Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 5, 2013

Agreed: Terrorist tactics are tough to track

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on December 5, 2013


The optics of a male Republican House Committee Chair and a female Democratic Senate Committee Chair appearing together and mostly agreeing on substance has continued to resonate, harmonically or discordantly depending on taste.

Last Sunday Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California) were interviewed by Candy Crowley on State of the Union. (Complete transcript here)  From the top of the piece:

CROWLEY: The big question that’s always asked, are we safer now than we were a year ago, two years ago? In general?

FEINSTEIN: I don’t think so. I think terror is up worldwide, the statistics indicate that, the fatalities are way up. The numbers are way up. There are new bombs, very big bombs, trucks being reinforced for those bombs. There are bombs that go through magnatometers. The bomb maker is still alive. There are more groups that ever and there’s huge malevolence out there.

CROWLEY: So congressman, I have to say, that is not the answer I expected. I expected to hear, oh, we’re safer. Do you agree?

ROGERS: Oh, I absolutely agree that we’re not safer today for the same very reasons.

So the pressure on our intelligence services to get it right to prevent an attack are enormous. And it’s getting more difficult because we see the al Qaeda as we knew it before is metastasizing to something different, more affiliates than we’ve ever had before, meaning more groups that operated independently of al Qaeda have now joined al Qaeda around the world, all of them have at least some aspiration to commit an act of violence in the United States or against western targets all around the world.

They’ve now switched to this notion that maybe smaller events are okay. So if you have more smaller events than bigger events, they think that might still lead to their objectives and their goals. That makes it exponentially harder for our intelligence services to stop an event like that.

In part — but only in part — the chairs of the intelligence committees are continuing an effort to explain and justify the sort of activities the Eric Snowden leaks have exposed. (Intelligence methods that many surveys find the American public tends to support.)   This does not mean their threat perceptions are inaccurate or misplaced.

Certainly decentralized — and particularly free-lance — terrorism is much more difficult to anticipate and track.  Certainly such events — Oklahoma City, Boston Marathon, Spokane MLK parade, Oak Creek Sikh Temple Shooting (should we include Newtown and Aurora, what should we exclude?) — can cause profound suffering. Certainly we would prefer to avoid such horrific consequences.

A case can be made that with more rigorous and sophisticated intelligence and policing most of these threats might have been recognized and action taken to save lives.  In retrospect there is — almost always — a trail  through thick underbrush, beneath a dense canopy that could have been seen.

But how much of the forest would need to be cut to bring that trail forward?  Is such clearing a trade-off we are ready to accept?   Is the forest that would remain sustainable?  Even if less than clear-cut, would it still be the forest we have learned to love?

Between the fetid terrorist swamp at one end of our forest and the glistening peaks of freedom at the other there is a varied topography and ecology on which our living daily depends.  Surely we need be vigilant.  But there are options other than flattening orchards, uprooting vineyards and harvesting ancient oaks for new fence posts.

To sweep the landscape so that every terrorist trail might be exposed threatens to leave us desolate.  Continue to identify and articulate threats.  Post guards.  Inform and empower citizens.  Mitigate vulnerabilities.   But the effort to obviate every threat involves a price too high (for me) to pay.

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Comment by Pondering

December 5, 2013 @ 11:03 am

In this time when it is hard to find much satisfaction in anything that any politician says about anything, the Feinstein/Rogers comments were a breath of fresh air for me. It didn’t seem that there was any prepared grandstanding. I think it was an honest response to a simple question which was affirmed by a colleague of a different stripe. What I am pondering is what really drove the concern….clearly not the shear number of official Al Qaeda affiliates. What is it that politicians are so afraid to level with the American people? I think a lot of tension and anxiety would be relieved if they just stated, “We have a real threat of…..”. Failing to do so just sharpens the political divide with our security and way of life hanging in the balance.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 5, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

What are the reports mentioned indicating world-wide and/or domestic terrorism increasing?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 5, 2013 @ 1:44 pm


Thanks very much. I agree there did not seem to be grandstanding. To your point, I perceive Congressman Rogers and Senator Feinstein were being reasonably specific regarding what concerns them most. Here’s a bit more from the interview (bold bits are by me):

This is all starting to spread. Iraq is having its problems now. It’s spreading into Lebanon, Jordan has issues, Turkey along the border has issues. This is very, very, very concerning.

FEINSTEIN: There is now a bomb that can go through magnatometers. People can get on aircraft with those bombs. They have tried to send four into this country, two in printer cartridges, one by Abdulmutalleb, and one, asset, was able to obtain out of Yemen.

These were coming into this country, two of them aimed at synagogues in Illinois. Now, having said that, the only way to stop this was with intelligence. The only way you could stop that is putting clues together to ferret out where this was coming from.

