CFR national security expert Stephen E. Flynn discusses his new book, The Edge of Disaster, which explains that the United States takes undue risk by neglecting its infrastructure and emergency response systems.
Stephen E. Flynn
Stephen Flynn is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies.
Flynn is the author of The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation (2007) and America the Vulnerable (2004). He is also a former adviser on homeland security for the U.S. Commission on National Security (Hart-Rudman Commission) and a retired Coast Guard officer.
As the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, Brian Ross reports extensively for World News with Diane Sawyer, Nightline, Good Morning America, 20/20 and Primetime, as well as for ABC News Radio and ABCNews.com.
Good evening I am Brian Ross from ABC News. Welcome to the Council on ForeignRelations. I would like to remind the audience first that this meeting on the recordexcellent participants around the nation and the world are viewing this by our live webcast on the council's website which is www.cfr.org. If you could please turnoff all yourcell phonesModeling the behavior?- BlackBerry BlackBerries, other wireless devices and I am pleased to be here and Iwant to tell you that Stephen Flynn has written a remarkable book, once again. He is theJean J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security council security studies at theCouncil on Foreign Relations, and this book, "Edge of Disaster," follows a previous bestseller, "America the Vulnerable." At the council, Dr. Flynn has served as working groupdirector and co-author of the council's special report, "Neglected Defense-Mobilizing thePrivate Sector to Support Homeland Security." He is without a doubt one of the country'spreeminent experts on the issue of this, and this book, Steve, I would say, is at the sametime both scary and reassuring; scary because of the credible way you have described thevulnerabilities that still exist in this country long after 9/11, and reassuring because youtalk, I think, very eloquently of the resilience of the American spirit and the ability ofAmerica to bounce back and to do what's right. Give me a sense, to start with, of whatyou see as the vulnerabilities. And in your book - it's extremely well written the firstchapter describes a very troubling scenario.Yeah. I spent some time talking about these vulnerabilities, because we've been hearingfor pretty much the last five years that everything that can be done is being done to makeus safe and secure. And our government largely has been saying, "We can't tell you muchabout what we've been doing because we'll give bad guys ideas or we'll spook you andyou will be uncomfortable. So you shop and travel and we'll go ahead and keep doingwhat we're doing." And in this disconnect here, one of the things I think you need to talkabout five years after the math is to point out to folks that in fact we are lots of sort ofplaces out there that are soft potential targets.But more importantly and this is the thing that I've really pulled away from the workwe're doing here at the council a colleague of mine, Larry Garrett, who focuses onglobal disease whenever I feel like I'm going to be nervous about something, I go talk toLarry. I go, "That's the real scary stuff." But it really was sort of an epiphany for me youknow, when you work in the national security field and granted, I think I've been a littlebit on the fringes - I'm a retired Coast Guard officer and then also involved with theNational Security Council under Richard Clarke, dealing with, you know, this threatwhen few people were paying much attention to it but the notion that national securityisn't the primary - doesn't deserve absolute primacy in the things that government shouldtruly worry about the things that are defined as national security don't deserve thatprimacy. That's something I never really challenged. What I was working on challengingwas that we're picking the wrong set of threats as what deserve that primacy.And I think a bit of the epiphany before Katrina was this realization as can you reallywork your way through avian flu as a pandemic if it makes an evolutionary leap to bebasically human-to-human contagious, I can't come up with any military scenario short ofthe United States and Russia unleashing what is left of our nuclear weapons at each otherthat gets you near the loss of life or near the economic disruption that would come fromthat outbreak. And this is just microbes going nuts.And then watching Katrina was really this other very disturbing tale. I can't come up withany terrorism scenario that gets close to that level of destruction. I mean, we're talking,with Katrina, 300,000 homes destroyed and an area of about 65,000 miles laid waste. Andthen Rita followed on with a counterpunch there less houses because it didn't hit asdensely populated an area, a la New Orleans, but it was about another 65,000 houses, andalmost an equivalent amount of square miles.So in this context of vulnerabilities, I find myself sort of three-tiers. One is we're mostvulnerable to natural disasters. I mean, it's something