DUBLIN | The first director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, said this week that terrorist groups can be targeted best with agents and informers — but such missions are fraught with prohibitive dangers and ethical dilemmas.
Speaking to the Associated Press during an Ireland conference on global intelligence-gathering methods, Mr. Ridge said U.S. and foreign anti-terror agencies have never shared their information more effectively than they do today, but their picture of terrorist intentions often lacks strong input from human sources on the ground.
“There is no substitute for human intelligence. If we had embedded a covert agent into al Qaeda close to [Osama] bin Laden, 9/11 might never have happened,” Mr. Ridge said in a telephone interview from Tuesday’s conference in Dungarvan, Ireland.
“When it comes to counterterrorism, there is nothing more valuable than a knowledgeable human asset embedded in an organization. There’s nothing better,” he said. “But it’s so much more difficult to get people placed within terrorist organizations. So we’re dependent on monitoring jihadist websites and electronic intercepts.”
Mr. Ridge, 64, was the featured speaker at the Global Intelligence Forum, an event organized by Mr. Ridge’s hometown Mercyhurst College of Erie, Pa. The conference brought together 150 officials from 15 countries reflecting a broad range of intelligence-gathering disciplines.
Mr. Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor, served as President George W. Bush’s Cabinet point man for reorganizing U.S. intelligence and security capabilities after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Mr. Ridge resigned from the Homeland Security post in 2004 and published a 2009 memoir, “The Test of Our Times,” which documented his often frustrating experiences of trying to get disparate U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies to work together. Today, he is chief executive of Washington consultancy firm Ridge Global, which provides intelligence-gathering expertise primarily to businesses worldwide.
He said various U.S. intelligence-gathering agencies have made great strides over the past decade but still sometimes hoard information rather than share it with sister agencies.
“Agencies still can suffer from a mindset and culture that goes back to the Cold War, where there’s an institutional reluctance to share information, sometimes because you don’t want to jeopardize an ongoing investigation” he said.
“But it’s absolutely critical that, when any agency gets timely and relevant intelligence, that information is shipped to all the people who can use it. If we can’t trust each other to use the information appropriately, then shame on us,” he said, noting, for instance, that the FBI might not have enough agents to respond to a particular threat itself. “Local law enforcement has to be clued in.”
Mr. Ridge noted that intelligence-gathering organizations can have conflicting goals with traditional law-enforcement units. The former often would prefer to monitor the actions of criminals and terrorist suspects, either “to yank them off the street before an event is committed” or potentially to let them commit crimes or attacks while a fuller picture of their operations and allies is constructed.
Whether observing terrorist cells from afar using technology or up close using informers, Mr. Ridge said, intelligence agents face tough calls when deciding how long to keep a suspected terrorist under surveillance before moving in.
He cited the November mass shootings on the Fort Hood Army base in Texas as one example where intelligence officials might have moved pre-emptively. A U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, has been charged with 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted murder in a gun massacre of Army colleagues.
“We missed the boat with Maj. Hasan in Fort Hood,” he said, noting that part of the prosecution case against Maj. Hasan includes his alleged exploration of websites featuring postings from Islamic extremists — Internet traffic that would have been on intelligence agents’ radar. “That case raises a wider question of how far do you let them go before you apprehend them. Sometimes we’ve gone too far.”
When asked how far covert agents inside a terrorist cell should be permitted to go to protect their cover story, Mr. Ridge said that represents the ultimate dilemma.
He said agents would have to weigh “the larger social or moral good” in deciding whether “to participate in an action that otherwise you would find wrong.”
“In each individual agent’s mind, there has to be a clear understanding of how far you’ll go to penetrate an organization,” he said, suggesting one scenario in which a terrorist group was planting bombs in the mail system but U.S. intelligence officials had not identified the commanders of the conspiracy.
“With counterterrorism, you might know it’s going to happen, say another bomb in a mailbox. If you knew about it and were ‘inside,’ would you let it go off? There might be a good reason to do that,” he said.
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