U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, spoke at an intelligence conference in the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center on Friday about Congress' role in improving the country's counterterrorism efforts.
The conference, titled “Intelligence Reform and Counterterrorism after a Decade: Are We Smarter and Safer?” is being hosted by the Clements Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft and the Strauss Center for International Security and Law to look back at the 10 years since the passing of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which restructured U.S. intelligence.
Thornberry, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he experienced many threats against the U.S. in his time working in Washington, D.C., but none like 9/11.
“I get to my office in the Cannon Building, turn on the TV news and they show lots of smoke coming out of the Pentagon, which I had just left 15 minutes before,” Thornberry said. “Then a Capitol Hill policeman comes running down the hall saying, ‘Get out, get out, there’s another one coming for us.'”
Thornberry said the aftermath of 9/11 and the anthrax scare led to a discomfort among the American population.
“Nothing that we had counted on to protect us was really working and that made everybody unsettled and concerned about our future,” Thornberry said.
John McLauglin, former acting director of Central Intelligence, said the biggest concern to national security is the fact that so many crises are demanding the attention of the American government at once.
“I think the biggest threat to our national security right now is the sheer number of problems that we have to deal with simultaneously; in other words, you’ve got to worry about the ISIS problem, you’ve got to worry about Russia, you’ve got to worry about North Korea, you’ve got to worry about whether we can get a nuclear agreement with Iran, and that’s just the first tier of the problems,” McLauglin said.
McLauglin said stopping the Islamic State group should be a top priority to national defense.
“Among those, ISIS is probably the single most important threat because what they are trying to do is establish a terrorist threat in the heart of the Middle East," McLaughlin said. "Something that we believe, those of us who worked on the Middle East, we sum it up in a single statement – what starts in the Middle East never stays in the Middle East."
Thornberry said Congress has a duty to the American public to protect, but it may be falling short.
“I think Congress could do a much better job at looking at the bigger picture and the longer term," Thornberry said. "The temptation is always to follow the news of the day because that’s what the reporter is going to put the mic in your face about.”
Joseph DeTrani, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, said younger generations are vital to the intelligence community.
“For the students here, functional issues [are] extremely important, regional issues [are] extremely important," DeTrani said. "Get into that, and I can tell you the intelligence community and the national security agencies per se, not just the intelligence community, needs that input, needs that youth, needs the millennials coming in and others coming in from universities, graduate schools and so forth because that’s the future.”