we've always had to deal with. It's abeautiful continent, North America, but it's actually a pretty rough place to live in most ofthe spots. We have hurricanes on the eastern gulf coasts; we have this little seismicactivity that goes along in the west coast; we have flooding in the center of the country;we have droughts; we have all sorts of winds that gets spun up in twisters and so forththat blow through. And it turns out - it's an amazing number nine out of 10 of us 90percent of Americans live in a place with a moderate or high-risk of a major natural disaster.Now that's basically where we demographically have moved, which is increasinglydecamped in the center of the country and gone to the coasts this lovely place down inFlorida, but that's a very vulnerable area. Again, a lot of folks now living in the WestCoast another vulnerable area. And we're crammed into urban areas a great deal,obviously, more than we were before. And we added another 100 million people over thelast 30 years and squeezed it into the same space, basically, and the infrastructure largely has been untouched.So basically in framing this, the vulnerabilities are the acts of God; the second is thefoundations that we rely on for modernity basically made us an advanced societythemselves are becoming very frail. These essentially are our grandparents and great-grandparents' work, and we're like the generation whose inherited a mansion and decidedwe're just not going to do any upkeep. You know nice mansion, got a great facade in thefront - we're just not going to worry about the wiring or the plumbing or any of that othernon-sexy stuff, because we're going to get on with life. And the fact is, this infrastructureis in fact aging and looking quite frail.And then we bring it to obviously the issue of the national security threat, which is theterrorism threat. And the more brittle we are, the more terrorism becomes appealingbecause you get a big bang for you buck the cascading effects that flow from it here.And so when you look at the overarching things, I start with a scenario that looks at arefinery in South Philadelphia. Anybody who has taken the Amtrak train can wave at asyou go by this is a -- turns out to be the plant in the most congested part of an urbanpopulation. And the real problem there is not the refinery, per se, it is that it uses aparticular chemical called hydrogen fluoride as a part of the process of making highoctane gas, and this is one of the most nasty chemicals that are out there. Not everybodyuses it because it's one of the nasty chemicals out there. In fact, two-thirds of therefineries in the country don't. But this one does because it would be about $20 million$30 million to convert it.Now hydrogen fluoride's basic problem is it's stored under pressure, and at 69 degrees itturns into a vapor, but it's heavier than air, so it crawls across the ground. So if we had anexplosion on there as a result of a tank truck attack, which is what I used the same kindof attack, by the way, that happened yesterday in Baghdad 12 miles north with a chlorinetruck, so this is not like these things are it requires a lot of science fiction or other sortof suspense novel writing this is taking real-world stuff, bringing it here we have thisexplosion. Basically it rocks the fittings. It bursts the tanks. The tanks come out and theyfind air, find it's warmer than it is, and it crawls around the ground and it will killeverybody five miles downstream of the bloom - very, very nasty. So you would think wewould be converting this, which is really the message. We can't prevent every one ofthese. What we can do is make that a less attractive target by moving in the direction offinding a safer chemical. But that in fact is not happening.So the basic style of the book is really to lay out that there are vulnerabilities that aren'tjust acts that aren't just bad guys up to bad things, but are in fact that we are facingnatural disasters; we're facing ailing foundations that are likely to fail us, and bad guyswe're going to have to keep coping with, too.And what is five miles downstream from that refinery?Five miles well, two miles away is Citizens Park of course, they have the windscoming the right direction. You know, this is a low probability, but obviously highconsequence scenario.The winds are blowing out of the west, two miles away is Citizens Park. As the scenarioplays out, it's a June evening, there are 40,000 people packed into the stadium. Certainlythe Mets are there so we've got lots of New Yorkers, as well, that are there. And theparking lot is filled up, the highway is already congested because it's a Friday evening,schools are out that day I added all the pieces. But it really was just to say that when thisthing happens, you've got five-mile-per-hour wind, you've got well, you know, notmuch response time there if you do the arithmetic. And as people would end up trying toget to their cars, there's no place to go. And if you start breathing this, it literally justburns most of everything that we need to survive and if you get it in the lungs, you'repretty much done. And this is not something you would want around a major