August 24th, 2011
11:45 AM ET

American intelligence collection capabilities are "stunning"

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.

Post by:
Topics: Spying • Terrorism

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. RM

    If our intelligence is so stunning, then we must know that this is happening. What are we doing about it? I thought we had learned our lesson in Bosnia and Kosovo.

    SRINAGAR (IHK): Veteran Kashmiri Hurriyet leader Syed Ali Gilani has appealed to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, to take cognisance of the discovery of unidentified graves in occupied Kashmir and arrange an enquiry in the matter by the War Crime Tribunal of the World body, reports KMS.

    In a statement in Srinagar on Tuesday, the veteran leader maintained that the discovered graves were of those Kashmiris who were killed by Indian troops in fake encounters and in custody. Syed Ali Gilani said, Indian army and police personnel have been killing Kashmiris in staged gun-battles to get promotions, medals and cash rewards.

    Hurriyet leaders Nayeem Ahmed Khan, Farooq Ahmed Dar, Javed Ahmed Mir in their statements also expressed serious concern over the discovery of over two thousand unmarked graves in the Kashmir Valley.

    And, tension gripped Islamabad town in occupied Kashmir on Tuesday after Indian policemen beat up a shopkeeper. Eyewitnesses said, as word about the incident spread in the area, shopkeepers downed their shutters and tried to stage protests. The policemen resorted to baton charge to disperse the protesters. Later, the police arrested at least fifteen youth.

    August 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  2. Onesmallvoice

    Our intelligence gathering is quite good indeed. That's how George W.Bush knew that the Iraqis didn't have those WMDs he kept talking about. In fact, that's the very reason we invaded Iraq in 2003, knowing that there nothing Sadam Hussein could do about it and we could now steal their oil. This, the right-wing thugs in Washington will continue t deny!

    August 24, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Reply
    • onetinybrain

      Yah, but it was totally cool when France and England wanted Libyan oil right?
      Where are all those anti war protesters? It was illegal when Bush invaded, but perfectly ok for Obama to allow strikes without congressional approval right? Freakin' hypocrites.........

      September 19, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  3. Mike Houston

    Just an observation: If John Miller has been serving in the ODNI, and "overseeing" the Presidents daily intelligence briefing,
    and has been such a significant figure in analyzing the aggregate collected intelligence of our intelligence gathering
    agencies (CIA, NSA, et al), it seems to me that it would be a good idea that he keep his mouth shut. Why is it that he is even
    talking to Fareed Zakaria – or to any other "News" gatherer/reporter for that matter?

    And just as an aside: Is the term "Net-Net, ..." some new "inside news industry" jargon? Does "Net-net" mean anything?

    This is a non-story... And Fareed must have had to search a lot trash cans to come up with this one...

    August 24, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  4. leeintulsa

    I think we invaded iraq because obl was making w look like a fool. And since he didn't read, not even his dad's book, he thought it would be easy, and make him look better.

    August 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Miller's right about the importance of being charismatic, if one wants to incite and instigate. It's just like being a pop or rock star. His or her success depends very much on her charisma and personality. Zawahiri will never repalce Bin Laden, due to his dullness.

    August 24, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      I watched brieflich a couple of speeches delivered by Anwar al-Awlaki on You-Tube. This guy really is really an orator, has charisma and brains. No doubt he could become a household name like Bin Laden.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:50 am | Reply
  6. Kevin

    Too bad Americans are still getting dumber at an alarming rate. Our education system is a joke and while the schools are still barely able to churn out kids who can make something of themselves, these days kids/people in general just don't care about bettering themselves.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Reply
    • Mike Houston

      Relevance to Fareed's article?

      August 24, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      Quite true Kevin, the Pentagon and the pro-Western foreign dictators get priority over everything and everybody these days thanks to these right-wing idiots in Washington!!!

      August 25, 2011 at 8:24 am | Reply
    • Scott

      Well, at least more of us know that the Earth goes around the Sun than Europeans!
      21% of Americans didn't know/thought the other way around, compared to 33% of British, and 26% of Germans asked.

      The problem lies in the teachers and their textbooks. The textbook companies ask the teachers what they like, and put that in the text, even if completely false (such as birds flying because of bernoulli's principle, etc) The PC choices forced by "rights equality groups" deliberately rewrite history to make it appear as if every group had equal representation in history, to the point of hiding names and pictures of innovators if there are too many of one ethnic group/gender.
      It is not an American problem, it is an educational one. Teachers get paid too much for the horrible job they do.

