Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 23, 2012

The problem with defining “something”

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Arnold Bogis on January 23, 2012

In a post last week, Phil brought to our attention a White House meeting where local law enforcement officials were presented with a framework for identifying “Homegrown Violent Extremists” that included four major mobilizing patterns:

Contact with individuals tied to terrorist organizations

Indicators of ideological commitment

Travel or attempted travel in pursuit of a violent agenda

Seeking weapons or weapons related training

All very sensible, though perhaps seemingly so after the fact. Perhaps at the briefing methodology was shared for determining in advance when these or similar indicators might lead to violence.  Hopefully it was more than what Phil’s brief contained:

According to my sources the law enforcement officials were, “cautioned against adopting a checklist-like mentality incountering the HVE threat. Simplistically interpreting any single indicator as a confirmation of mobilization probably will lead to ineffective and counterproductive efforts to identify and defeat Homegrown Violent Extremists.”

That quote reminded me of the following quote from a not-so-recent blog post at Security Debrief:

Ask yourself, would an artist draw what you see them sketching? Are the photos a person is taking something you would place in your vacation or family photo album? Give yourself the “reasonableness” test. Is it reasonable that the activity is likely tourist or terrorist in nature? Trust your intuition.

The author is Erroll Southers, according to his Security Debrief Blog bio a former FBI Special Agent, President Barack Obama’s first nominee for Assistant Secretary of the Transportation Security Administration, and Assistant Chief of Homeland Security and Intelligence at the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department.

Reasonable advice from a homeland security professional, right?

Perhaps only after the fact.  Not to pick on Mr. Southers, but I’m guessing he rarely if ever visits small art galleries or has participated in “open studios” (these are usually weekends when a number of artists in particular neighborhoods open up their studios–often their homes–to the public to view and perhaps purchase their work) in any of the cities in which he has lived.  I enjoy these events and could not count on my hands the number of photographers I’ve encountered who take pictures of what is considered critical infrastructure.  Dams, electrical grids, nuclear power stations, public transportation, etc.  Not something you might place in your vacation (Hoover Dam anyone?) or family photo albums perhaps, but absolutely striking physical objects that can be rendered quite beautifully by any number of artists.

I have noticed this general extension of “see something, say something” in other venues, numerous papers, and by many a speaker. The unoriginal thinking and lack of imagination is disheartening.  How will the public become true partners in homeland security if the level of engagement largely remains at this level?  Does the whole of community only count those who have the same aesthetic views as homeland security professionals?  And will JIC (just in case) be the enduring legacy of 9/11?

Maybe not, at least if noted baseball writer George Will and others have anything to say about it:

Quentin, who finds aesthetic — and occasional monetary — value in photographs of industrial scenery at night, was equally persistent when deputies ordered him to stop taking pictures, lest they put his name on a troublesome FBI list. He was on a public sidewalk, using a large camera on a tripod, photographing an oil refinery at 1 a.m. He has a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of California at Irvine, so there.

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1 Comment »

Comment by John Comiskey

January 24, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

Most “somethings” in context are probably nothings. On the other hand, some “somethings” that appear innocuous might be something worth looking into.

Harry Truman commented on economists who likewise had “and on the other hand” analysis of the economy. Mr. Truman said that for once he would like to meet a one handed economist. No one handed counterterrorism analysis here.

Innovative terrorist will exploit innocuous “somethings” to our peril. Effective counter-terrorist policy should and does attempt to counter the not-really-innocuous-something-threat.

At the same time, the policy should and mostly does attempt to balance security requisites and civil liberties. Too many questionable exceptions to type here.

The enduring legacy of 9/11 is that 19 bad guys hijacked and weaponized 4 airplanes, crashed the airplanes into buildings and a field, murdered thousands, scared us senseless, and made us realize that we ignored “somethings” that we shouldn’t have ignored.

The legacy should and still could be that we learned some really tough lessons and made America a better place.

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