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How to detect terrorist plots: Old-fashioned digging

A study of 86 terrorist plots since 1999 found that 80 percent were discovered through old-fashioned police work or tips from the public, not technology-driven counter-terrorism operations.

The study by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, a research consortium between Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and RTI International, an independent research institute, emphasized the need for local law enforcement, in particular, to recognize "potential terrorist activity during the course of routine criminal investigations."

Noting that 40 percent of all foiled plots resulted from tips from the public or well-placed informants, the researchers said the authorities should cultivate good relations with "communities with persons in or near radical movements, an ability that is jeopardized by indiscriminately targeting individuals and groups due to their race, ethnicity, religion or ideology."

The study, called "Building on Clues: Examining Successes and Failures in Detecting U.S. Terrorist Plots, 1999-2009," looked at not only cases associated with al-Qaeda and its affiliates and supporters, but terrorist attacks planned by white supremacist or anti-government militias, animal rights groups, environmental activists and opponents of abortion.

The authors acknowledged that, because they worked from open sources and focused primarily on domestic cases, they may have underestimated the role of the intelligence community in detecting plots. But, in general, they said their findings point to the critical role of 17,000 state and local agencies in the United States, which "are still commonly underutilized," despite the creation of regional and state fusion centers.

"In the absence of federal guidance, local jurisdictions have developed different procedures for collecting and prioritizing suspicious activity reports," the authors wrote. They called for "quality assurance processes" to ensure that "initial clues are properly pursued and findings shared."

By Peter Finn  | October 20, 2010; 12:31 PM ET
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both are needed...
you can't use one method and let the other slide...
America's people must be protected...

Posted by: DwightCollins | October 20, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

And thus we build the police state, with the best of intentions.

I'm not much worried about "terrorism" -- and it will happen no matter how many civil liberties we throw away (note the attacks in Russia and Saudi Arabia).

But what TERRIFIES me is the guaranteed abuses of power that will occur once government is empowered to track our every move, and once bureaucrats are able to put anyone with the "wrong attitude" on a life-ruining secret list.

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Posted by: wodwo49 | October 20, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

The TSA is a $7 billion fraud. TSA agents vigilantly make every citizen remove her shoes at the airport, and we incorrectly infer that the federal government is keeping us safe.

If federal policymakers don't know this, it is solely their own fault. GAO found, in a candy-coated report released last spring ( - pdf), that TSA's pseudo-scientific "behavior detection" program screened 2 billion air passengers over 5 years, without arresting a single terrorist. Meanwhile, 16 known terrorists passed through those same airport checkpoints and boarded planes despite the program and the other redundant security layers adding negligible value. Yet it appears that no amount of empirical evidence can bring our leaders to accept the ineffectiveness of their massive appropriations--which also must be just for show.

Competent investigation of tips collected from an alert public is effective--but that work is not as much as playing with the latest toy that takes pictures of people's underwear. At best, TSA's busywork creates an illusion of protection (which at least helps DwightCollins sleep). At worst, it renders the Fourth Amendment meaningless while giving our very real enemies space to operate effectively in our midst.

Of course I would offer to take off my shoes if doing so could save America. But as it is, the TSA gives me no choice--without even repaying my lost liberty with an added measure of security.

Posted by: hungrypug | October 20, 2010 11:57 PM | Report abuse

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