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Hearing of the House Oversight Committee's National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee - Six Years Later: Assessing Long-Term Threats

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Location: Washington, DC

Hearing of the House Oversight Committee's National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee - Six Years Later: Assessing Long-Term Threats, Risks and the U.S. Strategy for Security in a Post-9/11 World

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REP. JIM COOPER (D-TN): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'm grateful to you for having this very important hearing. I'm sorry it's perhaps not getting the attention that the hearing down the hall is; that is more involved in using foreign policy security issues as a domestic political club.

I am proud that Walter is here. I've been in awe of his career for a long time. He brought an excellence to journalism that is rarely seen. I'd also like to -- I think it's four books, isn't it? "Kissinger," "Wise Men," "Ben Franklin," and the latest and greatest, "Einstein." If you can humanize that genius, you're an amazing writer, and you are.

So this will not be an exam. I'm delighted to get this wisdom in three parts. And I have a particular personal interest, because on the Armed Services Committee they've recently established a panel on roles and missions, and that's Pentagon-speak for redoing the National Security Act and Goldwater-Nichols, things like that that involve not only the Pentagon but other agencies. So I welcome your expertise in that area as well.

Two questions, primarily. First of all, the list of threats that are on page two of Dr. Lieber's testimony is so startling that I often think that we here on the Hill let down our guard, like if the group of 100 foreign policy experts is correct, that there's a, what, 80 percent chance we'll be -- there's an 80 percent chance of a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 within the decade; then another panel of experts, within 10 years, 29 percent chance of a nuclear attack in the U.S., 40 percent of a radiological attack, 70 percent some kind of CBRN event; that plus the Gallucci statement. All those are total game-changers.

So I would like to ask the other panelists if you share Dr. Lieber's perception and grim view of our near-term future, five to 10 years, facing threats with that level of probability.

MS. MATHEWS: I have a modest view of those sort of numbers, because I know how I feel when I agree to answer one of those questions -- (inaudible) --

REP. TIERNEY: Is your mike on, Ms. Mathews?

MS. MATHEWS: Sorry.

REP. TIERNEY: Thank you.

MS. MATHEWS: So I just don't believe them, you know. But, yes, one of the big reasons why nonproliferation is so important is because of the terrorist threat. But terrorism without nuclear weapons is not either an existential threat nor, I would argue, even a strategic one. So, you know, that's the context in which I put it.

Imagine 9/11 without the twin towers designed in the way they were, engineered in the way they were. It would have been a totally different event. So, you know, that is one of the serious reasons why I put the emphasis on the nonproliferation need. And there we do face a really serious set of threats that deserves far greater attention than we've given it.

REP. COOPER: Walter, do you have such a --

MR. ISAACSON: Yeah, I would like to say, as Jessica did in a way, that we're entering a world where we are faced with a great deal of threat and hatred from radical Islamic jihadism and a new type of world in which non-state actors and cross-border -- who are not nation-states, but others, are doing that threat.

And as Jessica said, I see the biggest problem there being the spread of weapons of mass destruction, most particularly nuclear weapons. I do feel that it is likely that we are going to have terrorism in this country. There are going to be terrorist attacks.

And I'm going to say something that I think would be difficult for perhaps others to say; those of us in think tanks are more insulated. We have to keep that in perspective, that you and I lived in Great Britain in a time in which there were lots of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland. What makes a terrorist attack an existential threat, as Jessica said, is when it's combined with things such as nuclear weapons.

So I know that Bob Gallucci is talking about chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear weapons as possible (notions ?) of attack. I think that we should not contort ourselves so much to fear terrorism as an existential threat as instead to define it more specifically as jihadist groups acquiring nuclear weapons and combining that with a desire to attack the United States.

MR. LIEBER: Congressman, may I follow up? Thank you for citing those passages. I think the point is important. I would note, of course, these are educated guesses by smart people. We're not talking about the laws of physics, but I think those guesses or projections or estimates do need to be taken very seriously and with the gravity they suggest.

I have a slight difference with my colleagues on the panel, Jessica and Walter, in that I don't think we should minimize what the disruption of 9/11 was all about, even though it wasn't nuclear. Not only did 3,000 people die, but it paralyzed the American economy, transportation system, communications, for periods of time. By one estimate, it may have cost as much as a trillion dollars in overall effects and so forth.

Obviously nuclear terrorism is in a class by itself. But we should not minimize the peril that mass-casualty terrorism represents to a very complex, very sophisticated economy with considerable vulnerabilities.

One more point. Our European brothers and sisters often point to things like the IRA, ETA in Spain, the Red Brigades, and say, "Oh, you Americans have just lost your virginity and you're overreacting." Well, I beg to disagree. In those instances, the things that those groups were doing did not represent the kind of impact that 9/11 and potential future attacks could represent. And moreover, the things that al Qaeda and radical Islamists want are things that no American government could ever, I think, concede to, because they are so fundamental to the nature of our society.

REP. COOPER: Thank you.

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