been doing this for 42 years. I have never seen longtime civil servants removed because they had opinions that were different than the administration.

Just to be clear, you're not saying, "Hey, I ran the National Counterterrorism Center, the budget got cut. I'm mad about it. We need more money thrown at this problem." You're saying let's be intentional about figuring out the national security threats.

That's exactly right. I want a conscious decision. I want eyes wide open. If people believe that conditions have so changed and the threat is so diminished that we can go back to the way things were [before 9/11], so be it. I just personally don't believe that's the right answer. And I don't like the quality of the discussion that has gotten us to this point.

: 7/21/20

The original online version incorrectly stated that the National Counterterrorism Center said it offered Travers other jobs. It was the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that said it offered Travers other jobs.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I wanted to get it out of the way. So when Russ Travers came to the phone earlier today, I opened by asking, tell me about the day this spring when you were forced out of your job.

RUSS TRAVERS: I was removed on the 18 of March.

KELLY: The job Travers was removed from - running the National Counterterrorism Center. Travers says he did not have adequate resources for the mission, so he requested a meeting to explain the mission and lay out his concerns to then acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell.

TRAVERS: I walk in, and he took over the meeting. We exchanged pleasantries, and he tells me that my deputy, Pete Hall - who was a very renowned NSA officer - and I were both out.

KELLY: The DNI's office has maintained Travers was not fired, that he was invited to move to a new role.

TRAVERS: Well, I certainly told all of my friends and colleagues coming out of that meeting that I was fired. I went in as the acting director of the center, and I came out not being such anymore. So I don't know what the verb is, but I was out.

KELLY: This is Russ Travers' first broadcast interview since leaving government. I wanted to understand the warning he was trying to deliver, a warning he spelled out in a disclosure that was shared with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

This was the alarm bell that you were trying to ring.

TRAVERS: It was.

KELLY: The NCTC was stood up for a reason - to make sure there would never be another 9/11. Is your concern that we are walking back the reforms that were put in place to protect us from another terror attack?

TRAVERS: I am, and I was pretty explicit in my disclosure to the Hill. And perhaps reasonable people can differ that if we as a country believe that conditions have so changed that we can go back to the kind of construct that we had before 9/11, then so be it. Change the law, relieve the center of responsibilities. But I want that to be a conscious decision because I absolutely believe it's the wrong answer.

KELLY: To play devil's advocate, al-Qaida is not the organization it once was. ISIS is not the organization it was just a few years ago. Why shouldn't fewer resources be devoted to fighting terrorism if it's become a less urgent threat?

TRAVERS: I actually believe that's true. The threat is not what it once was. There needs to be a rationalization of resources against terrorism. And as I say, I think we could do that, but it does require both a change in mindset in that not every department and agency needs to do everything.

KELLY: Bottom line, you're raising the question of whether the U.S. is prepared for a major terrorist attack. If there were one in the works, is the U.S. back to where we were before 9/11?

TRAVERS: That's what I put in the disclosure, that it felt to me like the - kind of the integrative function within the government is moving backwards.

KELLY: The integrative function meaning our ability to connect the dots?

TRAVERS: Yes. And I'm worried that people kind of want to move on from terrorism. And I don't think we're going to see an attack tomorrow. Although, frankly, it wouldn't surprise me because this is about people and networks, and that's really complicated and hard to track. I'm probably more concerned about a few years down the road. And there has got to be a single bellybutton that is ultimately responsible and accountable for the terrorist threat, working in conjunction with all of our partners. And as NCTC was supposed to be that organization, we are less capable of doing that.

KELLY: A few days after you were ousted, nine former, very senior leaders of the intelligence community wrote an open letter in The Washington Post. And the letter talked about, in their words, the deeply destructive path being pursued by the Trump administration. I know that you don't want to wade into politics. You told me you don't think it's constructive. But there are undeniable tensions between this president and the intelligence community, and I wonder, what do you think are the consequences of those tensions?

TRAVERS: I worry about it a lot. There are always tensions. I do think that it's far worse in the current administration. It's not healthy. The intelligence community, for the most part, is a behind-the-scenes player. They will often carry a message that policymakers don't want to hear, but I've never seen it like this.

KELLY: You're prompting me to think of another line in that open letter from the group of nine various senior intelligence leaders. They wrote that your removal sent a message, and they summed it up this way, and I'll quote, "every current officer sees that speaking truth to power in this administration is an immediate career killer." Do you think, Russ Travers, that that is the message being sent or how it's being heard?

TRAVERS: I do. I've never - again, I've been doing this for 42 years. I have never seen intelligence community longtime civil servants removed because they had opinions that were different than the administration. I mean, for instance, Director Clapper who signed that letter, he and I differed. I wrote articles about sort of my concerns about the intelligence community many years ago. He didn't like the article, but they fostered that kind of conversation. And I just think that that's what we want out of our intelligence community. And you don't want people cherry about saying what they believe to be the truth.

KELLY: I can hear you struggling to answer these questions. I know this is not something you're used to doing, giving interviews and speaking in any way about a government which you're served for more than four decades. I do want to ask because you're a private citizen now and you can speak, is there anything you would say on behalf of people who continue to work for U.S. intelligence agencies who cannot speak publicly?

TRAVERS: Oh, I think I'll pass on that. I will just say that I personally don't believe that we have the governmental structures in place to deal with a really complicated world. I worry about the downsizing of the National Security Council. I certainly worry about what's happened to NCTC and our ability to do a whole of government planning. I personally believe that both of those need to change. And it's going to require a sophisticated conversation about national security and what are our interests and how do we stitch departments and agencies together because at the end of the day, we are largely a government of departmental sovereignty.

KELLY: So just to be clear, you're not saying, hey, I ran the center, the budget got cut, I'm mad about it, we need more money thrown at this problem. You're saying, let's be intentional about figuring out what the national security threats are and that we don't go back to something that we fixed after 9/11, that we don't go back to the way things were and make it harder to connect the dots.

TRAVERS: That's exactly right. I want a conscious decision. I want eyes wide open. As I said, if people believe that conditions have so changed and the threat is so diminished that we can go back to the way things were, then so be it. I just personally don't believe that's the right answer, and I don't like the quality of the discussion that has gotten us to this point.

KELLY: That is Russ Travers. He began his career more than 40 years ago as an Army intelligence officer. Until this past March, he ran the National Counterterrorism Center. His retirement became official earlier this month.

Mr. Travers, thank you.

TRAVERS: Mary Louise, thank you very much.

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