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Former FBI special agent analyzes election threat posed by Russia, China and Iran

FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT CLINT WATTS ON ELECTION INTERFERENCE 

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell interviews former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts, current Distinguished Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Non-Resident Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and author of Messing With The Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News. Watts offers his analysis of Russia, China, and Iran and their respective threats to election security. He discusses Russian disinformation on social media, concerns about China, and fears about the implications of the lack of unity inside the United States.  

Listen to this episode on ART19

HIGHLIGHTS:  

  • Russian disinformation spreading on social media: "Social media totally opens the door to where Russia can set up in Russia and do influence inside the United States, not only at extremely low cost, but with almost no consequences. They could appear to look like and talk like Americans about American issues . . . By October, this time four years ago, they were really advancing the narrative that 'democracy was bankrupt. It couldn't be trusted. You can't trust elected officials.' That's what we're seeing even today and hearing echoed today with the long run goal of destroying American democracy or at least subverting it to such a degree that it's not a challenge to Russia." 
  • China as a national security concern:  "Russia is the threat from now to Election Day for influence. But in 2021 and beyond, it's China . . . Around the world right now, China is really beating up the U.S. and advancing their vision of meritocracy over democracy, their vision of human rights versus the American vision of human rights, and maligning the U.S. about covid-19 response. We have been tied up in our own politics. We've kind of missed how China has really advanced abroad." 
  • Internal threat created by lack of unity in America: "The lack of unity inside America about what we believe, what we stand for, and what we'll fight for. It's remarkable. I've been approached a lot over the last few years about the question of 'how does America represent itself and fight in the information space?' And the question that I always arrive at is, 'what do we want to say to the world?' And that is not clear. I don't really know." 

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Former FBI special agent Clint Watts. Clint Watts

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS: CLINT WATTS TRANSCRIPT

PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI

MICHAEL MORELL:  We wanted to focus on what foreign governments might be up to right now in terms of interfering with the election and what might be coming as we get closer to the election and then in the immediate aftermath of the election.  Before we do that, I'd love to ask you two questions. The first is about your career. You've had an interesting career path. 

CLINT WATTS: I started off in the Army, and I was an infantry officer. I went to 1st Airborne Division, went over to Korea, and came back to Fort Lewis, Washington, where I was a company commander during 9/11. We all thought we were going to end up going to Afghanistan initially. Then bin Laden and Operation Anaconda went down. Bin Laden slipped across the border, and we all stood down. By a complete fluke in August 2001, I had dropped that three by five card into the mail to the FBI because I had a lot of friends that said, 'it takes three or four years to get into the FBI, you should do it.' 

A month after 9/11, October 2001, I got a call by a recruiter, and they wanted to know if I could take the test in two weeks. In less than a year, by the next summer, I was already at FBI Academy. In 2002, I switched out of command and went through Quantico. I ended up at the FBI in Portland, Oregon, where I was a new agent and worked on a case that was known as the Portland Seven. I was a brand-new agent and was very lucky and was very dissatisfied with the FBI. I really miss my colleagues back in the Army. I was watching Iraq go down. At the time, I was married to another Army officer, and I decided to leave the FBI in 2003 and went to grad school. In a complete weird twist and turn, I ended up at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Right across the river from where I am right now.  I was at the Combating Terrorism Center, and we were doing a tracking of foreign fighters. At the time this was the start of the foreign fighter movement and we were watching foreign fighters on YouTube. A guy named Tom Harrington from the FBI walked in and was looking for trainers at the FBI Academy. 

