August 6, 2012 by David Olive

The Aspen Institute’s Security Forum, held at the end of July, proved why it has become, in only three years, a “must-attend” event for those of us working in the homeland and national security space.

The Aspen Institute is led by Walter Isaacson and the Security Forum was chaired by Clark Kent Ervin. They were supported by a world-class staff that did not overlook any detail. It is hard to imagine how it could have been better, although I suspect the alpha-alphas in the audience probably made a few suggestions on the survey forms, which Aspen distributed in its pursuit of continuous improvement.

The four-day program was packed with insight from leading thinkers and past and present policy makers and influencers on the subject of national and homeland security. Best of all, for those who did not attend, most of the program sessions can be viewed on the Aspen website as well as outlets like C-SPAN and CNN (an event sponsor.)

There was not a single bad panel, but three sessions stood out in my mind as being a slight cut above the rest. The quality was so high that this is truly a subjective conclusion.

At the Point of the Spear
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer conducted the opening interview of Admiral William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations. This should be required viewing for any public official who faces a media interview. It should also be required viewing in every journalism school to help reporters-in-training learn how to ask a question and handle an interviewee who isn’t likely to answer the question asked. The session was informative AND entertaining and, in my opinion, helped further solidify Wolf Blitzer as one of journalism’s premier interviewers and Admiral McRaven as a great military leader and role model.

Aviation Security
The second session that stood above the others was ABC Anchor of Nightline Terry Moran’s interview with TSA Administrator John Pistole. Both were simply outstanding in addressing the questions that policymakers and citizens want to know about DHS’ most visible agency. One thing that made it so good was that Moran didn’t use a single note to guide his questioning during the wide-ranging conversation with Pistole. This led Pistole’s highly conversational style to be even more relaxed and his answers more forthcoming than in previous appearances where I’ve seen him. It was clear he has grown into this job and understands, unlike some others within DHS, that creating public confidence requires communicating openly with the public. If his schedule allowed, Pistole should be on the road at least 4-5 days a month to speak to local civic groups and be interviewed on local talk radio programs. In my view, the image of TSA would improve dramatically for the better.

Securing the Nation’s Largest City
The third outstanding session was Aspen President Walter Isaacson’s interview of NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly. It was remarkable how Isaacson’s interviewing style required Kelly to give short, direct answers to a rapid-fire series of questions – and completely held the audience’s attention as a result. It was almost like watching the Aspen equivalent of the Olympic fencing competition – except this was an exhibition of “thrust and parry” with words. Kelly, a veteran of thousands of interviews from an often hostile New York press corps, handled Issacsion’s probing inquiries like the professional law enforcement officer he is, but when it was over, he and the audience knew that this particular interview was far from routine.

Reflecting only on these three sessions does not do justice to the excellent information that emerged throughout the conference. If there were any common revelations, however, here is what I heard:

– There will be another terrorist attack of some type on American soil someday and yet, there will be many more that will be prevented through the layers of security that have been put in place in the past decade.

– The American public is not as prepared for the consequences of an attack as we need to be, but we are more resilient now than we have ever been. Further progress in that direction needs to be made.

– There is better integration of information and greater information-sharing among intelligence, homeland, defense and local law enforcement agencies than ever before – and it still isn’t good enough. More should be done, and the best solutions won’t require a lot more money than is currently being spent.

– Dysfunctional congressional oversight, meddling, and pandering to political whims is not productive and may, some believe, be making America less safe and secure. Congress is a major impediment, and there is a lack of leadership and political will to fix it. This is a real shame.

– TSA does a lot more things right than they do wrong. Yet, they do not get the respect they deserve. Administrator John Pistole is a great spokesman for what they do right. DHS needs more people with his poise, candor and credibility.

– Biosecurity is an issue few want to talk about because there needs to be many more good answers than we currently have to the serious questions being whispered by well-informed people.

– People in government positions still don’t understand what motivates the private sector – and the private sector doesn’t understand how risk-averse government officials can claim to make decisions based upon risk analysis. This disconnect needs to be resolved.

– The much-maligned failure of intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security agencies to share information with each other and with the private sector appears to be a problem that is being addressed – albeit with a huge gap in the cyber realm. The message from Aspen sounded a bit like a GAO report. Significant progress has been made but much work remains to be done. Whereas most politicos and pundits will focus on the recurring needs, we should be grateful for the progress we have made over the past decade.

– There was an almost universal consensus that Congress must find a way to pass a cybersecurity bill that gives government and the private sector the ability to share vulnerability, threat and attack information with each other without violating existing laws on sharing classified information or opening private sector entities to unrestrained legal liability. The prognosis looks bleak, but the cyber threat is very real.

– There is still a wide variety of opinions on what will actually happen should the dreaded “sequestration” occur. Yet, there is optimism that American ingenuity and our culture of entrepreneurial achievement will guide us through the difficult time.

The Aspen participants left the crisp, clear altitude of the Colorado Rockies with the sense that “hope” is alive and well, tinged by a healthy dose of realism and a quirky sense of humor. As one of the speakers noted, attributing the comment to former CIA Director and DOD Secretary Robert Gates, “When an intelligence agent stops to smell the flowers, he starts looking for the coffins.”

Yeah, it was that kind of conference.


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