By Brandon Blackburn:
As we approach the six month anniversary of the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and amidst a new batch of holiday threats from our most prevalent enemy, we owe it to ourselves to ask if the men and women on the front lines in America have the intelligence they need to prevent further horror in our streets?
Less than 48 hours after the killing of nearly fifty people in Central Florida on that June evening, FBI Director James Comey acknowledged the assailant had been on the FBI’s radar but insisted he didn’t know of anything that his agents could have done differently to disrupt the shooter’s actions. But the more we learned, the more questions we had. It might be true that the FBI can’t continuously watch everyone who has ever supported ISIS. But local police agencies are force multipliers and the ones who have the greatest opportunity to prevent an idea from reaching execution.
The tentacles of the ISIS propaganda network can be detected before, during and after they reach disaffected people across the globe, including many inside the U.S. That won’t happen unless we treat local police departments as front-line warriors and share useful information with them in real time.
In the vein of the presidential politics that have served as the backdrop for much of our news as of late, the current process for passing along information to police mirrors, that of the often-touted trickle-down economics as local police are often beholden to the federal agencies for intelligence. That process, right now, is failing.
While the FBI is tasked with the lead on investigations relating to individuals such as the Orlando shooter, it is our local law enforcement officers who are active on a daily basis in our communities, where would-be terrorists might live, shop, and plan. Yet a deputy at this level who comes across certain pieces of information, even that which could be significant, is often left wondering the fate of an offering passed up to the federal law enforcement apparatus.
Once reported, that data is subjected to life in a kitchen with many cooks all making a different dish. At the top of the chain in the U.S. is the FBI, which sits on its perch operating based in part on information reported by local law enforcement. But what goes up often times does not come back down.
The current process is one whereby a local police department designates a number of representatives to the joint federal task force, receiving necessary security clearance, and thus serving as middleman. But one officer’s access does not always translate to the department’s gain. That is to say information is often soiled in a way that precludes street level officers from access. These officers who are most active in the community and therefore most apt to see and hear something, often will not know the bigger picture that is painted with these valuable pieces of intelligence.
Is more access the answer? We know increasing access to intelligence via those approvals is not the current strategy. Clearances are currency to police and the federal government has decreased the number granted in recent years, with 2014 registering a 12 percent decline since the year before. This leaves law enforcement increasingly in need of an increasingly rare commodity.
Even with the necessary access, that’s no guarantee the intelligence is passed. Following the Boston Marathon bombing, the Boston police commissioner testified that his Joint Terrorism Task Force representatives were never told key pieces of intelligence until after the attack. He stressed having that data would have resulted in further investigation of the assailants.
Three years later, the Orlando shooting showed us that not much has changed. Talking to officers around the country in the months that have followed shows their frustrations are at a crescendo as investigations by the feds continue, of which the locals are kept out of the loop.
So what is the threshold? The answer will come if we can focus the conversation on flaws in the system that matter and can realistically and expediently be improved. For the pending cabinet appointees to key intelligence positions, there are steps that can be taken swiftly, allowing police officers on the front line to be a bigger part of the process. And in the words of the Boston police commissioner, that can make a difference.
When will the next attempt by the likes of ISIS be? We don’t know. But one thing that is for sure: If our government could share information on the front end, then we increase the odds that we won’t as a nation have grief to share on the back end.
Brandon Blackburn is an OpsLens Contributor and former CIA Counterterrorism Officer with a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and an MBA with a concentration in International Business. During his time with the CIA, Brandon served multiple tours in the Middle East, to include Iraq and Jordan, and in Afghanistan. Brandon consults with businesses and media on national security related issues with his consulting firm B4B Enterprises. He can be followed on Twitter @Bran_Blackburn.