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Rep. Schiff Adds Insight Into The Origin Of The Paris Attacks


And I'm David Greene in Paris. And it has been an extraordinary Monday morning here in this city. Parisians know very well that French warplanes are bombing targets, ISIS targets, in Syria. The president of France, Francois Hollande, is saying that Friday's attacks in the city were an act of war, and there's a manhunt underway for those believed to be responsible. But all the while, Steve, I'm looking at this avenue behind me. There are cafes. There are bistros. And while it doesn't seem to have the energy the city usually does, people are out. They're walking around. Most of the tables of these restaurants seem full. And people are just trying to get on as best they can, but it's feeling very jittery.


And it's an ominous moment. Just hearing the very distant sound of a siren there from Paris...

GREENE: Indeed.

INSKEEP: With David Greene's voice adds to that feeling today. Now let's try to get some insight into what's going on. We have on the line now U.S. Representative Adam Schiff of California. He is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He's been briefed over the weekend on what U.S. officials know about this. Congressman, welcome back to the program.

ADAM SCHIFF: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

INSKEEP: And now, we heard from our correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, that the U.S. had received chatter, as it's described, as long ago as September, of some kind of attack on France but that it was not detailed enough to act upon. That's what her sources are saying. What was known beforehand?

SCHIFF: Well, we've had multiple plots against the French during the course of the year. Most of these have been thwarted. Of course, we had the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. But for a number of reasons, ISIS has really put its focus on going after Western targets and particularly the French. And they're at grave risk because while there may have been one or 200 Americans that have left to join the fight in Iraq and Syria, there have been many, many hundreds, if not over a thousand, French that left to join. And some are coming back, and that has put a real strain on French resources in terms of the ability to track these people. So French - France has been a target, and France has also contributed, more numerically, than any other European country to the fight in Iraq and Syria.

INSKEEP: Now, when you talk about the U.S. monitoring communications in some way but not getting enough detailed information really to act upon it, were these communications from ISIS encrypted electronic communications that couldn't be cracked, couldn't be opened?

SCHIFF: Well, this is an increasing issue in the sense that we may be going dark in our ability to follow these encrypted communications. It's too early I think to say, in terms of the attack in Paris, to what extent these terrorists may have used encrypted communications. Nonetheless, something this big, this sophisticated, with this many players and these kind of devices, is something that we should have seen. We didn't. But I think it's important to emphasize there are real limits, even with the best of intelligence. If your enemy is willing and able to adapt, if they have a sanctuary where they can plot and plan, if they're well-resourced - as, indeed, ISIS is - then it's only a matter of time before they're going to have a successful attack. So even with the best of intelligence resources, there are still vulnerabilities. And ultimately, it's going to require us to eliminate that sanctuary in Iraq and Syria.

INSKEEP: Well, are there similar threats developing against the United States, so far as U.S. intelligence officials know?

SCHIFF: There's nothing specific that's linked to the Paris attacks. So we don't believe there's any American wing of this particular plot. But we do know that ISIS aspires to attack the United States. We've also seen, though, that they understand how difficult that is. So we don't have the proximity Europe does. We also don't have the same alienated population and the same numbers of foreign fighters that are returning home. So it's a difficult task. But the numbers are much more limited that we have to watch. And it's part of the reason why ISIS has chosen to strike closer to its shores. For the United States, they have relied mostly on trying to send out calls to attack through the social media and hope that they can inspire home-grown radicals. But thus far, we've been very fortunate not to have the kind of large-scale attack that Paris saw this week.

INSKEEP: I think you're pointing, when you talk about vulnerabilities, pointing to something that we see as we learn more and more of the identities of the attackers. We have one man identified as a Syrian, came from Syria, was registered as a migrant at one point during the journey. But we have other people who were living in Belgium, as well as people living in France who were identified as the attackers. They didn't have to go very far at all to launch that attack for them.

SCHIFF: Well, that's exactly right. We are benefitted, I think, by the fact that we are a very free and open society where there's a lot of upward mobility, and you don't have large, isolated, alienated populations as you do in Europe. That doesn't make us immune from this kind of violence. And in fact, we've seen our own in places like Garland and in Boston. But nonetheless, we are overall a harder target. Still, though, we have to be on our guard. And as I mentioned, as long as that sanctuary exists for ISIS, they will try to attack us. And with these increasingly encrypted communications, they may be able to talk in ways that we can't see them.

INSKEEP: Well, given that concern about encryption and any number of other concerns - for example, getting human intelligence out of Syria - how good is U.S. intelligence about what ISIS is up to as its strategy evolves?

SCHIFF: Well, our intelligence is very good. Indeed, it's the best in the world. But even the best in the world isn't good enough if you have an enemy that's able to adapt to our defenses. And ISIS is adapting. And we have to do our best to stay ahead of them. I think in the first year of their existence, they were really concentrated on forming their caliphate, building out their caliphate, defending their caliphate. But in their second year, they are very much opening up a second front in the war. They're lashing out against the West, lashing out against anyone that attacks them. We have seen likely, although it's not conclusive, that ISIS was responsible for bringing down that Russian plane. We've seen bombings in Beirut. We've seen bombings in Turkey. We've seen these Paris attacks. So clearly, they're trying to bring their fight to other countries around the world.

INSKEEP: You said something about needing to eliminate this sanctuary in Iraq and Syria. Of course, the United States did that in Afghanistan, eliminating al-Qaida's sanctuary with ground troops. Is it time to do that in Iraq and Syria?

SCHIFF: I don't think the answer is another massive American ground presence in either Iraq or Syria. But I do think we're going to have to explore things that we didn't want to embark upon, such as a buffer zone or a safe zone that allows the opposition to ISIS to have a ground from which to be equipped and trained and organized - and hopefully an expanding buffer zone. Something, though, is going to have to change the dynamic. I don't think that the airstrikes alone or the actions of small numbers of so-called moderate rebels in Syria are going to be able to evaporate this scourge in these countries in a reasonable period of time. And the longer that they hold ground, the longer we're at risk.

INSKEEP: Congressman Schiff, thanks very much.

SCHIFF: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That is Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California. He is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, speaking on this Monday after the Paris attacks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.