A panel discussion in Midland, featuring national security experts from the University of Texas’ Clements Center, outlined the current state of international affairs and explained how energy production in the Permian Basin and the rest of the nation is both a vital bulwark against world terrorism and aggression, and a security risk as well.
By Lana Cunningham
A 15-year intelligence officer re-assigned from undercover work to the Washington, D.C., headquarters, Steven Slick started his new position on Sept. 4, 2001. One week later, he and other intelligence officers were pulled out of a meeting to watch televised news as the second plane hit the Twin Towers in New York City.
“We knew immediately it was al-Qaida,” Slick said. “We had done our best to warn the policy community, and this unfolded on our watch. The people in the intelligence community felt a personal responsibility for that. At the CIA, some calendars are set at September 10, 2001. That is a reminder that each day they come to work they want to be certain to do their utmost because it may be their responsibility to stop an attack that could happen in the next 24 hours.”
September 11, 2001, changed the world.
Before that date, terrorism was the focus of a few specialized groups throughout the world. Today, terrorism has spread around the globe and pops into everyone’s mind daily. Much of the world’s economy now impacts terrorism and the United States’ prolific energy production plays a major role in this country’s national security. Rising oil production in the United States has created a game changer in the energy world.
Slick made his comments during a February panel discussion in Midland on “The War on Terror from September 11 to Today: What It Means for American National Security and Energy Policy.” Other experts—all from the UT Austin William P. Clements, Jr., Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft—included William Inboden, Clements Center executive director and former senior director for strategic planning on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council; Paul D. Miller, Clements Center associate director and former director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on President Bush’s NSC; and Lt. Gen. Frank Kiser (ret.) former NATO special operations commander. Slick retired from the CIA, where he was senior officer of the CIA Clandestine Service and now works as the Clements Center’s Intelligence Studies Project director. The audience consisted of UT supporters and major players in the Permian Basin oil industry.
Established in 2013 as a nonpartisan research and policy center uniquely positioned in the Office of the President, the Clements Center has pulled together an impressive staff composed of individuals who have dealt firsthand with recent national security issues. The Center honors the late Gov. Bill Clements, who served as Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1973-77 and brought a deep appreciation for history to policies and decision-making.
UT Austin President Bill Powers said the Clements Center “is one of the strongest groups of national security experts in the country. Bill Clements transformed the Pentagon, and his efforts are still paying dividends for our national security. This Center is training the next generation of leaders” who understand the history behind current events. Few people are aware of the Center, he said, and the evening discussion was one way to spread the word.
The panelists recalled where they were on 9-11 and how the events of that day impacted their lives and the country, before turning to terrorism today and how energy is impacting world events.
Inboden, who was working in the Bush Administration, said discussion first focused on whether something like the 9-11 attack on this country’s shores happened before (yes, Pearl Harbor) and then staff decided the ensuing years would be like the previous Cold War.
“We knew this would be a long conflict with multiple dimensions. It was a global struggle taking place in the shadows. We knew al-Qaida was global. We knew it wasn’t a few terrorists. This was not going to be a conventional war. It needed new techniques,” Inboden said.
President Obama’s administration came in and dialed back the country’s involvement, focusing instead on drone strikes when his advisors realized their focus on the core al-Qaida leaders wasn’t working. “This ISIS group seemed to come out of nowhere,” Inboden said. “The Islamic State split off from al-Qaida and started ISIS and brought us into a new and dangerous phase of this conflict.”
The world faces a different type of terrorism today:
• This militant jihadist organization now controls a large swath of territory. Al-Qaida never controlled territory before.
• They have set up a caliphate and are making strong claims about what this territory represents.
• They have independent revenue streams, whether it is from kidnapping or ransom, from smuggling oil and selling it on the black market. They are becoming very wealthy.
• They have a lot of western passports and that makes them very dangerous, enabling them to slip easily into a country.
• They are very crafty with social media to spread their message beyond Iraq and Syria. That’s why they are getting a lot of followers from Yemen, Libya, and other troubled spots.
“We sponsored a conference at the Clements Center a few months ago with several top intelligence officials, and they said this is the most dangerous they have seen the world since 9-11,” Inboden said. “We have entered a new and dangerous phase of the war.”
