Deputy intel chief warns of narco-terrorism, praises Uribe, says spies should open up

I attended a dinner last night sponsored by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, and Don Kerr, the principal deputy director for national intelligence, was the guest speaker.

The ODNI has a transcript of Kerr’s remarks. I was struck by a few remarks. First, Kerr talked about a recent two-week trip to Latin America. He wasn’t clear about why he had gone, but he shared some observations. “Of course there you see the conjunction of narcotics trafficking and terrorism and there may be a nexus forming between them,” Kerr said. He continued:

They share the need for money laundering. In fact in Latin America you have a real presence of Hezbollah. Hezbollah, after alQaida, is the terrorist organization that has the most American blood on its hands. So if you need to worry about something you might think about our hemisphere where a terrorist organization is involved in money laundering, narco-trafficking, and very close to other criminal enterprise. That to me is the kind of thing that we need to worry about looking forward, not just fixating on the East/West prospects we have for the conflicts we’re in today.

To be fair, I think one should emphasize the word “may” in this connection between narco-traffickers and terrorists, particularly in the context of Hezbollah, because there is a fair amount of debate over this connection and its significance in the counterterrorism community. I’m not dismissing it. But that aside, Kerr really wanted to draw the attention of the audience–mostly intelligence professionals, past and present–to threats that exist “in our backyard.”

So we need to be watchful, pay attention in fact our back yard and to just Iraq and the Afghan/Pak border. That was one reason I went to Latin America. [I think there’s a transcription error here, and that Kerr said, or meant to say, “and not to just Iran and the Afghan/Pakistan border.”]

Kerr then turned to a discussion of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who’s caught up in a potential regional conflagration after Colombian troops last weekend crossed into Ecuador to kill members of the revolutionary guerrilla group FARC. (The United States is not alone in labeling FARC a terrorist organization.)

“One of the things I’m proud to report to you is that even before last weekend I had the
opportunity to meet with President Uribe,” Kerr said. “This is a leader of a country that’s actually succeeding in his endeavor. The number of FARC are now under 10,000. There was, of course, significant further loss last weekend [the Colombian troops killed FARC leader Raul Reyes and 23 of his cohorts] but I think the important thing for all of us to understand,
this is a leader of a democracy who has an 80 percent support rating from his citizens.”

The rest of Kerr’s remarks, while a bit lengthy, are worth reading. Remember, this is the second-highest-ranking intelligence official in the United States, and he’s expressing a point of view that is not at all at odds with President Bush.

What are his [Uribe’s] principles? They’re really simple. Democracy leads to security. He’s trying to provide a climate for investment. And he’s trying to build the institutions that provide social cohesion. That leads to confidence in the electorate and why he has, of course, the 80 percent rating.

He does some other simple things that all of us know how to do but may fail to do. That is, he does town meetings throughout his country. He takes his National Security Council to meet in a different city each week. And so if you want to look for hands-on leadership that’s succeeding you need look no further than Colombia where they’re really taking on this question of narcotrafficking and terrorism and doing it in their own country. I think we need to support that and learn from it.

Now if you think about what I just said, I’ve just talked about something that’s not very different than what we’ve achieved with the surge in Iraq. We provided more troops, provided the security window, the ability to train up the Iraqis. We now have the CLCs, the concerned local citizens, taking back their own communities. What we hope is, of course, that investment and social cohesion will follow. So this is not a lesson that need be learned over and over again. It’s one we simply need to pay attention to and apply as we take responsibilities in different parts of the world.

I can’t speak to the 80 percent approval rating, but this is as strong of an endorsement of Uribe as I’ve seen from any senior intelligence policy official. The Colombia-Ecuador-Venezuela standoff is, of course, still developing, and as I noted the other day, speculation about documents on a FARC laptop are fueling the fire. (Greg Palast has a rebuke of the documents, based on his review of some of them, in Spanish. )

Kerr also made a pitch to intelligence officials to open up more to the press and not be afraid to talk about what spies do for a living.

The last challenge I’d like to talk to you about tonight is the one I have no answer for, but it’s really this. How do we do these things in a way that helps people understand how we in the Intelligence Community operate? Not as political pawns, but as professionals and apolitical experts. How do we pull back the curtain just a little bit for a society that of course automatically distrusts and dislikes secrets without sacrificing our sources and methods?

In the U.S., for example, we talk a lot about trying to support moderate Muslim leaders and dispelling myths about U.S. intentions and goals, and quite frankly, Americans as people. We are not really that good at communicating here at home when it comes to perceptions about the Intelligence Community. No poll has been conducted in recent years asking people about their feelings on the Intelligence Community. We should probably be thankful for that, for the number might be depressingly low.

That’s not because people don’t appreciate what we do or the live we save or the tomorrows we make possible. It’s because they don’t understand what we do. That’s in effect entirely our fault. If you brought in the best PR firm in the nation to diagnose our problem, they would sum it up pretty simply. We’ve allowed our detractors to frame the national debate and cast us as the villains.

We in the Intelligence Community are not winning hearts and minds in the U.S.. We’re not even trying. That’s what bothers me most.