July 27th, 2012
06:18 PM ET

U.S. keeping an eye on Syria's weapons, al Qaeda's presence

By Suzanne Kelly, reporting from Aspen, Colorado

U.S. officials continue to closely monitor the situation in Syria with an eye toward the status of the country's biological and chemical weapons, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen told Security Clearance.

U.S. officials believe the Syrian regime still has control of the country's chemical and biological weapons, but it's a situation that officials are continuing to watch closely in an effort to make sure that the weapons don't fall into the wrong hands, as was the case with the fall of the Libyan regime last year, said Olsen during an interview on the sidelines of the Aspen Security Forum, in Aspen, Colorado,

"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.

U.S. officials are trying to keep tabs on al Qaeda's presence among opposition groups in Syria, and are focused on whether members of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) are flowing across the border in any significant numbers.

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July 27th, 2012
04:46 PM ET

Experts: No easy cure for the disease of terror

By Jill Dougherty, reporting from Aspen, Colorado

War is hell, but the war on terror is a chronic disease.

"It's a different type of war," Hank Crumpton says. He is one of three top officials - former and present - on a panel at the Aspen Security Forum. He's dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt. Don't let it fool you. He's the State Department's former coordinator of counterterrorism as well as former director of the CIA's National Resources Division.

Dealing with terror, he says, "is going to be more like managing disease." To fight it, he believes, the United States needs "a different mindset, a different structure. And it's going to be much more than military action and covert power."

Also from Aspen: U.S. hasn’t won the trust of Syrian rebels

Al Qaeda has been greatly diminished but, he says, "they are the vanguard, I think, in a new type of threat."

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Special Operations forces risk being overused, misused, former chief says
July 27th, 2012
01:33 PM ET

Special Operations forces risk being overused, misused, former chief says

By Pam Benson, reporting from Aspen, Colorado

The use of military Special Operations Forces has been a proven success in Iraq, Afghanistan and - with last year's raid on Osama bin Laden's compound - in Pakistan, but that success has some people concerned. Will the forces become the tool of choice for a president?

The former head of the U.S. Special Operations Command told the Aspen Security Forum Thursday he fears there could be a misuse of the highly trained specialists.

"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."

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Reading between the lines of North Korea's marriage announcement
July 27th, 2012
02:00 AM ET

Reading between the lines of North Korea's marriage announcement

By Jill Dougherty, reporting from Aspen, Colorado

Former Ambassador Christopher Hill doesn't always keep his eye on wedding announcements, but the former U.S Ambassador to South Korea and former head of the U.S. delegation to the Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program is closely following the news that the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, is married.

I spoke with Hill as he took a break between sessions at the Aspen Security Forum. After years of dealing with North Korea, Hill often uses words like "weird," "odd," and even "hideous." But in trying to understand Pyonyang, he says, the U.S. should be coldly objective.

"As hideous as that system looks to us," Hill says, "we need to keep our analytical tools at hand and not just react to the situation emotionally but try to think through and think where this is taking them." FULL POST

July 27th, 2012
01:00 AM ET

DoD official: Vulnerability of U.S. electrical grid is a dire concern

By Dan Merica

Speaking candidly at the Aspen Security Forum, one defense department official expressed great concern about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the U.S. electric grid that would cause a “long term, large scale outage.”

Paul Stockton, assistant secretary for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs at the Department of Defense, said such an attack would affect critical defense infrastructure at home and abroad – a thought that Stockton said was keeping him up at night.

Also from Aspen: A failing grade for US readiness to deal with cyber attacks

“The DOD depends on infrastructure in order to be able to operate abroad. And to make those operations function, we depend on the electric grid,” Stockton said.

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July 26th, 2012
10:07 PM ET

Cyber Command chief flunks US in readiness to deal with cyber attacks

By Larry Shaughnessy

Since 2009, online attacks that could destroy key infrastructure in the U.S. have skyrocketed. And the man in charge of cyber defense gave the national a failing grade in being prepared.

Gen. Keith Alexander is director of the National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command. He spoke Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado about cyber threats from around the world.

