Matt Olsen to speak at the Dickey Center today

by Samantha Stern | 4/26/16 5:18pm

In a discussion today with Dickey Center for International Understanding director Daniel Benjamin, former National Counterterrorism Center director and former General Counsel of the National Security Agency Matt Olsen will address the nature of the threats the United States currently faces and convey measures the government is taking to counter those threats. Olsen is this year’s Class of 1950 Senior Foreign Affairs Fellow.

Given Olsen’s background at the NSA, Benjamin also plans to discuss former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, who famously leaked classified NSA information in 2013, as well as the recent court case brought against Apple by the FBI.

Following 9/11, Olsen joined the FBI as a federal prosecutor to work on national security. In 2009, he was appointed the head of the Guantanamo Review Task Force — a team created by President Barack Obama to assess the transfer or disposition of detainees. Olsen said that Guantanamo remains a rallying cry for terrorists, and he supports its closure.

In mid-2011, Olsen became the General Council of the NSA, before taking on the position of NCTC director later that year.

NCTC was established in response to the 9/11 Commission’s belief that it was essential for all terrorism-related intelligence to be fused, Benjamin said. While it is undoubtedly an important institution, he said, the agency is limited to intelligence analysis and strategic counterterrorism planning. It relies on the collective efforts of partners such as the State Department, the Department of Defense, the FBI and the CIA, he said.

Benjamin said that Olsen’s greatest value was his role in building a better relationship between the NCTC and other agencies.

Olsen said his transition from the NSA to the NCTC was “a bit of a challenge,” because it was the first time in his career he was not serving as an attorney. However, his previous experience prepared him to analyze terrorist threats and brief others on their nature, Olsen said.

Though the NCTC was designated the official “hub of terrorism analysis,” it was a position that the 1200 person organization had to earn and maintain as “the new agency on the block,” Olsen said.

NCTC focuses on preventing both sophisticated, coordinated attacks and those launched by lone-wolf terrorists, Olsen said. The organization works closely with European countries as well as those in the Middle East and North Africa.

During his time as director, Olsen traveled to Afghanistan, Nigeria and Yemen to meet with his counterparts in those countries.

“International cooperation is a critical part of that job,” he said.

NCTC is a young work force comprised primarily of recent graduates of undergraduate liberal arts programs and students with graduate degrees, he said. Olsen said he has tremendous respect for these bright employees, whom he noted could have easily gone to Silicon Valley or Wall Street instead.

“If you want to get a sense of the value added by NCTC, the problems that Europe is having today provide an excellent contrast,” Benjamin said.

The U.S. has spent about $700 billion in the last decade to improve intelligence, law enforcement, border security and related functions, he said. This defense budget accounts for the lower number of terrorism-related deaths in the U.S. than in Europe.

Although Europe is challenged by large immigrant groups and its close proximity to the Middle East, where terrorist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS are based, the U.S. also faces potential threats, Benjamin said.

“We’ve had advantages [European countries] haven’t had,” he said. “But there is a real difference between how we’ve handled our problems and how they’ve handled theirs.”

Olsen said that the threat posed by ISIS to the U.S. is significant, but the concern is on an altogether different scale in Europe. The U.S. faces a lower threat because of its geographic location, investment in information sharing and securing of borders as well as the integration of Muslim into broader American society, he noted. In addition to the financial resources invested in counterterrorism, the breaking down of inter-agency barriers has been successful in uncovering and stopping a number of terrorist plots, he said.

Feyaad Allie ’16, whose senior thesis focuses on the United Kingdom’s counter-radicalization strategy, called Prevent, said that counter-radicalization is the first step in counterterrorism.

The fact that the U.S. is not facing as much home grown radicalization may be due to the assimilation of Muslims in America, Allie said. While the U.S. does not do the best possible job in integrating Muslims, the government makes a satisfactory effort. In contrast, areas such as East London and Maalbeek in Belgium are like “isolated town[s],” with Muslim stores, centers and mosques, he said.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, but radicalization becomes more likely,” Allie said, adding that alienation contributes to radicalization.

Olsen will be speaking with Benjamin at 5:00 p.m. today in Filene Auditorium.

Past Class of 1950 fellows include current Under Secretary of State for Democracy Global Affairs Maria Otero and retired Commander of U.S. Central Command and four-star general James Mattis, responsible for overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Olsen is currently president of IronNet Cybersecurity, a consulting firm he founded with former NSA director Keith Alexander.