Turning to Saudi Arabia’s role in this war on terrorism, Inboden said 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9-11 were from that country. President Bush “had some tough candid talks with the Saudis—are you with us or against us?” For a while, the Saudis waffled on a decision. But, in May 2003, al-Qaida bombed a number of western compounds in Riyadh. “That was 9-11 for Saudi Arabia, and they realized they had been feeding a dragon in their own backyard. They became a more reliable partner in the fight against terrorism,” Inboden said.
Turning to oil, the former National Security Council member recalled a terrorist attack on the largest Saudi Arabian refinery which was stopped before much damage was done. Today, the United States is becoming the global swing producer and is putting the country at an advantage. “Our refineries are better protected than the Saudi refineries were. That gives us an advantage that America can be making in the war on terror.”
He also noted the downturn in oil price and production is hurting countries like Iran and Russia and even the Islamic state’s smuggling and black market sale of oil.
“Midland is playing a very important role in the geo-political struggle between the free world and the tyrannies out there,” Inboden said. “You have given the United States a lot more freedom of action now that we are not so dependent on imported sources of oil.”
Paul Miller referred to the world situation as the war on jihadism instead of terrorism.
“Wherever these jihadists are is a threat to our interests and our way of life. This war doesn’t require boots on the ground every place there is a jihadist. That’s why we give assistance, weapons, and training to Ethiopians, the Philippines, to Yemen, when we have the opportunity. We want to share the burden with local partners to take the fight to these jihadist groups,” he said.
Another important aspect is an ideological component. He said they have to invest in partners around the world who hold to the same vision of life as the United States. One way is to invest in their quality of governance and their economies.
“We successfully beat back al-Qaida in Iraq and the other insurgents in 2007-’08. We had the opportunity to have a lasting presence there, which would have bought time for us to make those investments. We could have sustained the presence, which would have blunted the rising Islamic state and would have given us time to make more investments in that government and society. We walked away in 2011, a failure in American diplomacy. The consequences we have seen—the jihadists in Iraq re-formed, re-labeled itself an Islamic state, and they are now the richest and most dangerous terrorist group in the region and perhaps in history. That’s what happens when America walks away from its responsibilities,” Miller said.
He sees the same mistake coming in Afghanistan. The Afghan economy has at least tripled in size, and democracy there has fared better than expected 14 years ago. But, there was a power vacuum in that country which allowed terrorists to regroup.
“I walked around downtown Kabul in 2002. I did the same thing in 2007. It was an entirely changed city. In 2002 there was an air of hope. Afghans walked up and talked to me. In 2007 the city was bigger, there was more bustle, but it was a nervous energy. It was a city under siege. It was experiencing terrorist attacks in downtown Kabul, and that has continued since.”
Miller acknowledged the United States shouldn’t keep troops in Afghanistan forever, just long enough to consolidate the gains that were made.
“We missed opportunities in Iraq, and we are about to miss them in Afghanistan,” he added.
Miller called for the United States public to have more patience in this war against terrorism. “The Cold War was 40 years—we’ve only been in this 14 years. A bit more patience would help a lot right now.”
On a positive note, Miller pointed to the improvements in the U.S. energy industry, which have led to a better strategic position. “The improvements here have altered the equation. The Middle East could always produce oil cheaply. That is changing. The energy industry here is developing techniques to get it out of the ground here more efficiently and sell it. The balance of power in the energy industry is shifting. It will take many years for this to play out. The more we are able to deliver, the more that insulates from developments in the region, and the more we can take a hands-off approach to the region. There is a national security aspect to what we are doing to develop our energy industry as a country. Our energy capability is a weapon of war against al-Qaida.”
Slick worked undercover for 15 years gathering information from the Russian government before returning to D.C. That fateful day in 2011 changed how the CIA operated. Chaos and confusion ran throughout the national security departments, and Slick said the problems that existed then have been rectified.
“The fact we haven’t suffered another massive attack in 13 ½ years is a remarkable credit to presidential leadership, to the efficiency and efficacy of our military, and to our intelligence community which has performed heroically,” he said.
When someone wants to attack the United States, there needs to be coordination and communication. That meant the United States had to break into terrorists’ communication circles and the decision-making cycle. “We had to know who they were, where they were, what they were planning, and where we could disrupt their attacks. Most of the credit for that goes to our beleaguered National Security Agency,” he said. “They created a number of new intelligence programs. They got into the decision cycle of al-Qaida, and that’s how we today continue to disrupt terrorist plots.”
