Getting to the bottom of 'known' terrorists

I feel as if I'm experiencing a terror-related "Groundhog Day."  In the aftermath of nearly every radical Islamic terrorist incident, it seems we learn that the perpetrators were "known to authorities" or "known to security services."

The Tsarnaev brothers (Boston Marathon bombing), Major Nidal Hasan (Fort Hood), Syed Farook (San Bernardino), and Omar Mateen (Orlando shooter) were all known to authorities, as were the attackers in Paris, Brussels, London, Manchester, and now London Bridge.

Rather than posturing on the difficulty of combating a lone wolf attacker, police response times, or extending security perimeters in the aftermath of an event, maybe we should focus on the circumstances surrounding what made the perpetrators "known" in the first place and what is done once the person becomes "known."  What does the term "known" mean, and what subsequent actions did or did not occur?  Are all persons "known" to authorities in this context interviewed?  If not, maybe they should not be described as known to authorities.  What suspicion is sufficient to cause further investigation?  Clearly something is lacking.  Explanations to the effect of "just too much data to sift through" are becoming trite.  Is it possible that political correctness is a barrier to further action?

Perhaps we should begin by asking:

  • Are there adequate protocols in place to make a judgment about a person's propensity for violence?
  • Have national and international criminal and intelligence databases been searched?
  • Are interviewers trained to make these judgments?
  • Are persons of interest routinely photographed at the time of interview?  Is handwriting taken?
  • If a person is determined to be of concern, are friends and associates interviewed?  Are they encouraged to report changes in behavior?
  • Has a polygraph been considered?
  • Are there provisions for periodic update interviews for persons of interest?
  • Are travel patterns reviewed, with a particular focus on foreign travel?
  • Are there provisions to monitor the social media activity and internet footprint of a person judged to be of interest?

Any protocol should involve procedures to tier the level of interest to make it more manageable.  There should be specific analytical and investigative expectations at each tier of risk.  As an example, level one interest might just involve a personal interview and minimum follow-up investigation.  Level three might include all level one procedures and a full internet footprint analysis.  The judgment of investigators, not the judgment of bureaucrats, should be of primary importance in deciding the level of suspicion.  We are up to our eyeballs in people concerned with saving us from their own feelings of moral superiority.

I spent a career in the Secret Service dealing with individuals who threatened public officials, specifically the president of the United States.  We had a standard protocol for investigating this type of case.  The protocol always required an interview of the subject by two trained agents.  Family and associates were also interviewed.  Our investigators were as good as most psychiatrists in determining a subject's propensity for short-term violence and his potential for deception.  If an individual was determined to be of interest, he was periodically re-interviewed to assess changes in behavior.  If that person was judged to be a danger and there was no judicial alternative, he was placed under surveillance when a protectee was in proximity to his location.

Other investigative measures were also employed.

There is a lot of smoke and some fire to suggest that intelligence products are being managed to fit a desired political narrative.  Let's hope the decisions that dictate what investigative steps are taken, after a person becomes known, aren't limited because of a particular political agenda.  The informed judgment of experienced investigators should not be constrained by the specter of racial profiling or the overzealous privacy concerns of politicians.

Joe Carlon is Former Assistant Director, U.S. Secret Service

I feel as if I'm experiencing a terror-related "Groundhog Day."  In the aftermath of nearly every radical Islamic terrorist incident, it seems we learn that the perpetrators were "known to authorities" or "known to security services."

The Tsarnaev brothers (Boston Marathon bombing), Major Nidal Hasan (Fort Hood), Syed Farook (San Bernardino), and Omar Mateen (Orlando shooter) were all known to authorities, as were the attackers in Paris, Brussels, London, Manchester, and now London Bridge.

Rather than posturing on the difficulty of combating a lone wolf attacker, police response times, or extending security perimeters in the aftermath of an event, maybe we should focus on the circumstances surrounding what made the perpetrators "known" in the first place and what is done once the person becomes "known."  What does the term "known" mean, and what subsequent actions did or did not occur?  Are all persons "known" to authorities in this context interviewed?  If not, maybe they should not be described as known to authorities.  What suspicion is sufficient to cause further investigation?  Clearly something is lacking.  Explanations to the effect of "just too much data to sift through" are becoming trite.  Is it possible that political correctness is a barrier to further action?

Perhaps we should begin by asking:

  • Are there adequate protocols in place to make a judgment about a person's propensity for violence?
  • Have national and international criminal and intelligence databases been searched?
  • Are interviewers trained to make these judgments?
  • Are persons of interest routinely photographed at the time of interview?  Is handwriting taken?
  • If a person is determined to be of concern, are friends and associates interviewed?  Are they encouraged to report changes in behavior?
  • Has a polygraph been considered?
  • Are there provisions for periodic update interviews for persons of interest?
  • Are travel patterns reviewed, with a particular focus on foreign travel?
  • Are there provisions to monitor the social media activity and internet footprint of a person judged to be of interest?

Any protocol should involve procedures to tier the level of interest to make it more manageable.  There should be specific analytical and investigative expectations at each tier of risk.  As an example, level one interest might just involve a personal interview and minimum follow-up investigation.  Level three might include all level one procedures and a full internet footprint analysis.  The judgment of investigators, not the judgment of bureaucrats, should be of primary importance in deciding the level of suspicion.  We are up to our eyeballs in people concerned with saving us from their own feelings of moral superiority.

I spent a career in the Secret Service dealing with individuals who threatened public officials, specifically the president of the United States.  We had a standard protocol for investigating this type of case.  The protocol always required an interview of the subject by two trained agents.  Family and associates were also interviewed.  Our investigators were as good as most psychiatrists in determining a subject's propensity for short-term violence and his potential for deception.  If an individual was determined to be of interest, he was periodically re-interviewed to assess changes in behavior.  If that person was judged to be a danger and there was no judicial alternative, he was placed under surveillance when a protectee was in proximity to his location.

Other investigative measures were also employed.

There is a lot of smoke and some fire to suggest that intelligence products are being managed to fit a desired political narrative.  Let's hope the decisions that dictate what investigative steps are taken, after a person becomes known, aren't limited because of a particular political agenda.  The informed judgment of experienced investigators should not be constrained by the specter of racial profiling or the overzealous privacy concerns of politicians.

Joe Carlon is Former Assistant Director, U.S. Secret Service

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