U.S. counterterrorism system can handle Iranian threat to homeland, say experts

Although Iran may try to sponsor terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, the United States is well-equipped to prevent them, said Michael Leiter, former National Counterterrorism Center director, on April 12.

Leiter, who served as NCTC director from 2008 to 2011, spoke on a panel at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

A system of preventative, investigative, intelligence-gathering and outreach work in the United States works well "especially when you have time to prepare, which is what we largely have now," in regards to an attack by an Iranian proxy, he said.

John Cohen, principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism at the Homeland Security Department, touted the sophisticated counterterrorism operations in major city police departments as an indication that the United States can protect itself from threats.

In recent months, DHS, along with the FBI and NCTC, has conducted outreach to the American Jewish community to encourage vigilance and share information about the risk that Iran poses, Cohen said. He suggested that efforts like this, plus the system Leiter described, add up to a comprehensive strategy that effectively protects the nation from attacks.

Leiter also said that even though the vast majority of counterterrorism resources have been focused on al Qaeda for the last decade, those skills and capabilities transfer to other threats.

"It's not a perfect hand-off," he noted, but the structure, tools and communication techniques apply to any terrorist threat.

Leiter also said that a Iranian cyber attack is more likely than an attack on U.S. soil. He pointed out that sanctions have disconnected Iran from the international financial world, so a cyber attack on financial institutions may be especially attractive. Plus, it is easier to find proxies to conduct cyber attacks than kinetic attacks, and Iran has a history of carrying out attacks via proxies.

But he said other countries exceed Iran's cyber capability and that the United States can defend against the kind of cyber attacks Iran is likely capable of.

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