The CIA also developed a way to degrade the enemies and their leadership structures. The armed unmanned drone has been an invaluable tool, Slick said. “If we had to attack our enemies through any other means, there would be a lot more innocent people killed. This will change the way wars are fought in the future.”
The last “weapon” Slick mentioned is the “global alliance of security services that work every day to share information on terrorism and conduct active operations to take these people off the street and counter their propaganda. Our intelligence community maintains thousands of relationships with security organizations, police groups, homeland security, and border police all over the world. A couple thousand CIA operatives deployed all over the world can’t keep America safe in a global war like this. We do this through partnerships.”
He noted the Saudis conducted a smooth transition of power in recent weeks with the death of King Abdullah. Prince Muqrin is a great friend of the United States and has been designated the crown prince next in line to the throne. The deputy crown prince is Muhammed bin Nayef. He is the first of the next generation. “The greatest partner the U.S. intelligence community has in Saudi Arabia is Muhammed ben Nayef. He narrowly escaped death a couple years ago from an al-Qaida member,” according to Slick.
While the intelligence and national security organizations have made progress in protecting the United States, Slick worries about complacency in government. It has scaled back what can be done, has put limitations on how long they can hold information, and how they can treat it, Slick noted.
Lt. Gen. Frank Kisner noted that on Sept. 20, 2001, he headed east to bring the war to al-Qaida but also reached back to the “play book of World War II and the OSS. We said we have to operate together. It was incredible.”
Kisner focused on the relationship built with anti-Taliban forces in the countries where the terrorists were located. “When we came in with Special Operations teams, we knew we would achieve success because we knew who our friends were,” he told the crowd of UT supporters. “We had to have people on the ground and engineered trust with the indigenous forces. We brought the combat power of the United States to bear.”
That side-by-side relationship is missing today, Kisner noted. “PID: Postive Identification was the buzzword. We had to have the forces there who could articulate what those targets were. Today, our enemies are smart, and they scatter from us. The only way we can positively identify who to go after is to have someone on the ground that we can trust.”
Kisner related the story of one high-ranking U.S. officer who found himself covered by Afghan forces. He was told that he was too important to them, and they couldn’t afford to lose him. Another time, an Afghan officer overheard an American talking to a female controller on a gunship. He asked where the woman was located and was told she was on the gunship.
“He grabbed a radio tuned to a Taliban frequency and said, ‘The Americans hate you so much they have sent their women to kill you,’” Kisner said.
From the beginning, the war on terrorism is being fought very differently from any other war. “The safe haven today is our own freedoms,” Kisner said. “I don’t want to lose our freedoms, but we need to understand what the enemy is doing.”
Kisner sees the United States hampering itself in fighting this war. “We need to be able to identify where the threats are and go after them. The role of the United States is to kill those who need to be killed and to buy ourselves time. We can’t kill our way to success, but we can degrade our enemy’s ability to take action against us. We can make our indigenous partners stronger and provide time for generational change. There are threats so serious now we can’t wait for other powers to work.”
The collapse of Yemen’s government and other events going on in the Middle East are placing a risk on the Saudi Arabian supply of oil, Inboden said. “The Saudis have learned from the attack on its refinery and their security is better now. But there is a big swath of sand and there are a lot of bad actors on all sides there.”
Disagreeing was Miller who said despite all the world events, the Saudis have kept pumping oil. “The greatest reduction in 50 years in their oil supply was the embargo they put on. They are resilient.”
Asked about where the United States is vulnerable, Miller cited a number of areas: the electric grid, refineries, oil and gas development. “The enemy knows energy has become a source of America’s strength and is located here in Texas. I do have worries about an unsecured border. Islamic terrorist groups have been looking for ways to come across. Just as we were not expecting guys to use box cutters to commandeer airplanes, we may not be expecting where the next one could come from.”
Slick said he is more concerned about cyber security. “It’s a new threat, it knows no borders. We don’t have any cyber legislation from congress. This threat is getting worse all the time. We need better security from Washington on cyber security.”
Congress, he suggested, should take a lead from the CIA division that has its calendars set at Sept. 10, 2001. “They (policy makers) should set their calendars for Sept. 12, 2001, and realize they are going to have to answer questions when the second attack comes about whether they were doing everything in their power to protect the United States.”
Lana Cunningham is a freelance writer who has lived in Midland since it was a pleasant city of 60,000 people.