      September 19, 2011 at 11:14 am | Reply
  7. Mike Houston

    John Miller has done a snow job on Fareed Zakaria. He probably had no role at all in the preparation of the presidents
    daily intelligence briefing. His only function may have been to be one of about 16 members of the PIAB (President's
    Intelligence Advisory Board) and he may have had a little input (based on his past experience interviewing OBL) on the board. He doesn't have the expertise or the experience to "oversee intelligence analysis in the ODNI". The DNI does
    that job and John Miller most certainly was not the DNI. John Miller is doing a self-serving snow job on a self-serving
    "news personality", Fareed Zakaria. He's still milking that long ago interview with OBL...

    James Clapper is the current DNI and it's his office's job to present "analysis of intelligence" to the President.

    August 25, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  8. Michael

    US intelligence is expert – after all – look at the billions spent (borrowed) each month on intelligence – and this is only what we know about in the public domain. It is inconceivable that there was a scintilla of evidence pointing to WMD in IRAQ despite marching Colin Powell before the UN with his script. Part of the BUSH/IRAQ/WMD scam was the intelligence on the American people and how they might react once the truth was determined. They re-elected BUSH with millions of votes to spare. They forget all about the WMD as they are too busy fighting for their freedom.
    An intelligence failure? Hardly!

    August 26, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  9. Ann Smith

    If my memory serves me right, wasn't there every common sense indication that something was very wrong with the underwear bomber? Didn't he board a plane with no luggage and no jacket when supposedly traveling to Detroit in the middle of winter? Isn't this similar to the 9/11 terrorist who took flying lessons but wasn't interested in learning how to land a plane? Those weren't failures in interrigence gathering, they were failures in using common sense.

    Miller was right in identifying nuclear issues as what keeps him awake at night. And yet, the U.S. continues to deny obivous vulnerabilites...more lack of common sense. Government officials and the nuclear power industry keep pointing to who has the capabilites and the materials to make a bomb when, at many NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) public hearings, individuals have pointed out that our existing nuclear power plants themselves are vulnerable targets. Most, if not all, of the highly radioactive 'spent fuel pools' are not under the same kind of concrete domes as the reactors. Even ex-military people testified that there are hand-held missiles that can easily be fired from a boat offshore (outside the 1 mile protected zone). A well-placed missile attack on the spent fuel pools would set off an invisible, highly radioactive cesium fire. Think of all the metropolitan areas that would be affected. Terrorists do not need to make a bomb.

    And yet, when this is pointed out at public hearings, the industry personnel constantly talk about how the nuclear plants are safe from an armed assault...even (supposedly) planes that might try to attck the reactor. They are quick to divert any attention away from the spent fuel pools to the reactor core knowing that most people think they are one and the same.

    When people speak of building more nuclear power plants to solve one (energy) problem they are ignoring the problems we already have with existing plants.

    August 31, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  10. SCOPEDOPE

    If our intelligence is so good, Why can't we find out where Al-Zawahiri is, and rid the world of him?

    September 11, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  11. CenterPoint

    I believe that there were WMDs in Iraq. I believe the Iraqi general who says he flew them to Syria was telling the truth. And I believe that some good diplomacy aided in their eventual removal and distruction. I don't believe that we are shared all information. But proving this did happen is just as difficult as proving it didn't. One day the truth may be known. But I don't think it would matter to most.

    September 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  12. LV

    "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." - Which we COULD track very well, so, why don't we? And if this is the case, why are we not setting up fake sites which overwhelmingly out-message the real ones? Why are we not stomping this into the ground?

    September 15, 2011 at 8:06 am | Reply
  13. lt_murgen

    There is a significnat difference between data and information. And an even greater divide between information and cogent analysis. Yes, we have massive data gathering capapbilities. We have vast and impressive capabilities to turn that data into some relevant fact. But to sift through the volumes of facts and put together a reasonable and credible threat analysis is somehting not everyone can do.

    Imagine playing Clue with your friends. with 20 weapons, 300 potential killers, and 100 rooms.

    September 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  14. Bifselill

    Whats up. Very nice blog!! Man .. Excellent .. Amazing .. I'll bookmark your blog and take the feeds also...I'm happy to locate so much helpful information here within the post. Thank you for sharing..

    November 19, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Reply
  15. Ignoranceinthechatroom

    are you kidding me? you people believe that a reporter and his AMERICAN camera crew went into osama's hideout and interviewed him... if you believe that this interview is real, YOU HAVE TO BE THE STUPIDEST IGNORANT BIASED IDIOTS ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH

    August 25, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply

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