May 09, 2017

Former CIA director: Washington politics, Islamic extremists, among threats to national security

Retired Gen. David Petraeus said that the politics of the nation’s capital is in itself a threat to our national security.

Retired Gen. David Petraeus addressed the ABA Section of Antitrust Law 65th Annual Spring Meeting in Washington

He cited the more obvious threats — revisionist or revolutionary powers such as Russia, North Korea and China; Islamic extremists; cyberattacks; and populist ideology — but he turned to the polarized political climate of Washington, D.C., as equally threatening.

“On a particularly partisan day in our city, I’d offer that a big threat to our national security is Washington, D.C., the former CIA director told an international audience of lawyers, prosecutors and judges attending the ABA Section of Antitrust Law 65th Annual Spring Meeting March 29-31 in Washington. “I’m hopeful that the force of reason will prevail and the recognition that sometimes you have to give a lot to get a little, as opposed to trying to get everything and you get nothing.”

Petraeus served as the guest speaker for the section dinner on March 30. The highly decorated four-star general sat down for an after-dinner chat with moderator Deborah Platt Majoras, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. He reflected on his 37-year military career that included commanding forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, his resignation from the CIA because of a scandal in which he shared classified information with his former mistress and biographer, and the important roles lawyers played during his career as a military leader.

The mostly lighthearted conversation turned serious when Majoras asked Petraeus near the end of the 45-minute talk what are the big threats from a geopolitical perspective to our national security. He said there were five, but then offered the sixth being the toxic political atmosphere. He expounded on each.

Petraeus said the first is what he called revisionist or revolutionary powers.

“These would be countries who are not satisfied with the status quo, like Russia, which wants to restore as much of the Soviet Union as he can; Iran, North Korea, which obviously wants to have a nuclear weapon that could perhaps reach the United States; and China, both our number one trade partner and number one strategic competitor.”

Second on his left is Islamic extremists. He said the Islamic state, Al-Qaeda and their affiliates around the world are engaged in a generational struggle and that it is important that the United States have a “sustainable strategy” to combat the forces. “And we can do that,” he said, noting the use of precision-strike drones along with what he called our “industrial strength ability to confuse intelligence.”

Cyberthreats, Petraeus said, can be broken into three subcategories. The first is nation states. “China stealing a trillion dollars in intellectual property; Russia interfering in our election and also carrying out a lot of other nefarious stuff,” Petraeus explained.

“The second category is criminals. I won’t ask how many of your law firms have been hacked,’’ he said, drawing laughs from the audience.

The most serious of the subcategories, Petraeus said is, again, the Islamic extremists. “This category is what worries me the most. People who are willing to blow themselves up and take others with them,” he said. “What will deter them from using the cyber equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction if they could get their hands on it? In other words to shut down our electrical grid and keep it down in the eastern part of the U.S. for weeks on end. And that is not impossible. That is a very scary thought and something we need to deal with a lot more to prevent and also have the resilience in case something like that might happen.”

Fourth is what Petraeus called populist forces, which he said are putting an enormous stress on the domestic politics in Europe. “Brexit is a manifestation of that. The Dutch election. The Renzi constitutional reforms in Italy, defeated. We’re watching what’s happening in France and in Germany. And then, frankly, the election here in the United States was a result of populism.”

Petraeus said the strain and stress on the rules-based international order is fifth on his list of threats against our national security. “The financial systems, the international organizations, the international courts — all established in the wake of the most disastrous 50 years in history, two world wars and the greatest economic depression in the history of mankind — have all done reasonably well and now they are under enormous stress and strain from these revolutionary revisionist powers and for a variety of other factors.”

The Antitrust Law Spring Meeting is the world’s largest gathering of competition and consumer protection professionals, government enforcers and practitioners. This year’s three-day conference brought together 3,200 enforcement officials, private attorneys, in-house corporate counsel, academics, judges, economists and business people representing 66 countries.