I did an off the cuff briefing and he said, 'how did you know that?' I said, 'I was an FBI agent two years ago.' Rather than walk out, he was totally awesome to me. He was like, 'hey, would you work with us from here?' Over the next six to seven years, I worked for the FBI from the Combating Terrorism Center and U.S. Special Operations Command. By 2007, I was back working for Tom at FBI headquarters and worked on his staff there. He ultimately became the number three under Director Mueller and worked on intel reform. When I wasn't doing that, I ran projects in between there on short contracts tracking social media and terrorists. By 2012, it was the last time I was working in FBI headquarters on a contract. I came out and was doing cybersecurity research for a financial industry. On the side, we had this project which was tracking foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria on social media. That's how we found the Russians heading into the election in 2016 as they were posing as Americans in Syria around the Syria discussion. So it was a very weird route, but it's worked out somehow. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  My listeners should know that the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point is, I think, the leading think tank in the world on terrorism and counterterrorism. It is a really remarkable organization and group of people. People should go check out the website. It's a pretty special place. 

CLINT WATTS: It was such a great experience having come out of the FBI and grad school. We were doing declassification of all the stuff you were capturing overseas on these battlefields of al-Qaida documents. It was a great intersection between academia and the government, academia and the private sector or public sector. We were really able to do research both for the FBI and Special Operations Command. It was a great relationship, it was really one of the more remarkable times in my career, that three-year period when I was based there. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  The second thing I want to ask you about is about your book published two years ago, Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News. Why did you write it, and what are its main themes? 

CLINT WATTS: I actually pitched that book in 2015 after doing social media influence for about 10 years, and I had done a lot of it at the think tank, the Foreign Policy Research Institute. I had been publishing about the al-Qaida and ISIS split during that time. It was interesting. I had also done a paper for the Center for the Study of Intelligence at the CIA and had gotten it published there. You could see this idea of social media influence really coming together from al-Qaida to ISIS, but also the Arab Spring on the other side. That's how we were tapping into the Russians over time. All of these social movements were clustering. And the rules of the wisdom of the crowd weren't holding anymore. I felt as if crowds were getting dumber almost by the day as they conglomerated. They became these conglomerations in different countries. We were doing a lot of survey work in different places, trying to assess al-Qaida and ISIS. 

I wanted to write a book that showed how the Internet was changing and how it was affecting us in the United States. I was lucky enough after I testified that I got a publisher who was interested in it. I wanted to show how the phenomenon of terrorists like al-Qaida and ISIS related to disinformation with Russia and then how it plays into our politics. I actually wrote a fiction chapter for that book, which is on Medium because my publishers informed me you can't write a fiction chapter in the middle of a non-fiction book. But it was basically about election 2020, which was what happens when everybody is pursuing disinformation, is pursuing some sort of duping of people, trying to herd people in weird ways that they don't understand. It feels like the Qanon moment is a great example of that at this point. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  The book was ahead of its time.  On the 2020 election and foreign interference. The best place to start is with a quick review of 2016. What did the Russians do in 2016 and for what purpose?  

CLINT WATTS: 2016 is a great case study to see what lots of people are doing today. What the Russians do, which is brilliant, is called active measures, which is to win through the force of politics rather than the politics of force. This is to find people inside your adversary that are sympathetic to your view or unwittingly supporting your view, by that I mean the Russian view, and elevate them in political standing such that it creates chaos between the national security establishment governance system internally. You get people fighting each other and when they fight each other, they can't essentially face off against Russia. The other thing it does in the near term is it breaks up alliances. So as a way to break up the NATO alliance, the EU, if you can break these unions into smaller pieces, Russia one to one is much more capable and can overpower a lot of these entities. So how do you do that? You go after candidates and influencers with what's known as agents of influence. It's a confusing term oftentimes in the media. They are people with an outside voice in the target audience you're trying to influence who can sway people's perspectives on Russia. 