When asked by moderator Pete Williams of NBC how well-prepared, on a scale of 1-10, the U.S. is for a serious cyber attack on a critical part of our infrastructure, Alexander said, "From my perspective I'd say around a 3."
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July 26th, 2012
04:50 PM ET

Defense official: U.S. needs to 'accelerate' effort to help Mali

By Dan Merica

Mali, a country bloodied by a violent March coup, has become a greater focus of U.S. counterterrorism attention, a Department of Defense official said Thursday.

In his opening statements at an Aspen Security Forum panel, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflicts at the Department of Defense, expressed concern about the ungoverned territory of northern Mali - particularly because of a lack of control within Mali's coup-led government.

"Mali is a difficult situation because it starts with the government in Bamako," Sheehan said. "We have to find a way to move forward with the government first and I think we need to start to accelerate that effort."

Read all our coverage of the 2012 Aspen Security Forum

Mali's junta leader, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, usurped control of the African nation in March. Since then, his soldiers have been accused of looting offices and shops in the capital. The coup wrested control of the nation from former President Amadou Toumani Toure and gained the scorn of the international community - including the United States.

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Filed under: Africa • Al Qaeda • Aspen Security Forum • Mali
U.S. hasn’t won the trust of Syrian rebels
July 26th, 2012
04:30 PM ET

U.S. hasn’t won the trust of Syrian rebels

By Jill Dougherty, reporting from Aspen, Colorado

After the fighting, after the war, comes the "day after." In any conflict in which the United States is involved, the planning for the day after begins well before the guns stop firing. But a former ambassador who also served in a senior position at the CIA says the U.S. is failing in that mission.

Hank Crumpton, former Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department, tells me he thinks the Department should be doing more right now to prepare for a post-Assad future in Syria.

Read all our coverage of the 2012 Aspen Security Forum

Crumpton points to the Syrian opposition. "How do we understand them? How do we work with them?" he 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."

This is, he agrees, first and foremost an intelligence issue: to find out who are these various non-state actors that make up the Syrian opposition. But Crumpton says that's just part of it. Building trust is key, he says, adding that "the best way to build trust is through shared risk."

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July 26th, 2012
02:48 PM ET

Intel official: U.S. concerned about security of Syria's chemical weapons

By Jamie Crawford, reporting from Aspen, Colorado

The question of whether some of Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons have fallen out of government control is a source of great concern for the U.S. government, according to one of the nation's top intelligence officials.

"The key for us is, are we able to identify where those weapons are? Are they safe and secure, are they falling into the wrong hands," Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center said Thursday at the Aspen Institute Security Forum.

But when asked by the moderator, David Sanger of the New York Times, whether there has been a clear accounting of those weapons, Olsen was non-commital.

Read all our coverage of the 2012 Aspen Security Forum

"No, not yet," he said. "This is a very sensitive time for this situation so it's an important question that we are following."

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Filed under: Aspen Security Forum • Iran • Iraq • Israel • Middle East • Pakistan • Syria
America's next war
July 26th, 2012
06:20 AM ET

America's next war

By Jill Dougherty, reporting from Aspen, Colorado

National security experts often refer to the core of al Qaeda as a “spent force.” Its leaders are mostly wiped out even if al Qaeda affiliates in places like Yemen continue their fight against the West. But if al Qaeda is a spent force will the U.S. military go back to the old paradigm of preparing for conflict with nation states?

That’s one of the underlying themes of the Aspen Security Forum. I spoke with author and academic Paula Broadwell, a veteran of 15 years in intelligence, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.

RECOMMENDED: Our coverage of the 2012 Aspen Security Forum

The U.S. must be prepared for “full spectrum warfare,” she says. That's everything from a full-on war to smaller conflicts.

“Nobody thinks these small wars or these insurgencies are going away,” Broadwell tells me. “The way we’ll fight them is changing, and instead of sending a large army to fight an insurgency I think we’ll see more precision strikes, more special forces response, more drone operations, and more cooperation with our allies."

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