Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lead, Follow, or ... Something

Evidence that 9/11 is receding into memory: an article in today's New York Times, describing state and local resistance to DHS' priorities for homeland security funding:

More openly than at any time since the Sept. 11 attacks, state and local authorities have begun to complain that the federal financing for domestic security is being too closely tied to combating potential terrorist threats, at a time when they say they have more urgent priorities.

Local officials do not dismiss the terrorist threat, but many are trying to retool counterterrorism programs so that they focus more directly on combating gun violence, narcotics trafficking and gangs — while arguing that these programs, too, should qualify for federal financing, on the theory that terrorists may engage in criminal activity as a precursor to an attack.
I've long argued that precursor crimes are a good way to target potential terrorist cells. But it depends how it's done. If it's a strategic effort that involves information-sharing in an active search for links to potential terrorism, that's good. But if it's simply an attempt to conflate ordinary crime-fighting with "potential terrorism" (because, well, you never know who might be a terrorist...), then that's not strategic. It would just be a matter of luck. Your effort to stop crime might uncover a terrorist because any type of police work could.
The Seattle chief of police, R. Gil Kerlikowske, said, “If the law enforcement focus at the local level is only on counterterrorism, you will be unable as a local entity to sustain it unless you are an all-crimes operation, and you may be missing some very significant issues that could be related to terrorism.”

Chief Kerlikowske is president of a group of police chiefs from major cities who said in a report last week that local governments were being forced to spend increasingly scarce resources because, they say, Homeland Security did not pay for all the costs. “Most local governments move law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence programs down on the priority list because their municipality has not yet been directly affected by an attack,” the report said.
What we're seeing here is two ends of a spectrum, neither of which is appropriate. On the one hand, it's ridiculous to imagine that local law enforcement should exclusively focus on combating terrorism.

And on the other hand, no jurisdiction should ignore the potential for terrorism or erroneously conflate all crime-fighting with counterterrorism. Like any low-probability, high-impact event (an earthquake, a tornado, etc), a potential terrorist attack should be prepared for and prevented and/or mitigated to the degree possible.

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