The way they went about it was unique. They tried to do this during the Cold War when they were the Soviet Union, but it didn't work. Because if you wanted to write a communist newspaper inside the United States, it would be very costly, very difficult to do, and really hard to build distribution for that. And you probably have an FBI agent chasing down those agents trying to facilitate this.  But social media totally opens the door to this where Russia could set up in Russia and do influence inside the United States, not only at extremely low cost, but with almost no consequences. They could appear to look like and talk like Americans about American issues. There's really three layers to what the Russians did. First, they did the overt stuff, which we hear a lot about, Russia Today, Sputnik News, this is state sponsored propaganda asserting their view. It's always interesting to hear people kick back 'well the U.S. does, too.' I was like, 'No, let's think about this.' This is a Russian news outlet about why America sucks that broadcasts into America. It doesn't talk to you about Russia. It's very, very different in its construct. The second part is to advance narratives into specific audience spaces. They created social media. They created websites that we call fringe websites. They created personas on Twitter and Facebook, primarily. On other platforms as well, but primarily those two. They were communicating, trying to look like and talk like Americans to try and convince them that this was a plausible position to have in the audience base. The third thing they did, which is really what separates them from everybody else, it was very devastating in 2016. They hacked specific targets with the intention of grabbing undisclosed information, dumping it into the media cycle, and powering it through the entire media ecosystem. 

This was the hacking of the DNC, the hacking of the DCCC, and the hacking of John Podesta, Colin Powell, General Breedlove, and several other key figures. There're four key themes in there. In the near term, it was to turn down Hillary Clinton. That was very clear by quarter 4 of 2015 that they were pursuing that. The next was to elevate Donald Trump. You could see that pick-up steam as he grew in his political power. The third thing was to assert that Bernie Sanders got a raw deal from the DNC and that was really the nuclear pay load of information that got dumped in the media system. The fourth part was to say, you still got to show up for Jill Stein. That was a very limited one. When you look at a very close election, every vote counts, and it was trying to turn down Democratic support. The last thing to think about is very important for 2020. In the 2016 campaign, the last thing they pushed for was election rigged voter fraud. By October, this time four years ago, they were really advancing the narrative that 'democracy was bankrupt. It couldn't be trusted. You can't trust elected officials.' That's what we're seeing even today and hearing echoed today with the long run goal of destroying American democracy or at least subverting it to such a degree that it's not a challenge to Russia. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  I want to talk about what we've seen so far in 2020. Last month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence publicly called out Russia, China, and Iran as possible threats to the election. Just last week, in a joint press conference, the DNI and the director of the FBI called out Iran and Russia for specifically getting their hands on voter registration data and for Iran using that data to send emails to Democratic voters. Making those emails look like they came from a far-right wing group here in the U.S. Then there's been recent media reports saying that the Russians have been even more aggressive than the DNI implied in the press conference in terms of trying to get access to voting systems. Walk us through what you see foreign countries doing at this point. Who's doing what and for what purpose?  

CLINT WATTS: I'll use the same framework from 2016. If I was ranking on a scale of zero to 10. Russia is 10. Iran is 3. China is 2. In terms of election interference from our tracking in the last two years. So Russia is doing the overt trolling just like they did in 2016. They've been harsh and very negative on Biden going all the way back to the spring of 2019. Its very clear they don't want former Vice President Biden or Kamala Harris. She's a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that was on the investigation of Russia. So they're not excited about that. On the social media and influence level, they have been pushing very hard in 2019 and 2020. Again, they are using troll farms, and this time even trying to set up a cutout in Ghana, which was to go after the African-American and minority communities in the United States. The good news on that front is social media companies have done way better this time around. The U.S. government has done much better. There's a lot of coordination and synchronization there, so a lot of that social media influence is still being attempted by Russia, but has also been repelled to a degree.  

The third part, which is still the question mark, is hacking and targeting. We know the alleged hack or attempted hack of Burisma related to the Ukrainian conspiracy that was coming out back in January. And then what we've seen over the summer, which is several different times Russia has been noted as trying to influence against former Vice President Biden through the Hunter Biden conspiracy with Burisma. That's everything from several different so-called leaks coming out of Ukraine by a guy named Derkach who was designated at the same point by the Treasury this time, which I thought was remarkable and significant, as a agent of Russia. The last part, which I think is super important, and we've heard reports this week that you mentioned that Russia is hacking at state and local databases, voter registrations, and possibly infrastructure. That's the last thing we're looking for that is an unknown. Would Russia try to interfere with the actual conduct of the election on Election Day? It's a remaining question. There are some troubling signs. But at the same point, I have to say the U.S. government feels like, at least on the NSA Cyber Command part, they seemed poised to do something. DHS and FBI have been working really well together. So let's hope that stays that way.  

