Napolitano speaks in Denver on new threats

Napolitano calls on local police to become first preventers

The threat lives among us.

That was the message from Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano to a Denver audience on October 28th.

Napolitano was the featured speaker, in an event which also included current Denver Mayor and gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper, put on by The Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab (

Napolitano’s focus was on the changing nature of terrorist attacks. After 9/11, the U.S. engineered itself to deter attacks from organized terrorist cells that came from outside the country. However, with several numerous attempts over the past couple of years by individuals that are also U.S. citizens, Napolitano notes that the threat is changing.

“Today’s threat puts police officers, fire fighters, emergency medical personnel, on the front lines of terrorism,” Napolitano said. “Every police department must put themselves on the front lines.”

Napolitano noted that the intelligence and law enforcement communities are seeing an increasing role of westerners, both from Europe and the U.S. These are individuals that are unknown to the intelligence community and the federal authorities and they focus on small scale, lone wolf style attacks.

“We need to get better at identifying the signs,” Napolitano said. “Local police may be in a better position to detect the next threat.”

“Homeland security begins with hometown security,” Napolitano feels. Her vision is that the federal government can best help local authorities by pushing needed intelligence and information down to the local law enforcement level. “It is vital that information flows in both directions.”

Napolitano said that local police need to be trained, prepared and integrated, in order to defeat the terrorist threat. She pointed specifically to a new program being rolled out by the Department of Justice called “SAR Initiative,” Suspicious – Activities – Reporting.

SARi is being implemented throughout law enforcement communities in the U.S. Napolitano was careful to point out that the training was not profiling, but focused on indicators of suspicious activity and behaviors that could lead to a terrorist attack. Nineteen groups have already received the SAR training.

She highlighted the efforts of local fusion centers, such as the Colorado Information Analysis Center (CIAC) in collecting and analyzing threat information and her desire to create centers of analytical excellence. She also pointed out a recent victory with the arrest of Faisal Shahzad with just 53 hours between receiving a cold tip and apprehension. What she did not do is what cannot be done. She did not promise that we would ever be 100% secure.

“You can’t put the country in Tupperware and seal the top,” Napolitano said. “But we can work together to minimize the threat and make the country as secure as it can be.”

In responding to pre-generated audience questions, the first asked the Secretary which is the greater threat, a Timothy McVeigh or a Richard Reid.

“We have to guard against both,” she said. “I can’t rank them, these aren’t the top 10 college football teams.” Napolitano said that homeland security is not just about detecting and preventing but being able to quickly respond and get back on our feet.

She was next asked about the Arizona immigration law. Napolitano sides with the federal rulings and said that, “the Arizona law is the wrong way.” She cited the need for a cohesive federal strategy, not 50 different ways of doing things.

Another local initiative that DHS is using is called Secure Communities. Through the program, when individuals are arrested for a crime, they will not only be run through the usual FBI databases, but will also be run through immigration databases and lawful residences. The goal is that once the individual has been through the criminal justice system, they will then enter the immigration system to get them out of the country if they were here illegally. Mayor Hickenlooper noted that three Colorado counties will soon have Secure Communities tie in’s, including Arapahoe, Denver and El Paso counties.

With regards to a question on the legality of domestic surveillance in the era of rapidly expanding technological capabilities, Napolitano said that the existing laws need to be reviewed and updated to reflect modern times. “I think the ones in place now were written during the time of the teletype,” she joked.

Napolitano also made a somewhat darker joke about the threat of a nuclear attack by a rogue nation or individual. When asked about whatit would be like if the U.S. is attacked with a nuclear weapon she said, “not good. . . next question.”

While it got a laugh from the audience Napolitano turned serious and said that the control of nuclear material is a concern for the world’s community of nations and that we should all be worried about this issue. For the U.S., she said that technologies are being developed for better detection of materials and looking at the various modes of transportation into the U.S.

Another questioner asked about the role of the Internet in terrorism.

“The Internet acts as an accelerant to the homegrown terrorist threat,” said Napolitano. The Internet also contains training materials and links terrorists with others without physical contact. Noting that the Internet also helps the radicalization process, she said that how an individual becomes radicalized needs to be studied and learned about.

Napolitano ended her speech where she begin, talking about the importance of local law enforcement in the war on terror. “If there’s an attack you don’t call the Department of Homeland Security, you call your local police,” she said. While Napolitano noted that first responders are also first preventers, she also acknowledged that it is difficult to keep personnel and maintain training in times when many police budgets are being cut. She said that security is a core competency of government and that departments should seek government grants and other monies to keep departments running.

Okay, my turn.

The previous article was the old journalist in me coming out, reported straightforward as it happened. Now I’d like to offer some thoughts, particularly for airport and airline security professionals.

First, I agree with two important points: (1) that local law enforcement is in the best position to detect, deter and respond to terrorist threats, provided that they have the proper resources, staffing and training, and (2) that the threat is changing to the radicalized insider that is already working and living here in the U.S. What this means for U.S. airports and air carriers is that your threat may already be drawing a paycheck from your bank.

I was introduced to the term “first preventer,” in former U.S. Coast Guard Commander Stephen Flynn’s book, America the Vulnerable. Flynn pointed out that there are about 8,000 FBI agents and very few of those are dedicated to counterterrorism, while there are over 800,000 local police officers who know their “beats” far better than any federal agent. I wholeheartedly believe that our best monies are spent in training, staffing and providing resources for local law enforcement in the counterterrorism role. It’s nice to see that DHS is finally coming to the party on this, however, years of taxpayer backlash has managed to cut local police budgets so deep that some departments are even using private citizens to help out with forensics and non-felony investigations. The police are incredibly important but without money, they’re incredibly ineffective.

Second, the threat is indeed changing. We are seeing this already with the incidents in Times Square, an attempted truck bombing in Dallas, the arrest of Zazi here in Denver for plotting to attack the New York subway system and the most recent attempt on the Metro in Washington DC.

I also agree with the reality that there is no such thing as 100% security. Just as there is no such thing as a perfectly safe airplane or automobile, but there is “safe enough.” While we can’t prevent everything, our job is to make it as difficult as possible (borrowing some of former U.S. Senator Gary Hart’s quote on the same subject).

The question airport and airline operators have to address is how to handle these new threats. With respect to the radicalized insider, it’s time to start looking inward at their own employees. Better background checks and an environment of awareness in the workplace to look for indicators of radicalized behavior needs to become a priority. The case of David Burke and the downing of PSA Flight 1771 is a great case study for seeing the signs of workplace violence.

Also, all large airports have their own police forces and many smaller airports still must have police officer coverage. It’s time for airport police personnel to be trained in both suspicious awareness and in response to various terrorist attacks on airports. And for them to be properly funded and staffed.

Overall, I liked what I saw. For criticism though, there is plenty, particularly with aviation security and working with the international community. Items that can be saved for another blog.


One Response to Napolitano speaks in Denver on new threats

Adopting an Airport Text for Your Classroom?Get it Now