By Dan Merica
This weekend marks the conclusion of this year’s Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado, an event that brought together some of the key players in the world of defense and national security policy.
Here the five moments that the Security Clearance Blog’s team will be talking about on the flight back to Washington:
1. The United States is keeping close tabs on Syria’s weapons, al Qaeda’s influence
As war rages on in Syria, the United States intelligence community is closely monitoring the situation, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen told CNN’s Intelligence Correspondent Suzanne Kelly.
According to Olsen, there is an intense focus on Syria’s chemical weapons.
"We are still looking in Libya at where those weapons may be, and there are concerns that weapons in Libya have fallen into the hands of groups like al Qaeda and al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb. As of right now with respect to Syria, we do think the government has control of the weapons," Olsen said Thursday.
But even with the intelligence community focusing on weapons and al Qaeda in Syria, one former defense official is concerned that the U.S. national security arm – an entity that generally plans for the “day after” the guns of war stop firing – is failing to do that in Syria.
Hank Crumpton, former coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, told CNN’s Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty that the United States is not doing enough to prepare for a Syria without Assad.
In particular, the United States’ lack of understanding of the Syrian rebels worried the former defense official.
"How do we understand them? How do we work with them?" Crumpton asks. "Because they are the future of Syria; because they represent the Syrian people. And that should be more of a diplomatic initiative than we've done to date."
In Crumpton’s opinion, finding out more about the Syrian rebels should be the United States’ premiere intelligence concern.
2. With success comes demand, leaving some to worry that Special Operations forces could become overused, misused
The success that Special Operations forces have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with high-profile missions like the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the 2009 rescue aboard the Maersk Alabama, have led these highly-trained troops to used a higher level than in previous years.
And according to Adm. Eric Olson, the former head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, there is a possibility that this could lead to misuse of these highly-trained forces.
"It's a real danger," retired Adm. Eric Olson said. "They come to be thought of as a utility infielder, sometimes a utility infielder with guns, and they may be asked to solve problems that are not necessarily special operations problems."
In particular, Olson warned against having these forces provide security to overseas dignitaries – something that has occurred in the past.
The elite troops are being used around the world. According to the current head of U.S. Special Operations, Adm. William McRaven, said members his force of 66,000 Special Operations troops are currently operating in 79 countries.
But McRaven is not shying away from the success. McRaven, a Navy SEAL himself, who was in command of the Osama bin Laden raid, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the raid will go down as one of the “great intelligence operations in history.”
While that conclusion has been discussed by a number of high-profile people in the past, it was a candid moment from McRaven, who also reflected on the possibility that bin Laden was not, in fact, in the Abbottabad compound.
"My job was to get him if he was there. If he wasn't there, we would know that pretty quickly and we would get up and get out," McRaven added.
3. Fighting terror requires “a different mindset, a different structure”
Terrorism, both foreign and domestic, continues to be a threat that requires the defense and intelligence community to treat the continued conflict “more like managing a disease,” than the standard understanding of war, Crumpton said.
In a panel moderated by CNN’s Jill Dougherty, Crumpton gave a candid view of how the war on terror requires “a different mind-set, a different structure. And it's going to be much more than military action and covert power.”
Looking back on his time at the State Department, Crumpton reflected on how much September 11, 2001, changed the thinking of intelligence officials.
"You had 19 al Qaeda operatives with box cutters who somehow compelled us to spend over a trillion dollars in extra defense spending. We've never seen that in the history of human conflict," Crumpton says. "You look at the role of nonstate actors, not just al Qaeda and not just their affiliates, but the narco-traffickers in Mexico. Fifty thousand dead since 2006. These are nonstate actors. You look (at the threat) in cyberspace, maybe half of that is nonstate actors."
4. Domestic threats persist and the electrical grid keeps on DoD official up at night
With overseas U.S. combat troops becoming increasingly difficult targets for terrorists, one Department of Defense official expressed great concern that America's enemies will skip the battlefield and turn their focus on cyberattacks of targets in the United States.
His main concern: the U.S. electrical grid.
Paul Stockton, assistant secretary for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs at the Department of Defense, said an attack on the U.S. grid would not only affect millions of people in the United States, but it would also affect critical defense infrastructure at home and abroad.
Stockton, who used multiple questions in his Aspen Security Forum panel to address this concern, told the audience that this sort of attack was keeping him up at night.
“Our adversaries, state and nonstate, are not stupid. They are clever and adaptive,” Stockton said. “There is a risk that they will adopt a profoundly asymmetric strategy, reach around and attack us here at home, the critical infrastructure that is not owned by the Department of Defense.”
But terrorism is not the only disaster that would bring to down the U.S. grid. Stockton also warned of a massive natural disaster that would disable power “for weeks to months across a multistate area.”
5. When it comes to dealing with cyberattacks, the U.S. gets a failing grade
If the United States’ ability to deal with cyber attacks was being graded like a student's test,the nation's top cyber official would give it an 'F'.
That is the main takeaway from a discussion with Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command, who went on to say echo concerns about how cyber attacks may effect domestic, civilian targets.
"I'm worried most about the power. I'm worried about water, I think those are the ones that need the most help," Alexander said.
Alexander’s job has increased as of late, especially because of the leaps and bounds that U.S. cellular technology has made over the last few years.
“Your cell phone is communicating completely digital; it's part of the Internet. Your attack surfaces for adversaries to get on the Internet now include all those mobile devices. And so, if you want to penetrate, you can go through a land line, to the Internet that way, or now we can go through the iPhone, or the Android or through your mobile device that way," Alexander said. "The mobile security situation lags. It's far behind.”
And while the general’s concerns were the highlight, Alexander was not all negative. During his discussion, he outlined industry and government partnerships that look to lessen these cyber vulnerabilities.
All of Alexander’s comments come as the Senate debates the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, which would establish what the government and industry can do to protect the nation's computers from attack.