Preventing Another Christmas Bomber, Part Deux

Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz wrote a great column on Monday with the biting title “Intelligence Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” criticizing the Obama Administration’s policy of treating terrorism as a law enforcement issue. I’ve mostly been a supporter of this approach but Crovitz got me thinking hard about the limitations of such a strategy.

One problem he highlights is that our legalistic approach is harming our ability to thwart terrorist plots because we are giving foreign nationals Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. U.S. intelligence agencies are using this standard when deciding if and when to put suspected terrorists on a watch list or a no-fly list.

“The result of prohibiting hunches was that [Umar Farouk] Abdulmutallab was waved through. Information about suspected terrorists flows into a central Terrorist Screening Database, which is then analyzed by the Terrorist Screening Center, where FBI agents apply the “reasonable suspicion” standard to assign people to various watch lists including “selectee” lists and the “no-fly” list,” writes Crovitz. “It’s at this point where an approach based on domestic law enforcement trump prevention, undermining the use of information.”

While I agree that U.S. citizens should be afforded these rights, it seems foolish to give suspected terrorists these same privileges. Clearly, we need to have a more flexible standard for determining whether or not suspected terrorists, who often live outside the U.S., deserve to be placed on any of these government security lists.

Crovitz concludes that we face a stark choice. “We can limit how information is used or we can allow smart use of information to prevent attacks,”” he writes. “If we continue to choose to limit how information can be used in our defense, we shouldn’t be surprised when our defenses fail.”

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