Critical intelligence: Is it lost?

Posted: Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"If You See Something, Say Something." These words appear on new posters prominently seeking attention in the elevator lobbies of Juneau's Federal Building. In smaller print they advise people to report suspicious activity to the Federal Protective Service. It's part of another one size fits all approach to the government's counterterrorism efforts. But can America's law enforcement and intelligence agencies be gathering so much information that critical intelligence will get lost?

Ever since 911 we've been reminded to remain vigilant while engaging in the routines of our daily lives. But aside from the few failed bomb plots, very little has happened to hold us in a constant state of alert. So it's easy to imagine most people have become complacent and even cynical about the so-called heightened state of security around the country.

It's not cynicism though to think DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is hyperventilating when she says that this new initiative "is a crucial step in helping the millions of people who work in or visit our federal buildings every day identify and report suspicious activity indicators of terrorism, crime and other threats." Federal buildings don't need citizen surveillance monitors. They're already under the watchful eyes of trained security personnel. Nor have they been the site of any serious terrorist attacks since security protocols came into effect after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The problem isn't just that DHS is trying to breathe life into George Orwell's fictional Big Brother. Look at the record for New York City where the "See Something, Say Something" program was first implemented. According to the New York Times, more than 16,000 calls were made to the city's counter-terrorism hotline last year. It's reasonable to conclude that few of those reports, if any, led to arrests or prevented an act of terrorism. Otherwise they would have been front page news like the Times Square car bomb attempt last June and the Christmas tree bomb plot in Portland four weeks ago.

So what happens to the rest of the reports? How much law enforcement time is wasted checking out unusual but entirely benign situations? This month alone authorities shut down mass transit stations in Washington DC and Salt Lake City because someone reported seeing suspicious packages. Their investigations uncovered a blinking Christmas tree ornament and a homeless person's pillow. And a few days before Christmas TSA evacuated the Lafayette Regional Airport in Louisiana while investigating a package that turned out to be a frozen chicken with crawfish stuffing.

Meanwhile, as Americans were calling in thousands of reports that led nowhere, the FBI was busy in September raiding the homes of anti-war activists in Chicago and Minneapolis. We learned last month that the CIA initiated secret intelligence gathering of the United Nations secretary general and the permanent Security Council members from China, Russia, France and the UK. And according to whistleblowers complaints filed two years ago by former National Security Agency intelligence officers, some NSA employees used to "entertain themselves listening to phone sex and pillow talk" of Americans calling home from the Middle East.

These efforts aren't remotely related to the possibility of uncovering violent terrorist plots against Americans. And what could be overlooked in the massive accumulation of chatter is the kind of information missed by the FBI only weeks before 911.

Acting on tips from Minneapolis flight school instructors in August 2001, Special Agent Harry Samit interrogated Zacarias Moussaoui, a man who foreign intelligence believed was connected to terrorist groups. Samit testified that he filed more than 70 warnings with his superiors claiming Moussaoui might be an al-Qaeda operative planning to hijack an aircraft. But his requests for a warrant to search Moussaoui's home computer were denied by higher-level agents in Washington. The 911 Commission concluded that "publicity about Moussaoui's arrest and a possible hijacking threat might have derailed the [911] plot."

There are more than 3,000 government run and private companies involved with counterterrorism work today. Their data banks must be overflowing with trivia perfectly scripted for Comedy Central. But on the Homeland Security front, Napolitano isn't done adding to the confusion, waste and possible infringement on our civil liberties. She's bringing "See Something, Say Something" to Walmarts across the country.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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