Huston: The Inevitability of an Attack Here

November 15, 2015

For the use of the membership only (674 words)

by Tom Charles Huston

The French domestic intelligence service, the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure (DGSI), is one of the two best internal security operations in the world. The other is Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Agency.

The successor of the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, which during my time in the business was the only cooperating intelligence service thought by the FBI not to have been infiltrated by the Soviets, is the French General Directorate. For many years, it honed the skills required to keep tabs on potential terrorists among a large domestic Muslim population. That it failed to anticipate and forestall the Charlie Hebdo attack in January and the Paris massacre on Friday is the best indication you can have of how difficult these events are to forestall.

Not all the failure, however, falls on the detection and surveillance deficiencies of the DGSI. It has no control over the immigration policies of the French government or responsibility for border security, two of the basic elements in devising an effective anti-terror strategy against Islamists. While it appears that at least one and perhaps two of the Paris terrorists were recent migrants from Syria, the other six were apparently French nationals. As to the latter, only an effective domestic surveillance effort could have precluded their participation in the attacks.

The United States has heretofore been less vulnerable to these sorts of attacks because we did not have a large disaffected Muslim population among which foreign terrorist organizations such as al Qaida and ISIS could recruit, and we had reasonable border controls that if effectively administered (as they clearly were not in September 2001) could limit our risk.

From an intelligence perspective, it is much easier to cope with foreigners attempting to enter the country and meld into a domestic community than it is to deal with the native born who are largely indistinguishable from the general population. We learned this lesson well when attempting to deal with the domestic threats posed by the Weathermen and Black Panthers 40 years ago. The advantages we long enjoyed against attack by Islamist terrorism at home have been greatly diminished, and the threat risk has escalated accordingly.

Virtually all U.S. anti-terrorist surveillance and counter-intelligence laws presume (and largely require) a link to international terrorism, and while civil libertarians worry about unrestrained surveillance by NASA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, the FBI works under restraints that are unheard of in France or other Western countries. There is a large gap between international terrorism of the type masterminded by ISIS or al Qaida and domestic terrorism grounded in U.S. communities with no direct operational link with foreign governments or terrorist organizations. Congress moved to partially close this gap by permitting the targeting of the so-called “lone wolf,” but it still left a wide hole that may be exploited by domestic terrorists with the (inadvertent?) assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild.

I have been surprised that we have thus far avoided the Paris sort of incident and, for want of going to the trouble of offering a somewhat more skeptical explanation, will attribute it to effective law enforcement. It is not, however, as if we have gotten off scot-free: The Boston bombing and the Fort Hood “workplace violence” were only the most notable of a number of incidents of domestic terrorism since 9/11.

The political climate in the U.S. is not conducive to effective anti-terrorism efforts at a time when the threat is greater than ever. The FBI, which is ultimately responsible for protecting us from incidents of domestic terrorism, is doubtless doing the best it can, but it operates under rules and with a culture that render it less effective than either the French or British security services. It runs two large risks: 1) being overwhelmed by the range of challenges or 2) being constrained by its operational limitations from doing the job that would be required to meet an immediate threat.

In any event, the odds favor the terrorist. It is simply a matter of time.

Tom Charles Huston, A.B., J.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review who resides in Indianapolis, served as an officer in the United States Army assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency and as associate counsel to the president of the United States.

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