This commentary appeared in The San Diego Union Tribune on June 1, 2003.
As America looks for ways to increase its domestic
capabilities for collecting and analyzing intelligence about potential terrorist
attacks in the United States, it has paid little attention to one of its most
valuable assets: the local police. Up to now, attention has been focused almost
exclusively at the federal level where, to be sure, much progress has been
But it may be time to call in the cops.
The agencies of the federal government's intelligence community have been
exhorted to share more of their information, both with each other and with
local authorities. The FBI has moved from an almost exclusive emphasis on
supporting criminal prosecutions to more preventive terrorist intelligence
gathering, and the number of joint terrorism task forces combining FBI and
local police has nearly doubled.
The FBI has expedited the process of granting local chiefs of police the
necessary security clearances that will allow them access to restricted intelligence
information. As we have seen in San Diego, as in other cities, overall cooperation
with federal authorities has improved greatly. But the issue here is not about
how much the Feds are able to share. The challenge is how to expand our domestic
intelligence collection capabilities at the local level.
Improving local intelligence capabilities is especially important in light
of recent developments in al-Qaeda. Faced with the loss of its training camps
in Afghanistan, the death or capture of nearly half its top leaders, and the
compromise of many of its operations, the terrorist network must now operate
in a more decentralized manner, with greater emphasis on local recruiting,
planning and execution of terrorist attacks.
The terrorists must now view all transnational transactions — crossing
borders, moving money — as dangerous. As evidenced in the recent attacks
in Riyadh and Casablanca, a more dispersed al-Qaeda operating with fewer moving
parts. Intelligence about terrorist plans and operations will just as likely
come from local as from international sources.
The Department of Homeland Security includes a directorate devoted to intelligence
analysis, and a new Terrorist Threat Integration Center (the "T-Tick") is
taking over responsibility for integrating threat information.
With more resources being devoted to intelligence collection, new rules governing
intelligence, and citizens becoming more alert, it is hoped that future terrorists
will find their operational environment more difficult.
Many people remain convinced that more needs to be done. Some favor the creation
of a Cabinet-level intelligence czar to coordinate the nation's intelligence
efforts. The Gilmore Commission has recommended the creation of an independent,
stand-alone National Counter-Terrorism Center, while others favor the creation
of a new domestic intelligence collection agency patterned after Britain's
Rather than creating another federal entity, it might be a better idea to
build up collection capability in local police departments. There is great
potential at the local level. It is a largely untapped resource — currently
most of the information obtained about domestic terrorist threats is collected
overseas. Surely, local content can be increased.
Local police know their territory. Recruited locally, the composition of
their departments better reflects local populations. They may have more fluent
foreign-language speakers. Local police are also able to more easily develop
working relationships with local communities whose members can provide valuable
Unlike a federal force, local police don't rotate to a different area every
few years. And local police operate under locally elected political leaders,
which may make intelligence operations more acceptable to the local community,
although local departments are just as prone to civil rights abuses as government
agencies are, if not closely supervised.
The New York Police Department, probably the most effective in the country,
has assigned about a thousand officers, or 2.5 percent of its strength, to
counterterrorism. If other departments across the country were to dedicate
a similar portion of their strength to intelligence, it would create a domestic
intelligence force of some 17,000 officers.
What local police need is better training, a common curriculum, and access
to technology. They also need an electronic network across which the information
they collect could be quickly transmitted. The joint terrorism task forces
now provide connectivity, but it is too much of a spokes-and-hub arrangement,
with the FBI functioning as the hub.
We need to move from what are essentially two-way communications to an all-channel
network. This would allow officials across the country to interact with one
another directly, without bureaucratic impediments or obstacles posed by elaborate
protocols or creaky information technology.
Some corporations now do this very well. In these organizations, constantly
changing constellations of participants group and regroup via teleconferences,
voice mail, and e-mail according to specific issues and tasks — the
consequences for the corporation of war with Iraq, the impact of the SARS
virus, or a new product idea. Corporate networks encourage and facilitate
Intelligence agencies, in contrast, tend to view sharing information as an
unnatural act. Information security traditionally is based upon compartmentalization
and clearances, which few police chiefs have. They sometimes learn the details
about terrorist threats only when intelligence documents are leaked to the
press. This tight control of information, vital during war, must always be
a factor, but in dealing with terrorist threats, the risk of not sharing information
may outweigh the risks of sharing. The federal agencies are getting better
at sharing, but more needs to be done to "connect the dots."
Building from the bottom up, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department
has developed the Terrorism Early Warning Group, which brings together local
police jurisdictions, fire departments, federal agencies, public health officials
and others with counterterrorist responsibilities. Its informality guarantees
One problem faced by all but the largest and most sophisticated police departments,
however, is a limited capability for analysis. Local departments would have
to be plugged into Homeland Security's Directorate for Intelligence Analysis,
the new TTIC, or perhaps both, but this would have to be done without creating
another one-way street to Washington or impairing the ability to communicate
across the network. Additional analytical talent will emerge at the local
level and should be encouraged to assemble around promising leads.
Local police departments can be quickly brought up to speed to play a larger
and more important role in the war on terrorism. They are our eyes and ears
on the ground, and they are in every county, city, town, and neighborhood
in America. To connect the dots about threats we face tomorrow, we need to
connect the cops today.
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