by James Forest
Revised February 28, 2017
(originally posted February 11, 2017)
How does an effective system of security work in the real world, beyond political and media punditry? Ask a professional in law enforcement, military or the intelligence community and you’ll hear an overwhelmingly common response: security is built and maintained on relationships of trust, at every level. Healthy, trusted community and police relationships are key to maintaining peace and order, and for intelligence gathering on crime and security threats. Trust is critical for interagency cooperation and information sharing between local, state and federal agencies. At the national level, the different agencies and branches of government must trust each other implicitly in order to work together toward the overall common objective of ensuring security for the the nation and its interests. And at the international level, trusted relationships are vital for military cooperation, intelligence sharing, cross-national crime and terror investigations, diplomacy, economic security, energy security, cybersecurity, and so much more. These are all components of an effective security system for any country.
A quick caveat before I continue, as a response to some angry messages I have received from Trump supporters. The criticisms that I have shared publicly over the past few weeks about the current presidential administration and its policies have nothing to do with being against one political party or in favor of another. I have always registered to vote as an independent, and I much prefer discussions that focus on data, evidence and academic objectivity over politicized debates. My criticisms are based on what I have learned about effective counterterrorism (and security writ large), and my concerns over policy decisions that may result in our being less secure over time. There are two main themes in my criticisms: 1) the lack of real operational effectiveness and the potential damage this approach may have on our overall national security objectives; and 2) the rhetoric which is being utilized by some members of the administration (and supporters, including some in the media) in their attempts to justify these policies. Both of these areas of concern threaten to undermine critical relationships and trust on different levels, as described below.
Policy decisions over the last several weeks threaten to damage and undermine the very relationships which are required by law enforcement, intelligence and military organizations to keep us as secure as possible. At the local level, when members of a community feel that they face unwarranted suspicion based on their ethnicity, race or religion, they are less likely to voluntarily work with police forces to identify persons whose behavior should be cause for concern. At the national level, pitting agencies against each other – and creating fissures between the executive branch and the judiciary – creates an environment that jeopardizes trust and working relationships. And at the international level, policies and rhetoric that vilifies people based on their country of origin or their religion jeopardizes the likelihood those people would be willing to help us identify and counter a terrorist threat emanating from their countries.
The truth about terrorism is that it stems from personal decisions influenced by beliefs and contexts. Virtually anyone, from any country (including our own) can become a terrorist. Decades of research have revealed no singular profile of a terrorist, and particularly none that suggests individuals from one country are more likely to become a terrorist than another. The logical conclusion from this reality is that the security of our nation has almost nothing to do with banning an entire population of other countries from traveling here. I think terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins put it best in his recent commentary, Why a Travel Restriction Won’t Stop Terrorism at Home.
Border security and visa restrictions have always – and will always – be a necessary component of a much broader, comprehensive security strategy. But it is dangerously misleading to try and convince the public that our ability to prevent terrorist attacks in the U.S. is jeopardized unless we enact a draconian travel ban against everyone from these 7 countries.
I understand the concern about properly vetting people who want to come to the United States. I am certainly not opposed to that. The truth is, a great deal of scrutiny is already applied across the visa application process, and rightly so. Examining it for vulnerabilities and fixing shortcomings is a reasonable and worthwhile goal that I support. But to impose a “country of origin” travel ban that applies to people about whom we know nothing except their country of origin has several needlessly negative consequences.
First, it gives some people a false sense of security which is not supported by the facts or evidence. No terrorist attack on U.S. soil has been committed by a citizen of any of the 7 countries listed in the travel ban. Second, this type of ineffective defense measure does little to truly counter terrorism. It says to a potential terrorist in one of those countries, “Hey, we don’t think you’re smart enough to figure a way around this obstacle.” Underestimating the malevolent creativity of terrorists is a recipe for disaster.
Furthermore, we must keep in mind that anyone from any country can play a role in preventing terrorism. In countries around the world—including ours and those countries listed in the travel ban—Muslims have helped prevent terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists. This is an obvious fact, but one that needs to be mentioned given the current political climate.
This is where my main criticisms of the proposed “travel ban” are rooted. Yes, I know it is not a “Muslim ban”, nor a widescale ban on immigration or refugees from around the world. It is a ban on admitting individuals from 7 countries into the U.S., something our country’s leadership can do under certain circumstances (e.g., if they have evidence of an imminent threat to our security from those countries). The fact that these are all Muslim-majority countries is in my view secondary to the more important rationale that these 7 countries have significant amounts of political violence and conflict, and that our administration is not confident in the strength of the current vetting system when it comes to visa and immigration policies associated with those countries. I hear the argument that “there is inadequate vetting in those 7 countries” – but does that mean we are not doing the vetting ourselves? If that’s the case, it should not be. In no country – ally or weak, fragile state – should the U.S. rely on others to do our visa applicant vetting for us. If we are doing our own visa applicant vetting, it should not matter which country we are doing this in.
