Homeland security secretary cites importance of local authorities in combating terrorism

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The woman in charge of protecting Americans inside the country’s borders said a recent spate of homegrown terror plots should remind the public and local law enforcement that they stand “on the front lines” combating terror.

“Americans must see themselves as key participants in helping secure their own country,” said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a talk in Denver on Oct. 28. It’s part of “a homeland security architecture that begins with the hometown,” she said.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says local law enforcement is on “the front lines” guarding against terrorist attacks.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

At the discussion, sponsored by the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab and introduced by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Napolitano stressed the importance of local authorities in thwarting several recent terrorist plots. Those included a scheme by Aurora shuttle driver Najibullah Zazi to coordinate suicide bombings on New York City subways. Napolitano credited Zazi’s capture to local law enforcement and the Colorado Information and Analysis Center, one of dozens of so-called fusion centers where authorities collate information on threats.

Napolitano said that homegrown attacks like the one plotted by Zazi could portend what the country will be facing in years to come.

“More and more, we are seeing an increased role of Westerners, including U.S. citizens.” In addition, she added, “attacks look like they might be smaller, more quickly developed.” These smaller-scale plots could be more dangerous, Napolitano said, because “authorities have fewer abilities to interrupt them.”

Napolitano said the federal government’s National SAR Initiative — the initials stand for Suspicious Activity Reporting — is crucial to identifying terrorist threats that could as easily emerge down the block as they can across the globe. The initiative, which encourages law enforcement agencies to share tips, is rolling out in more than a dozen cities. It was recently moved from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to the Department of Justice to calm civil libertarians concerned about a spy agency running a domestic surveillance program.

Earlier that day, Napolitano spoke at the National Symposium on Homeland Security and Defense in Colorado Springs, where she discussed an agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense to allow the military’s National Security Agency to handle threats to civilian cybersecurity. She also promoted another initiative — this one aimed at protecting cybersecurity — called the “Stop. Think. Connect.” Initiative, a campaign taking place during National Cybersecurity Awareness Month.

“The threat landscape we see today is one where a local policeman or member of the public may be in the best position to first notice something that could point to a terrorist attack being plotted,” Napolitano said in Denver.

It’s a message central to the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that sponsored Napolitano’s talk. In published guidelines, The CELL lists the following as among signs of possible terrorism and urges members of the public to report them to authorities: anyone recording or monitoring activities, anyone eliciting information about the military, testing security, suspicious financial activity, anyone purchasing supplies that could be used in a plot, and terrorists actually deploying themselves to carry out an attack.

Still, Napolitano cautioned her audience against confusing the “See something, say something” campaign with ethnic or religious profiling, which she noted would be illegal. The initiatives have “built-in privacy protections to prevent profiling,” she said, calling that essential to getting the public involved. “If they believe that’s what they’re doing, they won’t participate,” she said.

What it comes down to, Napolitano said, is an alert public ready “to tell law enforcement when they see something suspicious.”

As an example, she cited the recent arrest and conviction of Faisal Shahzad, the so-called Times Square Bomber. Events unfolded quickly following a simple tip – in this case, a New York street vendor telling a beat cop he’d seen smoke billowing from an unfamiliar vehicle.

“From that tip to the arrest, less than 53 hours,” Napolitano said. “You may have seen the television show ‘24.’ That’s a television show,” she said, emphasizing how quickly authorities turned something suspicious, if hardly earth-shattering, into a foiled terror plot.

With all the efforts and expense going into protecting the country from danger, Napolitano said she wished she “could give a 100 percent guarantee.” With a slight shake of her head, she continued: “I cannot give you that guarantee. So let me tell you the truth: We cannot put this country under a dome, or put it in a big Tuperware container and seal it off from any threats.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com