The Trump administration has stepped up global airline security over the last year “by a factor of five,” Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Thomas Bossert told Cipher Brief Publisher and CEO Suzanne Kelly, in a wide-ranging interview at the 2nd annual Threat Conference in Sea Island, Ga., Monday.
Bossert said aviation security had been improved with both changes in methods, technology and bringing back tried-and-true detection methods like dogs, due to the rising threat from groups like ISIS.
Why have there been fewer deadly terrorist attacks in recent years in the United States?
“We really are that good,” he said. “We are that good, and the bad guys are in a constant state of running away while trying to plan an attack.”
On the future of ISIS: “What’s interesting to me now is to wait for what some of you in the room keep calling ‘ISIS 2.0.’ What’s ISIS 2.0 going to be? Well, it’s starting to look an awful lot like AQ [Al Qaeda]. It’s starting to look an awful lot like that long-term insurgency that’s spreading itself, coordinating itself, and not seeking the ‘demand a caliphate now’ mentality, and instead making strategic decisions for the caliphate later.”
More U.S. strikes ahead in Syria over chemical weapons? “Whatever decision the president and his team ultimately take, I think the whole world is rarely united on anything. To have the entire world united, to include the Russians and the Americans for a very long time, at least on their stated view on the use of chemical weapons, bears a lot of note. It’s still [UN Ambassador] Nikki Haley’s intent to call an emergency meeting at the United Nations early this week, and it’ll be very interesting to see who’s willing to stay committed to the long-standing abhorrence of the use of these weapons.”
On the Middle East: “There are a lot of reasons to believe that the Middle East is looking to be a better, more involved, more engaged area of the world. There’s a lot of reason to believe there is some modernization happening that we would consider good and that they seem to also consider good, and I think that’s an important meeting of the minds.”
Yemen: “In Yemen, we’ve got a humanitarian crisis, this is the only way you can say it. The numbers of people that are starving are alarming. You see a direct and obvious correlation to Iranian efforts to destabilize the region… At the end of the day, I know AQAP [Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] is a dangerous calculus, and I know the Houthis are a dangerous consideration, but at the end of the day the reason Yemen is the way it is—is Iran.
“Yemen is not going to get all that much better despite the considerable amount of money, effort and time that we’re putting into it—both ourselves and our partners…until the Iranians are checked….When we call them ‘state sponsors of terror’ it’s for a reason, and this is a demonstration right before your eyes. So when you see the next starving child in Yemen, you can blame that on the Supreme Leader.”
Bioterrorism: “I’m not worried about a terrorist becoming a genetic engineer; I’m worried about a genetic engineer becoming a terrorist…. And so it’s becoming easier, it’s becoming almost ubiquitous—the knowledge, the materials, the building blocks and the laboratory equipment that you would need used to require great resources, and now it doesn’t.”
Cyber offensive policy: “Symmetric response is really unwise [in cyberspace]. Proportionality shouldn’t be your constraint. It should be a governing feature of your use of cyber tools, [but] it shouldn’t be a constraint on what you do to punish bad behavior.”
On the pitfalls of having a “victim mentality” and being afraid of escalation: “If you’re being mistreated, the fact that you want to not stand up for yourself and not defend yourself because you’re afraid the person mistreating you might get more angry is absolutely unacceptable…I have no real sympathy for the people that think we shouldn’t stand up and call people on it when they mistreat us.”
On the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, where the NSC decides whether to share a software vulnerability with a corporation to patch it, or instead exploits it: “At the end of the day, the United States government, some of the best hackers in the world, find vulnerabilities in software and instead of—in the great U.S. tradition—using them for bad, what we do is we publish them to the owners and the developers of software for good, so they can patch all their users. Mr. Putin does not do that. President Xi does not do that. The Supreme Leader does not do that in Iran. The bad actors in this world find vulnerabilities and use them for their own purposes, often for chaos, and we’ve seen unjustifiable, reckless use. The United States doesn’t do that. We give away 90% of those vulnerabilities we find, we give them to the operators and owners of the software, and they use those to patch themselves. People don’t understand that that’s the U.S. government providing a significant defensive ‘assist, so to speak, to private industry.”
Cyber deterrence: “We are deterring through increased defenses. We are deterring through punitive measures that impose costs. We are doing that in ways and measures and places that do not use cyber-for-cyber retaliatory measures. We’re applying economic, military, and diplomatic penalties to our adversaries, and in some cases our friends who are behaving poorly.
“To the question of whether or not we are under- or over-cautious, I think it’s also pretty clear that we are perfectly comfortable holding accountable countries not just for the behavior they specifically endorse, but for the bad, unchecked cyber behavior that goes on among their populace within their country.”
On Trump’s overall America-in-the-world strategy: “He’s attempting something that I think is a noteworthy goal. He is attempting to reduce–in a manner that starts to achieve some degree of reciprocity and fairness in his view–the U.S. government’s overextended responsibilities around the world, militarily, diplomatically, economically and financially, to provide a protected umbrella over everyone…It’s pretty simple. It’s what you learn in kindergarten about fairness.”
Trump White House: Bossert pushed back against media coverage that portrays the Trump White House – or the Oval office occupant himself – as chaotic.
“You won’t believe this, but this White House seems to function just about the same as every other White House,” he said. “At the end of the day, the only thing that creates instability or the perception of it is, a, the coverage, and b, the turnover.”
That said, Bossert would not be drawn on whether there would be more staff changes, and within minutes of his remarks wrapping up, word broke that NSC spokesman Michael Anton had resigned ahead of Ambassador John Bolton starting his first full day as Trump’s national security advisor.