U.S. Policy Toward Yemen
Speaker: John O. Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
Presider: Margaret Warner, Senior Correspondent, “PBS NewsHour”
August 8, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations
MARGARET WARNER: So welcome, everybody. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. And I’m Margaret Warner, and I think most of you are veterans of this. You know the ground rules. Please turn off all your cellphones and pagers, which I’m doing right this second myself. And I’ve been asked that you not even put it on vibrate because that also can interfere with the sound system. And this meeting is on the record.
And it’s my pleasure today to introduce today’s guest, John Brennan. He’s assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism and a deputy national security adviser. That means he’s the chief adviser to the president on counterterrorism strategy as well as its policy and implementation. And he also coordinates all the homeland security-related activities throughout the executive branch, both in preparing for and responding to things as disparate as cyberthreats and terrorist attacks.
He’s going to open today with a few remarks, some remarks about U.S. policy from Yemen. And he and I will have a conversation for 15 minutes or so, and then we’ll open it up to questions from you, the audience, on a wide range of topics. Mr. Brennan? (Applause.)
JOHN BRENNAN: Thank you very much, Margaret, and thank you, everyone, for being here today. It certainly is a pleasure to see so many familiar faces, both from inside and outside of government, who I hope are here because of their abiding and deeply rooted interest in Yemen and U.S.-Yemeni relations.
When the subject of Yemen comes up, it’s often through the prism of the terrorist threat that is emanating from within its borders. And for good reason: Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is al-Qaida’s most active affiliate. It has assassinated Yemeni leaders, murdered Yemeni citizens, kidnapped and killed aid workers, targeted American interests, encouraged attacks in the United States and attempted repeated attacks against U.S. aviation. Likewise, discussion of Yemeni and American counterterrorism efforts tend to focus almost exclusively on the use of one counterterrorism tool in particular: targeted strikes.
At the White House, we have always taken a broader view, both of Yemen’s challenges and U.S. policy. Two months ago, however, a number of experts on Yemen wrote an open letter to President Obama arguing that there is a perception that the United States is singularly focused on AQAP to the exclusion of Yemen’s broader political, economic and social ills. Among their recommendations, that U.S. officials publicly convey that the United States is making a sustained commitment to Yemen’s political transition, economic development and stability. And it is in that spirit that I join you here today, both in my official capacity and as someone who has come to come know and admire Yemen and its people over the last three decades.
I want to begin with a snapshot of where Yemen is today. Since assuming office, President Hadi and his administration have made progress toward implementing two key elements of the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement that ended the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh and provided a road map for political transition and reform.
As part of a military reorganization, powerful commanders, including some of the former president’s family and supporters, have been dismissed or reassigned, and discussions are under way to bring the military under unified civilian command. And just two days ago President Hadi took the important step of issuing a decree that reassigns several brigades from under the command of Saleh’s son as well as leading Saleh rival Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.
In addition, to organize the national dialogue, President Hadi has appointed a committee with representatives from political parties, youth groups, women’s organizations, the southern movement and Houthi oppositionists in the north. And that committee met for the first time this week.
On the security front, government forces have achieved important gains against AQAP. Today AQAP’s black flag no longer flies over the city centers of Ja’ar, Loudur (ph) or Zinjibar. As one resident said, after AQAP’s departure from these areas in June, it is like seeing darkness lifted from our lives after a year.
Elsewhere in Yemen, checkpoints are being removed, businesses are reopening, public services have resumed in major cities, and public servants are getting paid. The energy infrastructure is slowly but surely being restored, including the Marib pipeline, which supplies half of Yemen’s domestic oil.
At the same time, Yemen continues to face extraordinary challenges. Violence remains a tragic reality for many Yemenis. We saw this again in last week’s clashes at the Ministry of Interior in Sanaa and in an outrageous suicide attack in Jaar on Saturday that killed dozens of innocent Yemenis.
Moreover, Yemen remains one of the poorest countries on earth, and conditions have only been compounded by last year’s upheaval. Most Yemenis still lack access to basic services, including electricity and functioning water systems. Unemployment is as high as 40 percent. Chronic poverty is now estimated at 54 percent. Ten million people, nearly half of Yemen’s population, go to bed hungry every night. One-in-10 children does not live to the age of 5.
President Obama understands that Yemen’s challenges are grave and intertwined. He has insisted that our policy emphasize governance and development as much as security and focus on a clear goal to facilitate a democratic transition while helping Yemen advance political, economic and security reforms so it can support its citizens and counter AQAP.
You see our comprehensive approach in the numbers. This year alone, U.S. assistance to Yemen is more than $337 million. Over half this money, $178 million, is for political transition, humanitarian assistance and development. Let me repeat that. More than half of the assistance we provide to Yemen is for political transition, humanitarian assistance and development. In fact, this is the largest amount of civilian assistance the United States has ever provided to Yemen. So any suggestion that our policy toward Yemen is dominated by our security and counterterrorism efforts is simply not true.
Today I want to walk through the key pillars of our approach.
First, the United States has been and will remain a strong and active supporter of the political transition in Yemen. That’s why President Obama called on then-President Saleh to step down shortly after unrest erupted last year. Having consistently advocated for an orderly, peaceful transfer of power, despite claims by some that doing so would jeopardize counterterrorism operations, we’ve worked hard to help sustain the transition, facilitate elections and promote an inclusive national dialogue. This past May President Obama issued an executive order authorizing sanctions against those who threaten the transition.
Going forward, we’ll continue to push for the timely, effective and full implementation of the GCC agreement. During this delicate transition, we call on all Yemenis, especially Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Hamid al-Ahmar and Ahmed Ali Saleh, to show that they will put Yemen’s national interests ahead of parochial concerns and abide by the letter and the spirit of the GCC agreement so that Yemen can move toward a more inclusive democracy.
As we support the transition, our comprehensive approach has a second pillar: helping to strengthen governance and institutions upon which Yemen’s long-term progress depends. Despite decades of rule by one man, Yemen has a foundation on which it is building. The country has a tradition of opposition political parties, a vibrant civil society, independent media and leaders who place the larger national interests above politics, religion, sect or tribe.
