Stopping the next James Holmes would likely entail violating civil liberties, Adm. Dennis Blair, the former director of National Intelligence, said at the Aspen Security Forum Thursday.
In order for the government to combat the kind of acts like last week’s mass shooting in an Aurora movie theater that killed 12 and wounded 58, there would need to be a higher level of surveillance and government agencies would have to share more information, which could contradict an individual’s right to privacy, Blair said.
“The cost in civil liberties and privacy that we would have to pay to get our intelligence to that level would [be high],” Blair said.
According to Blair, there are three stages of terrorist attacks: large-scale organized attacks involving teams of people, smaller attacks from a few people and attacks carried out by a single individual commonly referred to as the lone wolf terrorist.
Although the United States has effectively prevented the large-scale attacks through government intervention, the level of resources and attention the U.S. has dedicated to the other stages, which are becoming more prevalent, is the same as it was 11 years ago, Blair said. The smaller targets are harder to identify and protect, he added.
There have been three major lone wolf scenarios that occurred on American soil in the past four years. Those include last week’s shooting in Aurora, the 2011 Tucson, Ariz. assassination attempt of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords where six people died and the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shooting where 13 people were killed by a single gunman.
The lone wolf shooter is very difficult to stop, because they don’t travel and communicate in ways that typically raise a red flag to the federal government, said Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
While there are 12,000 FBI agents, there are 2 million first responders, Olsen said. The government can help prevent the lone wolf attack by training those first responders on how to identify the potential threat, Olsen said.
“It’s the kind of thing we are concerned about,” he said.
While large scale terrorist attacks organized by al-Qaeda are no longer a likelihood on American soil, the terrorist group still poses an ideological threat to national security because of its influence on smaller groups of terrorists and individuals, which are harder to identify.
The government’s efforts to dismantle the militant Islamist organization that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks have largely been successful, said Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult for al-Qaeda to carry out an attack,” Leiter said.
The United States has successfully prevented another major al-Qaeda attack thanks to luck and hard work, added Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflicts at the Pentagon. Still, the militant group’s ideology of affecting change through violent means continues to evolve and spread across a broad international network, he said.
Blair echoed Sheehan’s sentiments arguing that although the threat of an organized attack has diminished, al-Qaeda’s terrorist ideology is trickling down to smaller unaffiliated groups and individuals.
“We’ve heard a whole lot of happy talk about our success [with al-Qaeda],” Blair said. “Underlying that is this sense of shame to never let it happen again.”