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 made.
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 MI-5.
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 information.
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 this exchange.
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 its success.
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.
Jenkins has studied terrorism for more than 30 years and is a special adviser at RAND a nonprofit policy research and analysis institution.
This commentary originally appeared in The San Diego Union Tribune on June 1, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.