President Hadi is one such leader. This year I’ve met with him twice in Yemen and spoken to him numerous times. I’ve been impressed with his commitment to his nation, his integrity and his willingness to make difficult decisions to move his country forward, even at great risk to himself. The Yemeni people are indeed very fortunate to have President Hadi as their leader. We are helping to strengthen Yemeni government institutions so that become — they become more responsive, effective and accountable to the people. We are partnering with ministries to expand essential services, approve — improve efficiency, combat corruption and enhance transparency. We will support the reform of law enforcement and judicial institutions to strengthen the rule of law.
Beyond government, we’re proud to continue our long tradition of helping to strengthen the role of civil society to conduct parliamentary oversight, raise public awareness on electoral reforms and Yemen’s transition, empower women, provide leadership and advocacy training, and build the capacity of political parties to engage in peaceful democratic discourse.
Of course lasting political and economic progress is impossible so long as half of Yemenis are malnourished and struggling to survive another day. That is why the third pillar of our approach is immediate humanitarian relief. This year the United States is providing nearly $110 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen, most of it through the U.N.’s Humanitarian Response Plan. This makes the United States the single largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Yemen.
These funds are allowing our U.N. and NGO partners to provide food and food vouchers, improved sanitation, safe drinking water and basic health services to help meet other urgent needs. USAID is providing more than $74 million for food security and nutrition programs, enabling UNICEF to rapidly scale up its assistance for starving children. With U.S. support, UNICEF and the World Health Organization completed a large-scale immunization campaign, which may have successfully halted a polio outbreak that began last year.
Yet even with these efforts, so many Yemenis remain in desperate need. We commend the European Union for doubling its humanitarian aid to Yemen and urge other donors to follow suit by contributing more to the U.N. Humanitarian Response Plan, which is less than 50 percent funded. This will provide critical and lifesaving relief to millions of Yemenis.
As we help address immediate humanitarian needs, we’re partnering with Yemen in a fourth area, the economic reforms and development necessary for long-term progress. In fact, the $68 million in transition assistance and economic development that we are providing this year includes vital assistance to improve the delivery of basic services, including health, education and water.
We are helping Yemen address its staggering health gaps by renovating health clinics, providing medical equipment, training midwives and doctors in maternal and child health, and supporting community health education.
We are helping to introduce farmers to more productive techniques and provide youth with skills training, job placement and entrepreneurial programs.
We are helping Yemen rebuild infrastructure and promote microfinance and small businesses. We are encouraging efforts to stabilize the economy and undertake reforms that will help raise living standards and promote a more diversified economy.
And following Yemen’s success against AQAP in the south, USAID is supporting the Yemeni government’s efforts to repair war-torn infrastructure and to rehabilitate communities.
For its part, Yemen must have a plan to address unemployment and poverty, as well as develop, diversify and reform its economy, including by combating corruption, so that government revenues and donor funds are not diverted to private interests at the expense of the Yemeni people.
International donors want to know that their contributions aren’t misappropriated and that the projects they fund are part of a comprehensive plan. Providing a vision of where Yemen’s leaders plan to take the country will helps its friends invest wisely.
This brings me to the final pillar of our comprehensive approach to Yemen: improving security and combating the threat of AQAP. Put simply, Yemen cannot succeed politically, economically, socially so long as the cancerous growth of AQAP remains.
Ultimately, the long-term battle against AQAP in Yemen must be fort — fought and won by Yemenis. To their great credit, President Hadi and his government, including Defense Minister Ali, Chief of Army Staff Ashwal and Interior Minister Qatan (sp), have made combating AQAP a top priority and have forced AQAP out of their stronghold in southern Yemen.
So long as AQAP seeks to implement its murderous agenda, we will be a close partner with Yemen in meeting this common threat. And just as our approach to Yemen is multidimensional, our counterterrorism approach involves many different tools — diplomatic, intelligence, military, homeland security, law enforcement and justice. With our Yemeni and international partners, we have put unprecedented pressure on AQAP. Recruits seeking to travel to Yemen have been disruptive — disrupted. Operatives deployed from Yemen have been detained. Plots have been thwarted. And key AQAP leaders who have targeted U.S. and Yemeni interest have met their demise, including Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP’s chief of external operations.
Of course, the tension has often focused on one counterterrorism tool in particular, targeted strikes, sometimes using remotely-piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones. In June the Obama administration declassified the fact that in Yemen, our joint efforts have resulted in direct action against AQAP operatives and senior leaders. This spring, I addressed the subject of targeted strikes at length and why such strikes are legal, ethical, wise and highly effective.
Today I’d simply say that all our CT efforts in Yemen are conducted in concert with the Yemeni government. When direct action is taken, every effort is made to avoid any civilian casualty. And contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP. In fact, we see the opposite, our Yemeni partners are more eager to work with us. Yemenese citizens who have been freed from the hellish grip of AQAP are more eager, not less, to work with the Yemeni government. In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem, they are part of the solution.
Even as we partner against the immediate threat posed by AQAP, we’re helping Yemen build its capacity for its own security. We are spearheading the international effort to help reform and restructure Yemen’s military into a professional, unified force under civilian control. In fact, the $159 million in security assistance we are providing to Yemen this year, almost all of it is for training and equipment to build capacity. We are empowering the Yemenese with the tools they need to conduct precise intelligence-driven operations to locate operatives and disrupt plots, and the training they need to ensure counterterrorism operations are conducted lawfully in manner that respects human rights and makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Finally, I’d note that our approach to Yemen is reinforced by broad support from the international community. Throughout the last year, the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially Saudi Arabia, the G-10, the Friends of Yemen, the United Nations and the diplomatic community in Sana’a have come together to push for a peaceful solution of the crisis and to facilitate a successful transition. The international community has threatened U.N. sanctions against those who would undermine the transition, provided humanitarian relief and offered assistance for the national dialogue and electoral reform. International partners, including the U.K., Germany, China, Russia, India, the EU and the UAE have pledged aid. Saudi Arabia alone offered $3.25 billion on top of the significant fuel grants it gave Yemen to offset the losses caused by attacks against oil infrastructure. As such, close coordination with our international partners will be critical in the years ahead.
