What Not to Take From Britain's Success
While many Americans may have an inferiority complex about things British -- the refinement, the style and, of course, those accents -- it would be a mistake to carry it over to the area of counterterrorism.
This week, soon after authorities in London announced the arrests of a group of people allegedly plotting to bomb a number of airliners, commentators and experts were marveling at how the British disrupted the attack and asking whether we needed to be more like them, with their less restrictive surveillance laws, a domestic intelligence agency, almost no rules against watching and tracking Muslims in mosques or community centers, and no First Amendment. But those would be the very lessons we ought not to learn from this week's events.
First, Britain has been the target of three serious homegrown attacks, either successful or attempted, since Sept. 11, 2001 -- and all since the Iraq war began. The suspects are all from immigrant families, all young men who appear to have felt no allegiance to their nation or the freedoms they enjoyed. Their alienation was so complete that they sought to kill their own countrymen.
Second, the disruption this week of the bomb plot occurred because of very good human intelligence: a person's infiltrating the terrorist cell, convincing the plotters that he was part of their plan, and then turning on them when they started to get serious. Finally, there was nothing in airline or airport security that stopped the plot, despite the frenzy of security activity at airports throughout the world since Sept. 11. These facts suggest helpful lessons that might get lost in the flurry of the U.S. administration's "we are still under threat" attitude.
No one doubts that we are under attack, but this week's developments should motivate us to assess our priorities, including what we are doing right. Though there is considerable fascination with electronic surveillance -- through the domestic eavesdropping program -- this practice is helpful only as a complement to real and serious human intelligence efforts by our agents. The Bush administration has spent a lot of money and time promoting the National Security Agency's surveillance program -- a program that is legally suspect and has not been clearly effective in targeting real and credible threats. Unfortunately, human intelligence has gotten short shrift from the administration.
And while it is understandable to clamp down at the airports, this should be seen as a short-term reaction and not as part of any real counterterrorism effort. No terrorist attack has ever been stopped at an airport; even would-be "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid got on his plane, and only the heroic actions of flight attendants and passengers stopped him.
Finally, getting tougher on communities of interest -- including pronouncements that authorities will start profiling or focusing on minority populations -- is exactly what we ought not to emulate about Britain. The most serious homegrown attack on U.S. soil was by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Immigrant groups feel themselves part of America, and our success is that we have made them feel that they have a role in the nation's destiny. Tougher surveillance, profiling or efforts that risk alienation might give us a sense that we are doing something, but the long-term legacy of such efforts could well prove self-destructive. Investing in those communities and asking for their assistance in the fight against terrorism is a smarter strategy.
There is much to learn from the British: their reticence about disclosing details, their clear expertise in human intelligence, their non-hysterical reaction to very real threats. But how we deal with our immigrant and domestic populations is certainly not one of them.
The writer, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is the co-author of "Protecting Liberty in an Age of Terror." She was a member of the National Commission on Terrorism.