The Real Homeland Security Issues for 2014

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 31 2014 3:24 PM

The Real Homeland Security Issues for 2014

Americans need a new debate about the threats, risks, and costs.

(Continued from Page 1)

Homegrown terrorism and domestic intelligence. Today’s conflicts make no distinction between frontlines and homefronts. What happens abroad may directly affect local communities. As the United States reduces its presence in Afghanistan and loses some valuable connections in countries like Egypt and Syria where internal conflicts rage, preventing terrorist attacks in the United States increasingly depends on domestic intelligence collection.

The record in dealing with the threat of homegrown terrorism is so far very good. To begin with, intensive online jihadist sales campaigns have gained little traction among theoretically susceptible communities. America’s Muslims, like most Muslims worldwide, reject al-Qaida’s message. In the more than 12 years since 9/11, only a couple hundred people have been arrested for providing material support to terrorist groups, attempting to join jihadist fronts abroad, or, more seriously, plotting to carry out terrorist attacks in this country. Of more than 40 jihadist terrorist plots since 9/11, intelligence efforts have uncovered and thwarted all but four. 

Those arrested have, for the most part, not been the cunning “lone wolves” often portrayed in the press. Rather, they have been barely competent (although still potentially lethal) stray dogs, many of whom appear to have embraced al-Qaida’s extremist ideology as a conveyor of individual discontent. But that could change as a new generation of terrorists emerges, one that could include foreign fighters hardened by their participation in the war in Syria.

Advertisement

Domestic intelligence collection in a democracy is always a delicate and contentious business. There has been public pushback on many domestic intelligence activities. Some communities resent being a focus of domestic intelligence activities. Others criticize sting operations and other controversial investigative techniques. But heading off attacks before they occur rather than investigating them afterward requires aggressive intelligence. It is against this backdrop that Congress will address the NSA’s data collection programs.

Does the need for collective security threaten individual liberties? The NSA’s collection of vast quantities of personal data has put the matter of personal privacy front and center. For more than 12 years, the United States has pursued terrorists as the principal threat to America’s national security, and national emergencies call for extraordinary measures. But extraordinary measures are usually suspended at the end of emergencies (or they are clawed back when there is evidence of abuse). The swing of the pendulum is a popular metaphor, which would be reassuring if it could be relied upon. But what if the right metaphor is a ratchet that goes only one way? When extraordinary measures become permanent, personal liberties can erode. And enough of this erosion can alter the nature of the relationship between the public and its government.

Americans expect the government to protect them from terrorism. At the same time, the public bridles at government intrusions on its personal privacy. In the current debate about the NSA, this is understandable. Few people find reassurance in secret legislation authorizing secret programs monitored by secret courts.

Some may hail Edward Snowden for revealing the details of the NSA’s programs and provoking a needed national debate. But his actions only contribute to further distrust, not just because of what they revealed, but also because they show how damaging a single self-appointed crusader can be—no matter the motives. If it is acceptable for Snowden to place his personal beliefs above the law, then what’s to stop the next sincere patriot or overzealous prosecutor from unilaterally exploiting access to data for whatever reason?

Inarguably, America’s counterterrorism regime has been successful since the 9/11 attacks. But it’s time for a public debate in America—an enlightened discussion that focuses anew on threats, risks, and costs. Americans should be able to discuss the terrorist threat and how best to meet it, how much of the country’s precious resources should be devoted to homeland security, and the impact intelligence efforts can have on personal privacy and freedom. It is up to the American public to decide what risks it will endure and what cost it will bear to defend lives and liberties.

Brian Michael Jenkins is senior adviser to the RAND president and the author of Al Qaeda in Its Third Decade: Irreversible Decline or Imminent Victory?

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.