Any reader of the excellent report of the September 11 commission will suspect tomorrow’s terrorists may be committing today’s low-level crimes.
Shortly before the 2001 attacks, ringleader Mohamed Atta was stopped by police in Broward County, Fla., for driving without a license. His lieutenant, Hani Hanjour, was ticketed for speeding in Alexandria, Va. It is devastating to realize these terrorists’ encounters with local law enforcement did not lead to an investigation prior to September 11.
The commission concluded a “failure of imagination” contributed to the terrible assaults upon our country. The commissioners suggested a broader perspective on al Qaeda might have given us a chance to prevent the attacks.
This hypothesis is valid on many levels. But before we conclude a healthy sense of creativity at the CIA is our most important weapon against terrorism, we should remember the most basic tools of the trade such as strong local police departments also are imperative.
Right now, outside of New York and Washington, most cities’ counterterrorism efforts are not nearly strong enough.
The key issue that bedevils police homeland security efforts is always funding. When the federal government raises the threat level, municipalities are left holding much of the bag for expenses. When intelligence indicates a heightened possibility of an attack—as in Los Angeles this spring with a reported threat against shopping centers, and more recently in New York, Washington, and Newark, N.J.—local governments foot the bill for enhanced security measures.
Partly because of the funding crunch, most U.S. cities have not built up enough capacity to track suspected terrorists in their midst and develop intelligence on them. Cities and the federal government need to find more resources to do this critical job.
The FBI runs several Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) with police departments in major American cities and coordinates with state and local officials in many ways. However, we cannot expect the FBI alone to discover the low-level crimes that are precursors to major attacks. The FBI is relatively small, and it specializes in pursuing difficult individual cases rather than getting to know a city and scouting broadly for clues about plots in the works.
Cops on the beat are a necessary part of the answer. They know their neighborhoods and often have hunches about who may be up to no good. They provide community policing, track identity theft and marriage fraud, and develop trusted local sources. They are in the best position to “collect” the dots that federal agencies need to “connect” to forecast the next attack.
Still, most police departments lack dedicated, sophisticated intelligence detection, collection and analytical capabilities. The few that have them are generally woefully understaffed. For example, the 9,200-officer Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has only 24 officers assigned to its Antiterrorist Intelligence section and 14 assigned to the JTTF, an unfortunately low figure for a large city targeted by al Qaeda.
New York, by contrast, is uniquely supportive of counterterrorism, devoting 500 of its 39,000 officers to these tasks. In other cities, the pressing demands presented by daily gang murders, narcotics trafficking, and other crimes make it unlikely urban politicians will devote additional resources to counterterrorism.
Intelligence is a highly specialized area of law enforcement. Because intelligence should be a career path with unique training and skill development, the recruitment and retention of local intelligence officers must be made a priority for police forces around the country.
The federal government should take lessons from a successful federal program that added tens of thousands of local officers in the 1990s—the “COPS” program—and apply them toward this intelligence gap. A “COPS II” program could increase the number of intelligence personnel in police departments at relatively low cost—quadrupling LAPD’s Antiterrorist Division, for example, would probably cost only $15 million annually. These local ranks could often be filled with returning military service members with intelligence experience to maximize the program’s value.
Moreover, a COPS II program could help prevent civil rights abuses. Police intelligence activities have led to scandals in the past, and spotty local oversight procedures make future constitutional violations likely. The federal government should prescribe standards for local intelligence oversight and accountability in an open, nationwide manner.
Adding local intelligence personnel can improve our ability to uncover and understand terrorist cells in many ways. In addition to following leads and investigating individuals, they can develop priority lists of possible targets requiring special protection during alerts. They can guide local officials toward better permanent protective measures such as safeguards for parking garages and air intakes.
They can work with construction firms to ensure new structures with appeal as targets institute common-sense safeguards such as shatterproof glass and, where possible, proper distancing from roadways.
Many such things are now happening in New York and Washington; few are in most of the rest of the country. It is time to change that. A nationally coordinated local intelligence boost may be our best way to disrupt and prevent the next major attack.