January’s attacks in Paris sparked debates about our civil liberties, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but also discussions about the use of intelligence to combat the terrorist threat at home and our expectation of privacy. In February, the Senate Intelligence Committee marked its first open hearing since June that provided the public insight on how the United States collects and disseminates intelligence data. Given recent events and debates, it should come to no surprise that the focus of the hearing was the National Counterterrorism Center, the clearinghouse for our country’s terrorism information.
Our nation views intelligence collection with apprehension and the sentiment is understandable. An Associated Press-GfK poll in January noted almost 60 percent of respondents disapproved of the Obama administration’s handling of intelligence surveillance policies, and 61 percent favor protecting civil liberties over keeping the country safe from terrorist attacks.
There appears to be a perceived dichotomy between counterterrorism activities and civil liberties – a belief that intelligence efforts and civil liberties stand in opposition to one another. Support one and you run afoul of the other.
Like most things, the issue is not black and white nor is it zero-sum, but the perception exists nonetheless. It is therefore incumbent upon our policy makers and the intelligence community to be transparent in the activities we are pursuing and to better articulate how those efforts are in line with our civil liberties and Constitutional principles. Indeed, bolstering our intelligence community and strengthening civil liberties can go hand and hand, and the former can sustain the later.
In a recent report that I co-signed with 18 other security and intelligence leaders, Business Executives for National Security, or BENS, embraced the importance of our civil liberties and transparency within the intelligence apparatus. And we specifically recommend steps that ensure protections are in place.
The report, Domestic Security: Confronting a Changing Threat to Ensure Public Safety and Civil Liberties , makes several recommendations that include calling for the establishment of better integrated fusion centers in high-threat areas within the U.S. Fusion centers serve as coordination mechanisms for federal, state, and local authorities, and are meant to provide efficient sharing of threat related data. Better integrated, fusion centers would maximize the quality of information shared and the speed with which we can respond to threats. But also, importantly, they centralize oversight. This step helps us, as citizens, to have greater confidence that counterterrorism efforts are consistent with our laws and expectations.
We also recommend standardizing rules for domestic intelligence analysts that would make it clear what type of information is appropriate to collect, review, and disseminate. Currently, the level of training among analysts in different departments and agencies is uneven, weakening our civil protections and allowing for potential, albeit unintended, mistakes.
We also call for strengthening the coordination and oversight of our law enforcement and public safety agencies, while empowering the 800,000 eyes and ears of state and local law enforcement professionals in a manner that reinforces our civil liberties. The terrorist threat to our nation is evolving and is increasingly characterized by homegrown and self-radicalized individuals like the ones that attacked in Paris. As the threat evolves, so too must our country’s efforts to counter and manage such threats.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the intelligence committee’s chairman, is making strides to gain public confidence in our intelligence policies by holding open hearings. The Obama Administration is furthering the effort with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s release of principles to provide transparency in intelligence, and by declassifying thousands of documents pertaining to secret intelligence programs.
Further steps like the ones outlined in BENS’ report should also be taken. Our intelligence efforts and civil liberties are intertwined. We cannot pursue one without the other. Bolster one and you bolster the other.