EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of articles about national security by participants in the upcoming Aspen Security Forum. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 25-28 in Aspen, Colorado.
CNN Intelligence Correspondent Suzanne Kelly talks with former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on how well the country is prepared for cyber and biological terror attacks. Secretary Chertoff now works in the private sector and as head of The Chertoff Group, which advises clients on current security needs within government.
CNN'S SUZANNE KELLY: What worries you most when it comes to potential terror attacks?
FORMER DHS SECRETARY MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I break it into two categories: things that could easily happen next week or next month, those relatively small scale attacks, for example, like Times Square or a shooting incident like the one involving Nidal Hasan. There is always a persistent threat out there and we know with what's been coming out of Yemen in the last two to three years, that they are still focused on carrying out these attacks.
From a higher standpoint, the cyber and biological attacks are particularly concerning because there is a lot of attention being paid now because of cyber espionage and attempted cyber attacks on control systems and I think that is likely to cause terrorists or nation-state actors to focus attacks on critical infrastructure using the Internet.
The fact that there is discussion about it also draws attention to it.
KELLY: That sounds like a double-edged sword. You have to tell people about the threat, but are you then also increasing the risk of something happening by doing so?
CHERTOFF: That's an interesting question, because there's always a push for putting the vulnerabilities out in public so that people can understand the risks. On the other hand, if you are overly specific, you might be giving the bad guys a road map. We used to try to balance the threat with a high level of generality when we were talking about it, but still keeping the details that would give specific ways to build weapons or carry out attacks, confidential.
KELLY: There hasn't been a great deal of discussion of late about the threat of biological attacks, does that mean the threat has in any way diminished?
CHERTOFF: No. We had the Anthrax attack in 2001, not from al Qaeda, but nevertheless, it caused the loss of lives and it could have been al Qaeda. We know terrorists scheme and that they have shown interest in using biological weapons. There is no reason to believe people have lost interest in this. The fact that they haven't done it yet doesn't mean we shouldn't keep the pressure up, but the raw material for making a biological weapons is not hard to get. It's all about the know-how and the ability to execute. Unlike a nuclear bomb, which carries a fairly heavy risk and requires the knowledge and capability to build one, a biological attack is well-suited for small groups.
KELLY: Do you think that recent counterterrorism efforts have made it any harder for terrorists to carry out attacks? It seems for a while that there was a lot of luck involved in some of these attacks failing for technical or "operator-error" reasons, if you will. Are they changing their tactics?
CHERTOFF: I think we've seen both here and in the UK that the terrorists have had a hard time getting operatives into the U.S., so now they are focusing on recruiting Americans or permanent residents and training them in South Asia or Yemen or there is also training taking place using the Internet. They can avoid our border controls by using people already in place.
KELLY: You and I spoke several months ago about your serious concerns over a potential biological attack. Do you remain as concerned about that?
CHERTOFF: I do and I think in general when you look at the budgets, again, there's been a tendency to underfund biological detection and response. We do have stockpiles of countermeasures available, but getting them into the hands of the people who need it has been hard. I've been a believer that we ought to be taking a lot of the medicine and distributing it to them in advance, to schools, fire fighters and first responders, even individual families and frankly, the FDA is very resistant to that because their belief is that they are prescription medication, so you have to see a doctor first, but in a catastrophic attack, there aren't going to be enough doctors. Someone needs to take a really hard look at the plan and see what the gaps are in the bio attack planning and I believe, at least get medicines out to points around the country where they could be quickly distributed.
KELLY: When we look at the organizational issues when it comes to DHS, what are your concerns?
CHERTOFF: There are always going to be organizational concerns and people asking, "Is DHS where it needs to be?"
KELLY: Is it?
CHERTOFF: I don't believe in a lot of reorganizing. Every time you reorganize, you end up losing a lot of time. What we tried to do at DHS and still do – it's a little bit of a work in progress – is to build up acquisition procurement and management resources. This is not the glamorous stuff, but in the long run, to have a good disciplined system for acquisitions and deployment, you need to have people who know how to run these kinds of programs, putting out contracts, setting requirements and implementing them - that is still a very worthwhile objective. If you have a clear idea of what you need, then you buy what you need. If you don't have a clear idea, you tend to buy what people sell you. So to be really efficient, it's good to know in advance if you have a plan or strategy about what to acquire.