Takeaways from McRaven, Brennan’s National Security Talk at Texas Tribune Festival

On Friday morning, the Texas Tribune Festival officially began, at venues all over Downtown Austin. The Paramount Theatre hosted an 8:30 a.m. panel with strong ties to UT. Sponsored by the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Texas Bankers Association, UT Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Clements Center for National Security William Inboden moderated a national security panel titled “The Threat Assessment.”

Seated on the Paramount stage, Inboden gave equal time to his quartet of guests, which included former UT Chancellor Admiral William McRaven, BJ ’77, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus; former Director of the CIA John Brennan, MA ’80; NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel; and former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Nicholas Rasmussen.

The panelists were generally of one mind about the topics Inboden lobbed their way, which included the 9/11 attacks, immigration, and the threat from Russia. Here were the major takeaways from the perspective of the four speakers:

The main positive of the 9/11 attacks was that it pulled the intelligence community together to fight terrorism.

“Out biggest accomplishment was pulling inter-agencies together,” McRaven said. “It wasn’t well-connected. It took us a few years, and then the way we passed information was really impressive—I think it would make the American people proud.”

McRaven went on to caution that in the intervening years, “Those relationships are atrophying a little bit. We have to build those personal and professional relationships.”

Brennan also praised “vertical integration, between state and locals governments, to be able to make sure you can move intelligence quickly. That has been a real positive.” He also added concern about the 17 years since the 9/11 attacks. “I don’t think we’ve done as good job as we need to in fighting upstream,” he said. “The U.S. government has a responsibility and moral obligation to fight not just the terrorists who make it downstream.”

A strong State Department will help prevent us from new violent conflicts.

“If I had to put my money someplace, it’d be in the State Department,” McRaven said, “to have great civil servants out and about and on the ground that so we understand, are we moving the needle?”

He continued: “What we see about great ambassadors is they engage with heads of state that move needle and show that the U.S. stands for human rights. If we don’t do that, we don’t move the needle.”

Rasmussen added, of the unrest in the Middle East and the ongoing struggle to stabilize the region: “It’s in the interest of the U.S. that we see economic and political liberalization there. It leads to populations feeling more invested and less inclined to join a suicide bombing camp.”

Democracy is a long game, and what’s good for the rest of the world is good for the U.S.

Rasmussen, lamenting the slow and scattered regime changes in the Middle East, said, “That kind of transformation in political change is episodic and spotty at best. It’s nothing that can be accomplished within a single generation.”

Brennan agreed. “During the Arab Spring, there was a fair amount of naïveté in Washington—they thought democracy was going to flourish. It’s not a light switch. It’s a journey. We’re 240 years into it ourselves. It was a jolt to the system.”

He cracked a joke, too: “It takes enlightened leadership to take this democratic journey. Its not just Middle East and Southeast Asia that need enlightened leadership,” he said. “It’s other places—and I won’t name those countries.” The audience, clearly in on it, erupted in laughter.

McRaven was blunt in his answer. “Foreign aid is about us. Anyone who thinks its altruistic … it is in some ways, but the more stable we can make that country, the better it is for us,” he said.

Immigration is a difficult balance, and in the U.S., our terrorism problem generally isn’t coming from immigrants.

Brennan was succinct in his thoughts. “If we close ourselves off, the terrorists are winning,” he said. “At the same time, we have to keep our citizens safe.”

Rasmussen, who transitioned between the Obama and Trump administrations, wryly said, “There has been a different approach in the different administrations.” He also stressed how difficult it is to vet everyone who crosses our borders. “It will always be an imperfect science; we will never know everything about someone.” Finally, he made the a distinction about the anti-immigration rhetoric that is on the rise in the U.S. and Europe: “Terrorism incidents in the U.S. cannot be laid at the hands of refugees or recent immigrants,” he said. They typically involve someone who has been here many years and was radicalized here. Homegrown terrorism is not immigration problem.”

Engel talked much about how difficult it is to balance safety versus human rights. “Immigration is necessary and makes us a better society, but there are real issues with uncontrolled immigration,” he said. “We have to strike that balance and we haven’t yet.”

Russia wants revenge for the Cold War.

Engel laid four numbers out for the audience: 400, 70, 10, and 20. He said, “For 400 years, Russia was a Czarist society. Then 70 of a totalitarian Communist government. Then it all fell apart. Putin called it worst experience of modern era. From the Russia perspective, they blame us for this. Then it was 10 years of Yeltsin. For last 20 years, Russia is run by its intelligence services. What do you think they’ve been thinking about?”

Brennan agreed with the latter notion. “Putin sees world in a zero sum, and that Russia has been disrespected over the years,” he said. “He is a clever tactician. He has taken advantage of opportunities to seize ground—literally and figuratively. The audacity of going into Ukraine, poisoning people on British soil, influencing our election, I don’t think we have the tools yet to push back.”

McRaven who in 2006 was in command of the Special Operations Force in Europe, had some doubts about our future with Russia. “When I first got to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, I was sitting with leadership there. They were concerned about Russian invasion. I thought, You’ve been watching too many spy movies. I was dismissive of it,” he said. “Then Crimea happens. My concern with Russia is where do we draw the line?We have to define what that line looks like for the Russians. If they make another intervention, what will we do? We can’t wait until it happens. I have some grave concerns.”

Check out the schedule for the rest of the Texas Tribune Festival here. Stream the event online here.


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