Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Counter-Terrorism Intelligence

Last week I briefly reported on an ongoing controversy in Pennsylvania about the tracking of activists concerned about natural gas fracking activities in that State. Balancing the protection of free speech and the freedom to assemble against the need to identify potential terrorists is a difficult line to walk. Yesterday I ran into an interesting document on looking at the type information that domestic intelligence agencies are trying to use to identify potential homegrown terrorists before they can strike.

The document is called “An Information Needs Review”. It identifies some actions taken by an individual that could be indicators that a person has slipped over the line towards illegal terrorist activity. It is careful to claim that these indicators are not proof that the individual is guilty of terrorist activity noting that: “There may be a legitimate reason why some of the indicators described in this document are present; it is up to you to determine when that is not the case.” (pg 4)

This document was produced by DHS, the National Counter Terrorism Center and the FBI. It asks local law enforcement to report these types of ‘suspicious activity’ to the nearest State and Local Fusion Center and your local FBI Field Office or Joint Terrorism Task Force. Presumably those organizations will then make a determination if further investigative efforts of the individual are warranted.

The Indicators

The listed indicators (pg 3) are:

• New or increased advocacy of violence including providing material support or recruiting others to commit criminal acts.
• Adoption of new life styles and segregation from normal peer and family groups in association with advocating criminal or terrorist activity.
• The adoption of a new name.
• Behavior that could indicate participation in surveillance of potential targets.
• Acquisition of excessive quantities of weapons or materials that could be used to produce explosives such as ammonium nitrate-based fertilizers or hydrogen peroxide.
• Travel to or interest in traveling overseas to attend violent extremist institutions or paramilitary training camps.
• New or increased interest in Websites and reading materials that advocate violence and then initiating action in support of this activity.
• New or increased interest in critical infrastructure locations and landmarks, including obtaining aerial views of these locations.
Most people would agree that many of these indicators would be cause for concern if observed in one of their neighbors. There are three, however, that will raise some discussion of their appropriateness. The adoption of a new life style, a new name, or interest in critical infrastructure are arguably not nearly as clear cut an indicator of potential terror activity. I can certainly understand why they were included in the list, but I also know that there can be any number of people exhibiting these indicators that will never commit or contribute to a violent act.

What is not listed in this document, and what probably more concerns civil libertarians, is a description of what happens with this information. Properly vetted information of this sort certainly deserves further investigation. But what happens if no information supporting a terrorist designation is uncovered in that investigation. If the names of those people are then purged from the system there shouldn’t be a real privacy concern. If the files are kept active pending ‘further information’ people would have a legitimate reason for concern.

I have worked on the edge of the intelligence community (at the tactical level) in the military so I understand that the intelligence folks get concerned that an investigation is never really complete. There is always the possibility that just one more piece of information will provide conclusive identification of intent where there is currently only negative information. And no one wants to explain to Congressional investigators after a successful terrorist attack that they had looked at the attacker but determined that he/she wasn’t a threat.

Protections in Place

All of this is why DHS has an office that is responsible for overseeing the civil rights of the American public when it comes to investigations of individuals. Additionally, Congress has repeatedly tasked the DHS Inspectors General office with checking up on the protections put into place to prevent abuses of the investigational power of the Department. And finally, Congress itself has repeatedly demonstrated that they take their oversight responsibility very seriously in this area of DHS operations.

Will these protections be enough to stop all abuses, deliberate or unintentional, of the power to investigate citizens? Almost certainly not, this is a government of people and people make mistakes in judgment. Will the oversight provisions be able to identify abuses that do take place? Very probably, but the oversight is also done by people so it remains a possibility that some abuses will slip through the cracks.

But, we must remember that the abuses that are likely to happen will be mistakes of judgment made by people trying hard to protect this country. They won’t be evil people, setting out to destroy innocent civilians for their own personal gain. We must be alert and careful to find and correct the abuses that do happen, but we must avoid the temptation to demonize those that step over the line. The line dividing the protection of individual liberties and the prevention of terrorist attacks is seldom a sharp bright line.

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