John Miller has had a fascinating career weaving between media, law enforcement and intelligence. You probably remember John Miller from his ABC News interview with Osama Bin Laden or his seat in the anchor chair next to Barbara Walters.
What you probably don't know is he just left the post at the pinnacle of the United States Intelligence Community. Until earlier this month, Miller was overseeing intelligence analysis in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That's the president's principal intelligence adviser.
He joined me to offer his insights for the first time since he's left the job. Here's an edited transcript of our discussion:
Fareed Zakaria: So the DNI, the Director of the National Intelligence, is the guy who every morning gives the president his daily intelligence briefing. This is the thing that tells you all about the threats to the United States, the intelligence chatter. So what is that document like?
John Miller: Well, it's fascinating book. You know, when you open the president's daily briefing for the first time, one, you realize if you're seeing it for the first time, what a scary document it can be. The interesting thing about that is after you've read it and the – and the components that make it every day for a period of months, the senses are a little bit dulled because it's scary every day so you get used to it.
But it is the best intelligence from the best collection apparatus on the planet, which is the U.S. Intelligence Community. Not just raw intelligence, there are pieces of that. But there's also analysis that really puts together, probably better than any other document on Earth, what it all means, what the future implications could be and what the strategic concerns are.
Fareed Zakaria: It does sound so scary day after day. Most of it goes nowhere, amounts to nothing. Most of the threats don't materialize.
John MIller: It's not an accident. The idea is when you've got that type of collection, you've got that kind of indicators and warning, you're able to influence those events, either by stopping the threat, shutting it down, capturing the people, arresting them or otherwise making it not happen.
And if you look at a decade after 9/11 without a significant 9/11-style or a level attack on U.s. soil, that has been because of a lot of very effective work. But - and I have to underline there - there's a couple of places where we've just plain lucky and should have done better.
Fareed Zakaria: So let's talk about al Qaeda in particular. What is your judgment on the state of al Qaeda after the death of bin Laden, after the Arab spring?
John Miller: I think those are connected. Those who say the death of bin Laden breaks al Qaeda don't understand how al Qaeda was built and designed. Al Qaeda will go on without bin Laden.
Those who say the opposite of that, which is Bin Laden's death means nothing, are also wrong. What you have is an organization that's suffered a terrible blow because they lost their charismatic leader. And when you're operating on a global forum using the tools of globalization, the web and modern communications, charismatic leader matters.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, who I have sat with personally and spoken with, is not a charismatic leader. He's all business. He's not terribly popular within the organization. But more than that –
Fareed Zakaria: And I got to stop you there. Because you're one of the few people who actually met personally with both. Do you think Zawahiri, though, was smarter than bin Laden? A lot of people say he was the brains and bin Laden was the charismatic face.
John Miller: I would say based on my personal experience when I was in al Qaeda camps as a reporter, Zawahiri was running the show. And what I mean by that was he was calling the shots. He was the person moving behind the scenes making things happen.
And bin Laden was produced, if you will, as the messenger. And I'm not sure that wasn't pretty close to the business model. And I think – I think that matters.
But when you look at him now as the head of al Qaeda - I have yet to see a debriefing of a suspect in a significant terrorism plot, who said, "I was inspired by the videotapes of Ayman al-Zawahari." That is telling.
On the other hand, you have people who have transcended this model. If you want to look at the idea that the messenger is actually more important than the message, Zawahiri doesn't matter when you have an Anwar al-Awlaki, charismatic, compelling and able to form his own messages in perfect unaccented English with a western vent.
And if you look at many of the most serious plots over the last two years, the majority of them targeting U.S. soil were inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki. That matters.
Fareed Zakaria: Do you think, though, that the Arab spring discredits al Qaeda's core with the kind of premise of al Qaeda, which is through all these dictatorships in the Muslim world, Arab world in particular – – the only way you can get rid of them is through violence, through terrorism. And what people want to replace them are Islamic governments.
Well, what you've seen are democratic movements that topple these governments, some of these governments and no great demand for a caliphate, instead a demand for democracy.
John Miller: So I think the answer to that question, which is a really interesting question because we're at the beginning of that story is, Ayman al-Zawahari, al Qaeda's current leader, personally spent 23 years of his life trying to overturn that very regime in Egypt - [the regime of] Hosni Mubarak.
And a bunch of kids with smartphones and good understanding of social media did it in three and a half weeks. One would say that that rather than blowing up a building blows up al Qaeda's business model. Because every young person who was thinking, "Maybe I'll follow the word of the terrorist because that's the only way to achieve change through violence" had to second-guess that and say, "Wait a minute, this other thing may work better, much better, with less bloodshed and faster."
Fareed Zakaria: Net-net, where does al Qaeda stand as a kind of threat to the United States, to western governments?
John Miller: Al Qaeda is not going away this year with the death of bin Laden. Not going away next year. And it will try to capitalize on events and hone communications.
So, net-net, does al Qaeda have the capability today to launch another attack on the scale of 9/11? That is very unlikely.
