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.
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.