These are the pillars of our comprehensive approach to Yemen: supporting the transition, strengthening governance and institutions, providing humanitarian relief, encouraging economic reform and development, and improving security and combatting AQAP. Taken together, our efforts send an unmistakable message to the Yemeni people: The United States is committed to your success. We share the vision that guides so many Yemenese, a Yemen where all its citizens — Shia and Sunni, northern and southerner, man and woman, rural villager and city dweller, old and young — have a government that is democrat, responsive and just.
But we are under no illusions. Given the tremendous challenges that Yemen continues to face, progress towards such a future will take many, many years. Yet, if we’ve learned anything in the past two years, it’s that we should not underestimate the will of the Yemeni people. Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in front of them, hundreds of thousands of men and women took to the streets and engaged in political and social movements for the first time in their lives, and in so doing helped pave the way for change that just a few years ago would have seemed unimaginable.
That Yemen did not devolve into an all-out civil war is a testament to the courage, determination and resilience of the Yemeni people. It showed that Yemen’s future need not be determined by violence. The people of Yemen have a very long and hard road ahead of them. But they’ve shown that they are willing to make the journey, even with all the risk that it entails. As they go forward in pursuit of the security, prosperity and dignity they so richly deserve, they will continue to have a partner in the United States of America.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
WARNER: Well, thank you, Mr. Brennan, for that comprehensive laying out of U.S. policy to Yemen. It was very — very interesting.
You mentioned that — helping Yemen move toward a — to a transition to a government that’s democratic and responsive and more just. I’m just wondering how that jibes with one of our — the U.S.’s important partners in this whole effort in the transition, beginning with the transition, which is Saudi Arabia. To what degree — I mean, Saudi Arabia both financially and politically, and the other Gulf states, are very, very involved in partnering with the U.S. there. To what degree will Saudi Arabia allow the flourishing of a more vibrant, democratic model in Yemen with the kinds of institutions you cite; you know, flourishing political parties, opposition press, or free press, at least?
BRENNAN: Well, first of all, Saudi Arabia has done more for Yemen than any other country in the world, both in terms of its financial support, political support. It shares a very important border with Yemen. Saudi Arabia was one of the key drivers within the GCC to forge the agreement that called for this political transition to take place. And embedded in that GCC agreement is political reform, political transition.
So — and whenever I go out to Yemen, I invariably will go to Saudi Arabia, sometimes before and as well as after my visits there, because what the Saudis and the Yemenis want to do is to make sure that we’re working this together. It really needs to be a team approach to Yemen’s problems. And I have found only support coming out of Saudi Arabia, from King Abdullah to the other senior Saudi officials, for Yemen to continue along this path.
As I mentioned in my remarks, you know, Yemen has a history of having a vibrant civil society. You know, political opposition parties there –
WARNER: (Inaudible) — Saudi Arabia — (inaudible).
BRENNAN: Yes. I mean, they have political parties there — you know, Baathists and others — that have been there for quite some time. So now moving into this new phase, I think what, you know, the Saudis want to do is to make sure that Yemen is able to take advantage of the foundations that it has already but to make sure it evolves in a peaceful way and one that is, I think, consistent with what the region is trying to accomplish.
WARNER: So you’re saying their agenda was more than getting rid of Saleh.
BRENNAN: Oh, absolutely.
WARNER: Whom they didn’t like.
BRENNAN: And, you know, President Saleh agreed to step down before his term was up. He agreed to the GCC agreement, allowing that election to take place and President Hadi to assume office. And so the Saudis realized that, you know, getting Saleh out of the position is not in itself, you know, a remarkable achievement. It was an achievement, but in order for Yemen to go along the path of progress, it needed a much broader effort under way across the government.
WARNER: How would you compare President Hadi with President Saleh in terms of as a partner to the U.S. in combatting AQAP? Because the United States used to refer to President Saleh as its great partner in Yemen.
BRENNAN: Well, I think what we referred to is that we had — (partnered ?) with Yemen against AQAP for a number of years. And — but with a lot of counterterrorism partnerships, there are ups and downs. We’re experiencing that with — in some other parts of the world right now as well. There were times under the former president where there were some strong disagreements about the need to have a sustained effort against AQAP. And anybody who knows Yemen knows that there’s some — there’s such a mix of politics and tribes and so many different things that come to bear within Yemen, and at times I think the Yemen government before President Hadi would see how certain counterterrorism activities or operations would affect their political equities. That can’t be part of a counterterrorism effort.
And what I have found with President Hadi is that he has a singular focus and has expressed a real determination. He said even if he doesn’t get help from the outside world, al-Qaida is killing Yemeni men, women and children on a sustained basis, and he is going to battle them, you know, as much as he can. And so what we have found is that there’s a continuity of effort and there are not these other, sort of, you know, considerations that come into account.
WARNER: So you’re seeing him actually as a more consistent, dependable partner.
BRENNAN: There has been exceptional consistency since President Hadi has assumed office.
WARNER: I won’t lead you into any more comparisons.
Let’s move on to Syria. And there, just in your bailiwick of terrorism, increasing reports, both media — not just coming from the Assad government, but increasingly, extremists and al-Qaida-linked fighters are coming in from all over the world and joining up this rebel cause. Could that threaten U.S. security interests? Do you see a potential threat there, actually, terrorism-wise?
BRENNAN: Well, I think the history of al-Qaida has been that it has tried to take advantage of environments that are either lawless or are going through political change or chaos.
You know, we’ve seen that they grew in Iraq. We have seen that they’ve taken advantage of the situation of Somalia and in Yemen because of the political problems there. So Syria is no different. And in fact, the Syrian oppositionists have come and have said that they’re very concerned about the — you know, the al-Qaida types, and they have said that they are not going to sort of allow al-Qaida to take advantage of the situation there. So what we have to be very mindful of is that al-Qaida as a — as a worldwide sort of enterprise, will be looking for opportunities to exploit. And Syria certainly presents that opportunity for them.
WARNER: How does the sort of funding model that is currently in operation — I mean, it seems that could contradict your aims here; that is, since the U.S. and the West aren’t actively, at least publicly, funding the rebels, it’s been sort of left to the Saudis and the Qataris, who tend to fund the more extremist groups. Could that be self-defeating on the United States’s part?
BRENNAN: Well, we have, you know, done a number of things in support of the opposition. And you know, I won’t go into all the sort of details of this but, you know, there is a provision of assistance. There’s a lot of humanitarian assistance that is going in there. What we want to do is to make sure that we understand exactly who are going to be the recipients of any type of aid, whether it be, you know, any number of types of things — communications, you know, equipment, other types of things that they can better coordinate their activities.
