CSI, Iraq and Afghanistan

Yesterday's Post featured a really interesting story about how many detainees captured abroad in the war on terrorism have a forensic trail that leads to criminal activity inside the United States.

There was the suspected militant fleeing Somalia who had been arrested on a drug charge in New Jersey. And the man stopped at a checkpoint in Tikrit who claimed to be a dirt farmer but had 11 felony charges in the United States, including assault with a deadly weapon.

The records suggest that potential enemies abroad know a great deal about the United States because many of them have lived here, officials said. The matches also reflect the power of sharing data across agencies and even countries, data that links an identity to a distinguishing human characteristic such as a fingerprint....

The fingerprinting of detainees overseas began as ad-hoc FBI and U.S. military efforts shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It has since grown into a government-wide push to build the world's largest database of known or suspected terrorist fingerprints. The effort is being boosted by a presidential directive signed June 5, which gave the U.S. attorney general and other cabinet officials 90 days to come up with a plan to expand the use of biometrics by, among other things, recommending categories of people to be screened beyond "known or suspected" terrorists.

Fingerprints are being beamed in via satellite from places as far-flung as the jungles of Zamboanga in the southern Philippines; Bogota, Colombia; Iraq; and Afghanistan. Other allies, such as Sweden, have contributed prints. The database can be queried by U.S. government agencies and by other countries through Interpol, the international police agency.

The implications of this program are many, but Frances Fragos Townsend, former White House special assistant for homeland security, really nailed it when she told The Post that these matches identified "a potential vulnerability" to national security that the government had not fully appreciated.

They also represent a potential opportunity -- but only if exploited correctly.

The vulnerability arises because of the way we've organized the U.S. government for the fight against terrorism. Military agencies proceed along one axis, employing one set of approaches; law enforcement agencies proceed along another, usually very different axis. And intelligence agencies often do their own thing. The article makes clear that these approaches often do not overlap, nor even coordinate with each other, save for a few extraordinary and unusual interagency efforts. And this creates the vulnerability, for terrorist cells can exploit the seams between these agencies and efforts to operate in the gaps.

If we can find a way to bridge these gaps, then these technologies provide a tremendous opportunity. Our government has many tentacles that pick up and ingest information from a dizzying array of sources. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is engaged in a direct fight against both the tactical and strategic arms of al-Qaeda. In Europe, the State Department and other government agencies are constantly picking up information from diplomatic and other sources about al-Qaeda. It would be a great boon to our efforts -- and a potential death sentence for our enemies -- if we could find a way to combine all this information into a common operational picture.

The risk, of course, is that our government will do so in its typically ham-fisted manner, arousing anger from civil libertarians and suspicion from our potential allies and partners. The key is to find an agreed framework with our allies and partners on this issue, like the Interpol model that exists today, and then to build in transparency and accountability measures. Errors will happen, as the Brandon Mayfield case illustrates, because this system will often rely on fallible, human sources of information.

By Phillip Carter |  July 7, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Counterterrorism
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"The article makes clear that these approaches often do not overlap, nor even coordinate with each other, save for a few extraordinary and unusual interagency efforts."

Your point is well taken, the necessity is understood and is being worked (has been in the works) for years. But, your statement above is not an accurate statement. Interagency is a huge effort today. DoD, CIA, FBI, DoS and other players work together on a daily basis. Collaboration is neither extraordinary nor unusual, it is actually in the process of becoming daily and common place. From what I read in the article, the information and vignettes seemed a bit dated.

Now, is there is a direct link between a solider at a check point and FBI databases? In most cases, not yet (however, back in 2005 we did have a way to make it happen,but it was new and not commonplace). But the need for interagency at all levels is well understood.

I think you made an important point when you brought up interpol. Whatever efforts we make internally in the US Govt, no matter how efficient and well executed, it will only be a half measure if we are not tied in with the global community. I think that is the next step, no just interagency, but "international-agency".

Posted by: bg | July 7, 2008 8:37 AM

Mill Intelligence, FBI and CIA don't seem to fit naturally into a framework of "transparency and accountability".

A lot of modeling and thought has to go into making an interagency system with "transparency and accountability". If not you just get a totalitarian state. I am not sure anyone is tackling either issue seriously.

I like the idea, but someone outside the agencies has to figure out the model. They are all famous for a culture of holding the cards close to their chests.

The one thing I can guarantee you is that we will not have transparency and accountability. Has not happened yet, not with the Total Information Awareness project, the no fly list, the phone taping, or any of the other data collection projects.

That's why this should be re-designed from the ground up by people who are not part of the TLA's or from the executive branch.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 7, 2008 11:49 AM

"The one thing I can guarantee you is that we will not have transparency and accountability. ... That's why this should be re-designed from the ground up by people who are not part of the TLA's or from the executive branch.
Posted by: | July 7, 2008 11:49 AM

| identities a real problem. Even the degree of transparency and accountability in the FISA system is under threat from those who favor presidential power unchecked by Congress and the Judiciary.

This is the "dark side" of globalization. Once our security boundaries largely coincided with our borders. When borders are no longer boundaries and peoples mix promiscuously, boundaries become too complex to comprehend. We need a paradigm change, not a rehash of the old paradigms.

Posted by: LHM | July 7, 2008 7:34 PM

recommending categories of people to be screened beyond "known or suspected" terrorists.

Like my 88 year old Mom, who, for reasons she cannot be granted info about, is a 100% guaranteed mandatory extra screening person when she boards an airplane? We suspect it's due to my sister requesting a new social security card and birth certificate for her four yesrs ago, but for "national security reasons", you cannot be told how you are elevated to full frisk treatment at the airport, eliminating any opportunity to correct the record and be removed. Thus, once on the list, you are on for life.

But then, known terrorists are not on this list, because if the list were ever "leaked" the terrorists would know we know. Can't have that can we? So they get on an airplane unchallenged, while Mom gets the full search treatment.

Stories such as the one Phil cites make it appear that the protective programs being used are surgically precise. WOW! They found someone in Somalia who had been arrested on a drug charge. Not convicted, but arrested.

Perhaps it's time we put a microchip, similar to those implanted in doga and cats, into each and everyone who lives in or sets foot on US soil. Think of the magnificent database we could build!

Posted by: Aviator47 | July 8, 2008 4:01 AM


Maybe if your mom had that microchip, she wouldn't be stopped at the airport every day (because we could put her security background check on it). You make a compelling argument, we should go for it. And why stop with Americans, lets go ahead and chip anyone who enters the country.

Oh, I am sorry, were you being sarcastic? In seriousness, we don't need microchips, biometrics allow for the same process. I am sure that we are not that far from a world where biometrics will allow a database to be kept of everyone. When these technologies are complete, they will be a very handy law enforcement tool, which would be great considering the "GWOT" should be a law enforcement action. But on the down side, as you fear, there will likely be much potential for abuse. So does the potential gains in biometrics is use of law enforcement outweigh the potential for abuse? I think they do.

Posted by: bg | July 8, 2008 7:50 AM

Biometrics is featured in today's STAND-TO! on www.Army.mil:


Posted by: Anonymous | July 8, 2008 11:26 PM

Actually Al,

After further review, I think I prefer a microchip to biometrics. A microchip does not require any database, you (or someone) chooses what is on it like your medical records, etc. That info can only be accessed if they scan your chip. Biometrics on the other hand does require a database, because without, the information doesn't exist.

Posted by: bg | July 9, 2008 6:57 AM

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