The underlying message here is that the current administration does not believe we have accurate intelligence sources in (or from) those countries, and thus we may be blind to an imminent terrorist threat. This fear of the unknown, combined with a clear bias against Muslims (as evidenced by widely publicized statements by Trump, Bannon, Gorka, Miller, et al. that are obviously derogatory towards all Muslims) are probably what drove the decision to quickly impose an executive order that, in hindsight, could have gone much differently.
For example, it would have been more effective (and much less controversial) to announce a major, intensive review of the immigration and visa granting processes for those 7 countries (and perhaps others as well), and that travelers from those countries may thus experience delays for the next few months due to the additional scrutiny as we work to make sure our vetting process is as good as we can get it. Legally permanent residents in the U.S. from any of those countries – whom presumably have already been closely scrutinized – would not be affected except under extraordinary circumstances. Exemptions for medical and other justifiable reasons would also be, as always, part of the visa decision-making process. This kind of “tightening up the filter” approach would have been seen as far more reasonable then the “nobody gets in” approach that led to thousands of people stranded at airports (including young children, Iraqi interpreters to whom our military owes a great debt, and others who could not reasonably be considered a security threat). Whether it would still have inspired protests, or judicial injunctions, is debatable.
The bottom line is this: Effective counterterrorism requires intelligence on individuals’ motives and capabilities, and then stopping those specific individuals from proceeding with their plans for terrorism. A travel ban like the one put forth in the original Executive Order last month is a defensive measure only, and a relatively ineffective one at that.
Of equal concern is that the tone and rhetoric associated with such a ban jeopardizes the critical relationships described above between communities and law enforcement, military-to-military cooperation, and transnational intelligence sharing. We should ask ourselves, are we willing to risk alienating the very people whose help we need to combat terrorism effectively? Note that I am not saying a travel ban like this will radicalize Muslims or benefit ISIS. Others have making that argument, but I remain ambivalent on that question. I’m not really certain whether ISIS would benefit from a travel ban like this, but it certainly does not hurt them nor prevent them from carrying out acts of terrorism. Therefore, the actual effectiveness of this as a counterterrorism effort is questionable at best.
But it seems counter-intuitive to project open hostility toward communities that play a critical role in combating terrorism, potentially making them reluctant to do so. This is why senior military officers, like newly-appointed Secretary of Defense GEN (ret) Jim Mattis and National Security Advisor LTG H.R. McMasters have argued against using the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ A system of security at the community level (where the rubber meets the road in countering terrorism) can only be effective when everyone in the community sees it as in their best interests to work together toward providing that security.
Unfortunately, prejudice and bigotry among some members of our government and media now threaten undermine effective counterterrorism, by focusing our nation’s attention on the wrong problems. Ask any law enforcement professional whether they can guarantee the safety of a community without having information and intelligence sources within that community. Ask a military veteran who’s been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or other countries whether they could have “been just fine” without assistance from foreign military officers, interpreters, or local community members in those countries. Ask an intelligence community professional in the U.S. whether it matters if other countries stop sharing information with us about individuals of concern in those countries.
Trust between nations and individuals can be seen as a fabric that is tightly interwoven with security. Without trust, the systems of security at the community, homeland, national and international levels all unravel. And here is where the current political climate is most concerning. Uncertainty damages trust. Hateful rhetoric damages trust. Policies that target millions of people about whom we know nothing except for their country of origin or immigration/refugee status, damage trust.
Americans have faith and trust in our legal system and the rule of law. It is a good sign that the courts have continued to block previous attempts at this “travel ban”, largely on the basis that the administration has failed to substantiate with any evidence that it is in the best interests of our nation’s security. Indeed, even though the administration rejects the conclusions of its own intelligence community, thus far we have seen a great deal more evidence supporting the arguments against it than for it. This fact alone sends an important message to communities worldwide that hopefully they will find comforting – our nation values rule of law over political ideologies.
My own views on the matter are not based on political, moral, legal or ethical arguments about immigration or refugees, but rather, on the impact this approach has on effective counterterrorism and security. In the future, the people making decisions about our nation’s security would be wise to review the vast body of evidence-based research on terrorism and counterterrorism studies, and solicit the opinions of law enforcement, military and intelligence professionals about the impact of suggested policy actions – before announcing them as executive orders.
James J.F. Forest, Ph.D. is Professor of Security Studies in the School of Criminology & Justice Studies at UMass Lowell, Visiting Professor at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, and Senior Fellow at the Joint Special Operations University. His latest book is Essentials of Counterterrorism (Praeger, 2016).