But the — I think the policy of the U.S. government is very clear. Assad must go. What is happening in Syria is outrageous. The tragedy that’s been perpetrated on the Syrian people is something that really needs to be addressed, and so we are very much supportive of the effort by the opposition to in fact bring this (to a close ?).
WARNER: But doesn’t it matter at whose hand or by whose doing he is ousted? In other words, the secular rebels are now complaining that they do not have the weapons and the firepower that some of these newer and more extreme rebel forces do.
BRENNAN: What — and I think, you know, any night when you look on the video footage on news programs, clearly there is a lot of weaponry in Syria. The country is awash in weaponry. There are a number of elements within the military that have defected and brought their weapons with them. You know, we are concerned about that extremist element — you know, the Salafist who are the al-Qaida types.
I will say, though, when you look at the Syrian opposition as a whole, the overwhelming majority of them are not of al-Qaida ilk. They are Syrians who are truly trying to gain control of their lives and their future, and I think that’s what we need to be able to do. And so there’s a multi-pronged effort, you know, both in — you know, internationally, diplomatically, but also along the borders in working with the countries that are in the area there. But the situation is tragic. What we don’t want to do is, you know, do anything that would unintentionally in fact lead to greater bloodshed in the country.
WARNER: Now, there’s a no-fly zone of same nature in the — in the northern part of the country where the rebels are beginning to have — they don’t totally control it the way the Libyans did — Libyan rebels did in eastern Libya, but there is a territory beginning to take shape. Can you see foresee circumstances in which the West might at least protect them from air assault by Assad’s forces?
BRENNAN: Well, you can imagine that just like happened in Libya, you know, the situation in Syria has been now evolving over the past number of months. And the United States government always looks at situations and looks at what types of scenarios might unfold, and then, accordingly, looks at what types of contingency plans might be available to deal with certain circumstances. So, you know, rest assured that various options that are being talked about in the press and sometimes being advocated, these are things that the United States government has been looking at very carefully, trying to understand the implications, trying to understand the advantages and disadvantages of this. And the president has kept us all quite busy making sure that we’re able to do everything possible that’s going to advance the interests of peace in Syria and not, again, do anything that’s going to contribute to more violence.
WARNER: So it’s not a complete nonstarter, the idea that in fact that it’s on the table — (inaudible)?
BRENNAN: I don’t recall the president ever saying that anything was off the table.
WARNER: Let me move on to cybersecurity. This has been one of the president’s top national security objectives, at least legislatively, to get this bill that would have begun to put in some protections for the nation’s critical infrastructure — oil and gas pipelines, electricity grid, nuclear power plants, water supplies and so forth.
Last Thursday the Senate, a Senate Republican filibuster, blocked the bill. What are the consequences of that?
BRENNAN: Well, the consequences are we’re not going to have enhanced authorities and capabilities of the U.S. government to deal with what is an increasingly serious cyber challenge to our nation and to our critical infrastructure in particular. We worked very hard to try to push forward and advance the cybersecurity provisions that were included in the Lieberman-Collins bill that unfortunately did not advance last week.
So what are the implications? Well, one of the things that we need to do in the executive branch is to see what we can do to do maybe put additional sort of guidelines or policies in place under executive branch authorities. I mean, if the Congress is not going to act on something like this, then the president wants to make sure that we’re doing everything possible.
I still find it incomprehensible that, you know, the legislation that was calling for minimum performance standards on the cybersecurity front for critical infrastructure that the U.S. government would help develop with private industry, that those minimum performance standards would have to be followed by those elements of the private sector that have responsibility in the critical infrastructure — and you know, obviously, there were a lot of people that came out and, I think, misrepresented, you know, what was in that bill. But believe me, the critical infrastructure of this country is under threat, and the technology that — you know, whether it be, you know, foreign states or cyber hackers and others — they are developing advanced technologies, and we have to improve our defenses on this issue.
So President Obama has told us after that — you know, the Collins-Lieberman bill didn’t go forward to keep at it and keep pushing. And we are going to keep pushing, and you know, we’re going to keep pushing on the Congress, but we’re also going to do what we can under executive branch authorities.
WARNER: Now, how serious are the threats, on the scale from, you know, theoretical vulnerability to actually being attacked to actually being penetrated in terms of the infrastructure we’re talking about?
BRENNAN: You know, when you do a net assessment, you take a look at what the threat is, and that means what the capabilities are — (inaudible) — it talks about, then, what the vulnerabilities are of the target of an attack, and then it talks about intent. Right now I can tell you with great certainty that the vulnerabilities are there, that the capabilities on the threat side are there, and so it’s a question of intent, whether or not certain actors are going to operationalize the capability to go against the vulnerabilities that exist in the system.
Every day our — not just the critical infrastructure is — faces intrusions, but we see that, you know, intellectual property rights are just, you know, robbed, you know, people’s personal identification. It’s a system that, you know, rides in the — in the private sector. It’s — and it’s privately owned, privately operated space. But that’s the environment now where all of our daily lives are conducted.
And so the government is not trying to go in and sort of, you know, regulate exactly sort of what everybody is going to do there. No, but the — clearly, the market has not developed in a way that it has developed, on its own, the cybersecurity requirements. Of course, if it did, then we wouldn’t have these intrusions and the billions of dollars of losses that companies are now writing off. But the people — American people are the ones that are going to be at risk, not just because of, you know, personal identification information that is going to be out there, but also the water we drink, you know, the electricity that we — that we depend upon, the hospitals that require that type of support, critical infrastructure — that’s increasingly at risk.
WARNER: Give us an example of a vulnerability. I mean, I know that you don’t want to give someone a blueprint of a vulnerability, but let’s take the electricity grid, in other words, in the way that industry now operates in 2012 that makes it vulnerable to hacking and, I guess you’re saying, disabling or being crippled.
BRENNAN: Yeah. I mean, there are different types of cyberintrusions that we see. There are cyberintrusions to get to understand your environment. So they go in, and then it’s sort of operationally preparing the environments. So you can go in just to map it so you understand it, you go in to exfiltrate certain type of data, or you can go in there so you understand it and then you take actions to disrupt, disable it and destroy it.
