Why it’s so hard to root out violent extremists before they strike

The mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, shooting brought home the challenging problems of detecting home-grown jihadists in the United States.

Syed Farook lived an outwardly normal life, under the radar of intelligence and law enforcement. He was born in the United States, and held a good job in the local government. His wife, Tashfeen Malik, entered the country under a valid fiancé visa. The guns they used to kill 14 people and wound 22 others were purchased by a friend. Farook had done nothing to lead his co-workers and neighbors to suspect him.

The FBI said it was investigating the massacre as “an act of terrorism” and that the couple had been “radicalized for some time.”

This massacre offers a virtual textbook example of the problem. Washington faces a formidable task in ferreting out and catching jihadists who live in the United States. All the high-tech tools of government surveillance are of little use if a terrorist does little to draw attention.

Even when the government has advance warning, there may still be legal obstacles to taking action. In some cases, terrorists have been nabbed only because they were caught in the act, or had ties to foreign jihadists that led the FBI to place them under surveillance, or both.

One Afghan immigrant to the United States had, for example, journeyed to Pakistan to train in bomb-making. The FBI placed Najibullah Zazi under surveillance when he returned to Colorado. Yet he was still able to obtain two pounds of explosives and drive to Manhattan with a plan to bomb New York subways during rush hour. He didn’t do it only because he got cold feet. He instead flew home to Colorado and was finally arrested there, pleading guilty to terrorism. He is due to be sentenced in April.

Or consider the two Chechen brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013, killing three people and injuring an estimated 250. One brother had also been on the FBI’s radar. Russian intelligence told the agency that Tamarlan Tsarnaev was a follower of radical Islam and might be linked to Chechen terrorists who had staged attacks in Moscow. The FBI interviewed him in 2011, but was unable to develop any evidence. Because Tsarnaev was a permanent U.S. resident with a green card, he could not be held.

Two years later, however, Tamarlan worked with his younger brother, Dzhokhar, to place two pressure-cooker bombs at the marathon’s finish line. The carnage was unleashed. Tamarlan was killed in a confrontation with police; his brother was tried and sentenced to death.

Finding terrorists or agents in place living in America has never been easy for Washington, though. Just look at how U.S. intelligence addressed a parallel problem during the Cold War.

The threat then was Soviet spies. In 1985, Aldrich Ames had been chief of the CIA’s Soviet counterintelligence branch when he volunteered to spy for the Soviets. As such, he knew which Russians were spying for the United States. He betrayed 10 spies — who were executed by Moscow. Many others were imprisoned. Ames was surrounded daily by CIA officers who did not sense anything wrong — even though he was clearly spending money extravagantly, driving his expensive Jaguar to work at CIA headquarters and drinking heavily. He was not caught for nine years, and then received a life sentence.

Britain had the same blind spot when it came to tracking down spies within its intelligence services. Kim Philby, a longtime British spy, served as chief of the MI-6 section responsible for unmasking Soviet agents. All the while, however, he was spying for Moscow. When Philby was stationed in Washington, James J. Angleton, the controversial CIA counterintelligence chief, lunched with him regularly. Angleton had spent years obsessed with trying to find Soviet moles inside the CIA — destroying careers and the agency’s Soviet operations in the process. Yet face-to-face over lunches with a real Russian spy, he suspected nothing.

Philby eventually fled to Moscow — barely one step ahead of MI-6. He died there in 1988.

If moles burrowed into intelligence agencies have gone undetected, the problem of finding spies — or terrorists — is exponentially harder when they live ordinary lives, even deliberately dull lives blending into their surroundings. In July 2010 the FBI arrested 10 Russian “illegals” — deep-cover spies living in the United States under false identities. One couple, for example, lived in Montclair, New Jersey, an idyllic suburb of New York City, and seeming for all the world like ordinary Americans. They were finally caught, it is true. But only because a Russian officer inside the SVR, Moscow’s successor to the KGB’s foreign espionage organization, betrayed them to U.S. intelligence.

Despite the controversy over the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata on the phone calls and emails of Americans, all this technology does not seem to provide a magic bulwark against terrorists.

After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush authorized a secret NSA program of warrantless surveillance, allowing the government to store the records of millions of telephone calls and emails. These programs were exposed in 2013 by Edward J. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, and also by the New York Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post. The eavesdropping programs were modified and stopped for a while, because Snowden’s revelations created a strong backlash against the government’s secret surveillance.

But last year, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which now allows the NSA to access bulk phone data stored and maintained by the telephone companies — no longer by the intelligence agency — with an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

These bulk telephone records are logs of calls placed to other numbers and their length — but not their content. Though the government, in theory stopped collecting records of emails in 2011, recent published reports revealed that the NSA has various ways of going around the ban and still gaining access to many, if not all, emails.

Though these various surveillance programs may help the government to track suspects and also to puzzle out a pattern of their networks, they are of little use unless the intelligence and law enforcement agencies know whom to target.

Moreover, many terrorists have now learned to avoid using the telephone or they encrypt their emails. They may not even bother with encryption because both Apple and Google have announced new software that can automatically encrypt cell phone data.

FBI Director James B. Comey has lamented that the software would seriously thwart investigators’ ability to apprehend terrorists and criminals. But privacy advocates, and the cell phone companies, are opposed to any attempt to allow the government a Big Brother back-door access to cell phones.

This debate reflects a decades-old argument over how to balance liberty with national security. During the McCarthy witch-hunts in the 1950s, the debate centered on communists in the government. During the Cold War, the debate focused on how much freedom to give up to counter the threat of the Soviet Union. Today it is terrorism, Islamic State and home-grown jihadists. The players have changed, but not the central problem.

From the San Bernardino terrorists to Cold War spies, in America’s open society it has always been a difficult task for U.S. counterintelligence to uncover hidden enemies without violating the law.

In the legitimate quest for security. Washington must be careful not to change the nature of the U.S. democratic system and the values that make it worth protecting in the first place.

David Wise writes frequently about intelligence and espionage. His most recent book is Tiger Trap: America's Secret Spy War with China. His other books include Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America.

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