Iran does the same thing. They follow the same playbook. But there's one huge difference. They have no bridge into the U.S. audience base. By that I mean, Russia is engaging at three levels. State to state, which is what we traditionally think of, but is really minor. Instead, they are engaging at the party and people level. They are trying to engage on a one to one level with people on the political polls that challenge the establishment of the Democratic Party. When you watch how they engage, if they wanted to send people to a rally, what Russia did in 2016, is they actually sent people to a rally. We had a pro and anti-Islam protest arranged from Russia by Russians occur in Texas. We had a man and a woman go to a Cheesecake Factory. The woman dressed up as Hillary Clinton and climbed in the cage there. That was all arranged by Russians. They have their tentacles into America. They have envoys they can lever. 

If you watch Iran, they're doing the same thing. They're hyper negative towards President Trump. They've been putting out social media accounts that often times get caught. At the hacking and influence level, we've seen they've tried to hack into the Trump organization. They've done sporadic attacks. It seems like somehow they acquired voting registration, which brings us to that incident this week. What Iran does different is they play to race and religious issues. It is the principle divide by which they try to engage Americans. Russia does that, too. But Russia also plays to socio-economic status, and they play on both sides of the aisle. When you watch Iran's content, that's why you could tell this was an Iranian operation this week, they play to racial issues. They want to stoke divides. They want to put President Trump in a very negative position by playing as if they were the Proud Boys sending that email. That's a way to provoke conflict in America that would naturally look like this is something empowered by President Trump in his comments going back a couple of weeks to that debate. 

The other thing that was very obvious right away is some of the servers that were used traced back to the Middle East, particularly Saudi. That's a classic cyber technique used by the Iranians that you could see. When we look at what the Iranians do, they actually have a weaker position, but they're more aggressive. They'll take chances that the Russians probably wouldn't do. 'Why pull off that incitement two weeks before the election?' 'Well it gets a rise in the public.' But Iran also has its own processes internally where they're trying to report up their chain saying, 'hey, look, boss, I've done something.' There's some internal pressures there as to try and go toe to toe with the Trump administration. The last part is China. 

China is really interesting to me because we could see in 2018 that the administration is basically saying 'China does it, too. They do it worse. They're trying to keep President Trump from being re-elected.' We really started tracking it significantly.  Russia is the threat from now to Election Day for influence. But in 2021 and beyond, it's China. It doesn't matter who wins the election. In terms of election interference, we've been tracking China's overt propaganda. They speak remarkably little about the election. They are very negative towards President Trump. Not only do they talk a lot about foreign policy and less about elections, but it doesn't travel in the U.S. audience space. The whole idea of election interference is you've got to change votes. They're not putting out any content that Americans are grabbing that would change their perspective. However, around the world right now, China is really beating up on U.S. and advancing their vision of meritocracy over democracy, their vision of human rights versus the American vision of human rights, and maligning the U.S. about covid-19 response. 

We have been tied up in our own politics. We've kind of missed how China has really advanced abroad. They did a very Russian style election interference in Taiwan recently. They're also doing some of that in Australia. In the Pacific Rim, they look more like Russia, but vis-a -vis the U.S., they do not. Their social media accounts have been out there. They mentioned the election a little bit, but it's pretty spammy, and they get caught quite often. We have not seen them do hacking to influence. There have been reports from Microsoft that they tried to hack both the Biden campaign and the Trump organization to a degree. I took that to be cyber espionage. China over the horizon is really just waiting to see what the outcome is. They're making a very long-term plan to substitute out America globally with Chinese influence. It'll look a lot like Russia the closer you get to Beijing. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  You said the Russians are trying to push some themes out at African-Americans. What are those themes? What are they trying to tell them? 

