When it comes to homeland security, we’ve been seduced for more than a decade by a “pre-emptive” mandate that directs us to catch terrorists before they strike next. Where law enforcement once investigated crimes to determine who was responsible and how they could be prosecuted, it now also gathers intelligence to prevent potential future crimes.
This mandate, however, has been characterized by a distinct absence of actual terrorist plots. Instead, we’ve seen an increasingly familiar pattern — the most recent case in the last few weeks involved four young Southern Californians who were arrested in a case built largely by a well-paid informant. The young men allegedly were on their way to join al-Qaida. One of them was already abroad. The others had booked flights through Mexico to Afghanistan and, according to the government, played proxy holy war at a paintball course and exchanged macho emails.
Would they have become truly dangerous to America? Maybe. But in the past, these stings have mostly put behind bars a lot of impressionable young men — rather iffy bad guys — who were often urged toward jihad by the intelligence operation targeting them.
Along the way, constitutional protections such as the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial have been put at risk. Everyone is a potential suspect, and everyone is under surveillance.
As President Obama embarks on his second term, among the key questions he faces is how he will continue to wage the war on terror. Many of these questions have been focused overseas — on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, on drone warfare and what to do with the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
But domestically we’re not debating the overreach of our counter-terrorism efforts, which involve primarily the FBI but also state and local law enforcement. Among the kinds of things deemed suspect by the L.A. Police Department, for example, are people who take photos “with no apparent aesthetic value” or who carry on “long conversations on pay or cellular phones.”
The unprecedented expansion of intelligence gathering comes with a host of enhanced surveillance and investigative tools that erode civil liberties but offers little evidence that we are safer from another terrorist attack. Many of these measures were first introduced under President George W. Bush through legislation such as the Patriot Act. Under Obama, they appear increasingly entrenched in our national security landscape.
These amplified investigative powers were originally part of an emergency response to the 9/11 attacks. The FBI, as the agency responsible for counter-terrorism in the U.S., shouldered the brunt of recriminations over missed cues that might have forestalled the attacks, and its director, Robert S. Mueller III, found himself battling calls for the FBI to be broken up into two agencies: one tasked with traditional law enforcement and the other focused on intelligence gathering. To stave off the loss of half his institutional footprint, Mueller assured Congress that the bureau could be a model of law enforcement and intelligence gathering.
The implications of this now-institutionalized model have not troubled most Americans, probably because “intelligence-led policing” has focused on a beleaguered and relatively powerless minority, Muslim Americans. But it is already being deployed against ever-expanding categories of “suspect” citizens.