As Security Debrief’s editor, I get a lot of interesting e-mails. Aside from the endless pitches from PR firms promoting their client’s latest security technology or service, I also receive the occasional (often comical) question about how to apply to the CIA, how to find someone’s lost cousin or whether I would like to send money to Nigeria (which promises a great return on investment). Don’t get me wrong – I love hearing from Security Debrief readers. Yet, a lot of what hits my inbox is just noise. Yesterday, however, I received an e-mail that was unlike any other. The first line of the e-mail read: “I have information which can help to prevent a terrorist attack from happening.”
This made me sit up straight. While this blog is a great outlet for homeland and national security analysis and debate, it is hardly a forum for reporting terrorist threats. The e-mail continued:
“I know that some FBI agents not without help of Fusion Centers are plotting a terrorist attack against U.S. citizens. It is 100% true. The only thing that I am not sure is if they want at some moment to stop imaginary terrorist or if they plan to do the actual terror attack.”
Riiight. I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but this was about 9 or 10 bridges too far. As I read on, I learned that the author believed he was on a terrorism watch list, was being coerced into a terrorist act and that he wanted desperately to avoid doing what the FBI supposedly wanted him to do – attack the United States. The author likened the Bureau to bin Laden. The e-mail was patently absurd, and I shared the note with fellow contributors for a good laugh on a Sunday afternoon.
But as I thought more about the e-mail, some key points stood out. Did the first line about having information that can prevent an attack not warrant someone’s attention? And was the sender’s Russian (possibly Chechen) name worth another look? I might not see any worthwhile information in such a bizarre e-mail, but, I reasoned, perhaps others would.
I decided to err on the side of caution and clicked over to FBI.gov. There, I found a handy form for submitting a tip on terrorism. As well as adding my own contact information, I pasted the entire content of the e-mail and clicked “submit.”
My “tip” was likely treated with as much seriousness as I gave the e-mail (that is, very little). Yet, several small pieces of information can add up to a bigger threat picture. It’s possible (although not probable) that the e-mail sender is engaged in some suspicious behavior, and my tip could be helpful to the Bureau or another intelligence agency, contributing to their nationwide synthesis of security information.
Homeland security is a team effort, something DHS’s “See Something, Say Something” initiative promotes. No matter how effective the security technology or how large the law enforcement and counterterrorism workforce, the best tool in America’s arsenal for preventing violent acts is an aware, engaged public. That means reporting an unattended bag, sharing the details of a person who appears to be headed down a violent path, and even passing on an e-mail. Odds are it’s nothing, but considering the recent attack in Boston and the ongoing threat from terrorism, are we as citizens prepared to take that chance? I’m not.