Homeland Security

Get ready for the new normal: Fighting terror in the US


The recent bombings in New York City and New Jersey, along with the Minnesota mall stabbings, once again raise the question of how we might balance security, civil liberties and privacy. Sadly, it is becoming increasingly clear that the new normal may include regular small- to-medium-sized terrorist attacks inspired from abroad.

The most troubling thing about this new normal is that in the immediate aftermath of these attacks, while Americans wondered whether the attacks were terrorism and who might be responsible, the government actually knew almost nothing.

{mosads}We lacked the basic information and tools necessary to identify key suspects, and as a consequence were in a purely reactive mode.

Fortunately, the New York City Police Department, federal counterterrorism officials and other first responders were quickly on top of the terrorist attacks and were able to rapidly identify and capture the suspect based, in part, on video and physical evidence from the scene. And a heroic off-duty officer prevented the Minnesota attacks from being significantly worse. They deserve our thanks and our admiration.

As we look back on these attacks, it is tempting to criticize intelligence and law enforcement for missing signs that might have allowed us to stop at least the New York and New Jersey attacks. For example, even though the bomber was flagged by customs officials when he returned from Pakistan in 2014, and information was sent to the National Targeting Center, the FBI could not find sufficient reason to track him further.

Later in 2014, after a domestic disturbance, the bomber’s father told police he was concerned about his son having terrorist sympathies. Yet after assessing that information, the FBI could not find a reason for deeper scrutiny.

That these items were overlooked is, to be sure, a cause for concern. However, there is a larger issue at stake: Why didn’t the FBI and our intelligence agencies have access to other information about the would-be bomber that would have allowed them to determine the nature of the threat he posed and about the process of radicalization that he was clearly going through?  

The fact is, our national security and law enforcement professionals don’t get the information they need today, and they need better tools to find the signal in the noise, to find the radicalized among the innocent, and to find the threat before it becomes an attack.

While we can certainly be critical of the FBI and our intelligence agencies for missing some of these indicators, and once again wave the flag of intelligence failure, the reality is that we still need to help our nation’s defenders get the information and tools they need to protect us.

From my experience in providing some of the critical intelligence needed to stop terrorist attacks, I know we lack access to the relevant information and the analytic tools we need to prevent events before they happen and to respond if — and when — they do.

In part, we have lost critically important intelligence capabilities because the sensitive sources and methods we use to collect intelligence were leaked in violation of U.S. law. Pressure from our European allies on our government and industry further complicates the entire issue.

To be blunt, we are in this situation because the facts given to the American people are often sensationalized and inflamed rather than informed.

How might we best address this problem? First, we need a national conversation about access to the information needed to protect the nation. We, as a country, need to clearly lay out what we expect our intelligence, law enforcement and first responders to do to prevent attacks, and what we expect them to do to respond, if necessary.

This conversation must be based on facts and not on scattered pieces of truth mixed with false impressions and false claims.

And it must be transparent to the American people and our allies. We must be clear about how and why America collects intelligence, what we have learned from these efforts, and what attacks we have stopped. That means our government fundamentally needs to step up and be clear and plain-spoken about what we do and why we do it.

Second, we need to provide our law enforcement and intelligence agencies the analytic tools they need to process and connect large amounts of information quickly and accurately. This will require a reinvigoration of the long-standing partnership on national security capabilities between the government, industry and academia. This will also require rebuilding the trust that has been corroded in recent years.

Finally, we need to ensure that we maintain and reinforce clear and strong rules on protecting civil liberties and privacy. Our nation was founded on a philosophy of restricting the unlimited executive power of the king and subjecting it to the will of the people. We can and should remain skeptical of overreach by the government.

At the same time, we must also recognize, as the president’s review group on surveillance did, that even while we are skeptical of the government, it can and does do a pretty good job in applying and enforcing the rules designed to protect our privacy and civil liberties.

The terrorist attacks on the East Coast and Midwest last week, as well as the attacks in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino,Calif., simply highlight the need for our nation to address this problem now. It will not go away. We need to confront this issue head on and develop a strategy that the American people will back.

The only way we are going reach a real consensus on these issues is for us to have a serious conversation about these topics, based on full information from the government. Here’s to hoping that in this political season — when there will no doubt be pressure for the candidates to go down sensational and controversial alleys — we might instead take a moment to begin a more sober and serious conversation on these important issues.

Alexander is the former director of the NSA and former commander of the U.S. Cyber Command. He is now president and CEO of IronNet Cybersecurity Inc.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Bombing FBI Homeland security ISIS National Security Agency New York New York City NYPD San Bernardino Terrorism United States Washington D.C.

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