A defining security concern for the US for the last two decades has been terrorism, with homegrown extremism becoming as much as, if not more, of a threat than radical Islamic terrorism.
We don't like to think of domestic terrorism as a threat to our internal security and stability, but in fact it is, said Ridge. "But we know full well in a post-9/11 world that the extremist ideology of the jihadist has caught the attention of a few American citizens. But I do think that in large measure because of intelligence sharing between the federal government and state and local authorities, that we are able to monitor those organizations or potential influences".
A more recent but heavy focus of the FBI and law enforcement has been on white supremacist groups. "There are several of these organizations. It's known who leads them. It's known where they are. Intelligence and law enforcement monitor their activity very, very closely," pointed out Ridge.
For Mullen, in addition to being a significant economic rival, China is among the biggest national security concerns for the US. "The Chinese military, like their private sector, has gained considerable ground in the last 15 to 20 years and we do need to be increasingly concerned."
He sees China as having taken advantage of entry into the World Trade Organization and other trade groups, and that "pushing back on China is going to be a requirement for the next president."
"I've believed for a long time that the most important relationship in the 21st country between two countries on the planet is the relationship between the US and China," he added.
Cybersecurity has introduced a new brand of enemy. “The cyber world,” says Governor Ridge, “is probably our fifth dimension of war. Air, land, sea, space, and now you've got the digital dimension.”
Here China has an advantage because the current regime is focusing a massive amount of resources on cybersecurity as well as efforts to obtain classified information from other countries. “They have clearly made cybersecurity a tool to not only advance their economic interests because of industrial espionage but to deploy it to secure some of the trade secrets and even look into our defense capabilities and the like.”
Ridge and Mullen agree that the security of US intelligence may be found in better collaboration between the US government and the tech giants of Silicon Valley. “I recognize in the private side, post-Snowden, there was a lot of damage done with respect to trust,” added Mullen. “But, I don't think we can develop the capabilities we need to secure the country in every aspect until the private side and the government are working together.”
The COVID-19 pandemic caught the US off guard early in the year, so preparedness for a biological attack, whether resulting from terrorism or a natural spread, will be more top of mind than in past elections.
According to Ridge, well intentioned, but unfocused, growth of government is responsible for the US’s failure to respond effectively to COVID-19. “There are more than four dozen individuals across various agencies that have some slice of responsibility or jurisdictional oversight over biodefense, but they don't communicate with one another,” he said. “There is no strategy. There's no plan. There's absolutely no oversight, because congressional oversight is disparate as well.”
The US on the world stage
“I would conclude that 'troubled, confused, and disappointed' might be the best ways to describe how our traditional friends feel about their relationships with the US,” shared Governor Ridge, adding that it appears to the be the current administration’s point of view that the US should “go it alone.”
“You think back to an opportunity we had to demonstrate again our global leadership when we drew a line in the sand in Syria, but once they crossed it, we did nothing. We rhetorically condemned the invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, but we didn't do anything other than challenge Russia rhetorically. There was no effort to pull together our traditional allies to at least jointly respond in a more positive and visible way to that challenge." Allies and enemies alike will be looking to see if the US plans to continue proceeding alone.