Protecting the Homeland: One Year Later


Sep 8, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union Tribune on September 8, 2002.

One year after Sept. 11, it is plain that arrangements that served the nation in fighting the Cold War set it up to fail in the war on terrorism.

To be sure, pure inertia and bureaucratic in-fighting played a role and still do. In the 1970s, it was literally true that the directors of the CIA and the FBI did not speak to one another. Yet the terrorist threat puts pressure directly on the fault-lines of Cold War arrangements. The threat is both foreign and domestic. It respects no boundary between intelligence and law enforcement. Nor does it respect the distinctions our federal system makes in doing policing. And fighting terrorism bodes to affect the daily lives of citizens much more than did fighting the Cold War.

Over the last year, the nation has begun, haltingly, to rethink those arrangements, particularly in debating a new department of homeland security. But the process has just begun. The terrorist threat to the homeland is very new terrain for the nation, and so some caution in dramatically revamping organizations, and still more attitudes, is unsurprising and probably wise. If a new department is authorized, it will be a first step but hardly a last.

The Cold War Legacy

The reshaping is all the harder because the Cold War arrangements were, for the most part, created on purpose. When President Truman formed the CIA, for instance, he worried openly about a "Gestapo-like organization," and so the CIA was barred from law enforcement and domestic activity. The nation's first investigations of the intelligence, in the 1970s, uncovered abuses of the rights of Americans and responded by suggesting, in effect, that the wall between intelligence and law enforcement be raised. One result of those investigations was a special court, the Federal Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISC), to review applications for national security, as opposed to law enforcement, wiretaps and surveillance.

In that sense, the ragged cooperation between the FBI and the CIA before Sept. 11 should not have been such a surprise. They were created that way, to be close but not too close lest the rights of Americans be abused.

Law enforcement and intelligence are very different worlds, a fact that compounds the foreign-domestic divide. Intelligence is oriented toward the future and toward policy. It seeks to inform the making of policy. It seeks to understand new information in light of its existing understanding of complex situations. It lives in a blizzard of uncertainty where the "truth" will never be known for certain. Thus, its standard is "good enough for government work."

By contrast, law enforcement is after the fact. Its business is not policy but prosecution, and its method is cases. It strives to put bad guys in jail. Its standard is high, good enough for a court of law. And law enforcement knows that if it is to make a case, it must be prepared to reveal something of how it knows what it knows.

Law enforcement and policing also traditionally have been defined in geographical units like precincts, cities and counties. Those definitions are mismatched to a terrorist threat that moves easily across not just cities but countries, as well. For the most part, the hijackers prior to Sept. 11 broke no laws, especially no local ones. As a result, they were not, as they prepared their awful terror, of much interest to local authorities. So, tips that would have been crucial to intelligence about what was afoot went unnoticed, and surely uncommunicated.

Yet, suppose tips about Arabs in flight schools had been passed to the FBI in the summer of 2001. Taking flying lessons is not a crime; as a law enforcement operation, the FBI would have had no reason to open a case. Imagine how far the FBI would have gotten then had it begun knocking on the doors of flying schools inquiring about Arab students — all without an open case and at a time when the FBI's parent, the Justice Department, was opening cases, but ones against local police departments for racial profiling.

Fighting the Cold War was mostly a government — and a federal government — monopoly; private companies and citizens were involved, but mostly they fought the war by paying their taxes. That does not seem likely to be so for the campaign against terrorism and for homeland security. Safeguarding critical infrastructures, such as communications or electric power, from terrorist attack means protecting public goods that are mostly in private hands. Across the country, there are three times as many "police" in the private sector as in governments.

The lives of private citizens also will be affected more deeply by anti-terrorism efforts. The long waits for security procedures at airports suggest the harder questions to follow about whether people will carry national identity cards or let their biometric identifications be taken for special advance screenings as "trusted fliers." There are still harder questions about how private citizens might be eyes and ears in the war on terrorism.

The Process of Rethinking

After Sept. 11, intelligence and law enforcement have been pushed toward each other, yet how far remains controversial. The USA Patriot Act of November 2001, for instance, made it easier to move information across the organizational divide from law enforcement to intelligence. Sharing information in the other direction remains even more sensitive because the FISC standard is easier to meet than "probable cause" of a crime, giving rise to the fear that "national security" wiretaps will be used to troll for criminal activity.

