Today on CNN’s State of the Union, guest anchor Jim Scuitto spoke to Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, about the ISIS terror threat.
On the threat ISIS poses domestically: Well, we’re certainly vulnerable. And this is all part of ISIS’ strategy of conveying a winner’s message to try and inspire more types of acts of violence, as we saw in Texas last Sunday…These individuals who might be drawn to jihad don’t perceive ISIS as a losing organization, they will be perceived as winning and they will continue to inspire this type of jihadist activity and extreme violence, even here in America.”
On congressional legislation & electronic intelligence collection: “we need to take a very careful look at the way we write these, quite honestly, very complex laws, and always keep in mind that these threats are real. And let me repeat, our best line of defense, trying to keep this nation safe and secure, is an effective intelligence-gathering capability, with robust congressional oversight. And this is what should give people comfort. Protecting civil liberties is not a partisan issue. From the extreme right to the extreme left and everywhere in between, we all want to guard and protect American civil liberties. But we also have to keep this nation safe and secure.”
THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SCIUTTO: Joining me now is Senator Ron Johnson. He’s chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Senator Johnson, thanks for joining us on this Mother’s Day.
SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: Good morning, Jim.
SCIUTTO: Appreciate having you here.
We have talked a lot in this fight against ISIS about the wisdom of having U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq. Today, you have ISIS threatening — threatening military bases in the U.S. Is the U.S. the new front line in the fight against ISIS?
JOHNSON: Well, we’re certainly vulnerable. And this is all part of ISIS’ strategy of conveying a winner’s message to try and inspire more types of acts of violence, as we saw in Texas last Sunday.
So, from my standpoint, I think the best strategy that the U.S. could employ to defeat this is to actually defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, so that the reality actually is conveyed that this is not a winning organization, it’s a losing organization, because, Jim, as long as they are not losing, as long as the — these individuals who might be drawn to jihad don’t perceive ISIS as a losing organization, they will be perceived as winning and they will continue to inspire this type of jihadist activity and extreme violence, even here in America.
SCIUTTO: I wonder, looking at the response to this Texas shooting, the shooter there, Elton Simpson, was on law enforcement’s radar scene. They had him under monitoring. They had even given his name as someone interested in this Prophet Mohammed cartoon event. And yet he was able to get through, thankfully responded to very quickly by law enforcement on the scene.
Now the FBI is going back and taking another look over at everyone on the radar screen to see if they missed something else. I wonder, as you look at this, do you consider this an intelligence failure, and are you confident that the FBI, law enforcement here have the resources to track those perhaps hundreds, maybe more in the U.S. who have sympathies with ISIS?
JOHNSON: Well, one of the witnesses in our hearing called Jihad 2.0 has really been trying to assess, you know, how big of a following does ISIS have here in the U.S.?
And he estimated that, probably best guess, 46,000, maybe as high as 90,000 overt ISIS support accounts on Twitter. Now, Twitter is starting to shut those things down, but just consider maybe 90,000 people drawn to this barbaric ideology. So, we have got a very large haystack. We’re looking for a needle in it, and, of course, the FBI had an informant talking to Mr. Simpson 330 times.
They spent about $132,000 to pay that informant. Got a conviction for Mr. Simpson lying to the FBI, but he was placed on probation, and knew he was tweeting about activities later on. How can we track so many people that might be drawn to this? So, that’s where I go back to my main point, is our number one strategy needs to be actually — to be — we need to actually accomplish the goal President Obama stated, degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS, the sooner, the better.
SCIUTTO: Three hundred and thirty conversations, that sounds like a pretty serious failure here, to have that much contact and still let him those the guns, buy that body armor and carry out this attack.
JOHNSON: Jim, the problem is, what do you do with the not guilty yet?
We do have laws. We have a Constitution. And it’s extremely difficult for law enforcement officials. When you might have tens of thousands of sympathizers, how do you track them all? The FBI has less than 15,000 field agents. And all those field agents aren’t concentrating solely on the threat of Islamic terror. There’s all kinds of different domestic crimes that the FBI has to trace and track and try and keep track of.
So, again, you have to go back to the root cause. And, right now, the root cause is that ISIS was allowed to rise from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq. We are not adequately defeating them. We are not conveying to the extent they are weakened, but as long as they control territory, as long as they have this caliphate, that’s going to be continue to inspire this type of activity, which is why we have got to get back to that root cause and we actually need to defeat ISIS.
SCIUTTO: You have been on the record about ISIS’ ability with social media. It’s really twofold here. They’re very slick. They know how to talk to young people to get them involved in this fight, but it’s also the way they use encryption, the way they message to people.
They may start public, but they go private in a way that is impossible really for law enforcement to track. You said to our own Wolf Blitzer earlier this week we are losing the capability of monitoring this to keep ourselves safe. What does the U.S. intelligence community do about that if they have now moved to communication that cannot be tracked?
JOHNSON: Well, there is a real misperception that the federal government has perfect knowledge, that we are just — you’re providing surveillance or conducting surveillance on everybody who might be a suspect and we have perfect knowledge.
I know individuals trying to engage those communities are pretty surprised that the individuals of those communities believe we have that perfect information. We don’t. And so the bottom line is, people do need to be alert. If you see something, you do have to say something.
And, as Americans, we also need to realize this threat is real. And our first line of defense is an effective intelligence-gathering capability, combined with a robust, continuous monitoring and oversight of our intelligence agencies to make sure that we are not violating civil liberties. So, I think the demagoguery, the revelations of Edward Snowden have done great harm to our ability to gather that information.
SCIUTTO: Let’s talk about that. You mentioned our ability to — a federal appeals court ruled this past week that the National Security Agency’s, the NSA’s bulk collection of phone metadata is illegal. You have a debate,a vote coming up on the renewal of the Patriot Act. You have competing bills in the Senate and the House.
As you have this problem, really less ability to track, with all the NSA’s capability, you have terrorists modifying their behavior, their communication to get around that, how does it affect the debate on Capitol Hill? Is it more likely that the Patriot Act will be as it is, as it stands, be renewed, or do you see more restrictions being placed on the intelligence community’s ability to track these kinds of communications?
JOHNSON: I hope the reality of the situation, the reality of the threats we face will actually play a big part in terms of exactly how Congress responds.
It’s important to note that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals did not rule it unconstitutional. They just said it was not being applied properly based on the law that was written. So we need to take a very careful look at the way we write these, quite honestly, very complex laws, and always keep in mind that these threats are real.
And let me repeat, our best line of defense, trying to keep this nation safe and secure, is an effective intelligence-gathering capability, with robust congressional oversight. And this is what should give people comfort. Protecting civil liberties is not a partisan issue. From the extreme right to the extreme left and everywhere in between, we all want to guard and protect American civil liberties. But we also have to keep this nation safe and secure.
SCIUTTO: Senator Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, thanks very much for joining us this Sunday.
JOHNSON: Have a great day.
SCIUTTO: Hitting ISIS at its source is clearly just as critical as protecting the homeland.