How to Look at Homegrown Terrorism

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J. Pat Carter / AP

Jose Padilla

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In the past, the NYPD has been criticized for not sharing its intelligence widely, and it could have easily kept this report private and still reached its primary audience of law-enforcement officials. But it chose not to. "The NYPD knew it was going to draw some flak, as anything pertaining to domestic intelligence does and should. But we'd rather have the public debate, as noisy and rude as it may be, than have frightened acquiescence," Jenkins says. "Too much of the message to the American people has been a message of fear, without explanation. In order to really get this, we have to educate, engage and enlist the citizens."

Of course, doing that has its own dangers, and once the Department made its findings public — after a road show in Washington to the powers that be — it quickly became clear why this kind of thing doesn't happen as often as it should. First, the broadcast media mischaracterized the report. Certain TV news shows defaulted to their usual "be afraid, be very afraid" script and claimed the report described two dozen active sleeper cells in the U.S. In fact, it did no such thing. If you read the 90-page report, you will see that it is a retrospective analysis of past plots, conducted with meticulous attention to detail. It is not the vague warnings of imminent doom we have heard from the federal government in the past. But the local CBS affiliate in New York City described it as "chilling," perhaps out of habit.

At the press conference announcing the findings, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and his counterterrorism team started out visibly proud of their report. But questions from the media forced Kelly to keep stressing the basics. Reporters wanted to know how many cells Kelly was watching in the New York area, and how frightened we should be. "That's not what this is about," he said.

By afternoon, American-Muslim organizations had issued press releases criticizing the report. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it cast suspicion on all U.S. Muslims, even though the report repeatedly stresses that there is no obvious way to profile would-be terrorists. The Muslim Public Affairs council says the report contradicts the findings of the federal National Intelligence Estimate declassified last month. But that's an oversimplification. The National Intelligence Estimate did put more emphasis on the threat of al-Qaeda, but both reports stressed the danger of radical, self-generating cells. The federal Estimate is put together by people whose focus is overseas, says Frank Cilluffo at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. The feds will never be as well-positioned as NYPD to understand the homegrown threat. "Ultimately, state and local authorities know their communities best."

Perhaps one of the best things the report will do is create competitive pressure, Cilluffo suggests, spurring the feds and other police departments to greater feats of transparency and nuance. Historically, at the FBI and the Department of Justice in particular, intelligence is meant to be kept close, and the public is not to be trusted. Hopefully, the public and the NYPD will, eventually, prove them wrong.

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