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Ex-Counterterrorism Chief: Cutbacks Raise Risk Of New Attacks

A recently ousted counterterrorism chief says the country is risking the gains made against terrorist threats by cutting back resources with little or no public debate. In an interview with NPR, Russ Travers also expressed frustration at the poor state of relations between the intelligence community and the Trump administration.

"If people believe that conditions have so changed and the threat is so diminished that we can go back to the way things were [before the 9/11 attacks], so be it," said Russ Travers, who served as acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

"I just personally don't believe that's the right answer. And I don't like the quality of the discussion that has gotten us to this point," Travers told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of All Things Considered, in his first broadcast interview since leaving his government post.

Travers, who joined the intelligence community in the late 1970s, said he's never seen such bad relations between intelligence professionals and a presidential administration.

"I've been doing this for 42 years. I have never seen longtime civil servants removed because they had opinions that were different than the administration," he said.

The National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC, was set up in the wake of the 2001 al-Qaida attacks. Because government agencies failed to adequately share information prior to those attacks, the center was designed to coordinate government efforts. Many officials working there are on temporary assignment from other agencies, like the CIA or the National Security Agency.

Travers said it became increasingly difficult to properly staff the NCTC as agencies sought to keep their staffers for their own expanding missions, such as growing cyber threats.

"I felt that we didn't have adequate resources to do the missions that we've been given," Travers said.

He sought to outline his concerns at a March 18 meeting he requested with Richard Grenell, who had recently been named acting director of national intelligence.

"We exchanged pleasantries and he tells me that my deputy Peter Hall and I, we're both out," Travers said. "I went in as the acting director of the center and I came out not being such anymore."

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that Travers was offered other jobs, but chose to retire. Travers says that was not the case. During his brief time as director of national intelligence, Grenell announced plans to scale back the NCTC, reportedly cutting the workforce by about 15 percent.

Critics of President Trump say the episode reflects his ongoing friction with the intelligence community, whose findings the president has sometimes challenged or rejected. The president's tenure has been marked by a rapid turnover of top officials and, according to the critics, an inclination to favor political loyalists over intelligence professionals.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

You said that you didn't have adequate resources to carry out the job that you'd been given. What did you not have?

The law said that NCTC (National Counterterrorism Center) would be the primary organization in the government to do analysis of international terrorism. It would also have a strategic, operational, planning function, which essentially meant kind of integrated whole-of-government stuff. So we were doing this as a common concern for the government and we simply were not resourced to do that as departments and agencies started drawing down their commitments to NCTC because the country was going through this kind of re-evaluation of threats.

To play devil's advocate, al-Qaida is not the organization it once was. ISIS is not the organization it was just a few years ago. Why shouldn't fewer resources be devoted to fighting terrorism?

I actually believe that's true. As you say, the threat is not what it once was. There needs to be a rationalization of resources against terrorism. I think we could do that. But it does require a change in mindset in that not every department and agency needs to do everything.

Can you give me an example of something that you saw not getting done because you didn't have the resources?

Every day we would get upwards of 15,000 names. We had to sort through those, decide who is of concern. That ultimately percolates down to an organization that has to make a decision about who gets on an airplane. What happens if a police officer stops them? Do they get a visa? This is not cheap. And so the question ultimately is one of risk. I would be completely on board if if we had that conscious, informed discussion about how much risk are we or are we not willing to accept. My fear is that we are kind of stumbling into, "let's just cut resources and things aren't going to get done."

You're raising the question of whether the U.S. is prepared for a major terrorist attack. We haven't had one since 9/11. But if there was one in the works, is the U.S. back to where we were before 9/11?

The American public needs to know that the counterterrorism enterprise, in my opinion, is the best example we had ever of thinking whole-of-government. We took the fight overseas. We pushed borders out. We made the homeland more secure. I'm worried that people kind of want to move on from terrorism. I don't think we're going to see an attack tomorrow. I'm probably more concerned about a few years down the road.

A few days after you were ousted, nine former senior leaders of the intelligence community wrote an open letter in The Washington Post and talked about "the deeply destructive path being pursued by the Trump administration." As somebody who had a front-row seat, what do you think are the consequences of those tensions?

There are always tensions. I do think that it's far worse in the current administration. It's not healthy. The intelligence community, for the most part, is a behind-the-scenes player. They will often carry a message that policymakers don't want to hear. But I've never seen it like this. They were telling senior intelligence officials that they need to "go to school." I just don't think that's helpful. I certainly don't think it's appropriate.

In that letter, the former senior intelligence leaders also wrote that your removal sent a message that, "Every current officer sees that speaking truth to power in this administration is an immediate career killer." Do you think that is the message being sent?

I do. I've been doing this for 42 years. I have never seen longtime civil servants removed because they had opinions that were different than the administration.

Just to be clear, you're not saying, "Hey, I ran the National Counterterrorism Center, the budget got cut. I'm mad about it. We need more money thrown at this problem." You're saying let's be intentional about figuring out the national security threats.

That's exactly right. I want a conscious decision. I want eyes wide open. If people believe that conditions have so changed and the threat is so diminished that we can go back to the way things were [before 9/11], so be it. I just personally don't believe that's the right answer. And I don't like the quality of the discussion that has gotten us to this point.

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Corrected: July 20, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
The original online version incorrectly stated that the National Counterterrorism Center said it offered Travers other jobs. It was the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that said it offered Travers other jobs.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.