As Congress sets its agenda for hearings and legislation relating to homeland security, we can anticipate some of the issues it will address. Expect discussion about whether al-Qaida is on the run or on the rebound, new legislative initiatives on how to deal with the continuing threat in cyberspace, beefing up security on the border, and the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata, to name just of few. These should be matters of great public interest, and they are. According to recent public opinion polls, 75 percent of Americans see terrorist attacks in the United States as a continuing threat, although they are close to evenly divided on whether the government can do more to stop them. But as legislators work their way through these matters, here are some fundamental issues of threat, risk, public expectation, and the protection of liberty and privacy that merit debate.
What is the terrorist threat? Getting the threat right is critical. But this is an election year, so threat assessments will inevitably get tangled up with political agendas. Some want to discredit the administration’s narrative of a tough and mostly successful counterterrorism campaign, while others want to claim a victory of sorts and declare an end to the war’s costly diversion of attention and resources. Both sides can muster evidence to support their positions. Looking back to 2001, there has been undeniable progress, but peace is not at hand. Relentless pursuit has decimated al-Qaida’s top leadership and degraded its operational capabilities—the threat of new 9/11s has been reduced. But the recent proliferation of groups across Africa and the Middle East that have taken up al-Qaida’s banner cautions that it would be premature to write al-Qaida’s epitaph. The dominant role played by al-Qaida’s fighters in Syria’s civil war and the recent takeover of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Iraq attest to the terrorist group’s resiliency.
Threat assessments must also take into account that it ain’t all al-Qaida. Beyond al-Qaida there are groups that subscribe to similarly hostile Salafist ideologies. Continuing chaos in Libya, Syria’s civil war, and escalating sectarian violence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region will undoubtedly create new terrorist adversaries. Intelligence officials worry that the nation’s understandable obsession with al-Qaida has created narrow corridors of inquiry that may cause it to miss new threats and combinations of threats.
Complicating the discussion is how the United States performs threat assessment itself. Homeland security is largely driven not by what terrorists have done in the past, but rather by what we fear they might become capable of in the future. The success of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 was attributed to failures of imagination by U.S. authorities—they failed to conceive of such a plot. That cannot be allowed to happen again. The government is pushed to prepare for every imaginable terrorist scenario. That gets costly.
Ensuring homeland security in an era of budget constraints. Thus far, the intelligence and homeland security budgets have come through congressional battles comparatively unscathed. That may not last. In the years immediately following 9/11, the United States hastily built a homeland security apparatus and gave it an ambitious assignment. But everything done then is probably not equally necessary now. It is time for review.
Unlike America’s past wars, the battle against terrorism will not allow demobilization. The terrorist threats the nation faces today are the new normal—homeland security will be an enduring task. Whatever is done must be sustainable. The government could simply impose across-the-board percentage cuts, or it could carry out a more discerning audit to identify where it can trim without significantly increasing risk.
Are there any homeland security programs that no longer make sense? Does the Department of Homeland Security provide increased effectiveness, economies of scale, or other added value, or does it just impose an additional layer of bureaucracy? These are tough questions, but they must be asked.
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.