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.
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