WARNER: Either then or later.
BRENNAN: Right. And so what we’re seeing now is a lot of intrusions. We’re seeing a lot of exfiltrations. You know, and then the next step is, again, the disruptive, disabling, destructive types of attacks. And so, you know, electric grids, water treatment facilities, you know, mass transportation systems, you know, railways and trains, whatever — if those intruders get into those systems and then can determine how they can in fact interfere in the command and control systems of these systems, they can do things. They could, you know, put trains onto the same tracks. They can, you know, bring down electric grids.
WARNER: So who is most interested in doing this? Are we talking about –
BRENNAN: Bad guys.
BRENNAN: Bad guys.
WARNER: Bad guys. (Laughter.) Define bad guys who would want to cripple U.S. infrastructure. I mean, is it other countries?
BRENNAN: You know, in time of — (inaudible) –
WARNER: Or terrorist organizations?
BRENNAN: Well — (inaudible) — you look at foreign countries and, you know, some that have tremendous, you know, cybercapabilities and some of the most powerful countries in the world. You know, do they want to bring down that critical infrastructure in the United States right now? No, because they rely on the U.S. economy, in fact for a number of reasons.
There are some foreign actors out there, though, that if they had the opportunity to bring down elements of the U.S. economy, U.S. infrastructure, I think would do it on — you know, in a instant. So they fortunately don’t have the capability at this time. They may have the intent but not the capability. But you also have international criminal groups. And you know, you can do things to advance your criminal intent by bringing down certain types of, you know, activities or infrastructure. So there could be all types of different reasons or different types of, you know, groups or people that are doing this.
WARNER: So when you say you were looking at what the executive branch can do without congressional action, I mean, what are you talking about? Executive orders?
BRENNAN: Executive order is a good vehicle to actually, you know, direct the departments and agencies of the United States to do certain things; to make sure that, you know, the nation is protected. The president’s priority is to protect the safety and security of the American people. That’s the physical security of the American people as well as the prosperity of the American people.
And so you know, we’ve been pushing. We’ve worked hard. We delivered our legislative package to the Hill, you know, April, May of last year, 2011. And unfortunately the Senate bill went down last week. You know, it may be revived, but we can’t wait. So we’re doing things. DHS, in conjunction with, you know, NSA, FBI, others, are working to make sure that we’re able to better safeguard our environment but also be able to respond and also to be resilient. That’s one of the things — one of the approaches is if you take down some part of our critical infrastructure, you want to be able to — be able to recover very quickly.
WARNER: Let me ask you about one final topic, one question before we go to questions from the audience. So people should get ready for their questions. This has to do with this leak investigation that’s going on. Now, everyone from Mitt Romney to some Republicans on the Hill have accused members of the administration of leaking sensitive operational details for the president’s political benefit.
And that — they cite the sort of hunt for and raid that got Osama bin Laden. They talk about the Stuxnet virus in Iran. They talk about selecting drone targets and the president’s involvement in that. And the FBI’s investigating all of that. I think some have even cited the foiled terrorist plot in Yemen in May, though it wasn’t clear to me where that — whether that leak was domestic or overseas. What do you say in response to that?
BRENNAN: Well, a couple things. One is, as you point out, there are investigations under way, so we have to be mindful of that and respectful of that investigative process. Secondly, the president has made it very clear that any leak of classified national security information is something that should be rigorously pursued and prosecuted, if in fact there was a violation of one’s responsibilities in terms of protecting classified information.
There have been some devastating leaks. I’m not going to point to any of them, so I don’t want to validate any of the things that are out there. But it’s unconscionable what has gone out. And the president has made his displeasure abundantly clear to his senior team that — for whatever reason. If someone, you know, is trying to advance their own equities or interests, or they want to just be able to sort of, you know, cultivate a relationship with a reporter or whatever — there are sources and methods — there are very, very critical national security matters that require there to be protection of that information so it doesn’t get out, so that we can keep the American people safe.
So without doubt, anybody who has released in an unauthorized fashion any of this information should be held to the — you know, to the requirements and if necessary, you know, deal with the judicial system appropriately or the police.
WARNER: So you’re saying there has been damage from some of these leaks.
BRENNAN: Yeah, there has. You know — now, unfortunately I think there’s been a conflation also of people who are out there who are making speeches and unfounded claims about individuals who have leaked, you know, national security secrets for political purposes. It’s easy to get up in front of a TV camera, quite frankly, and point fingers at the White House and say they’re doing it for this or that. You know, and frankly I think a lot of those allegations are highly irresponsible.
And I — you know, what we need to do is to make sure that we are dealing with this — these issues in a — in a very serious manner because the national security of the United States is at risk. And so what we want to do is to make sure that we’re able to be, though, as transparent as possible with the American people. So for example, you mentioned about when there was this incident where there was an IED that al-Qaida in Yemen was trying to put on an aircraft, and it came out.
Unfortunately, information was leaked, apparently, and is the subject of an investigation that came out. When that operation, though, came to a conclusion, you know, we do have an obligation to tell the American people about what the threats are coming from al-Qaida. And so there’s been a conflation of, oh, my goodness, they’ve said this, they’ve said this, and so it’s mixing sort of apples and oranges here. We need to make sure that leaks of classified information, of national security secrets needs to be rigorously pursued and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
But at the same time, that shouldn’t inhibit us from talking to people like that are gathered here. You know, President Obama feels very strongly that the government has a responsibility to engage with the American people, as well as with the world community. So, you know, I have said things about our counterterrorism program and in terms of what we do and how we’re trying to do it, you know, consistent with the law, our ethics and values as a people. I’m going to continue to do that. I will be mindful, though of our national security matters and not to reveal sources and methods that are going to compromise that. You know, sometimes is there a tension between these things? Yes.
WARNER: It’s a fine line.
So we’re going to questions. And you all know the rules. Let’s start here with Hattie Babbitt.
QUESTIONER: My name is Hattie Babbitt. I was going to take the question back to Yemen. And you mentioned that Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s also one of the most water-insecure areas of the world, and it will be increasingly water-insecure both because of the enormous use of water for qat and also because of climate change. You didn’t mention anything that we’re doing about — to assist in that or direct that, and I wondered if you could comment a little on what is a significant issue in that poor country.
