Friday, January 15, 2010

Misplaced Priorities in U.S. Counter-terror Strategy

The recent attempted bombing of NWA Flight 253 in Detroit underscores the fact that the main terrorist threat to U.S. persons is from foreign terrorists linked to Al Qaeda. Every official review of U.S. intelligence failures that led to the 9/11 attack concluded that bureaucratic cultures at the CIA and FBI impeded effective information sharing and analysis. Here again, U.S. intelligence agencies failed to share information regarding live tips and leads that should have triggered not only a secondary screening at Amsterdam’s airport, but more importantly, a full assessment of the threat posed by the 23-year old Umar Farouk Abduulmutallab.

The development of a vast network of urban and state intelligence fusion centers is one illustration of how the U.S. intelligence enterprise has lost its way since 9/11. Domestic “extremism” (however loosely defined) has supplanted focused and sustained investigation of foreign threats as the highest counterterrorism priority. Data-mining, biometric identification, fusion centers, and beat cops as “force multipliers,” now take center stage in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Instead, the focus should be on improving foreign intelligence capacities and enhancing the coordination and performance of the Terrorism Screening Center, Transportation Security Agency, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement is they relate to identifying suspected or known terrorists.

You can’t do it all. Choices have to be made. But senior U.S. officials – particularly from the Department of Homeland Security and its 22 member agencies – have taken their eyes off the ball (foreign terrorism), in favor of peering into Americans’ everyday activities. They have dispersed limited resources across the entire nation to protect vast numbers of potential (but unlikely) targets, instead of focusing on the most likely target of foreign attack: airliners. As one senior TSA official tells PRA, the lack of focus “is disgraceful, criminal, and very, very sad. But there is simply no will at the top to change the systems’ problems.”

These bureaucratic decisions steer antiterrorism grant funding to thousands of police agencies to buttress local budgets and domestic surveillance capacities, while neglecting the hard work of foreign intelligence analysis and investigations. While it has been important to improve emergency interoperability and response capacity at the local level, the push to develop local and state-based intelligence capacities does more harm to civil liberties and political freedom than it does to keep us safe.

At home, we need a sensible law enforcement approach to terrorism, rather than a pre-emptive intelligence model that undermines community trust, privacy, and political freedom. The intelligence paradigm, in the hands of domestic authorities, inevitably treads upon constitutional rights. Witness, for example, the recent spying by a military employee of anti-war activists in Washington state. A lawsuit filed on January 10, 2010 by National Lawyers Guild attorney Larry Hildes on behalf of members of Port Military Resistance, asserts that a force protection employee infiltrated the peace organization, tried to disrupt activities, and used his position as listserv administrator to channel private information to multiple policing agencies. The Fort Lewis episode illustrates how national security can be manipulated to justify interfering with free speech. We must insist that counterterrorism resources are directed at Al Qaeda, not dissenters and American communities.