Over Here or Over There, Intelligence Key to Countering Terror

By Matt Korade, CQ Staff

David Cid thinks he knows how to protect America against terrorists, but it won’t be easy.

The former FBI agent and current deputy director of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism said intelligence, especially human intelligence, is the key to battling ne’er-do-wells at home and abroad.

But as anyone who has followed the controversies over prewar intelligence or the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program knows, intelligence is never perfect.

Those who gather human intelligence are “the best, but they’re difficult to deal with,” Cid said, speaking at an International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professionals on Thursday at Alion Science & Technology’s headquarters in Washington.

The Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism provides free Web access to its online database of terrorism cases, the “terrorism knowledge base,” a resource for security officials and others that was funded with grant money from the Department of Homeland Security, Cid said.

The reason intelligence is critically important is that the spectrum of terrorist threats is so broad, he said. At the high-end is al Qaeda and other state-sponsored terrorist organizations, whose destructive-potential is well known.

On the low end are people like Leroy Charles Wheeler and Douglas Allen Baker. Wheeler and Baker were members of the Patriots Council, a right-wing, anti-government group that abhorred paying taxes, according to records on the MIPT site.

Despite the fact that “their collective IQs” would barely break 100, Cid said, the two were able to get their hands on ricin, a lethal poison derived from castor beans, which they were planning to use as a weapon. After an informant turned them in, the pair were charged under the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989 (PL 101-298) and sentenced to brief prison terms.

America finds itself in a fluid terrorism environment, and yet there is a reluctance right now among some members of Congress to grant the government further intelligence-gathering authority, as evidenced by the conflict over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (PL 95-511).

“So we’re static, and he’s not,” Cid said, referring to the terrorists. And the more that dichotomy continues, the more Cid believes there will be another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

In fact, the U.S. system is an irresistible lure to terrorists, Cid said. What we see as our greatest strength, our freedom and compassion as a people, the terrorists see as our greatest weakness.

“The ideal operational environment for a terrorist,” Cid said, reading a quote that was written on the overhead projection, “is a republic grounded in a constitution, guaranteeing he will enjoy privacy, freedom of movement and a vigorous defense if arrested.”

Another perceived weakness is the public’s supposed aversion to suffering mass casualties, an idea that ultimately prompted Osama bin Laden to reject the admonitions of traditional terrorist thinkers, such as Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine tactician George Habash, who died last month.

Habash once said terrorism was “a thinking man’s game.” What that meant, Cid said, was that a terrorist should kill only enough people to be taken seriously, or he runs the risk of invoking the enmity of the local population.

The Domestic Front

Even small-scale terrorist activities can be extremely disruptive.

“Terrorism is theater,” Cid said, quoting counterterrorism expert Brian Jenkins of the Rand Corp. In most cases it’s directed at the viewer as much as the victim.

Domestically, the most immediate danger is from conventional weapons, Cid said, like that used in the Oklahoma City bombing. In that vein, there are a number of groups out there worth watching, including anarchists, as well as the Animal Liberation Front and the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan has become politicized today over issues such as border control, immigration and eminent domain; “this is good,” Cid said, “because when they’re political, they’re not killing people.”

The Animal Liberation Front could resort to violence if it perceived its message wasn’t getting out — a possibility, considering a burger joint opens up about “every 15 seconds,” Cid said. When a group believes its goals are being frustrated, its zealots take command, negating the influence of “active and concerned” members who usually exert a moderating effect on the membership.

But that membership is hard to penetrate, because terrorist groups by definition tend to share the same values and beliefs, form strong personal bonds among members, and rely on previously tested relationships.

So, how can they be deterred? The best method is to form small, highly mobile, intelligence driven, self-contained units – much like the FBI has created with in its Joint Terrorism Task Forces. These small cells of highly trained, locally based investigators, analysts, SWAT experts and other specialists from dozens of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, have proven effective, Cid said.

The challenge of counterterrorists is to determine which groups like to stockpile weapons and badmouth the government and which plan to act on those criticisms, he said. That requires actionable intelligence, and that’s best gleaned from human contacts.

As imperfect as pre-Iraq-war intelligence showed them to be, they’re necessary, Cid said.

Matt Korade can be reached at mkorade@cq.com.

Source: CQ Homeland Security
© 2008 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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