urban area.Five years after 9/11, though five years after 9/11, we have not got a point where weknow what the chemical plants are around our country, what they're doing for security.That legislation was just tacked to an appropriation bill tied to the Department ofHomeland Security's funding for this year in September and gave the department awhopping $15 million to now execute a brand new mission that our government can't do,which is actually go out and police up to 15,000 facilities that have highly deadlysubstances with it there. I mean, try spending that all in once place.And putting that into a sort of a more macro context in thinking about our security, sincewe've invaded Iraq, we've been spending $250 million a day in the war in Iraq. Now thatworks out therefore to be we're spending willing to spend about 90 minutes worth ofIraq on providing the Department of Homeland Security with resources to police thechemical infrastructure across our country. This is a country that obviously has not beenwilling to think about its vulnerabilities and certainly not willing to make it a priority to address it.You say we're at the edge of disaster because of essentially our own negligence.Yeah.I say, "Our own." Whose negligence?It really - I mean, it's a collective negligence. Not surprisingly, we the people, ultimatelyas a democracy share the burden here of anything that's not going well in our society. Butreally I'm hovering on - you know, the subtitle of the book is about rebuilding a resilientnation. I'm arguing we were resilient once - we just seem to be losing our way on this score.And maybe it would help to define a little bit this "resiliency" word means. And itbasically - resiliency is three parts. It's first being able to anticipate likely bad things thatmay happen. The second piece is being able to - having a plan in advance to try tomitigate the consequences - lower your exposure to something bad happening, and whenit does happen, being able to respond quickly and restore. And the idea, though, aboutresiliency is that you can't stop everything that happens.What you can do is contain it from being truly disastrous.Disasters are a given. Catastrophes essentially are manmade by our acts of omission andcommission - the things we fail to do up front; the things we fail to prepare to do in theaftermath turn something into a true catastrophe. Of course, Katrina represented - it was ahurricane. The real thing, though, that made it a catastrophe was the failure of a floodcontrol system that nobody really decided was important to actually invest properly amounts into here.So the bottom-line is that we're very much in need of recognizing this vulnerabilitycollectively and thinking about it rather than as security, which tends often to be thoughtof in gates, guards and guns terms, or it's thought of as something that - in absolutistterms - "We're either 100 percent secure or we fail." Often the Secretary of HomelandSecurity says - time and again Michael Chertoff uses the, "The terrorists have to be rightonly once; we have to be right 100 percent of the time." And it gets you into this, "Wehave to be right - we have to do whatever it takes to be right 100 percent of the time."You don't buy that.I think it's just not realistic, all right; we're not going to be right 100 percent of the time,for lots of very complicated reasons. But what we really need to step back and think aboutis why is terrorism attractive to our adversaries? Terrorism is attractive if they can getcascading consequences that really hurt us. But those turn out to be largely things that weinflict on ourselves. They're not actually things that terrorists can do. Most acts of terrorare local disasters in terms of the physical damage that's done, the loss of life. Again, thatdoesn't get to the scale often of what Mother Nature can dole out to you. But what reallycan be a bang for your buck from an adversary's standpoint is if in fact we overreact inthat we impose all these silly things afterwards in terms of ways to cure the problem, orwe close down our borders and try to sort things out that way, or we retreat on our civilliberties. There's a whole series of things we can do that really can be painful that areworthwhile for an adversary to advance. Those things we need to protect ourselves from -ourselves. We need to basically - the best resilience is preventing ourselves from - themaking sure that when something bad happens that we don't overreact, so therefore ouradversaries find it less attractive to do it. The best defense, it turns out to be, perhaps, is a good defense.Would you argue, though, that the U.S. is spooked today by terrorism?You know, fear - I would argue basically - we're definitely in this - a little bit of a noman's land. Fear is always - requires two pieces. The first is an awareness of avulnerability. When we say our child is fearless, usually it's because they don't know ifthey put their hand on the stove it's going to hurt, all right? So it's an awareness ofvulnerability the second part, and this is the critical second part, is a powerlessness todeal with that vulnerability. And I think to some extent that yeah, we