Can We Learn from Others?


Apr 15, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in Wall Street Journal on April 15, 2004.

As the 9/11 Commission contemplates recommendations to transform America's counterterrorism intelligence structure, it can gain valuable insights by looking at the successes and failures of our allies in stopping terrorist attacks.

Because terrorists have an infinite number of targets they can choose to attack at any time, there is no perfect intelligence arrangement that will stop every attack. But increasingly, questions are being raised about whether America's system of assigning responsibility for domestic intelligence collection to law enforcement agencies -- primarily the FBI -- is the best structure available.

The chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas H. Kean, has already indicated that he and his colleagues are considering recommending a major overhaul of America's domestic intelligence apparatus and perhaps the creation of a separate spy agency modeled on the U.K.'s Security Service, commonly known as MI5. Presumably this new body would have no independent arrest powers, allowing it to devote all its resources to the collection, analysis and dissemination of terrorist threats to the homeland.

Both President Bush and FBI Director Robert Mueller oppose the creation of a new domestic spy agency, arguing that the FBI has embarked on a number of reforms to increase its counterterrorism capabilities since Sept. 11. They further contend that removing the intelligence function from the FBI would unnecessarily complicate interagency coordination and cooperation.

Civil libertarians come out on the same side of the argument as President Bush, but for a different reason. They remain worried about the potential abuses that could arise as a result of the formation of a dedicated internal security service. A particular concern revolves around the specter of "Big Brother" government and its perceived impact on individual freedoms.

A RAND Corporation study we've just completed looked at how the U.K., France, Australia and Canada -- each facing serious, but varying terrorist threats -- have followed a path that differs sharply from the U.S. approach. In each of these countries, policing functions, such as investigating crimes and apprehending criminals, are divorced from the intelligence mission of monitoring and assessing national security threats.

Law enforcement agencies fight crime, and a single intelligence agency in each of the four countries monitors, tracks and evaluates terrorist activity "at home." In the view of both the police and the spies, such specialization allows practitioners to focus on what they do best -- enforcing the law in the case of the former, and providing comprehensive terrorist threat warnings in the case of the latter.

Although law enforcement and intelligence in the four nations we studied are divided into separate institutions, police and intelligence agencies work together closely -- much more so than in the U.S. In Britain, France, Canada and Australia, policing and spying are seen as two sides of the same counterterrorism coin. Combating terrorism is understood as a challenge beyond the capabilities of any one part of government, requiring an intimate understanding of environments in which terrorists operate, relevant language skills, and a thorough grasp of how terrorist networks organize and sustain themselves.

Police officers, out on the streets every day, typically have firsthand knowledge of local communities, and so can serve as the eyes and ears of their respective security services. Intelligence officers devote careers to understanding terrorist strategies, tactics and links with foreign countries. Acting in this manner, both police and intelligence officers are able to contribute distinct but highly complementary strengths to fight terrorists operating within their borders.

The four countries also share a mindset that might best be termed a "culture of prevention." While investigating terrorist crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice is clearly seen as important, an even greater emphasis is given to preventing terrorist attacks from occurring in the first place. Enormous effort is made to penetrate terrorist cells and support-networks through "human intelligence" or humint -- that is, through agents who can provide critical information on a terrorist group's inner workings.

Humint was crucial to some of the most significant counterterrorist successes since Sept. 11. These include last year's disruption of a London-based Islamist cell that was experimenting with deadly toxins, as well as recent French raids against militants connected to the 2003 car bombings in Casablanca.

The culture of prevention also includes a strong emphasis on producing regular intelligence assessments that have proven useful not just to government policymakers, but to local police as well as business and industry. These assessments, which examine important trends in terrorist tactics, leadership, recruiting and targeting, help officials plan for the most serious extremist threats.

It would be wrong to suggest that the British, French, Canadian and Australian systems are not without their problems. There have been some dramatic failures, as in Paris during the mid-1990s, when Algerian terrorists repeatedly struck the capital's rail and subway system, and more recently with the Madrid train bombings, which seemingly occurred despite French, Spanish and Moroccan surveillance of the attacks' ringleaders.

Abuses of civil liberties by domestic intelligence services have also been apparent. MI5 spied on nonviolent protesters and members of Parliament during the 1970s and '80s. Equally, the French internal intelligence service, the Directorate of Territorial Security, has frequently helped to direct mass, indiscriminate sweeps of Muslim communities in that country.

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What lessons might the U.S. draw from these foreign models? It would be foolish to apply any of these intelligence structures directly to the American context, where cultural traditions, conditions, political institutions and legal structures are noticeably different. That said, there are aspects of the foreign counterterrorism system that the U.S. might usefully consider borrowing, even if no move is made to create a separate MI5-style domestic agency.

Actions worth serious consideration include: a greater reliance on human intelligence; a closer working relationship between cops on the beat and intelligence analysts; wider and more routine dissemination of threat assessments; and, most importantly, an organizational culture that emphasizes the prevention of terrorism above all else.

Messrs. Rosenau and Chalk of the RAND Corporation are the authors of "Confronting the Enemy Within: Security Intelligence, Police, and Counterterrorism in Four Democracies" (RAND, 2004).

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