CLINT WATTS: It's really double messaging. In one sense, they were quicker in 2020 to move towards election rigging and voter fraud claims around mail in ballots. They were very quick to that. Separately, they will push towards the U.S. and try to emphasize, 'hey the U.S. is not a good place for minorities.' Your rights are not respected. The political left, one of their outlets that is not well known but gets a lot of traction, is called Redfish. It is a social media influence platform based in Berlin, run by a lot of former RT employees. That pushes videos about the George Floyd protest. Native Americans inside the United States. We see them get millions of reposts and shares inside the U.S. audience space. That's really to malign the U.S. and pit Americans against each other. A key issue being blue lives matter versus black lives matter. It is used to polarize in a way that is on the political left, something that is very important to the political left, and pits them against the president. This is really interesting how this plays out, because it gives them a strategic lever over time if they can grow their audience base. That's where it has been remarkable to watch. We hear a lot about the Republican supporters of President Trump being duped going into 2016. This time around, we've seen them do really heavy targeting of the political left inside the United States. That's something I worry about over time that the younger audience doesn't have quite the understanding of how this comes through the social media influence space. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  You said you found it interesting and significant that Treasury was the one to designate a Ukrainian official involved in the Burisma information operation. Why is that? 

CLINT WATTS: It was interesting because we tend to see that out of the State Department with sanctions or designations. You will see them put forth those sanctions and this time it didn't. It came out of Treasury, which I took to mean that there's some sort of financial connection behind the scenes or some sort of influence of Russia in Ukraine with regards to that individual. The other part that I thought was remarkable is it shows that the whole government is engaged to a degree. I hadn't heard anything about election defense with respect to the Department of Treasury up until that point. What's been fascinating is without a grand NSC led plan for election defense, you've seen all the pieces sort of the institution sub-surface executing things to help defend the election. 

I don't know who would order those. I doubt from the White House level, somebody went to Secretary Mnuchin and said, 'hey, you need to make sure these designations come out.' I thought it was a very positive sign. It really shows that we're looking at lots of different ways to deal with malign influence around the world. That could be something going into next year. It's a really positive sign that the government institutions still perform their mission, are still moving no matter what the politics are at the upper levels. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  What are you most worried about between now and the election and then in the immediate aftermath of the election in terms of foreign interference?

CLINT WATTS: For foreign interference, it's really the collision with domestic disinformation. Russia is the principal component. They've gone all in to support President Trump and would like to see a second term. They don't hide this. Vladimir Putin says this very overtly. He will express this. My concern is that we have such polarization at the moment, and we have such issues with domestic extremism, that if Russia were to choose to be very aggressive, they would help amplify calls for domestic mobilizations to polling place. Potentially showing up to challenge the authenticity of the vote. We've seen Russia do this in Montenegro, for example, with a trial that was conducted there and connected to the GRU on Election Day where they tried to seize a ballot box, basically. That's what I worry about, if Russia wants to go all the way, would they do something like that? The second part is on the digital side. Would they still try to hammer at an election or polling place or divulge voter registrations in order to confuse the public and sow doubt about the results and amplify, based on what we've seen, what is a morass of domestic disinformation that's already out there about whether or not the vote is going to be authentic. Then even beyond, I'm still concerned about Russia or Iran, to a degree, fomenting divides, continuing the election beyond if it's contested. Meaning if it's not an overwhelming victory for one candidate or the other, or if President Trump were to lose and he really contested and refuses to leave the White House, you'll see foreign manipulators move in very heavy. Russia will definitely be there instantaneously. They've probably already prepped their playbooks. But I think you would see the political left mobilization. You'd see Iran try and piggyback there. Although their reach is much less. It still adds to the pile of angst and polarization in the country. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  How do you think about how we best defend ourselves from foreign interference in our elections and in our democracy? What should we be doing about this or is this just something we're going to have to learn to live with? 

