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Counterterrorism Official Doubts Travel Ban Would Solve Real Threat


President Trump's administration has been revising its travel ban. The initial order, now stopped in court, affected visitors from seven majority Muslim nations and refugees. It prompted debate on this question - does it improve security?


This morning, we pose a different question. What else is the administration doing to secure the United States against attack? After all, even if it works, the travel order does not address the main sources of past attacks on the United States.

John Cohen has spent much of his life on this issue. He was counterterrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security under both presidents Bush and Obama. And he's on the line. John, welcome back to the program.

JOHN COHEN: Hi. It's nice to be with you.

INSKEEP: What's a major source of attacks in the United States in recent years?

COHEN: Well, the primary terrorism-related threat facing the United States today comes from individuals who are already here in the United States who become inspired by what they see on social media or the internet and carry out attacks operating independent of any foreign terrorist organization. It's a very different type of threat than we faced even five, six years ago. But it is the most significant threat that we face here today.

INSKEEP: When you speak, I'm thinking of the attack in San Bernardino or the attack in Orlando, people who at some point pledged allegiance to ISIS, but it wasn't entirely clear that's where they started in this whole thing. Is that right?

COHEN: That's exactly right. These are individuals who for a variety of psychological and behavioral reasons gravitate towards these extremist causes. Eventually, you know, connecting with the cause of a specific terrorist group, they will then - you know, self-associate with this cause. That means they're not in communication with a terrorist organization. They're not collaborating with other members of a terrorist organization. They operate independent.

But that doesn't make them any less lethal. And we've had a number of attacks in this country. And the FBI has been able to disrupt a number of potential attacks by individuals who all fit this profile.

INSKEEP: Now, to be fair, some of these people came from elsewhere. They may have been immigrants at some point in their lives. But the pattern that you're describing is they seemed OK on some level when they arrived in the United States, if they even came from elsewhere. But you're saying they're individuals that are already here. They're affected by social media. They've got some problem, they attack. What, as you can tell from the outside, is the administration doing about that threat?

COHEN: Well, it's unclear what they're doing about the threat as you just described it. Over the last several years, there's been quite a bit of work done by the FBI, by others in law enforcement, by the intelligence community, by DHS Intelligence and Analysis to understand the dynamics of the threat we're facing here in the United States.

You know, to be candid, I think that over the last two years, DHS has been a little bit slow to adapt their approach to the domestic threat based on everything we've learned. There needs to be a lot more work done in adopting how we investigate these terrorist threats, how we look at initial tips and leads, how we evaluate whether someone who's coming to the attention of law enforcement like Tamerlan Tsarnaev did, like the Orlando shooter did, like the individual who set off a bomb in New Jersey in New York did, and how law enforcement looks at those people to evaluate whether they pose a risk or not.

INSKEEP: Is it wise then for the administration at the highest levels to spend so much of its time and attention on this travel order?

COHEN: Well, I think the travel order has two main components. I think it makes a lot of sense to focus on improving our vetting process. We've made a lot of improvements over the last several years. But there's more that can be done, particularly in the area of automating it. I think the travel ban element of the executive order, while it may be great political theater, does very little to make Americans safer. And in fact, it may serve to undermine key operational activities that require collaboration with foreign partners or that require that we focus on the domestic threat.

INSKEEP: So we had Sebastian Gorka on the program the other day. He's a Trump adviser on national security issues. And we posed him this question - what else are you doing? He didn't say what they were doing. It wasn't a very clear exchange. But he did say - Gorka did - what the administration does not want to do. The administration does not want to follow the views of past experts, does not want to go down the path of people before. Is there a case to be made for totally rethinking the way the United States goes after terrorism?

COHEN: Well, I think thinking about it and discussing these issues is always positive. But, you know, while conversations about clash of civilizations and focusing on what we call it - call the threat is all, you know, all well and good from an academic perspective. But it really doesn't do a lot to promote operational programs and operational activities intended to understand and mitigate the threat facing the U.S.

What we need to do is we need to have people in positions of power who understand the threat and have the operational background and the relationships to work with those in the interagency and in the state and local world and in the private sector world to address the threat and stop attacks in this country.

INSKEEP: To find individuals who could actually be dangerous, that's what you're saying?

COHEN: That's exactly right. I mean, these people don't go unnoticed. They're noticed by people in the community. We need people in the community to work with law enforcement. We need law enforcement to work with mental health professionals and others in the community so that we can either disrupt an attack or dissuade someone from going down the path of violence.

INSKEEP: John Cohen teaches criminal justice at Rutgers now. He's an ABC News contributor. Thanks.

COHEN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.