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The Value of Aspen

As we continue to swelter in the ongoing summer heat wave, it is easy for me to reminisce about my recent visit to Aspen, Colo. Tucked amongst the Rockies with its clean air, fervent green and majestic views, a town known primarily for its skiing with the rich and famous was home to what was, simply put, the best conference program I have ever attended.

The first annual Aspen Security Forum put forward a program that I can only describe as pleasant, informational waterboarding. By the time each of the presenters and panelists were done, my hand was dead from writing so much and my head hurt from being given the firehouse treatment of a candor and content  overload.

With a venerable “who’s who” of notable names in the national security arena attending the two and a half day program, attendees had the opportunity to hear first-hand from the men and women who have served or continue to serve in some of the most demanding positions in the world. It was literally very hard to turn around and not see a face that you did not recognize from some recent event or news program, sharing insights on our country’s national and homeland security challenges.

While the presented content was outstanding, the best part about the entire program was that the overwhelming majority of notable speakers and presenters made themselves available to engage with the attendees. All too often, speakers rush in, deliver their canned pitch, say thanks to the crowd and are whisked away by their aides to get back to the office, leaving actual human contact an afterthought. To have the many distinguished speakers stick around and engage in that lost art-form of “CONVERSATION” was an absolute pleasure.

Hosted by Clark Ervin and the Aspen Institute, this was the first time they had put on a program with this particular focus. You can call it beginner’s luck if you want, but they put together a top notch effort that literally became a “must attend” for anyone who is interested in national and homeland security issues. Fortunately, for those who weren’t able to attend the program, it was taped for later broadcast by C-Span, hopefully sometime this summer. I have to tell you, there is a significant portion of C-Span’s programming that can cure insomnia, but when they broadcast the presenters and panels from the Aspen Security Forum, it will be as NBC used to call it, “Must See TV!”

To understand why I write that, here’s a rundown of some sessions (with video hyperlinks):

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

When your opening speaker travels all the way from Kabul to Tel Aviv to Aspen to take part in the program, it’s a pretty good indicator that the organizers are up to something big. That was especially true with Adm. Mullen. Coming off a week where Gen. McChrystal was taken out by a large Rolling Stone and replaced by Gen. Petraeus, and then traveling to Afghanistan and Israel to assuage any fears and concerns they may have about the big changes, Mullen made news by essentially not making news. While his comments about the state of the nation’s counter insurgency policy dovetailed those of the White House’s, the plainspoken manner in which they were delivered conveyed the gravity of the situation our military forces are faced with in Afghanistan. His comments about Iran’s nuclear ambitions – “They’ve given us no reason to trust them” – also spoke volumes about what few measures the Administration has left at its disposal in dealing with them.

Aviation Security Panel

There is probably no other facet of the post-9/11 world that Americans gripe about more than dealing with aviation security, but as the CEO of the Air Transport Association (ATA), Jim May, said, “What’s your alternative?” Joined by Erroll Southers of USC’s CREATE Program (and the first Obama Administration nominee to lead TSA) and Christopher Bidwell of the Airport Council International, this panel laid on the table the very real threats and frustrations that accompany this portion of the security environment. One of the most interesting things discussed was the use of full-body imaging devices by airports to screen passengers. While recognizing the civil rights and privacy concerns that people have about them, Jim May of ATA shared that he thought they should be mandatory. When it came to addressing the Government Accountability Office’s recently issued criticisms of TSA’s Behavioral Detection efforts, May and the other panelists pointed out that this program was part of many layers of security, and there was no one-size-fits-all solution or silver bullet that would reduce the aviation risks faced today.

Fran Townsend, former Homeland Security Advisor to President Bush

There are many things that have been written and said about Fran Townsend, the former Homeland Security Advisor to President Bush (43), but the word “shy” is not one that would be used to describe her. The only thing that could possibly surpass the candor of her public comments when she was working as a government employee was her candor in being a former government employee. With no holds barred, Townsend explained that, “We have a reason to expect we can connect the dots this time” given all of the post 9/11 work that has been done.

In a more than hour-long conversation with Walter Isaccson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, and the Security Forum audience, Townsend pounded on the fact that much still needs to be done to improve information sharing amongst intelligence and law enforcement agencies across the board. Her declaration that there still needed to be a senior level official or “Cabinet Agency,” but “not a czar,” to “pound these government agencies into submission to do information sharing.” Her proposal that an NGO, public-private partnership, rather than a solely government-led approach to address the growing cyber security risks, was also interesting.

Bill Bratton, former Chief, Los Angeles Police Department

Dubbed by many media outlets as “America’s Top Cop” for having led the police departments of Boston, New York City and Los Angeles, I think Bill Bratton surprised everyone at the program when he explained how the terror attacks in Mumbai, India caused him to change the entire structure of the LAPD. His interview with CNN’s Jeanne Meserve detailed how 60 days after those attacks, he was able to transform his police department with new training, exercises and more. The relatively simply trained Mumbai terrorists were not interested in holding hostages; in fact, they were using so-called negotiations to buy time to kill more people. This showed Bratton that he had to change how his department was positioned to respond to a similar event, should it occur in Los Angeles.

Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counter Terrorism Center

For a man that much of Washington thought would have his head handed to him following the failed information sharing efforts surrounding the failed Christmas Day attack, Michael Leiter, the Director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), displayed all of the skill and confidence that make him one of a few Bush Administration appointees to successfully transition into the Obama Administration. His description of his job, his work with the President to report on the range of threats to the country and how he thinks information sharing needs to work made this particular presentation one of the most revealing and compelling of the entire program.  Interviewed by Michael Isikoff, a former Newsweek reporter and now Chief Investigative Correspondent for NBC News, ended up producing some great back and forth between the two men that was as revealing as it was humorous. This session again explained more about Leiter’s job and the mission of the NCTC than any government report or Congressional hearing to date.

