Counterterrorism experts share views at CELL event

The Colorado Statesman

Two of the nation’s leading experts on counterterrorism abroad spoke in Denver on Tuesday at a time when international tensions are flaring over an Israeli ground offensive in the Gaza Strip and extremists continue to occupy large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Melanie Pearlman, Greg Dobbs at The CELL event.

Former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former White House counterterrorism czar Juan Carlos Zarate spoke during an event hosted by the Denver-based Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab, or CELL. Greg Dobbs, a former ABC News television journalist with extensive experience covering the Middle East, moderated the conversation.

Attorney Steve Farber, Elizabeth Gleason, GOP gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez and attorney Norm Brownstein at the VIP reception before the forum on counterterrorism begins.

The discussion covered a wide range of issues, including Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked NSA documents to the media, and the recent prisoner exchange orchestrated by President Barack Obama in which the president authorized swapping Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban militants.

Ross Smethills and father Hal Smethills, managing director of Sterling Ranch, listen to Ed Nichols, president and CEO of the History Colorado Center, where the CELL event was held on July 15.

As usual with CELL events, the audience did not leave feeling better. In fact, the audience was asked to raise their hands if they felt they would sleep better after the presentation. Few raised their hands.

Joy Hoffman, chair of the Arapahoe County GOP, visits with Bob Beauprez.

“I’m an eternal optimist, so I can’t stand that nobody raised their hand,” responded Zarate. “I do think we have the ability to shape the environment. I think the false dichotomy of an all or nothing approach on foreign policy, boots on the ground or nothing… is the wrong framework… that doesn’t allow us to think creatively about what some of the policy solutions are.”

Larry Mizel, founder of The Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab. introduces guests at the event on July 15 and talks about the mission of the non-profit CELL, which is dedicated to preventing terrorism through education, empowerment and engagement.

Both of the experts said that the actions of Snowden somewhat tied the hands of government to be able to advance some of those “creative solutions.”

Former White House counterterrorism czar Juan Carlos Zarate, left, and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey spoke at the forum, which was moderated by Greg Dobbs, a former ABC News television journalist with extensive experience covering the Middle East.

“He’s done an amazing amount of damage that I don’t think has been calculated yet, or has become clear yet… but it’s something that is going to haunt us for a long time,” opined Mukasey.

State Reps. Justin Everett, R-Littleton, and Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, are among the attendees at The CELL program.

“Regardless of how you feel about Edward Snowden… the reality is that he has done enormous damage… he’s done real damage to the ability of the U.S. government to think more creatively about what the cooperation looks like, so, regardless of how you feel about him, whether he’s a traitor or a patriot, he has done real damage,” added Zarate.

The conversation then turned to Iraq, which remains on the verge of splintering as Sunni militants expand their occupation there. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, now controls large parts of northern and western Iraq and much of eastern Syria.

Leaders in Iraq are frantically trying to come up with a solution so that the country does not splinter into separate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish states. It is a very delicate situation, explained the experts.

“ISIS is nothing more than al-Qaeda in Iraq that’s been rejuvenated…” explained Zarate. “The fact that they now control wide swaths of Iraq and Syria have literally erased the borders between Syria and Iraq… It is a demonstration that these people mean business…

“If you don’t think this is a serious threat, you just need to look at the Middle East today because these people believe in their agenda, they’re committed to it, and it’s not just local, for them, it’s now global,” he added.

“We’re going to have to resist for a long time, and in order to do that, we have to have faith and confidence in our own institutions, which lately has become a bit of a problem,” opined Mukasey.

That faith in “our own institutions” was jeopardized recently when Obama authorized the swap of five Taliban militants for Bergdahl, who allegedly deserted his unit by walking away voluntarily, according to the experts.
“It was a terrible transaction, and the principle goal was to advance the goal of emptying Guantanamo, which I don’t see any reason for,” explained Mukasey, referring to the Guantanamo Bay prison, which Obama has repeatedly called for closing.

“We released five people with rich imaginations in return for a guy who ran away from his unit,” added Mukasey.

“It probably wasn’t the right decision. But I think it was a hard decision…” continued Zarate. “Context matters here, and consequences and risks matter as well.

“The point that this was done at a time when we had just announced our exit strategy in Afghanistan, when it was clear that part of the motivation was to clear… Guantanamo… we have to recognize that there are consequences and risks, and I think the way the administration rolled it out… didn’t reflect some of the very hard realities and consequences,” added Zarate.

Many of those realities and consequences play into the ongoing tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians along the Gaza Strip. The situation there affects counterterrorism threats against the U.S. and its allies, agreed the experts.

“It certainly complicates the environment,” explained Zarate. “To date, what you’ve had is Israel in some ways being an oasis in a region caught in conflict… in some ways we’ve sort of drawn the line on our diplomacy…

“A fight against Israel, in some ways, is an animated principle for the fight against the west,” he added. “We’ve not yet seen ISIS turn its sights on Israel, but certainly one of the… strategies for al-Qaeda all along is establishing… a presence and moving on…”

Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, former superintendent of the Air Force Academy, and his wife, Paula Gould, with The CELL founder Larry Mizel.
Attorney Craig Fleishman and arts patron Judi Wolf.
Photos by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman