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Ex-CIA chief details top security threats

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Paradise Point Resort & Spa’s name was a misnomer this week, as the HALO Counter-Terrorism Summit filled the island with the latest military and defense technology and cybersecurity tools for its fifth annual conference, and what is expected to be the first of many at this San Diego location.

Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA and the National Security Agency, addressed attendees on day three of the five-day conference, sharing his security concerns for the future of the United States.

Hayden, a retired Air Force general and now a principal with the Chertoff Group, laid out his top five security concerns for the country, and the problems with devising their solutions. With Iran, China, Mexican organized crime, cyberthreats and terrorism comprising the list, he said it’s important to note that only two of these five concerns are posed by nation-state actors, whereas in the past all five concerns would have fallen into that category.

“When you look out there on the chess board now, a lot of the important pieces aren’t nation-states, and a lot of the tools you should have in your kit aren’t what you and I call hard power,” Hayden said. “You can call it soft power, you can call it smart power, but it’s just not getting men and metal to the point of attack. It’s a far more complex problem.”

Adding to the complexity of the issue are citizens’ continued expectations for the government to provide protection from these non-governmental threats, catching us in what Hayden calls the seam — the space between what citizens want the government to do, and what they will allow it to do.

“Although things seem to erode the power of the nation-state, you and I still look to the nation-state to defend us, don’t we?” Hayden said. “You and I expect the government to provide for your security and mine, even though it’s not some other government in most cases that’s coming at us, that’s coming to threaten us.”

Nowhere is the disparity between the government’s capabilities and actions more noticeable than in the burgeoning new field of cybersecurity, where we have what Hayden describes as first-round draft picks who aren’t even suited up. While the government has the capability to deal with cyber issues, it is the permission to do so that is hard to negotiate in a game with no rules. This lack of regulation and guiding policy results in a low rating of three on a scale of one to 10 for cyber-readiness, in Hayden’s opinion.

While he wouldn’t go so far as to advocate the private sector filling this gap, Hayden acknowledged that giving the private sector more leeway when it comes to cybersecurity, creating what he called “digital Blackwaters,” might be the best temporary solution.

“I am telling you, there is a whole lot of thought now in people who do this, that this might be the next best step, which is to allow the private sector far more leeway to defend itself in this domain,” Hayden said. “It comes back to the model right — it’s state actors not nearly as empowered, non-state actors coming, and the more appropriate or agile response may come from private-sector entities rather than from the government.”

Even in arenas where the government has been responsible for protection in the past, such as terrorism, the game is changing. Here though, Hayden said we’re doing a remarkably good job and the tide might even be turning in our favor. He said we’re doing well with the close-fight against those who are determined to harm Americans, and are gaining legitimacy in fighting the deep-fight against those not yet set on doing harm.

Our success with the close fight is evident in the deterrence of groups such as Al Qaida from carrying out the acts they want to. Hayden said the desired type of attack for these groups (major, organized terror such as that seen on Sept. 11), is far less likely today because of the government’s work. He said the future of these attacks will be less organized, less lethal and more numerous, as the major avenues of destruction have been blocked.

Where the deep-fight in the Cold War dealt with communism, today Hayden sees the conflict centered around the real meaning of the Quran. While the Judeo-Christian-based United States has no real legitimacy in this discussion, Hayden said a beam of sunshine might be on the horizon. As the Arab Spring began the transition of many countries in the Middle East to democracy, something which America does have legitimacy arguing, Hayden’s thought is that in the long-term, this legitimacy will make the deep-fight easier on our end, reducing the number of close-fight actors.

To Hayden, one of the main issues to be dealt with in the United States security world is the current separation of law enforcement and intelligence, as well as foreign and domestic issues. He said reducing the number of seats at the table, and simplifying and encouraging vertical and horizontal communication will be key to dealing with these mostly non-governmental threats.

As for the role of the president in these matters, Hayden said “There has been shocking continuity between two incredibly different personalities who have been president,” referring to Obama and Bush, and said that he expects this to continue regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 6 election.

“I actually think that there will be continuity if there is, in three months, a 45th president of the United States,” Hayden said. “I think there will actually be powerful continuity between 45, 44, 43. There will be some changes; I think there’ll be some modifications, but I actually think you’re going to see very, very powerful continuity. And that’s good news.”

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