The Patriot Act did loosen the FISC standard, which before had prevented the FBI field office in Minneapolis from getting permission to search the computer of Zaccarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker. The law also updated wiretapping authority to cope with a world of multiple, mobile cell phones, not just static, analog phones. This past summer, FBI Director Robert Mueller relaxed rules that had restricted FBI agents from activities that are permitted to ordinary citizens, such as surfing the Internet or visiting churches and similar public places of interest.

The Bush administration's proposal to turn the Office of Homeland Security into a full-fledged department and the joint House-Senate investigations of what went wrong before Sept. 11, which will come to a conclusion this fall, should also provide both an opportunity and a basis for moving the rethinking along. The new department, which is to have its own intelligence unit, will be focused on terrorism and oriented domestically.

At present, remarkably, no agency systematically reviews domestic information for intelligence and warning purposes, as opposed to law enforcement; the FBI has expressed only the intention to begin doing so. While FBI Director Mueller seeks to change this, the FBI really has not done intelligence, given its focus on cases. As Mueller put it, the Bureau collects a lot of information but seldom puts it all together.

The new department also could provide additional incentive for the CIA and the FBI to communicate by looking at and trying to integrate information from both. It hardly would be decisive in producing easier communication between the two main agencies — there is too much history, not to mention constitutional concern. But the department would at least be, as Gov. Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, put it, another set of eyes.

Cooperating with Ourselves

The challenge of cooperating among ourselves in the war on terrorism is indeed formidable. Not only are there, by one count, 18,000 governmental entities involved, but the count would rise dramatically if private entities were added. And, almost none of them have security clearances.

Thus far, information sharing has been pretty haphazard. After Sept. 11, it turned out that there was information about possible nuclear threats to New York, information that no part of the federal government troubled to share with New York officials. At the other extreme, California's governor interpreted very skimpy information about threats to the state's bridges as a reason for public announcement and stepped-up protection.

Ridge instituted a color-coded chart of national warning, ranging from green through blue, yellow, and orange, to red. The idea is based on 20 years of counter-terrorism experience in Britain. It is a good idea, but the United States lacks Britain's experience, so no one — not state and local officials, much less private citizens — knows yet what the colors mean.

Intelligence and law enforcement do have experience in sharing intelligence, both at home and abroad, and some of the mechanisms that have been developed are suggestive. For instance, the U.S. military literally tears the source off a message before passing the information to foreign partners in peacekeeping operations. The FBI routinely organizes task forces with state and local law enforcement officials to pursue joint operations, for instance against organized crime, drug traffickers, or gangs. The local officers work as full partners of the FBI. The rub is that to do so, they need to be cleared to the same level as FBI agents, which is Top Secret (though the clearance process is often expedited).

California's Amber Alert system for missing kids suggests ways to both convey relevant information to citizens and engage them actively in helping out. For passing information from federal intelligence agencies to the states and their public, the challenge is to pass as much information as possible but without simply scaring people with warnings that they can't do anything about.

If domestic intelligence is now an urgent need, should we create not just a Department of Homeland Security but our version of MI-5, the British domestic intelligence service, as several members of Congress have suggested? Creating a new service would not solve the turf disputes but might, somewhat paradoxically, make for clearer lines of accountability than would leaving domestic intelligence as the stepchild in a reshaped FBI.

Finally, how does the public provide warning without too much risk of score-settling or witch-hunting? Do people call local authorities, visit websites, or offer anonymous tips? Should there be penalties for false calls or for tips that turn out to be score-settling? How should feedback be handled? Local authorities now complain routinely that they never hear what happens with information they provide to the FBI.

If domestic intelligence means not just tracking suspected terrorists but also monitoring the chatter in the mosques of Chicago or the strip malls of south Florida, how much are we prepared to run the risk that rights of Americans, let alone non-Americans (who have far fewer rights), will be compromised? In coming to grips with these questions, creating a department of homeland security will provide a beginning, but just a bare beginning.

Treverton, a senior policy analyst at RAND, was vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council during the first Clinton administration. His "Reshaping Intelligence for an Age of Information," which was sponsored by The Century Foundation, was published last year by Cambridge University Press.

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