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The terror puzzle

| Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
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Bob Orr retired last month as justice and homeland security correspondent for CBS News, where he led the network's coverage of international and domestic terror and major law enforcement events. Orr, once a reporter for WTRF-TV in Wheeling, W.Va., spoke to the Trib regarding national security issues.

Q: Do you feel it's wise for the federal government to essentially play a game of financial chicken with the full operation of (the Department of Homeland Security) hanging in the balance?

A: We've chosen to have DHS as a department of the government, so in my opinion it needs to be funded because there are too many critical operations that funnel through there.

When you talk about de-funding DHS, you're talking about potentially cutting into critical services from the Secret Service to the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, you know, the pretty broad panoply of agencies and services that are all governed by DHS. So it seems to me that at a time when we face substantial national security questions, it's probably not the best time to pick a fight over whether or not you want to keep funding DHS.

Now, if you want to have a political debate about whether that agency is necessary or whether some kind of reconsolidation could be accomplished and move all the chess pieces around (to) reduce the bureaucracy, I think that's a debate worth having. But you can't pick that fight at a time when you've got some mission-critical needs.

Q: From your experiences covering homeland security issues, what sense did you get regarding the confidence of the people on the front lines of the terrorism battle to successfully combat it?

A: I think there's a high degree of confidence that they can detect, infer and prevent large-scale attacks like 9/11. The problem, though, is that this particular terror threat has kind of flattened out.

You no longer have this hierarchical organization like al-Qaida conceiving the plots, paying for them, injecting the operatives. What you have now is the spread of ideology over a very, very broad spectrum, a number of different countries.

On top of that, you have a social media component where they're leveraging the message and drawing all kinds of adherents, even if it's loosely affiliated wannabe adherents, in Western Europe and the U.S.

So while (authorities) are highly confident they can stop the large-scale attacks, I think it's almost an accepted fact that some of the small-scale ones will get through.

Q: What were the strongest impressions you got on the war on terrorism from your years covering homeland security?

A: This threat is real. It's not a political debate. It's not the concoction of defense contractors or security manufacturers. This is a real threat, it's evolving and the challenge for us is, how do we manage the risk?

We can't eliminate it, we can't kill our way out of this problem, because we're not just battling a physical presence. We're battling an idea.

We're trying to negate a false narrative of the radical Islamists, and we're not doing a very good job of that. In addition to using drones and intelligence and counterterrorism operations — and all of those things have a place in response — we have to start doing a better job of winning the messaging. In the battle of ideas, I'm not sure we're winning.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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