CLINT WATTS: That's a great point. It's something we'll have to learn to live with as long as political leaders who are elected officials don't unite behind the idea of stopping it. What's remarkable this time, the only node in the system that isn't really working well in terms of election defense is Capitol Hill and the White House this time. Despite all of our concerns, and I've been very harsh at times, social media companies have done pretty well. When they've gotten notifications, they've done takedowns. 

Now there's a debate about maybe with the New York Post story and Giuliani, that two weeks ago they took it down too quick without having sufficient evidence, even though they're trying to do election defense. That just shows that part of the system has gotten much better. Not perfect, but it's better. Also on the government side, it's remarkable to watch Director Wray, who is President Trump's appointee, going out with Chris Krebs of CISA at DHS that protects the election infrastructure, and General Nakasone. They are working essentially together. That's a positive sign for the public. One weakness is the legislation across the board. I testified four or five times now since 2017. Nothing has changed from the regulatory legislative angle.  And legislation is still not there, which is why you get this confusion between Zuckerberg and Jack at Twitter and Facebook like, 'do we do political ads or not?' Because they will probably police whatever they're told to police and no one's told them what they should police. Separately, election integrity really comes down to will our elected officials and the candidates and campaigns take foreign interference and help. This time we've got several examples of where a Russian designated agent by Treasury is sending stuff straight to Capitol Hill. We see them tagging U.S. elected officials on Twitter. We see their social media content being amplified from the White House. That is troubling. We can't stop election interference unless the elected officials are on board with saying 'anything that we're doing is going to be American made and we're not going to take foreign assistance.'

MICHAEL MORELL:  On domestic terrorism, how serious a threat is it? Does it come from both the far-right and far-left or just one of those? 

CLINT WATTS: I was lucky enough when I was in Portland as brand-new agent, that we had domestic terrorism and international terrorism squads in the same office in a town that had flavors of both. In Portland this being the idea of Antifa. When I look at how it's shaken out, you could see this pendulum swing from international to domestic terrorism coming back to the states by about 2010 to 2012. By 2014 and 2015 I was already at terrorism conferences inside the U.S. working with law enforcement, and we were all more worried about domestic than international at that point. Sure, a lot of jurisdictions, particularly large cities, worried about the one or two ISIS recruits recruited remotely. But you could see this trend towards white supremacy picking up very, very heatedly. That was under the term of Barack Obama, an African-American man. You could see this picking up, this rhetoric. When that comes in and piles on with ideas of election rigging and voter fraud, for example. Or that you can't trust elected leaders and institutions, that really starts to overlap and blend in the anti-government space as well. Beyond that, we had a huge uptick in misogynist extremism with Incel, which is many of these cases over the last few years. And when you go to the social media space, they all overlap. It's very hard to parse them. When we worked on al-Qaida and ISIS, it was a network, they were recruiting, they were trying to grow and build. It was a command, both top down and bottom up. It has been fascinating to watch this grassroots connection of extremism that is not that different from the way ISIS formed. Meaning that if you were in the white supremacist extremist space now, a shooting in New Zealand that we saw at a mosque, one of the most tragic incidents out there, was amplified on to a white supremacist and other extremist groups platforms around the world almost instantaneously. 

The social media companies are trying to police it. You could see them go from ones and twos to forming into groups like Atomwaffen or the Base. When we talk about the Base now, it's remarkable that The Guardian reports that the leader of the base, while he's from New Jersey, resides in St. Petersburg, Russia. By and large, I would say right to left. Yes, there is some extremism on the left, but it's pretty isolated and it tends to not be the mass shooting or organized violence that we saw surfaced two weeks ago with the Wolverine Militia guys who were talking about kidnapping Governor Whitmer. Domestic extremism tends to peak in election years because tensions are high and hopes are up. This will be the big threat. If I had to put it on a scale, just like I did on Russia and on China. If it was international terrorism to domestic, I would say it's 3 to 10.  10 for domestic right now. I've never seen it so high in my time working in this field. I would also say from political right to political left, it's a 9 or 10 on the political right and it's a 3 on the political left and isolated to certain extremes. The other part we should think about is how all these groups are coming together over time. They don't physically know each other. They are almost colliding from the political left to political right at different times. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  Does the FBI have the resources it needs to deal with this problem? 

