Nuclear Intelligence: Rolf Mowatt-Larssen (center) speaks about the Belfer Center's U.S.-Russian Initiative to prevent nuclear terrorism. The Center's Matthew Bunn (left) and Exec. Director Kevin Ryan took part in the discussion of Center-Russia projects
"Q & A: Rolf Mowatt-Larssen"
Author: Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
After more than two decades in intelligence with the CIA and U.S. Department of Energy, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center focusing on nuclear terrorism, domestic security, and al Qaeda’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) ambitions. His most recent research report is titled “Al Qaeda’s Religious Justification of Nuclear Terrorism,” a follow-up to his timeline of al Qaeda’s quest to acquire WMD. We asked Mowatt-Larssen to share his views on al Qaeda's intent and justification for terrorism and to reflect on American life post 9/11 and the future of global intelligence.
Q: Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, it feels like the American people are less worried about another major terrorist attack. However, you recently published a working paper titled “Islam and the Bomb: Religious Justification For and Against Nuclear Weapons,” in which you warn of a heightened risk of another al Qaeda attack on the United States, possibly with weapons of mass destruction.What has led you to this ominous warning—and have we been letting our guard down?
I think the American people have to accept the reality that the threat of terrorism is here to stay, and that we will one day again suffer a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. We must get beyond living in fear to come to accept that terrorism is a condition of the world in which we live. It is true that we are safer than we were on 9/11/2001. It is true that the government has done much to destroy al Qaeda as an organization. However, I am convinced al Qaeda is planning another largescale attack against the U.S. Hopefully, we can thwart any such threat, but we must recognize that the group’s senior leadership has not abandoned their interest in staging another spectacular attack that in their minds might swing this conflict back in their favor. The group’s deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, has written a book called Exoneration that meticulously explains the al Qaeda’s rationale for trying to kill up to 10 million Americans.
Q: In a January Christian Science Monitor article, you suggest developing a sort of global CIA, to collectively address major conflicts facing the world, including dealing with WMD and terrorism. How would this kind of organization help prevent an al Qaeda attack—and in its absence, what are the main steps the U.S. government should take?
My promotion of a global intelligence capacity is intended to get people thinking: what are the limitations of “intelligence” as that term was defined and evolved throughout the Cold War years? How has the nature of threats evolved since the end of the Cold War, and as this new century unfolds? Greater intelligence collaboration and information sharing between states will be required in order to address increasingly shared vulnerabilities and threats. States must recognize their collective security interests will converge to a greater extent with the passage of time. These common threats include nuclear and biological weapons proliferation, organized crime, radicalization and extremism, and the implications of energy and environmental security, among others. In essence, it is no longer possible for states to solve such problems by strictly working alone. A new spirit of global citizenship should be nurtured.
Q: In your call for an international intelligence organization, you suggest a serious need for “rapid information sharing; far less secrecy; a devaluation of the role of espionage in favor of confidential sources who see themselves helping the world, not working against individual countries.” Do the WikiLeaks serve this function?
I have made it a policy not to comment on WikiLeaks, because I am opposed in principle to the practice of encouraging criminal activity—the theft of government property—purportedly to achieve “noble ends.” On the contrary, the promotion of confidence and trust between governments and their citizens should be promoted by a greater degree of transparency and information sharing and less emphasis on secrecy. In this open, interconnected world, citizens are rightly demanding more participation in governing their own affairs. Intelligence organizations, in particular, need to make a distinction between secrecy that is necessary to effectively carry out the mission and secrecy that serves no purpose but to facilitate mindless, bureaucratic control. I am suggesting that many of today’s intelligence problems cannot be effectively addressed with yesterday’s methodologies for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating information.
Q: During the Cold War, you were a CIA officer working in various locations, including Russia. What role should intelligence play in today’s U.S.Russia relationship?
The reality is that both countries continue to spy on one another because our respective policymakers value the decision advantage that they feel that this intelligence affords. This will continue to be the case as long as the U.S. and Russia are strategic rivals that do not fully trust one another on many levels. This mistrust is especially salient when one considers the long and bloody history of confrontation between the CIA and KGB. That said, I am convinced there is much more that unites us than divides us in this post–Cold War era. A robust liaison partnership is clearly in the interest of both countries. The U.S. and Russia must cooperate closely in efforts to counter terrorism. We must be leaders in efforts to denuclearize the world and eliminate the threat of nuclear proliferation. There is more that we can do together to solve regional conflicts. As this century unfolds, our common interests will become increasingly obvious and serve to improve intelligence cooperation.
Q: What’s next at the Belfer Center?
Reading, writing, listening. I hope I am able to impart to others some of what I have learned as a practitioner and public servant for 36 years. Selfishly speaking, I am trying to absorb as much information and knowledge as possible. The Belfer Center reminds me how little I know and how much there is yet to learn.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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