For public warning to have a preemptive capability it must not only operate across federal, state and local boundaries, it must also have a sophisticated international warning component that has the ability to predict and intercept terrorist attacks before they occur. Just as international fugitives and criminals can be investigated and tracked by organizations such as Interpol, the United States must incorporate its public warning systems into a larger international system that works in cooperation with other nations and international intelligence and law enforcement organizations. This is the essence of statecraft for public warning.
While the United States has established relationships abroad, a formal system of international warning does not currently exist. Security classification and the typography of information that is releasable or strictly compartmented by government agencies or corporations combine to create formidable barriers to public warning. Overcoming barriers through agreements, legislation, executive order, and litigation should be aggressively pursued wherever such efforts can be proven to benefit public warning and public safety. Treaties and formal agreements between countries will certainly play an important role in this regard; however, relationships built on trust are crucial requisites to long term strategic success.
The transnational nature of terror threats makes international cooperation a modern day imperative for the United States, and her allies. Even among states that historically have been at odds with one another on substantive and divisive issues have the opportunity to cooperate in the public warning and counterterrorism arenas. Information on terrorist threats may originate from other countries, officially and unofficially, at all levels, most often through well-established relationships and well-cultivated sources—in much the same way as a veteran reporter operates with confidential sources that remain “off the record.”
Formal and informal international arrangements designed to enhance each country’s respective public warning systems rely upon established relationships between officials with both political and operational roles. These relationships once established, must be actively cultivated if they are to retain their value in providing information and intelligence for advance warning of terror plans. Policies that encourage mid- and high-level foreign military and governmental (civilian civil servant) exchange programs are invaluable to this long-term effort.
Once solely the domain of the CIA, information and intelligence obtained from abroad now extends across agencies and departments to corporations and even private entities who all play a potential role in warning of a terrorist threat beyond our own borders. The challenge faced by the CIA, FBI and fusion organizations such as the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), are primarily recognition and triage, but department clearances and organizational cultures remain issues. A Washington Post article offered this insight into how the NCTC functions:
Three times each day -- at 8 a.m., 3 p.m. and 1 a.m. -- representatives from across the intelligence community meet to update the nation's threat matrix. The meetings -- held most days via videoconference -- are chaired at NCTC headquarters, a nondescript, unlabeled office building in Northern Virginia, around a massive, football-shaped wooden table. The table, designed as neutral ground, has 16 seats, pop-up computer terminals and ceiling-mounted screens that can show al-Jazeera broadcasts as well as highly classified graphics.
Participants include representatives of the CIA and FBI; the Defense Intelligence Agency and others under the Pentagon umbrella; the departments of State, Homeland Security, Treasury and Energy; and other subsidiary agencies such as the Drug Enforcement and Transportation Security administrations. Topics include individual suicide bombers, movements of groups and people, potential targets, reliability of information on specific threats, and actions being planned or already taken.
Material for the meetings is gathered by the 24-hour operations center deep within the ultra-secure building. The room is dark, with a high ceiling, drop-down video screens and sound-muffling walls; its carpeted floor is covered with desks where integrated intelligence teams examine and share incoming data from their separate agencies in 12-hour shifts. At opposite ends of the room, the CIA and FBI counterterrorism divisions have satellite offices representing their own headquarters.
The thrice-daily meetings are the substantive and symbolic core of NCTC's melding of the intelligence community. But most of the center's activities take place in offices and cubicles where officials plumb 28 databases of raw and processed intelligence from across the community.
The analysts turn out reports, adding context and information about response actions already taken, that are disseminated to more than 5,500 policy and intelligence officials with the security clearances required to read them.
Rarely will a threat manifest itself with a clear and whole picture. Instead, it will often arrive piecemeal from anonymous or questionable sources, and with no imminent overt threat apparent. Recognition of terrorist’s trends and past practices will be helpful; but as terrorists become more sophisticated, surveillance and analysis at home and abroad must be more discerning, technologically advanced and risk acceptant. Warning that is obtained from abroad is often more advantageous to authorities because it can provide them with information earlier on in the terrorist’s planning cycle. In these cases, when time permits, preemption can be an option that authorities can actively pursue.
Once terrorist networks have infiltrated the United States, their planning processes will often already be extremely advanced, rendering preemption more difficult. As risk escalates over time, and as terrorist networks secure positions within the United States, the pressure to move from Preemption to Prevention will also increase. When an attack is imminent, the effort will quickly transition to Mitigation. The decision to warn is undertaken at multiple points within each phase of a terror threat as risk to the nation escalates, and as the operational situation dictates.