Will al Qaeda lower the bar as I believe they have and accept a larger number of lesser attacks if they can do that? I think the answer to that is yes. And I think the evidence of that is, if they can get one guy on one plane to blow it up over Detroit, that was acceptable to them. If they could get an affiliate to put one guy with a truck bomb in Times Square, they were willing to accept that. If they can get one group of guys with guns to attack European cities in a Mumbai-style attack, they were willing to go forward with that.
And I think that's going to be a continuing concern. And I believe they will continue to target things that will not just kill people, but attempt to harm the economy, which is in enough trouble all by itself.
Fareed Zakaria: Let me understand what are the threats to the United States. What keeps you up at night?
John Miller: Well, the stock answer to that, because, you know, I've heard that question of Bob Muller and the Director of the CIA and everybody else is the threat of al Qaeda or another terrorist group obtaining a nuclear weapon.
I think what actually keeps me up more at night is the much more likely scenario, perhaps less devastating of the effect of lowering the bar. Having effective communicators using social media and the web to reach out to the lone wolfs and to say, "You can be alone or you can have the force of personality to gather just three or four people around you and you can do something that's low-tech and low-cost, but high-yield and be a big hero at it."
This is something that they have honed almost to an art. And when we talk to the people who are stopped in these plots and say what got you started, if it's here on U.S. soil, inevitably it was a mouse and a computer screen and a chat or a video from somebody very far away.
Fareed Zakaria: And this comes from any one place in terms of al Qaeda's operations?
John Miller: Particularly from Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, and that has been very interesting. Because Anwar al-Awlaki was not a big operator for al Qaeda. He was a propagandist off to the side.
And I think there became a moment in time when they realized here is a guy who is reaching western recruits in Europe and the United States and we need to move him up in prominence within the organization, give him his operational command, allow his voice to have more resonance and it's certainly having resonance.
If you look at, you know, the string of cases where the people said – whether it was the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad who said nobody ever sorted it out for me the way Anwar al-Awlaki did by watching his videos on YouTube. And when I listened to his videos, I felt he was talking to me. That's a powerful communicator.
Fareed Zakaria: One reads in the paper about Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria. Where do you see the place that worries you the most?
John Miller: Well, let's take the triangle. Pakistan, which has the center of those networks and a large number of people who cross over regularly between Pakistan and Europe, particularly Great Britain. Yemen, where you have Anwar al-Awlaki as a key communicator reaching directly out to the west and then Yemen - I mean, Somalia. And really Somalia that's the odd duck there because you're thinking, "Well, Somalia, where is the threat from there?"
But a decent number of the recruits from Al-Shabaab have been American citizens, two of whom have become suicide bombers, the first Americans to ever be suicide bombers for a terrorist group and a large number of those recruits - I mean, more than a dozen or so, have been American citizens from places like Minneapolis and Portland and others, where they have large Somali communities.
I flag that because the ability of Al-Shabaab as a terrorist group to take someone who came from United States who may have traveled a long route, to turn them around and say the way al Qaeda does when they get a U.S. recruit in Pakistan, go back to United States, fly under the radar and do something there, is a significant factor.
We haven't seen it yet, but it is something that definitely has occurred to them.
Fareed Zakaria: When you hear the story, I mean, you must have heard it – heard about it in government, of the Nigerian underwear bomber whose father alerts the U.S. Embassy that this guy is turning to radical Islam, who exhibits other signs of dangerous behavior, and the U.S. Intelligence Community somehow doesn't pick up that. Doesn't that worry you because these people are so random, they will often not have a background, and yet, you know, the few signs you get are lost in the sea of intelligence gathering.
John Miller: The one you're referring to, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the only reason that that plane didn't blow up over Detroit is, in attempting to make his bomb function, he broke it. So we weren't good there. We were lucky.
Yet, it was not an intelligence failure. We had all the intelligence information we need in pieces to give us a strong likelihood of detecting that plot. There were pieces over at this agency and pieces over at that agency and pieces from foreign partners, which strung together would have made that relatively clear.
That was a problem of we operate in massive sets of data, in systems that don't touch each other and that data doesn't necessarily correlate until some smart analyst or someone else takes it and says, "I'm going to run it through these outside systems if they have the access."
Ten years after 9/11 that is a problem that still needs fixing.
Fareed Zakaria: How much of the world of intelligence that you've now spent time deep inside, how much of it resembled what you thought it was going to look like when you were studying it, reporting on it? How different is it from the James Bond movies?
John Miller: Well, there's been an arc there. You know, I used to go to those movies and they would walk into the darkened room and there would be all the screens and computers and they can pull up any data and they could zoom right into the secret team moving in on the bad guy base, and you could watch it all in real time.
And at the time that I used to go to those movies, that was all nonsense. Today that's all true. And the technology is amazing. The capabilities to collect information are stunning. As you learn about programs that are closed off to most of the intelligence community and you realize the capabilities and how deep and sophisticated they are, it is amazing. And it's real eye opener.
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