Law Enforcement, American Style

By John Miller, an assistant director of the F.B.I. and a former chief of counterterrorism for the Los Angeles Police Department (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 14/09/06):

WITH the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks coming shortly after British authorities disrupted the plot to bomb airliners over the Atlantic, we are seeing another round of calls to break up the F.B.I. or to create a domestic intelligence agency separate from the F.B.I. with no police powers, similar to Britain’s MI5.

But these critics, who have been joined by the prominent federal appeals court judge Richard Posner, seem to be unaware of two critical things. One is how far the F.B.I. has come in transforming itself into an intelligence-driven organization in the last five years; the other is how many attacks we have prevented in that span.

Using intelligence and technology — and our authority to make arrests — the F.B.I. has stopped five terrorist plots in progress in roughly the last year alone:

• On Aug. 31, 2005, in Los Angeles, we arrested four members of a group of radicals that had grown out of the prison system and was planning to attack military recruiting centers and synagogues.

• In February, in Toledo, Ohio, we arrested three men who had conspired to travel to Iraq and attack American forces there.

• In a case out of Atlanta, indictments were handed down in March and July against two men who had traveled to Washington to videotape possible targets near the Capitol and then met with other extremists in Canada to compare notes.

• In Miami in June, seven extremists were arrested after being recorded on F.B.I. surveillance tapes swearing allegiance to Al Qaeda and making plans to attack targets in Miami and Chicago, including the Sears Tower.

• In July a plot to attack subways in New York was disrupted with the arrest of the mastermind in Lebanon.

In addition, we worked closely with our law enforcement partners in Canada and Britain to help uncover plots in those countries that made headlines worldwide this summer. This recent record suggests two things: that the operational tempo of Al Qaeda’s followers is still high, and that the F.B.I. is doing a good job.

So why tear apart the bureau now and start a new agency? How long would it take this new agency to get rolling? A year? Two? What would it use for a database? How would it address privacy and civil liberties? How long would it take the officers of this new agency to develop trusting relationships with America’s 18,000 local law enforcement agencies?

There is a more fundamental question for the “domestic intelligence agency” proponents: Who says the other system is better? When we visit our colleagues at domestic intelligence agencies abroad to compare systems, those without police powers tell us they wish they could make arrests.

Israel and Britain have domestic intelligence agencies staffed by some of the finest operators in the world. Since 9/11, both countries have suffered terrorist attacks on home soil while we have not. That doesn’t mean their systems don’t work best for them; it simply proves that the domestic-intelligence model is not a magic bullet against our enemies.

The proponents of creating a new agency assume the F.B.I. always makes arrests at the first opportunity, scooping up the little fish while the masterminds get away. They seem unaware of the existence of our intelligence directorate, or the 56 field intelligence groups spread throughout the nation. The critics don’t understand how intelligence is leveraged in each investigation.

At any moment, we are involved in joint operations with American and foreign intelligence agencies that go on for months or even years, gathering intelligence and disrupting plots by means other than high-profile arrests. These operations allow the F.B.I. and our partners to continue to follow the thread of intelligence until we have learned the identities of all the players or found the last safe house. In those cases no one takes a bow or holds a press conference, but the work gets done quietly and effectively. When we do make arrests, it is because making arrests was the most effective way to disrupt a plot.

The bureau’s director, Robert Mueller, has made a priority of merging our longtime strength of being a premier investigative agency with the new goal of being an intelligence-led agency. We have started a national security branch, with special agents and talented analysts, to control our counterterrorism, intelligence and counterespionage efforts. This branch is now home to about 40 percent of the bureau’s employees.

We have added a directorate that handles investigations involving weapons of mass destruction and also conducts research to stay on the cutting edge of terrorist capacities.

We have expanded our partnerships with local law enforcement by increasing the number of joint terrorist task forces to 101 today from 33 before 9/11.

In those squads in cities across the country, local police detectives, our agents and analysts and investigators from other federal agencies work side by side, sharing information and running down leads.

We have also developed a database, called the Investigative Data Warehouse, that can search more than 700 million records from more than a dozen agencies and match them against our own investigative records.

As we break down the structure of Al Qaeda, we see the very shape of the terrorist threat changing and adapting. Our approach has to continually evolve to keep up. Starting over from scratch will only set us back and make America less safe.