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Disharmony in the Home Team

It is hard to argue that local, state, and federal counterterrorism operations are not still a work in progress. While working together, law enforcement agencies at all levels have combined to thwart a number of plots since 9/11, many challenges that frustrate cooperation still perplex the national counterterrorism enterprise. The most common issues raised in regard to counterterrorism concern the allocation and adequacy of resources, the efficacy of operations, and the impact of activities on civil liberties, including fears of racial or religious profiling, violations of individual privacy (such as unlawful search and seizure; imposing a “chilling” affect on the practice of free speech; and alienating minority communities).

The poster child for non-cooperation goes to the Portland, Oregon Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). In 2005, the city of Portland withdrew from the JTTF citing concerns that participation might violate state laws banning investigations based on religious or political beliefs. The city alleged it could not adequately monitor JTTF activities for potential civil liberties abuses. In November 2010, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year old Somali-American, was arrested after attempting to detonate a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony near the Portland Pioneer Courthouse Square. The bomb was composed of inert explosives given to him by undercover FBI agents. City leaders did not know about the FBIs investigation until after the arrest, though the city had signed a letter of understanding with the agency on information sharing procedures after it ceased participating in the JTTF. The Mayor was livid.

The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) established the Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group (ITACG), which includes an “Advisory Council comprised of Federal, State, local, tribal, and private sector officials, responsible for setting policy and developing processes for the integration, analysis, and dissemination of Federally-coordinated information.” That has helped a little—like a drizzle in the desert.

Recently, Matt Mayer and Scott Erickson drafted a paper for the Heritage Foundation that took a sober and not very politically correct assessment of the problem. They argue that organizational culture is the biggest obstacle, hands-down.

“As an organization’s culture often takes years to become fully entrenched, it understandably, generally takes years to change.” Mayer and Erickson note, “For instance, the federal law enforcement establishment was slow to respond to the emergent methamphetamine epidemic in part due to its initial proliferation in areas far from Washington’s usual scope.” They add, “This reluctance to change can be problematic in the national security context due to the ephemeral nature of the tactics and strategies employed by terrorists. Terrorist activities are largely ad hoc in nature, constantly evolving in terms of tactics and deterrence, uncoordinated and asymmetrical, and not necessarily fitting neatly into traditional law enforcement paradigms. This requires law enforcement to evolve its own strategies. For too long, however, the broader law enforcement community has worked under the assumption that national security matters are the domain solely of the federal government. This has inhibited the adoption of best practices necessary to combat threats in local communities.”

In “Changing Today’s Law Enforcement Culture to Face 21st-Century Threats,” Mayer and Erickson layout a blueprint for creating a new organizational culture that places a premium on building trust and confidence between federal, state, and local counterterrorism efforts.

  • Robert Murray

    The need for an organizational effectiveness assessment and planned intervention at the strategic level is absolutely critical to correct the dysfunctional state of the culture. Organizations of both a para-political and para-political character are hamstringing the efficiency and operational effectiveness while threatening the security of the nation.