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Terror-fighting tangle

"Terror-fighting tangle" Continued...

Issue: "Boy Scout dilemma," May 18, 2013

The impulse to mount a massive response to a massive attack may be understandable, but even some government officials confess astonishment.

After reviewing the method for tracking Defense Department programs, retired Army Lt. Gen. John Vines told the Post: “I’m not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities.” Vines—who helped command 145,000 troops in Iraq—added: “The complexity of this system defies description.”

If understanding the structure of counter-terrorism is daunting, so is grasping how the top agencies communicate. The 9/11 Commission Report faulted the FBI and CIA for failing to share key intelligence ahead of the 9/11 attacks. The FBI announced reforms to improve intelligence sharing, but some experts say some agents still resist sharing classified information they fear could hamper investigations. Tensions still flair between agencies.

Even when agencies share information, the levels of classification are complex. For example, a 2010 government report said when it comes to information considered “Sensitive But Unclassified,” federal agencies maintained 130 different procedures for processing and handling such intelligence.

Two years ago, the Government Accountability Office urged DHS to develop a more centralized platform for agencies to share information. An updated report last year said DHS had made progress, but still needed to improve the process.

More than a week after the Boston bombings, lawmakers were asking questions about whether the FBI, CIA, and DHS adequately shared information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev—the older brother killed during a gunfight with police.

Russian authorities contacted the FBI and CIA in 2011, citing concerns Tsarnaev could have ties to extremists. The FBI interviewed Tsarnaev, but closed the file three months later.

When Tsarnaev left the United States to travel to Dagestan—a militant-filled region in southern Russia—last year, DHS noted his departure, but the FBI apparently wasn’t aware of his travels. By the time he returned to the United States, his file was closed.

It may be impossible to know whether authorities could have prevented Tsarnaev from carrying out the Boston attacks. The government’s terror watch list includes as many as 500,000 names. And Marc Sageman—a terror expert and former CIA officer—says individuals without ties to larger networks are far more difficult to track.

Whatever the case, Sageman does think federal agencies should improve intelligence sharing, including sharing more information with local authorities. Agencies often want to hoard their data, he says: “But unfortunately, that’s detrimental to the greater good.”

That’s a plea Michael Downing made to Congress six years ago. A deputy chief at the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Downing leads the force’s counter-terrorism bureau.

In a congressional hearing in 2007, Downing testified that federal agencies should share more information with local police departments. He said “over-classifying” intelligence could hinder local police officers from helping to thwart terror plots and other crimes.

In a phone interview after the Boston bombings, Downing said information sharing has become better since 2007. But he also said the LAPD has grown its own capacity for intelligence gathering and holds weekly briefings on threats across the United States and overseas.

It’s a pattern first set by the New York City Police Department (NYPD). After the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD developed a massive counter-terrorism task force that now includes nearly 1,000 officers. Some operate overseas. The department spent $330 million of its $4.6 billion annual budget on fighting terrorism.

So far, it’s been effective: Since 2001, the NYPD and local FBI agents have foiled at least 16 plots against New York City. Plots have included plans to blow up a subway station and a plot to detonate a 1,000-pound car bomb outside the Federal Reserve Bank in New York last year.

Tensions still flair between the NYPD and FBI over how to handle investigations, but the police force has also faced difficulties from another source: local groups opposed to their strategies. For example, groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) have blasted the NYPD for its program of monitoring Muslim communities.

Police say they use the program to follow leads that often lead to gathering information on local Muslim businesses and mosques. Critics call it spying and say it unfairly targets innocent Muslims. The Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for a series of stories critical of the program. Officials at the Department of Justice said they would review it.

The legal group Muslim Advocates is representing eight local Muslims in a lawsuit against the police force. Hundreds gathered for rallies to protest the practice.

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