BRENNAN: Yeah. I think I did mention water a couple times, but I didn’t speak about specific projects we have under way. But it is part of our economic development program with Yemen to look at ways that water can become more available. As you point out, the water tables are being depleted in Yemen rapidly. You have a population that is growing exponentially. It’s one of the highest population growth rates in the world. And Sanaa sits, you know, about 7,000 feet or so. And as you mention, qat is one of the most water-consuming, you know, crops in the world, but yet there’s continued, you know, cultivation of that crop.
There are a number of things that I think they — and we’ve talked to the Yemenis and the Saudis and looking at the GCC for this as well. You know, it’s not a question of just building more desalinization plants along the coast. It’s also a question of trying to develop communities, maybe along the coast, that have a better opportunity to take advantage of water that’s available in certain parts of the country. Those — the population of Yemen is concentrated, you know, overwhelmingly in some real densely, you know, populated areas, you know, just in a handful of cities.
So, you know, water development and projects that are going to allow the Yemenis to address their longer-term water requirements is absolutely essential. It’s one of the things we’d like to be able to work with the World Bank so that we can, in fact, have some project aid that is going to address the infrastructural deficiencies that exist within Yemen. Even their existing water system is, you know, suboptimal in terms of making sure that they’re not going to be a waste of the water that is available. So I think there’s greater efficiencies that can be put into the system, taking advantage of the water that is there.
But you know — you know, Saudi Arabia has, you know, similar types of, you know, issues, but their population is not as, you know, concentrated in these urban centers without the availability of desalinated water. So it’s — I think the — I don’t want to say the solution to water, but the way to address the water problem has to be multifaceted. Some of it is going to be developing communities in different areas so we move away from those urban centers, but also it’s going to be a combination of what types of projects will be able to generate more water either that exists in the water table but just not is available right now or desalinization projects.
WARNER: Yes, right here.
QUESTIONER: Mr. Brennan, my name is Christopher Swift. I’m a fellow at the University of Virginia Center for National Security Law. In late May and early June I was in Yemen doing field research on al-Qaida’s relationship with the indigenous tribal structures there. I’m also a signatory to the Atlantic Council letter to President Obama.
I think your assessment of the Hadi regime is correct, sir. I’ve seen a lot of progress on the ground there, and I think the administration should be commended for it, especially with respect to the national dialogue. I also think that there are significant improvements in the security situation in the south. Certainly it’s much better there now than it was when I was in Aden over a month and a half ago.
But sir, I have some concerns about implementation on an indigenous basis, particularly with respect to the nexus between security on the one hand and development on the other. It’s pretty clear to me from the tribal leaders that I interviewed from 14 of Yemen’s 21 provinces that economic desperation is the primary driver of al-Qaida recruiting in the country. It’s also pretty clear to me that some of these regions are so remote and so desperate that it’s very hard for the Yemeni government, let alone USAID, let alone our security apparatus to get out to some of these places.
The concern I have, sir, is how do we know who credible local implementers are, both in terms of development and in terms of security? How do we do this diligence, and who is doing this diligence, sir, going forward? Thank you.
BRENNAN: Well, if your point is that we have, you know, a lot of challenges ahead in terms of addressing the multiple needs of the Yemeni people in different parts of the country, many of which are remote, many of which are distant and removed from the Yemeni government, many of which operate under tribal sort of politics and, you know, relationships, you’re absolutely right.
And one of the things in the complaints of the former government is that, you know, Ali Abdullah Saleh was appointing his own people from the north to preside and to be in government positions in the south. I think what President Hadi is trying to do is — and President Hadi is a southerner. He’s from that area. So he knows, you know, the people in that area. And so there’s going to have to be a period of time where you’re going to have to develop the confidence and trust in individuals so that the mechanisms are in place so that as money, as assistance flows down, it’s going to flow down to the right places.
Corruption has been rampant in — for years and years and years in Yemen. And so President Hadi is trying to address that. You know, he just — he was elected, what, at the end of February. You know, we’re talking about an amazingly short period of time. So there have been complaints in the south that as a result of the Yemeni forces pushing AQAP out, you don’t have the police then coming in; you don’t have, you know, the regeneration of the communities, and the shops haven’t been repaired, whatever else.
Well, you know, that’s difficult to do, you know, even in the United States. Look at what — you know, Katrina and how long it took for that. In a place like Yemen that is seriously challenged because the road networks are not there, the instruments of interaction with local communities, you know, the ones that were developed have been interrupted significantly as a result of what AQAP has done. They’ve wreaked havoc in that area.
So I mean, you’re absolutely right. What we need to do is to make sure that what is pumped in at the top, whether it be from the United States or others, flows through the people and the mechanisms that’s going to give you confidence that you’re going to derive the benefits from it. This is going to take awhile, though. And so that’s why we’re really counting on, you know, President Hadi in this two-year interim period of time to do as much as he can. But you know, two years from now we’re still going to be facing some enormous hurdles.
Yemen is one of the most, you know, unfortunate, you know, backward parts of the world. I mean, it’s beautiful also. You fly over Yemen; you see these communities that are the same as what they were, you know, 500 or even a thousand years ago except for the pickup truck and the satellite or whatever. But you know, trying to have a countrywide system where you can actually connect the government to the people in a, you know, sustained way is really tough.
WARNER: Yes, someone in the middle here. Let’s see — right there. The lady in the middle there. And if I may just gently ask to try to keep your questions short because we just don’t have a lot of time. So that was an excellent question, but just — (laughter) –
QUESTIONER: Thanks. Elisa Massimino with Human Rights First. I very much appreciate this putting the — what’s gotten the most attention, the drone program, into this broader context. It’s very helpful. But the reason, I think, that the drone program gets so much attention is that the use of lethal force tends to get people’s attention. And I would like to understand a little bit more about the framework in which we’re operating there. This is one of the concerns that a lot of Americans have, I think, about that program. You know, what you’ve described is this internal conflict that we are trying to assist the Yemenis with in driving out AQAP. And I guess, you know, the U.S. has a strong interest in making sure that our use of lethal forces is grounded in the rule of law. Are we grounding that in a concept of being a party to an internal armed conflict in Yemen? And if not, what’s the legal basis for the use of lethal force there? Thanks.