CROWLEY: So where is our weakest point?

ROGERS: Well, I mean, I think — the threat level has never been more diverse than it is today. And that’s one of the bigger, I think, concerns that we have. And I think why both — we both would agree that the threat is higher today and we are probably less safe is the more efforts they try, the more perfect you have to be in order to stop something. And that’s a huge challenge.

I expect we will eventually lose a plane or more than one. I will be surprised if we don’t have some sort of swarm incident ala Mumbai or Nairobi in the next five years. We will have more Boston Bombing-type attacks.

I am entirely in favor of proactive, well-funded, and constitutionally appropriate intelligence functions to identify and potentially prevent these threats. But I guess one way of setting my marker is to say, I am not in favor of spending and sacrificing whatever it takes for security. I am in favor of spending and sacrificing whatever it takes for liberty.

Comment by erikr

December 5, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

This also seems to be a prime example of one of the classic quandaries of emergency management: too much emphasis on response, too little on analysis and mitigation (or, in this case, investigation).

Bruce Schneier’s comments about the inaccuracy of ‘connecting the dots’ as a metaphor come to mind.


Comment by JCOMISKEY

December 6, 2013 @ 5:08 am

[Preface] The reality of 19 bad guys who hijacked 4 airplanes, weaponized the airplanes, and crashed them into civilian targets grounds me.

The 19 bad guys have a demented gang that praises the events of 9/11. The demented gang has fans from across every ideological spectrum who want to one up 9/11.

Rapidly expanding technologies continue to empower bad guys who torment civilization on planes, trains, and now running lanes.

OSINT intelligence provides sufficient threat indicators. The State of the Union comments above say enough and more than most insiders can share publicly. Truth be known, the terrorist threat is meta-real.

So too are the truths that are self-evident in our Constitution. Finding the balance is something that the Intelligence Community including NSA struggles with every day.

Truth be known: OSINT is available to everyone: see google, amazon, bing, twitter, facebook, at infinitum. See also How to succeed in business spying by trying, the Sicilian, and Valley of the Squinting Windows http://www.amazon.com/How-Succeed-Business-Spying-Trying/dp/B00ELUKS02/ref=cm_wl_huc_item and http://www.amazon.com/The-Sicilian-Mario-Puzo/dp/0345441702/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1386323737&sr=8-1&keywords=the+sicilian and http://www.amazon.com/The-Valley-Of-Squinting-Windows/dp/B00B6JA3CY/ref=sr_1_sc_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1386323773&sr=8-3-spell&keywords=Valley+of+the+Squinitng+Windows
Businesses’ people spy, Mafia Dons spy (some of their best spies were men of the cloth), seemingly charming Irish gentlefolk spy, so too does the government.
Perhaps spying is something we all do but do not talk about in polite society.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 6, 2013 @ 9:08 am

John: In your considerable experience and judgment, in attempting to “find the balance” what’s the biggest help: strict rules, wise supervision, rigorous oversight, mindful professional development, institutional culture, periodic dramatic and scandalous leaks… what? Any complicated (or simple) formula that serves both life-saving and constitution-preserving?

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 6, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

Suggest all read a recent post on blog Sic Semper Tyrannis by William Polk! A brief analysis of Islam and its past, present, and future!

Comment by JCOMISKEY

December 6, 2013 @ 3:24 pm


1. strict rules hurt (9/11 partly due to strict rules and even stricter compliance with them)

2. wise supervision connect to mindful professional development

3. Rigorous oversight already in place. Need to remind overseers of duty to serve country and not their political parties.

4. Institutional culture is professional. Few exceptions and scandals overplayed by politicians and media.

5. Periodic dramatic and scandalous leaks… what? Paradoxically, they sometimes help. I am not advocating them. Also, I am a student of OSINT Intelligence. IMHO more than 90% of secrets are knowable.

Any complicated (or simple) formula that serves both life-saving and constitution-preserving?

No simple plan. We do need a few good men AND women who will serve. We need a populace that understands the threats (50% + or say they do).

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 6, 2013 @ 10:08 pm

John! What is OSINT Intel?

Comment by JCOMISKEY

December 7, 2013 @ 7:18 am

OSINT= Open-Source. Includes news media and “grey intelligence” -typically research literature that is not as easy to find. Grey intelligence, however, is increasingly available due to library databases.

Note FOUO (for official use only) is not classified information. “NYPD Secret” is something that NYPD made up. No criminal sanctions for disclosure. Maybe internal organizational administrative sanctions.

FOUO reports flood the web. See AP NYPD reporting http://www.ap.org/Index/AP-In-The-News/NYPD

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 7, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

Thnnks John!

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