are. I think Idescribe it in the book as a bit like our government has said - largely the federalgovernment has said to virtually all of us - the equivalent of you going to yourcardiologist who then looks you over and says, "You know, you're at extremely high-riskfor heart disease. Have a nice day." And what do you do with that, right? You're either -one, you go out and write your last will and testament because you're convinced doom isimpending, or the other is you grab another Big Mac going, "Well, this is hopeless, sowhat can I do?" You know - but it's dysfunctional. What we need is change of diet,change of exercise. And then actually when you do those things, you don't end up being aworse person for it, many times. I mean, it's a traumatic thing to find out that this may bein your family history and you've got some things not going your right way, but thecorrective actions you often take are things that are going to make your life more fruitful.And I think any of us who've had a traumatic medical kind of experience here often cometo that realization, that in fact it's not all bad after you get that initial drop. It's bad if youdon't think you can control it or if it is and turns out to be an uncontrollable event.In a similar fashion, Americans have been essentially left out of the equation of what wecan do with - as individuals, as people, as businesses, as a civil society - what can we doto deal with our vulnerabilities and the threat that terrorism presents?We've been advised to get duct tape.Yes uh-huh.But there's more to it than that, obviously.Well, what I'm really sort of pushing hard on is first, let's think about preparing for thishomeland security mission that we've now sort of embraced. Let's think instead aboutnational security - the way to advance a national security goal of trying to make oursociety more resilient is to prepare for the more probable and inevitable events, which arenatural disasters. Let's take the terrorism picture out of this for a while and sit back andsay, "All right, there's 90 percent of us going to be affected by this other stuff. What skillsets does it take to actually manage those events?"Are you saying, though, that we sort of just have to be - let ourselves get hit if there'sanother terror attack?The most missing piece here is that I think overall it's been the lack of leadership that'sreally not been there both with 9/11 and Katrina, to essentially say what needs to be said,which is that we are a vulnerable society, but there are things that we can do and must doto make ourselves - reduce this exposure to these kinds of events.You know, it's really the lesson we should have taken from 9/11. I would argue that wemissed a very important lesson that day, which was resiliency really mattered. In the caseof particularly the World Trade Center towers, because of the first attack on - in 1993with the truck bomb in the basement of the North Tower, the Port Authority invested$250 million in not-very-sexy things to make that building safer for the occupants in it.Not-sexy things like photo-luminescent paint on treads of steps and handles.Now why would you think you would want to make that investment? Because when thelights go out, people can see the stairs. And this really would have been - as tragic as theday was, it would have been a lot more tragic if it was 1993 and there was still 10,000more people in the building when the building came down. The egress worked because aprudent investment was made in thinking through this "what if" driven our enemyobviously by the '93 event, but not saying we've got to run around the world and hunt anddestroy every terrorist and forget about buying photo-luminescent paint. You work on thatpart of it. I would argue offense should be the complement to building this defensivecapability. And what we can do is - in other things, backup emergency centers. I mean,Rudy Giuliani got beat up pretty hard about basically gold-plated emergencymanagement. Nobody was beating him up after 9/11. It requires investment around thingsthat don't look like silver bullets that often do make you more resilient.And then really - and I talk about this in the book leading up to one of my scary scenariochapters, but I think this is such an important issue, and it's - real good work, Brian - inpart has been a very much and I think helps drive us in the right direction. And thebiggest demonstration of resiliency - what we should have taken away from 9/11 was theexperience of United 93. Of the four planes that were out there, of course, this was theone that was heading for, almost certainly, our seat of government - for the Capitol, andmaybe the White House. So let's think about this. We have constituted our government toprovide for the common defense, so we put these folks on Capitol Hill and their job is tofigure out how to protect us. The only thing that protected them that morning onSeptember 11 - the only thing - was informed citizens - citizens who knew on that plane,unlike the people on the other three planes, that a plane could be used as a missile. TheAir Force didn't know the plane was up there. The Northern - NORAD at the time herehadn't