We Can't Let Our Guard Down

By J. Michael Barrett
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Wednesday, November 29, 2006; 12:00 AM

In the heat of this past year's election debate, Democrats fiercely criticized the Patriot Act and NSA programs that monitor terrorist phone calls and bank transactions. As Democrats now assume the responsibility of governing, Americans should hope that our new Congressional leadership will closely examine the evidence on these important national security measures before taking any hasty legislative action.

The terror threat the U.S. faces is still very real. This was illustrated earlier this month when al-Qaeda henchman Dihren Barot was sentenced to life in prison by a London court and the press was allowed to report the details of his plans to bomb the New York Stock Exchange, the Citigroup and Prudential corporate headquarters, and the World Bank in Washington.

British prosecutors introduced reams of evidence that included notebooks and computer files filled with his explicit plans, recipes for deadly chemicals, surveillance videotapes, and letters to al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan describing his plots.

Barot's U.S. scheme included loading limousines with gas cylinders and exploding them near or underneath the targeted buildings. Similarly, his plans for London included driving a hi-jacked gasoline tanker into a hotel lobby, detonating a radiation-laden "dirty bomb," a chemical attack on a train to Heathrow airport, and creating a massive explosion in the London Tube that was designed to flood the system with water from the River Thames.

During the trial, Barot's lawyers argued that that while he was certainly a religious fanatic, he did not pose a serious terror threat because he never secured the funding or the bomb-making materials to carry out his plans. This mimics a theme that seems to be gaining increasing currency among the punditry in the U.S.: that the government has been overzealous in its prosecution of suspected terrorists. This is a dangerous path for four significant reasons.

First, while some terror schemes may look amateurish -- and thus invite criticism of prosecutors who move against them -- they cannot simply be dismissed. As Timothy McVeigh showed us, one disturbed man with a rental truck and a few hundred pounds of fertilizer can cause an awful lot of death and destruction.

Second, in the case of mass casualty terrorism, law enforcement cannot wait until the last moment before an attack to arrest a suspect. Just imagine the outcry if Barot had successfully driven a gasoline tanker into the lobby of a hotel and it later came to light that British intelligence had him in their sights but failed to act. If law enforcement must wait until a plot is put into motion, we will surely suffer many more deadly blows.

Third, the "homegrown" terror threat cannot be ignored. Born and raised a Hindu in India, Barot's parents brought him to England as a small child. It was only later, at the age of 20, that he joined a radical mosque and converted to Islam. While the homegrown terrorist threat to the U.S. may not be a mirror image of that in Madrid or London, it is naïve not to accept that such attacks will likely occur here as well. This was indeed the case in last summer's plot to attack Los Angeles area synagogues and military installations, a plot foiled by alert local police but planned by a group of ex-cons who had converted to Islam while in California state prison.

Finally, the Barot case -- which reveals a meticulous investigation and timely information sharing between the British law enforcement and intelligence communities -- offers a positive lesson regarding the use of "Intelligence-Led Policing."

"Intelligence-Led Policing" can best be described as a disciplined management approach in which targeted information is collected and shared among law enforcement agencies and fed into an analytical intelligence cycle so that priorities can be established and the most pressing threats can be dealt with in a focused manner. Unfortunately, it has yet to be fully embraced in the United States due to concerns over domestic intelligence collection.

State and regional fusion centers that pool and analyze information from multiple jurisdictions are a major step in the right direction. In a recent speech, President Bush noted the importance of linking terrorist information across jurisdictions and called state and local police "the front line of defeating terror." Fusion centers now exist in nearly every state and will be crucial in the years ahead in improving our nation's intelligence-gathering and sharing capabilities.

Of course we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past, which saw law enforcement illegally spy on antiwar and civil rights groups. Uniform training procedures and standards on how intelligence is gathered, stored, and accessed need to be developed in order to safeguard citizens' privacy and civil rights. But we should not return to the pre-9/11 days by rebuilding the "wall" that existed between law enforcement and the intelligence community.

The 9/11 Commission focused most of its recommendations on the subject of intelligence gathering and information sharing. Congressional Democrats should be very wary of weakening the sensible steps our government has taken to improve our efforts in these areas -- or they may find themselves answering to some future blue-ribbon commission after another terror attack.

Simply hoping our government somehow stumbles upon terrorist plotters is not a reliable counter-terrorism strategy. We have to use our law enforcement capacity to go out and look. As the Barot case shows us, the stakes are simply too high.

J. Michael Barrett is the Harbinger/ICx Technologies Fellow in Homeland Security at the Manhattan Institute's Center for Policing Terrorism.

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