BRENNAN: OK. Well, the use of lethal force always should gain attention whenever it’s used by the U.S. government anywhere. I would draw some distinctions, though, between what you said and what the reality is.
First of all, in terms of the basis for the use of lethal force, you know, the authorization for the use of military force in Afghanistan provided the basis for the U.S. government, the U.S. military to take action against al-Qaida because it presents a threat to us, not just in Afghanistan, but in other places — and affiliated forces, associated forces. AQAP clearly is one of the most active al-Qaida franchises worldwide and has been determined to carry out attacks against us.
So while we have aided Yemen, the Yemeni government, in building their capacity to deal with an AQAP insurgency that exists on the ground there, we’re not involved in working with the Yemeni government in terms of direct action or lethal action as part of that insurgency.
What I think has been made clear is that there are individuals within al-Qaida that are determined to kill Americans, whether it’d be in the U.S. Homeland or in Yemen or in other parts of the world. We go to great extent to try to thwart those attacks, and we very much hope that we’re able to do it short of the use of any type of direct action or lethal force, either by our partners or by us or in concert one another.
When we don’t have those opportunities to, in fact, prevent these individuals from carrying out those attacks, if our only recourse is to take lethal action in concert with partners and provide our partners some assistance in that regard or to do things with them that we’ll mitigate threat, we do it, but it’s because it presents a terrorist threat to U.S. persons, properties, entities.
So there is an insurgency under — see, the AQAP is a very interesting organization. Interesting, I know, is an overused term. You know, you look at al-Qaida in the FATA, al-Qaida core. You know, it’s a combination of Arabs and sort of — almost non-Pakistani. There are some Pakistanis up there in al-Qaida, but mainly, they’re Arabs that are there. It was almost a foreign body that then was using that as the springboard to carry out attacks, whether it’d be in Afghanistan, in the United States or other places.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is mainly but not solely composed of Yemenis, but you have a lot of others now there. But a lot of these, you know, Yemenis in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula are not determined, you know, only to carry out attacks against the Americans wherever they may be. A lot of them are trying to gain ground. And unlike in a place like the FATA or somewhere else, they actually put up their flags, you know, controlling the territory. You know, they’re trying to unseat the government of Sana’a. So we’re trying to help the Yemenis, you know, thwart that insurgency and push it back because that certainly is counter to our interests; it’s counter to the interests of the Arabian Peninsula as a whole.
But where we get involved on the counterterrorism front is to mitigate those threats, those terrorist threats. And al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and they have some very, very diabolical, innovative, creative and determined murderers that have gone to great lengths to try to, you know, find ways to put IEDs, you know, in printers and put them on aircraft, carry out attacks here, do things against our embassy there on a — almost a daily basis. We’re not going to sit by and let our fellow Americans be killed. And if the only way that we can prevent those deaths from taking place is to take direct action against them, we will do so.
WARNER: Let me — this gentleman right here, and then — lady right there.
QUESTIONER: Thank you so much. What is your assessment of the claim from five members of the Congress that the Muslim Brotherhood has deeply penetrated the U.S. government? (Scattered laughter.)
BRENNAN: I would — I would refer you to the five members of Congress that made that remark. I have no idea of what it is that they are making reference to, and I’m not even going to try to divine what it is that sometimes comes out of Congress. (Laughter.) I really don’t. I really can’t address that, you know, that statement.
QUESTIONER: Kim Dozier, AP. Wanted to give you a chance to give us a report card on al-Qaida at large. How is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula doing over the last six months? You mentioned that you disrupted their recruiting operations. Can you give us some more specifics and then a larger picture?
BRENNAN: You know — OK, I’ll start at Yemen, and then I’ll talk overall.
In Yemen, I know there is a lot of attention paid to when there is, in fact, some type of ordinance that may be dropped by somebody against a terrorist target. That’s what gets the focus. And they say, oh, you know, it was the counterterrorism, you know, successor action that was taken.
On a daily basis there are, you know, activities under way by the U.S. government, by the Yemeni government and others that are — is uncovering, disrupting, thwarting these terrorist activities and plans. And you know — a lot of CT specialists here — and you know that there are different phases of an operation, from fundraising to putting — you know, identifying the operatives to identifying the materials to, you know, (casing ?), surveilling or whatever else.
So there is a continuum there. And regularly, we and the Yemenis, looking in Yemen, are disrupting things that are taking place along that continuum. What really is concerning is when they get to the end of the continuum, when they get in the execution window and they’re ready then to put the IED into the — you know, the aircraft. But on a regular basis, we’re doing that.
So I think in Yemen there are — I think there are two things that are in a very positive direction in strategic terms. One is that, you know, again, since President Hadi has assumed the presidency, there is a new determination, a new consistency in terms of what the Yemeni government is doing on the counterterrorism front. You know, our ability to work with them and the intelligence, security, law enforcement, military side, homeland security side — that has increased significantly since he has come on.
Secondly, thankfully, the Yemeni military has been able to reverse the gains and the momentum of AQAP in the south. They have dislodged a number of those AQAP units. And when we talk about AQAP, you know, there are widely varying estimates about how many people are there. Is it several hundred? Is it several thousand? Well, in truth, it’s probably both because there are, you know, several hundred hard-core committed, you know, full-time, you know, fighters, and then there are a lot of part-time moonlighters and, you know, tribal fighters that will join them because they’re in their area. But I do think that psychologically, as well as just geographically, there have been some significant gains made over the last several months by the Yemeni armed forces being able to demonstrate that they can push it out. Now the thing is, the Yemenis have to build in behind it. So it’s, you know, sort of the concept of clear, hold, build, and that’s what they’re trying to do.
Looking out overall, you know, al-Qaida(‘s core ?) in the Fatah really has taken it on the chin. I mean, they have been degraded significantly in terms of the number of operatives, leaders, others that have been taken off the battlefield. We’re going to continue to maintain that very strong pressure on them, because that is the wellspring from which sort of the al-Qaida, sort of, enterprise has sprung.
Just because they are significantly degraded and have been badly damaged and bloodied, that doesn’t mean that they still don’t pack a lethal punch, because if they can get operatives, you know, trained and out and directed — you know, we know what they did on 9/11, and still there are a lot of individuals who are attracted by the al-Qaida, you know, propaganda that want to sort of carry out these types of murderous attacks. So we’ve degraded that.
