‘Beyond the Manhunts: How to Stop Terror’ – a GPS special premieres this Sunday at 10 a.m. & 1 p.m. ET
By Cindy Storer, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Cindy Storer is a 21-year veteran analyst of the CIA who specializes in terrorism and intelligence education. She is currently a lecturer in Intelligence and National Security at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. The views expressed are her own.
Warning about and reacting to a potential threat is a complex, time consuming, and costly business. There are multiple opportunities for an array of people and organizations to take different kinds of action over an extended period. When a terrorist attack happens, examining those actions is an important part of understanding what we might do differently to help prevent future attacks. But when such examinations turn into witch hunts (which they inevitably do in the American political system) you get neither understanding nor accountability. You get only scapegoats, and a repeat of all the problems that were not identified and addressed the last time.
The multiple opportunities for warning and intervention come in three phases – strategic, operational, and tactical. But while these phases provide analysts, collectors, operators, and decision-makers with opportunities, they also provide numerous chances for mistakes, and often, but not always, opportunities to correct those mistakes. There is rarely a single point of failure, but individual acts of courage are often necessary to move the process along. The further along you are in the process, the less options you have and the more immediate the danger you face. A useful analogy for these warning stages is weather forecasting.
When a potential threat is first identified, we enter the strategic phase. At the beginning of each hurricane season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the number, strength, and direction of hurricanes we can expect for the year. This prediction is based on complex weather models, developed over a number of years. No model is perfect, and so no prediction is perfect, but it does give a general sense of the threat for planning purposes. It is during this stage that it is the time to invest resources into making good models, collecting information, creating working relationships, forming strategy, and reviewing legislation. Someone has to notice the potential threat, alert others, convince even more people of the need to begin studying the threat, and convince additional people to dedicate resources to the task.
Once weather systems start developing, or entering the “operational” phase, models become more specific. However, each storm still has several possible tracks that need to be updated regularly. When tracking human rather than weather systems, the tracker has multiple opportunities to interdict, disrupt, or otherwise manage the growing threat.
In counterterrorism operations, we used to compare this to the carnival game whack-a-mole. You may never know what the moles are planning to do, but you can sure make it hard for them to do it – if you have the resources and authorities to do so.
Once the storm is a day or so out from a specific place, all you can do is batten down the hatches and hope you made enough of the right kinds of preparations, in the right places. In counterterrorism, sometimes you can still stop an attack, temporarily at least, by taking the right defensive measures, which buys more time for your other efforts to work. Al Qaeda’s attack in September 2001 may have been delayed at least once by such measures.
Given the number of moving parts in the counterterrorism system, figuring out if the process has broken down in any specific case, much less where and why, is a daunting task. Often, we assume a breakdown, take the convenient path to “where,” and don’t even address “why.” After 9/11, commissions investigating the “intelligence failure” – the assumed breakdown – made many assumptions about “where” while knowingly lacking vital details. Congress accused people of wrongdoing – one shot at “why” – and demanded a study that in essence assigned blame.
This approach is like that of a prosecutor who assumes ill intent on the part of a defendant. Counterterrorism officers are people like any others, with varying degrees of skill and judgment, but to assume any had ill intent is absurd. Faced with this witch hunt, agencies circled the wagons to protect the organizations, and to prevent sanctions against individuals. This meant restricting information and impeding investigation. None of this accomplished the most important task for the sake of our future security, which is to fully understand what works – a question not even asked – and what doesn’t.
This prosecutorial approach was, sadly, evident after the Boston Marathon attack, with some lawmakers and pundits swift to blame the FBI. This does not accomplish anything positive, demoralizes the very people who need to remain focused on the threat, and potentially impedes future fact-finding. Let them work. Investigate later, quietly and with attention to detail, what may or may not have worked in the system as a whole. In a nutshell: assume good intent, and avoid the blame game.