identified it as in fact as being hijacked and heading into - heading towardsWashington. There were no air marshals. Nobody checked people for their three-ouncesplus liquids and so forth here. What was going on there was they knew something theother three planes didn't know, which was that a plane could be used as a missile.You know, it's a very sobering thing for all of us and what would we do in that position?But I think it's extraordinary that that day it turned out to be our greatest strength were ourcitizens who understood the threat and acted and took actions in their own right. We havea second-to-none military, and I think we need to keep it that way, but we've lost sight ofwhat the greatest strength really is, which is the which is that capacity.But that requires playing it straight with the American public.Oh, it really does.But that also means you are essentially playing straight with terrorists in the audience.They hear the same thing. If you reveal that the security at the airport is weak or that theports can't detect nuclear weapons, aren't you giving a roadmap to terrorists?This is really of course what we basically have used at the federal government level as thereason for not pushing this envelope at all here. We don't want to give the bad guys ideas.I think this is nonsense overall. I mean, we're not talking about wiring diagrams. We'retalking about identifying vulnerabilities and change behaviors we have to - to deal with that vulnerabilityWhat if, I argue, in August 2001 - the director of the FBI, the director of the CIA and thesecretary of Transportation and stood up in front of microphones and said, "It's not greatintelligence, but we've got some information that troubles us that there are folks out therewho may be interested in taking planes and turning them into missiles, and this issomething you need to know." Because every one of us was conditioned before then tothinking that when your plane was taken, your job was to sit passively, land on a tarmacsomewhere and the pros would come in and negotiate your way out of this." And thisreally clicked for me when I heard Mohamed Atta, who of course captured the Americanairliner, when he says very calmly, "Everybody stay in your seats" - he keyed the wrongmike - "Everybody stay in your seats; we're going to be returning to Boston." So you'relike, "Okay, I'll stay in my seat."Now that wouldn't happen - in fact, the 9/11 commission didn't even - they - the 9/11commission focused on the issue - there were some parts of the U.S. government thatknew that this issue was there, and other parts didn't know, and basically beat up the U.S.government for not sharing information. But they never said, "Why weren't we sharingthis with the American people?"I would argue as well, this is not Soviet Union. This is not espionage of some highcaliber. Terrorists have a very low tolerance for failure. Now good news five-plus yearsin, the footprint is quite small here in the United States. To put together a 9/11-scaleattack would take you about three years or so. I mean some of the folks I've run into in theDepartment of Defense and in the national security group, you know, talked to me, pushback and say, you know, "You can't deter these people. They're suicidal. They're tied tosome ideology, you know, tethered into certainly a realm that we can't understand.Bottom line is, we're too open, we're too vulnerable, and these folks can't be deterred. Theonly thing we can do is take the battle to the enemy." And I've pushed back on this, allright. First - all right yes, suicidal bombers. Somebody in that act it's a bit like saying Ican't deter around that's left a 9-millimeter gun. But let's step back and look at this here.How does somebody become suicidal? It's about a two-year socialization process orradicalization process they have to put you through. Well, somebody had to provide thatprocess. Secondly, they're probably not a natural-born bomb maker. Somebody actuallyhad to make bombs without blowing themselves up - that's a skill and be able to matchthis up. Thirdly, the suicide bomber wants to be able to actually have some effect. Inorder to do that, they've got to know what to hit. Well, that requires somebody doingsurveillance. You only do it once, so you've got to do a dry run. All this is taking time.People need a place to live, and they've got to do it without being observed. If you try torecruit Americans into this process, which one could potentially do here, it's a realchallenging operational security challenge because the person may be all for it until helearns that Aunt Tillie's neighborhood is actually next door to the thing you want to blowup. Or there are also our friends and neighbors who are sort of seeing this changedbehavior and may also sort of clue folks in. So you have to be very, very careful aboutwho you draw in; you've got to compartmentalize the information you provide. And allthis, I would argue starts to bound the problem. It's not like they can willy-nilly hiteverything, because if they hit something, it's going to be three years before you'rereconstituted again. So you want to hit the bigger thing with the cascading