Official: Al Qaeda-affiliated groups gaining strength in Syria
July 21st, 2013
02:20 AM ET

Official: Al Qaeda-affiliated groups gaining strength in Syria

By Elise Labott, reporting from Aspen, Colorado

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum. which took place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance was a media sponsor of the event.

Al Qaeda-affiliated groups are gaining strength in Syria, giving an edge to extremists in the country, a top military intelligence official said Saturday.

David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Aspen Security Forum that extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has publicly pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, have been the most successful in operations against troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

"It is very clear over the last two years they have grown in size, grown in capability and ruthlessly grown in effectiveness. Their ability to take the fight to the regime and Hezbollah in a very direct way has been, among those groups, the most effective," he said.

Left unchecked, he said, more radical elements of the opposition would have a greater role, eclipsing moderates in a post-Assad Syria. "They will not go home when it is over," Shedd said. "They will fight for that space. They are there for the long haul."

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Former general: Knew early that Benghazi was terrorist attack
July 20th, 2013
07:06 AM ET

Former general: Knew early that Benghazi was terrorist attack

By Elise Labott

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.

The former head of U.S. forces in Africa said the September 11, 2012, attack on the American mission in Benghazi quickly appeared to be a terrorist attack and not a spontaneous protest.

It was clear "pretty quickly that this was not a demonstration. This was a violent attack," former Gen. Carter Ham told the Aspen Security Forum on Friday. Ham is the former chief of U.S. Africa Command, commonly known as AFRICOM.

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Former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan cautions against 'zero option'
July 19th, 2013
10:27 PM ET

Former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan cautions against 'zero option'

By CNN's Elise Labott and Shirley Henry

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.

The former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, retired Gen. John Allen, cautioned Friday against leaving no U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.

Speaking Friday at the Aspen Security Forum, Allen said that although the Afghan army has made great gains, Afghan leaders realize its forces are not fully trained and need a U.S. presence beyond next year.

"I've got a good bit of experience with senior Afghan leaders, and I can tell you almost to a person, they desperately want our presence after this war," he said. "They don't want us in large numbers, but they want us there in enough numbers to help to continue to develop the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces)."

Allen, who retired in April, said he was never asked to evaluate a "zero option" - leaving no U.S. troops behind after 2014 - but added that if that option is in play now, it's "largely out of exasperation with the rhetoric coming out of the palace," referring to the strained U.S relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

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July 19th, 2013
01:09 PM ET

Is terrorism still a threat to American families?

By Dan Merica, Elise Labott and Shirley Henry

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, a majority of Americans were worried about terrorism directly impacting their lives, according to a number of polls.

More than a decade later, is that still the case?

That was the primary question John Ashcroft, former attorney general under President George W. Bush, and Phillip Mudd, a former senior official at the CIA and FBI, debated at a Friday panel at the Aspen Security Forum.

“I think we are still at war,” Ashcroft said bluntly. “I don’t know if I will be able to be sure to say when we will be able to say we are not at war. But as long as they are continuing to hit us and allege that they are at war, I think we can.”

In response, Mudd directly challenged Ashcroft.

“I don't agree, by the way, that we are at war,” the author said.

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July 19th, 2013
09:02 AM ET

Former CIA chief speaks out on Snowden

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden spoke with CNN's 'New Day' and discusses how Edward Snowden's leaks have changed the way terrorists operate and are making them harder to catch. Hayden spoke from Aspen, Colorado where he is attending teh Aspen Security Forum.

July 19th, 2013
12:00 AM ET

Upheaval and the redrawing of terrorist lines in the Arab world

By Elise Labott and Dan Merica

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.

The instability and changing governments in the Middle East have redrawn lines in the region and created instability that has provided a breeding ground for terrorism, the former head of the CIA said Thursday.

John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA, also told the Aspen Security Forum that the terrorist threat facing the United States has undergone a sea change, posing challenges to U.S. agencies seeking to understand and dismantle them.

“The changes in terrorism and not whether there is an end point are so transformational as to compare plausibly with the changes of the Berlin Wall coming down,” McLaughlin said.

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July 18th, 2013
10:59 PM ET

NSA chief strongly defends govt. surveillance programs, but suggests he's open to changes

By Dan Merica and Elise Labott

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.

The director of the National Security Agency on Thursday offered a full-throated defense of a domestic monitoring program that has been at the center of government leaks, while also tacitly supporting an idea to dramatically change the controversial snooping.

In a public interview at the Aspen Security Forum, NSA Director Keith Alexander addressed the leaks carried out by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified documents to the media.

At the heart of the Snowden leaks is a program that collects information about all calls in the United States. The information collected, called metadata, includes duration, time of the call and the numbers that are party to the call, all of which are stored in a government database.

But what if private phone companies - instead of the government - ran the database?

"You could technically do that," Alexander said. "Now, it creates some operational problems that we would have to work our way through … But that may be the best solution."

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July 18th, 2013
07:24 PM ET

Terrorism chief worried about European reaction to Snowden leaks

By Dan Merica

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.

The United States' antiterrorism chief is worried about the leaks that former government contractor Edward Snowden has carried out - particularly, he said Thursday, because our European allies are watching and reacting.

In a panel at the Aspen Security Forum, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that while "it remains to be seen" how Snowden's leaks have affected relationships with U.S. allies, he is growing concerned.

"I an worried about it when I see what I read, particularly with respect to Europe and our European allies," he said. "How they may be reacting to this. But I think it just remains to be seen on that."

Olsen, who heads the center that is responsible for analyzing all terror threats, was noticeably measured in his answer.

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Filed under: Aspen Security Forum • Edward Snowden • Europe • France • NSA • Terrorism
July 18th, 2013
06:02 PM ET

ACLU, government reps debate whether Snowden is public servant or traitor

By Dan Merica and Elise Labott

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.

Was Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor?

That is the question the media, the public and elected officials have debated ever since Snowden released classified information about the United States' efforts to monitor its own citizens.

But on Thursday, the debate got more interesting when representatives from the National Security Agency - the organization Snowden leaked information about - the Pentagon and the American Civil Liberties Union informally debated the issue in public.

"I think he did this country a service," Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU said regarding Snowden. "I have not said that publicly until this point. I think he did this country a service by starting a debate that was anemic, that was left to government officials where people did not understand fully what was happening."

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July 18th, 2013
03:34 PM ET

Former spy chief speaks out on NSA surveillance programs

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.

In an interview with CNN's Brooke Baldwin, Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence weighed in Thursday with his thoughts on the NSA surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden. He also gave his thoughts on the killing of civilians in drone operations overseas. Blair spoke from Aspen, Colorado where he is attending the Aspen Security Forum.

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