Border Security Panel

Despite the countless GAO and IG reports and the many hearings before the U.S. House and Senate, there was no better overview of America’s border security than a panel made up of:

  • Bob Mocny, Director of DHS’ US VISIT Program;
  • Mark Borkowski, Director of CBP’s Secure Border Initiative (SBI); and
  • Steve Oswald, Vice President of Boeing.

These three gentlemen described what worked, what didn’t, what could be better and what the future may look like on programs that have regularly been making news for years. In presenting the details of these newsworthy programs, they did so with none of the drama or hysterics that are so often associated with the Congressional hearings that have exhaustively covered the respective programs. What each of them said frankly offered more substantive insight than any of the previous Congressional hearings have produced to date. That was an observation made not just by the conference attendees but also by the first-tier media, congressional staff and others who have observed each of these respective programs closely. Truth be told, if you want to know what is really happening with US VISIT and the Secure Border Initiative (minus the belligerent questions and political posturing), spending 90 minutes watching this panel when it is aired on C-Span will be time well spent.

Attending News Media

As I mentioned, the conference was a literal “who’s who” of notable current and former national and homeland security leaders, and the same could be said for the attending members of the media.  With CNN’s Jeanne Meserve, Fox News’ Catherine Herridge, the Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu, Newsweek’s/NBC News’ Michael Isikoff, and more, it seemed as if there was a representative from every major news outlet, print and broadcast media in attendance. While many of them were there to serve as session/panel moderators for the various parts of the program, the entire forum was a reservoir of information for them on today’s security concerns and a background on the actions of the past. It was also a treasure trove for journalists in developing future sources for national and homeland security news stories.

Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security

After consecutive 12-hour days of literally (albeit pleasantly) waterboarding attendees with tons of substantive content, it’s hard to figure out how to end a program such as that in Aspen, but they picked a great closer in former DHS Secretary Chertoff. Whether it was the fact that he’s been out of office for almost a year and half and doesn’t have to worry about a 2 AM phone call from National Operations Center about someone doing something vile to the homeland, Chertoff’s candor and demeanor crystallized for everyone the seriousness of the threats we face while also assuring we should continue to go about our regular lives. As one of the very few “senior statesmen” on homeland issues that we have in this country, his conversation with Fox News’ Catherine Herridge conveyed the balance that we need to have when planning for and operating against the range of risks we face.

A wondering disappointment

I can say without doubt that I loved every moment at the Aspen Institute, but I can’t sign off without discussing the one disappointment that I and many others had in the presentation by DHS Deputy Secretary, Jane Holl Lute. Whether it was her discomfort at the conversational interview format led by CNN’s Jeanne Meserve, her fear in the week after the McChrystal debacle, not wanting to say anything to cause problems for herself or the Administration, or the fact that maybe she was having a bad day, her presentation left the overwhelming majority of attendees scratching their heads in wonder as to the real story at the Department.

All of the questions that were asked by Meserve were fair and nothing was out of the ordinary, but Lute’s responses were defensive, sometimes evasive and could have been dramatically better.  Time and time again in her hour long session there were questions to which she could have responded with hard and fast examples of the Department’s accomplishments. Instead, she offered simplistic, almost apple-pie like anecdotal responses that left the audience wondering why she wouldn’t answer the most basic of questions.

When she stated, “the [U.S.] border has never been more secure,” and offered no facts to prove that statement, portions of the audience looked around at one another in shock while others openly chortled at the declaration.

When it came time for Q&A with the audience, the tenor of her responses seemed to be even more defensive. When Michael Isikoff asked her about her statement on the border’s security and her metrics to prove that it had never been more secure, Lute seemed to bristle at the question. She firmly retorted, “The Secretary has been very clear on what those metrics are,” and effectively cut him off.

Lute’s response referred to the speech Secretary Napolitano delivered at CSIS the week before, when she declared, “the U.S. border has never been more secure…but there is more work to be done” and that “no one is satisfied with the status quo.”

In that speech, Secretary Napolitano detailed a series of metrics to back up her statement, but none of those were shared by Lute with Isikoff or the observing audience. In speaking with Isikoff and some of the other attendees after her remarks, none of them were aware of the CSIS speech and the metrics behind the powerful declaration. To the credit of the Department, Bob Mocny and Mark Borkowski did an exceptional job during their joint appearance on the Border Security panel explaining why DHS leadership is stating things have improved on the border.

It is certainly a debatable point to make a declaration like the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary have made in recent forums about border security. When you back it up with information and facts, it provides some measure of credibility and fosters informed debate. When you state it and don’t want to defend it with facts, it leaves people wondering why you would state something like that and not be able to prove it. After her appearance in Aspen, a lot of people were left wondering about the Deputy Secretary, and after viewing her session either on-line or on C-Span, I expect there will be a lot more.

Final thoughts

All of our time is valuable, and God knows we don’t have enough of it, but if you can set your DVRs to record the Aspen Security Forum or go to the Aspen Institute webpage and download panels for your Ipod/MP3 player – DO IT. Think of each of the respective sessions as graduate level courses shared by esteemed faculty who have the real life scar tissue and experiences to tell you what happened and what we can all do better.  If you do, I’m confident you will walk away from each session with a lot more knowledge and a bit of a mild headache too. That’s what pleasant informational waterboarding will do to you, but I have to say, it is much more enjoyable amongst the mountains and beautiful vistas of Aspen.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More
  • Ellen Howe

    Great review, Rich. Wish I could have been there. Thanks for sharing such a detailed review of events.

  • Kevin

    Thanks for the comprehensive review Rich, it is most appreciated. See you there next year.

    Kevin