effects. But ifwe start chipping away at that, both what are really vulnerable that you don't get your lossof life or disruption but also that as you chip - you do this thing, it's essentially a fizzle,then I think the reaction is, "Gee, do we really want to do this? Is this investment reallyworthwhile doing here?"We're not going to solve the loony problem. There are going to be the Tim McVeigh's outthere and the others who will do the spontaneous act of lunacy, but we're worried about aqualitative risk that we saw in 9/11 - the ability for mass destruction, mass cascadingeffects. Let's bifurcate this issue and start to take a deep breath and essentially engineerour way back into figuring out how we can contain it and work around it without losing our heads.And you think the American public is prepared to accept the risk that there will be moreattacks and that that's okay - to sort dial back a bit.I think what we really need is -Is that politically acceptable as well?- is - we need a candidate who are willing to test those waters, I think. But what weclearly know right now is the other line - I mean, the president put the ultimate line in thesand here with the State of the Union Address, in which he said, "The one thing aboutwhich there can be no question is the only way to win the war on terror is to take thebattle to the enemy." And the entire house stood up and cheered.All right. Well, you know, the sailor in me says whenever something's that conventionalwisdom, alarms are going off. I know Mother Nature's going to throw me a curve ball andmaybe we really need to think about whether that really is the absolute nonnegotiable.There's certainly an element of it. Offense will always need to be, I would argue acomplement of our strategy as we go forward, when we have the intelligence to inform it.But if we're willing, I think, to talk adult-like to the American people about the nature ofthese vulnerabilities, I think the reality is everybody understands natural disasters, theycan't prevent. The earthquake will happen; the hurricanes will happen. But when youexplain the things to make sure that these things aren't cataclysmic are things like makingemergency management work, public health work, you are having a plan, you are beingself-sufficient for 72 hours - build it around the non-terror issue, but then bring it fullcircle and say, "This is, ladies and gentlemen, what you can be doing as your victorygarden. There's what you contribute on the home front to the war on terror. Our youngmen and women are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of their blood in support ordefense of this nation. What we can do here at home at a minimum is to make sure thatterrorism is not so attractive to be done, and when it does happen that they don't youknow, the mass loss of life or the mass disruption that can flow from it.And do you see that resilience in the American spirit?I absolutely do see it, and I certainly saw it here again in New York on 9/11, and you sawit on United 93. I've seen it in every sort of major crowd control event that I was involvedwith in the Coast Guard. I remember being in New York Harbor on the centennialcelebration of the Statue of Liberty. Statistically it should have been an absolute - youknow, it should have been a frat house disaster. I mean, people are tipping up a little bitand all this, but what you saw under those circumstances were people pulling together.They didn't call up everybody for help; they basically helped everybody along. It was sortof this sense of civic responsibility to manage our way through that. I think it's untapped,and it's really very interesting when you go back and look in the 1930s, when the Britswere wringing their hands over the issue of obviously growth in German power, one ofthe things that fed the appeasement dialogue - obviously the fatigue of the first WorldWar was the main driver, but the other one was Nazi air power, where the conviction wasthe British people were just so weak. They hadn't been - nobody actually had attacked theplace since the Spanish Armada, and the Spanish didn't get very far; that basically, if weget a hit here, the whole society will fall apart. The elites were pretty well convinced, inChamberlain's cabinet here, that the British people couldn't take the punch of Nazi warpower. And then of course, fast forward to the Battle of Britain, V bombs, the ultimateweapon of terror - there was absolutely no military utility. It was plus or minus London -that's what you basically got out of them. But what the Londoners showed was steelyresolve that ultimately weakened the desire by the Nazis to use them. They were havingthe opposite effect of what they thought was availability.I - I'm convinced that the American people have been undersold in their - in their abilityto work their way through. And I make that case because every generation of Americanshas confronted adversity and confronted challenges. And so we go back to our founders.But if you look at, whether it was Great Depression or Great Wars, we haven't become alesser of people every time we were confronted with adversity; we've become a better people every time.