By Dan Merica
How much damage has admitted NSA leaker Edward Snowden caused U.S. intelligence? How far can domestic surveillance legally extend? What is the U.S. future in countries overturned by the Arab Spring?
These questions and more will be addressed at this week’s “Aspen Security Forum.” The event will feature wide-ranging panels on the future of a scaled-back Pentagon to counterterrorism and the rule of law.
A number of current Obama administration officials will weigh in: Ashton Carter, deputy secretary of defense; Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the Air Force; Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency.
Here are the top four things we will be looking for at the forum:
1.) What kind of damage have Snowden’s disclosures done to intelligence gathering?
Snowden’s impact on the intelligence community will likely be the most talked about topic of the week.
A former NSA contractor, Snowden leaked documents to the media that exposed mass surveillance programs. After he publicly identified himself as the leaker, he left Hong Kong for Russia, where he is believed to have been holed up in a transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport since.
Panels on Thursday, Friday and Saturday are bound to bring up the matter.
Jane Harman, a former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN in an interview that there doesn't need to be a tradeoff between security and liberty.
“Ben Franklin said over 200 years ago that he who surrenders some liberty for security deserves neither,” Harman said. “And this is how I see it. I see liberty and security reinforcing values; it’s not a zero sum game.”
She continues: “I think it is good to have a debate about this. If Congress feels the contours of some these programs, once it fully understands them, is too broad, it should scale them back.”
Harman is scheduled to participate in one of the many panels on this topic.
2.) Are the cyber snooping programs that Snowden unveiled legal?
There are a number of panels where this issue could come up. But the most likely hotbed for this discussion will be a panel of representatives from the NSA and the American Civil Liberties Union. “Counterterrorism, National Security and the Rule of Law” will be held at 1:45 p.m. ET on Thursday.
Since Snowden’s disclosures, the NSA has maintained its domestic surveillance programs are legal.
“I think what we're doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing,” Alexander said at a congressional hearing in June. "Our agency takes great pride in protecting this nation and our civil liberties and privacy, and doing it in partnership with this committee, with this Congress, and with the courts."
The ACLU has called for Snowden’s protection and has called the surveillance programs he exposed as violations of Americans’ constitutional rights.
“Finally, we say as Americans that we are tired of seeing liberty sacrificed on the altar of security and having a handful of lawmakers decide what we should and should not know,” the ACLU said in a petition.
Snowden and the NSA will likely come up again when Alexander discuses cyber-crime and the Pentagon’s cyber-terror efforts at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday.
3.) What does the next phase of the Arab Spring look like for the United States?
At last year’s forum, the Arab Spring was in full swing. Syria was in near meltdown and the year prior saw leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya fall to popular uprisings.
Heading into this year, the landscape of the Middle East and North Africa continues to be a minefield for the United States. Competing factions continue to be at war in Syria and Egypt, after a military coup, is left with more questions unanswered than answered.
In analysis by CNN’s Elise Labott, Steve Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations argues what’s missing from the debate is an articulation of U.S. interests.
“It really hasn’t been about promoting fundamental democratic change in Egypt. If it were, we would have taken Morsy to task on a whole host of issues where he was being undemocratic,” Cook said.
But do United States officials agree?
On Friday, Ambassador Rick Barton and Ambassador Bill McRaven, two men tasked with evaluating situations like the presidential overthrow in Egypt, will weigh in on how the United States can prevent conflict abroad and deal with it once it has begun.
This topic is likely to be the focus of the Aspen’s closing event, too. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer will interview Retired Gen. James N. Mattis, former commander of U.S. Central Command on the instability in the Arab world and how the Pentagon is making sense of continuing developments.
4.) More than a decade into the war on terror, where does terrorism go from here?
As the Pentagon budget shrinks and the focus of America’s war on terror begins to change, the question remains: where does terrorism – and terrorists in particular – go from here?
“Terrorism experts inside and outside the government have been caught up in a debate about how close we may be to defeating al Qaeda and associated groups,” John McLaughlin, a former director for the CIA wrote for CNN before the conference. “What can be said with absolute confidence is that today’s al Qaeda is fundamentally different from the one we knew for years. It has evolved from the hierarchical organization of September 2001 into what might be called a “network of networks.”
McLaughlin – who will address the future of terrorism in a panel of Friday – argues that the fact al Qaeda is now a group of loosely-structured but interconnected organizations, the United States must now focus on countries in disarray welcoming these smaller groups.
One major trend, he wrote is the “opening up opportunities for terrorists is the increasing turmoil in governance across the arc of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Although many analysts two years ago saw the Arab Spring as a refutation of al Qaeda’s violent ideology, it is hard to portray recent events as anything other than a new world of opportunities for radical Islamists.”
Syria, because of its sectarian violence and weakened government, wrote McLaughlin, is a good example of this.
- CNN’s Elise Labbot, Jamie Crawford and Alla Eshchenko contributed to this story.