Intelligence about terror threats rarely comes on such a silver platter: A Nigerian banker went to the US embassy in Lagos to warn that his son had fallen under “the influence of religious extremists based in Yemen” and was a security risk. This came after months of US intelligence intercepts about Al Qaeda plans for an attack using a Nigerian man. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab paid for his ticket with cash and didn’t check in any luggage.
Yet a headline in The Washington Post summed up the current state of US intelligence: “Uninvestigated terrorism warning about Detroit suspect called not unusual.”
President Obama promises to probe what went wrong, but there’s no big mystery. He should review testimony put in the public record in early December, before the Christmas incident. The homeland security committee heard how US intelligence agencies decide when to put suspected terrorists on a watch list or a no-fly list.
Timothy Healy, head of FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, explained the “reasonable suspicion” standard like this: “Reasonable suspicion requires ‘articulable’ facts which, taken together with rational inferences, reasonably warrant a determination that an individual is known or suspected to be or has been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to, terrorism and terrorist activities, and is based on the totality of the circumstances. Mere guesses or inarticulate ‘hunches’ are not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion.”
If this sounds like legalistic language, it is. Indeed, a quick Web search was a reminder that this language is adapted from Terry vs Ohio, a landmark US Supreme Court case in 1968 that determined when Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches allows the police to frisk civilians or conduct traffic stops. In other words, foreign terrorists have somehow now been granted Fourth Amendment reasonableness rights that courts intended to protect Americans being searched by the local police. Thus was Abdulmutallab allowed on the aircraft with his explosives.
The difference between law enforcement procedures and preventing terrorism could not be clearer. If a well-respected banker takes the initiative to come to a US embassy in Nigeria to report that he thinks his son is a terrorist, we expect intelligence officers to make “hunches”. Information is the US’ defence against terrorism, but evidence of terror plots is often incomplete, which is why intelligence requires combining facts with hunches.
The result of prohibiting hunches was that Abdulmutallab was waved through. Information about suspected terrorists flows into a central terrorist screening database, which is then analysed by the Terrorist Screening Center, where FBI agents apply the “reasonable suspicion” standard to assign people to various watch lists including “selectee” and “no-fly” lists. It’s here that an approach based on domestic law enforcement trumps prevention, undermining the use of information.
Aside from concluding that we are misapplying a reasonableness test, the Abdulmutallab investigation likely will conclude that information in the databases of the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency and state department weren’t properly mined to connect dots. His name went on to the list of 400,000 people who might have links to terror, but not the list of 14,000 subject to multiple screenings before boarding an aircraft or the list of 3,400 people who are not permitted to fly.
The Obama administration has leaned towards treating terrorism as a matter for domestic law enforcement, such as trying terrorists in civilian courts instead of in military tribunals. But this legalistic culture also undermined intelligence in the Fort Hood case in November. FBI knew that Major Nidal Malik Hasan had been exchanging emails with a Yemen-based imam with ties to the 9/11 hijackers. Operating by the standards of domestic law enforcement instead of applying information to prevention, it surmised that the “content was explainable by his research” and failed to warn the army of its potential risk.
In contrast, British authorities in May denied Abdulmutallab the right to re-enter the UK, where he had been president of an Islamic Society while in college. In Britain, domestic intelligence is the job of M15, which unlike FBI has no power to arrest or responsibility for criminal prosecutions. Instead, it is free to focus on gathering intelligence, making hunches and preventing wrongdoing. The British ban on Abdulmutallab didn’t require any FBI-like “reasonable suspicion” test.
After 9/11, the key political issue that went unresolved was what Americans expect from their intelligence agents. We send the mixed message that we want them to prevent attacks, but only if they operate under strict restrictions based on rules crafted for domestic law enforcement.
We have a choice. We can limit how information is used or we can allow smart use of information to prevent attacks. If we continue to choose to limit how information can be used in our defence, we shouldn’t be surprised when our defences fail.
L. Gordon Crovitz is a columnist for ‘The Wall Street Journal’
The Wall Street Journal
Comment at email@example.com