Way back when, the intelligence community operated under a simple rule. Disagreements over analysis were worked out in private and when the community spoke, it was with one voice.
Ah, for the good old days. Unfortunately, in today's "leak culture," analysts--and the agencies that employ them--are anxious to air their assessments, even if they highlight divisions within the community.
Consider yesterday's revelations from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. In the matter of a few hours, both organizations offered highly conflicting views on domestic terror threats. After reading their respective opinions on these matters, members of Congress (and the public) have every right to be confused.
The dust-up began when FBI Director Robert Mueller, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, warned that terrorists "with large agendas and little money" can use rudimentary weapons to launch Mumbai-style attacks in the United States. As the Washington Post reports:
Mueller said that the bureau is expanding its focus beyond al-Qaeda and into splinter groups, radicals who try to enter the country through the visa waiver program and "home-grown terrorists."
"The universe of crime and terrorism stretches out infinitely before us, and we too are working to find what we believe to be out there but cannot always see," Mueller said.
One particular concern, the FBI director said, springs from the country's background as a "nation of immigrants." Federal officials worry about pockets of possible radicals among melting-pot communities in the United States such as Seattle, San Diego, Miami or New York.
A Joint Terrorism Task Force led by the FBI, for instance, continues to investigate a group in Minneapolis after one young man last fall flew to Somalia and became what authorities believe to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a suicide bombing. As many as a half-dozen other youths from that community in Minnesota have vanished, alarming their parents and raising concerns among law enforcement officials that a dangerous recruiting network has operated under the radar.
But later in the day, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security downplayed the domestic terror threat:
"We are not immune to an attack from a home-grown terrorist, but the probabilities and sustainability of such an act are very low," said DHS spokesman Michael Keegan.
Keegan said the American immigrant story is one reason the United States is less vulnerable to home-grown terrorism than other countries.
"People come to the United States to be part of something special, to practice their beliefs without worries of persecutions based on their religious faith, political views or personal life styles," he said. "When you give citizens the opportunity to live in an environment that promotes personal growth and happiness, you're essentially promoting the wellness and safety of an entire nation rather than a community of homegrown terrorist cells."
Mr. Keegan will get brownie points for political correctness, but there is a certain fallacy in both his logic and his assumptions. True, the overwhelming majority of immigrants in this country are law-abiding and hard-working, but there are radicalized elements within that broad community, particularly among Muslims.
We assume that Keegan is familiar with the Fort Dix 6. That terror plot, aimed at killing soldiers at the New Jersey army post, involved recent emigres from various Islamic countries. And the Fort Dix conspiracy isn't the only foiled terror attack that originated among Muslim immigrants or their offspring.
So, does that automatically disqualify the comments of Mr. Keegan and the assessments of his department? Not necessarily. DHS has its own analytic resources, though they pale in comparison to those of the FBI. While that doesn't give the bureau a monopoly on the truth, the comments of the FBI Director should carry more weight than a p.r. flack from DHS.
Normally, we're not fans of Congressional hearings, but this public disagreement practically begs one. The chairman of the House and Senate intelligence committees should summon Mr. Mueller, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and their top analysts for a closed door review of the intelligence.
Disagreements within the intelligence community are hardly new and they can actually prove beneficial, forcing agencies to develop a consensus on critical topics. But issuing such divergent opinions--only hours apart--does little to inspire confidence. On matters as important as domestic terror threat assessments, we need more convergence and less conflict.