What I am concerned about: the growth of the franchises. You know, you look in Iraq in terms of the number of attacks that have taken place there. You look at the situation in Syria, how al-Qaida is trying to take advantage of it, Yemen, and then you look in Africa. And across Africa, you have a lot of areas — you know, the Sahel in terms of the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — that has been able to take advantage of vast expanses of territory that are ungoverned — you know, the situation in Mali with the — with the coup there and the political turmoil. You know, there’s areas in the north that al-Qaida has been able to be in league with some of the tribals and others that, you know, presents a continued threat. Right now, a lot of the al-Qaida elements in Africa pose a regional threat, but there is a concern that they could use, in fact, their growth to look to the north to Europe and even beyond. So, you know, unfortunately, al-Qaida, you know, has not gone away.
And I know that, you know, memories sometimes fade since 9/11. But we’ve pummeled the heart of al-Qaida in the Fatah, but the appendages of it, you know, are — still exist and continue to grow. And that’s why, first and foremost, we have to work with our partners. The — no matter how many, you know, Predators or drones you have up there, we’re trying to give time and space to the countries to be able to take these situations on themselves and be able to carve out the cancerous tumor of al-Qaida.
WARNER: We only have a couple of minutes left. The lady right here on the aisle. Why don’t we take two questions, if you both could keep really short and you could combine your answer?
This gentleman here. Thanks.
QUESTIONER: (Name and title inaudible.) I wanted to follow up on a question Ms. Warner asked you: Who threatens the critical infrastructure? Your response is bad guys. When I think about bad guys, I think about state bad guys, terrorist organization bad guys, criminal enterprise bad guys and hackers. What evidence is there of collaboration among those sets of bad guys?
WARNER: OK. Thank you. And — let’s just go — if we could pass the mic over and you could ask your question too, and if you could answer both. They’ll probably be on different topics, but –
QUESTIONER: I’d like to direct your attention to Nigeria and see what your assessment is of Boko Haram. Is this an existential threat to the state, and how are we working with Nigeria on it?
WARNER: Well, those are two very big questions to answer in two minutes.
BRENNAN: No, that’s OK — (inaudible). The first one, in terms of do we see any collaboration among the various groups, there — you know, one phenomenon that I would point to is that there are a lot of individuals who have been a part of different types of intelligence and security agencies abroad who have developed and refined their capabilities in the cyber realm why they were in those professional slots. Sometimes these individuals will retire or move on to other pastures. Sometimes they set up their own types of, you know, legitimate efforts, and sometimes illegitimate. Sometimes they maintain relationships with their previous employers in the government.
And so what we’re seeing in different places, in Asia, that there are a number of activities that are emanating from Asia that it — sometimes it’s very hard to distinguish whether this is coming from a state sponsor or if it’s coming from, you know, the — a parastatal working on behalf of the state sponsor or is coming from an organized criminal group or a business that is trying to advance its commercial, sort of, interests, whatever. So we’re seeing more and more sort of, you know, common features. And we’re seeing the DNA that’s, you know, flowing downstream.
Frequently, though, a lot of it comes from the skills that one acquires in the government. And so, you know, anybody who is working for the U.S. government right now in cybersecurity, I encourage you to have a long and very prosperous career in the U.S. government — (laughter) — doing things on the cybersecurity front as opposed to the other. But I think we have to be mindful that there are relationships there, either born out of a pedigree or they’re, you know, how they develop these skills or because, you know, different types of organizations have common cause.
On Nigeria, you know, Boko Haram is a very serious concern that we have, the Nigerian government has as well. In Nigeria, you have the domestic dynamics that are under way in terms of the north and the south and, you know, Christian-Muslim tensions and — but Boko Haram and Ansar al-Dine and Ansaru have been, you know, the — sort of elements of a domestic phenomenon that now has these terrorist dimensions to it. And, you know, one of the things that — ask is, you know, what constitutes terrorism, you know, international terrorism? You know, just like AQAP has had the insurgency against the Yemeni government, you know, Boko Haram could be considered to be waging this domestic battle against the Nigerian government. However, there are elements of Boko Haram as well as, again, offshoots, like Ansaru, that have a foreign target in their sights and continue to go after them.
So — and you ask, is it an existential threat. One of the things that I think we have learned and I think the governments throughout the — certainly Africa has learned is that these organizations have the potential to expand, you know, at a rapid pace. And it’s critically important to nip it in the bud if you can, but I think it also speaks to the need not to just have a pointy end of the spear, that you can take the actions to mitigate the manifestation of the terrorist threat and the problem but also address some of the underlying causes and conditions and factors that have contributed to these movements from developing.
So, you know, AQAP had its, you know, roots in, you know, al-Qaida core, but yet it was able to take advantage of some of the real problems in Yemen. Same thing with Boko Haram and others. I think there is a core there; there’s an ideologically driven core that has a domestic political agenda. But also, you know, it is fed by a number of the underlying, you know, conditions that, you know, either because of, you know, discrimination or because of perceived inequities in the system, you know, they’re able to recruit, particularly some of these — you know, the teenagers in Africa that are being attracted and pulled into these organizations because, you know, 10 (dollars) or $20, you know, is something to attract a person to sign on with a terrorist organization. And 15-, 16-year-olds, they don’t know any better. And so we really have to tackle, again, the country as a whole, the problems that exist, because the terrorist groups are just taking advantage of it.
And I will say this final bit. You know, President Obama, even though he has, you know, agreed to and authorized the actions that we need to take to keep the American people safe, he continues to drive home to us that these are just temporary measures. We need to make sure we’re able to address those conditions, those factors that are contributing to these, you know, terrorist organizations from being able to exploit the conditions that exist in certain countries.
So whether you’re talking about Somalia or Yemen or Nigeria, you know, there is a much broader set of issues that need to be tackled. And these countries need to develop the institutions that the people can have confidence in. So judicial reform, legal reform, you know — you know, rooting out corruption — these are all part of a broader counterterrorism, broader security effort that the president has insisted that we pursue.
WARNER: John Brennan, White House adviser on counterterrorism, thank you for a very interesting, candid and lively conversation. (Applause.)