What's in a lead about suspicious activity, and whence the gulf between how defenders and official lead processors react to it? The answer says a great deal about how far our homeland security partners have advanced in gearing their efforts for preventing terrorist attacks instead of focusing top priority on prosecuting attackers. The way one answers also reveals instantly whether one is a defender or an official unburdened by direct responsibility for protecting a target of terrorist attack. Take this example and follow its course to appreciate the difference.
EVENT: A person drives up to a fenced facility whose purpose is to control electricity, water, or telecommunications serving millions of citizens. This person then takes several photographs of that facility and of the entrance to it before driving away. Staff or security cameras at the facility capture the photographer's description and license plate number. An employee from that facility then reports these details through channels that ultimately reach the local fusion center. This center is where homeland security partners take in and presumably do something with all the information generated by their bosses' "See something? Say something!" campaigns. What should happen next? It depends.
IF YOU ARE A DEFENDER ...
An analyst or duty officer calls up the license plate number and hands the details to a law enforcement officer on duty. This officer immediately calls the registered owner of the vehicle driven by the photographer, communicates official interest and concern over the actions of the photographer, and ascertains the photographer's intent while clearly signalling that such activity is monitored, acted upon, and taken very seriously. Result? Deterrence. Even if the photographer's actions trace to some innocent, plausible explanation, a clear message goes out that somebody is watching and that suspicious actions trigger real time response. If a terrorist was taking pictures as part of a target selection or pre-strike surveillance operation, the dividend is greater. The same message goes out disrupting the attack and in effect causing the would-be attacker to pick a softer target.
But there is an alternative reaction which misses this deterrent effect while consuming much more time and resources.
IF YOU ARE A LEAD PROCESSOR ...
You see the situation differently. You see your job not as deterring attack but as launching investigations that take attackers down and put them behind bars. So, what happens? Well, you evaluate the lead. Let's see, there's not too much there to justify an investigation. There are more of these leads than investigators to handle them. Besides, you probably need a supervisor to authorize an investigation. This means more processing delay. Net result? Note and file. Thank the defender for the lead. Not enough to go on, though. Maybe next time ...
What signal does the latter approach transmit? To the photographer -- innocent or nefarious -- it says no one will stop or question you or stand in your way. To the defender, it communicates indifference and bureaucracy that disincentivizes future participation in passive or one-sided homeland security "partnerships."
To the public at large, the handling of such events reveals just how much our organs of homeland security have in reality taken to heart the message of the Attorney General in November 2001 when he announced that, henceforth the new priority would be prevention, not prosecution. If the second approach is crowding out the first, this is not necessarily the fault of fusion centers and lead processors. It is a failure of leadership to incentivize timely responsiveness for deterrence that is hard to measure over traditional investigative case handling that lends itself better to metrics but not to the object sought. And so we chew and chew on the very leads that a quick bite and swallow would handle better, leaving our vaunted partnerships infused with a bovine incapacity to deliver the value they were created to produce.
-- Nick Catrantzos