Economy, education -- not terrorism -- major issues for Peter Bergen

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Peter Bergen says Americans don't need to worry about global terrorism.

At a gathering of about 130 people at the Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel Downtown Thursday, the CNN National Security analyst and best-selling author addressed the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. He talked about the death of al-Qaida's ideology, the future of drone warfare and why he calls President Barack Obama a "paradoxical figure."

"He's a president who's very comfortable with the use of American firepower in a way that I think was a little surprising to many people who voted for him in the first election," said Mr. Bergen, author of the 2012 book "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

Mr. Bergen often has said Mr. Obama's national security stance contradicts public perception. In an April 2012 New York Times op-ed headlined "Warrior in Chief," he described the president's aggressive use of the American military abroad. He cited Wednesday's drone strike against a Pakistani Taliban leader as an example.

The president's speech last week, addressing the War on Terror, felt like a break from his more aggressive foreign policy. The president is trying to remove the country from a state of permanent war, he said.

Mr. Bergen's 2012 book spawned a recent HBO documentary of the same title, describing in detail the CIA officers who pursued Osama bin Laden until his death in 2011. It also paints a vivid portrait of bin Laden himself, including scenes of the al-Qaida leader as an austere yet doting family man, prone to taking his children on long hikes through the Afghan mountains.

Mr. Bergen, 50, born in Minneapolis but raised and educated in Britain, first traveled to Pakistan in 1983 to make a documentary on Afghan refugees. In 1997, he produced the first televised interview with bin Laden in the hills of Afghanistan where the al-Qaida leader declared war against the United States.

During his speech, Mr. Bergen said global terrorism is not of central concern to the American people.

"Al-Qaida is so weak. We are so strong. By the law of averages, some domestic extremists will get a bomb through occasionally," he said. "But is that the end of civilization as we know it? No."

Instead, the big problems facing the United States are neither foreign nor mysterious. They are the same domestic issues that have been the focus of many political campaign speeches in recent years: the U.S. economy and public education, among others, he said.

In response to an audience member's question about funding educational programs in Pakistan to prevent future terrorist threats, Mr. Bergen suggested the United States fix its own schools before fixing schools abroad.

"I live in Washington [D.C.]. In that city, the schools look like prisons," he said. "[Education] is a major problem, but it's also not a problem peculiar to South Asia."

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Jacob Axelrad: or 412-263-1634.


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