CLINT WATTS: It is confusing to tell, partly because I feel like Director Wray can't be too open about the threat without colliding with the White House to a degree. I testified last year to the Senate. It was interesting. It was very hard to convince certain senators that the extremism on the political right was at the scale that it was and that we needed to start thinking about terrorist organization designation the way we did with ISIS and Al Qaida so that we can explore these leads on social media. Right now, domestic terrorism is still in the construct of one case at a time, and it's kind of up to agents to connect it together. Now, I know they've done some better organization. You can tell from the disruptions they've had in the last two years, they're doing way better on domestic terrorism. But I do worry that the resources aren't there to the same degree. Because we don't define it by groups very well, it really becomes this sort of 'does everybody know what's going on?' We don't have that situational awareness that, Michael, you and I would have had during the global war on terror. Where we were always trying to integrate and network with each other. It really comes down to personal relationships, I imagine, inside the FBI on how to handle this stuff.  

MICHAEL MORELL:  International terrorism, this is obviously something you followed for much of your career. How do you assess the threat to U.S. interests today from groups like ISIS, al-Qaida, and other like-minded groups? 

CLINT WATTS: I'm worried I'm not paying enough attention to it. You're starting to see what we thought would happen as we withdraw from these battlefields. Syria and Iraq, are very similar to the 2010, 2011 period where organized militant groups are there. My question is, are they focused on the U.S. anymore? As we move back from these battlefields, are they still engaged to the same degree about provoking an attack? And that's where I don't know the answer and I'm unsure. I'm worried that we're trying to fight so many things on so many fronts simultaneously without a clear plan. Russia and election interference, China and a global state competition, domestic extremist at home. Cyber is its own battle space. We have switched. In 2016, if it was now, I still would have been on television talking about ISIS and we don't even mention it now. I am worried that we're slipping a little bit out of that space, but that could be as well just because I'm not paying enough attention personally. But I do have some concerns that I remember in the past two decades that when we take the pressure off these terrorist networks, they do regenerate. My question is, are they still focused on America as much as they were 10 years ago? That question I don't have a good answer to. 

MICHAEL MORELL:  What do you think is the greatest national security threat facing the United States? 

CLINT WATTS: The lack of unity inside America about what we believe, what we stand for, and what we'll fight for. It's remarkable. I've been approached a lot over the last few years about the question of 'how does America represent itself and fight in the information space?' And the question that I always arrive at is, 'what do we want to say to the world?' And that is not clear. I don't really know. It was clear to me during the war on terror, we're going to protect people, keep them safe, but we're also going to advance democracy and the principles of a free world, open Internet, those sorts of things. I can't say that's the case right now. I don't really know what the message is. I feel like America vis-a-vis China right now or in Europe with our partners. If we're battling Russia or if we're going up against international extremists, what will we say to them? What would we offer as a replacement? That's my biggest concern. In 2021, will we know who we are so that we can defend ourselves both at home and abroad? 

MICHAEL MORELL:  I have exactly the same sense that the biggest threat to us at this moment is us. I worry a lot about that. Clint, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a fascinating discussion. I've learned a lot, and I'm sure my listeners have learned a lot as well. 

CLINT WATTS: Thanks for having me. I am honored to be with my one of my heroes from the counterterrorism days. For everybody who is listening out there, everybody wanted to be Michael when we were young counterterrorism workers. I'm ecstatic to be on here today. And thanks for this opportunity. 

MICHAEL MORELL: You're welcome. It's great to have you. 

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