Napolitano counterterror policy: Public must play a role

The Homeland Security secretary emphasized that security must be balanced with civil liberties.

Seth Wenig/AP
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Wednesday.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano Wednesday called for all Americans to help prevent the next terrorist attack and pushed for more information-sharing across government to "build a culture of collective awareness and preparation."

In one of her first major speeches since she took the job, Secretary Napolitano hinted at a "new thinking" on how to tackle terrorist threats to the homeland, though she offered few substantive details. She stressed, however, that the new policy would have to balance the needs of security with the American values of individual liberty.

"As I discuss a culture of awareness, individual preparedness, the ability to identify suspicious activities and the like, there's a careful balance to be struck between that and a feeling like we're trying to create a culture of everybody spying on one another," she said, in answer to a question about domestic surveillance. "We don't want that."

In the past, the Bush administration's homeland security policy has in been criticized for emphasizing security over civil liberty.

Specifically, Napolitano said she has deployed 36 intelligence specialists to help build a system of 70 intelligence "fusion centers" to foster better information-sharing across the country. Distrust and lack of cooperation has long been a feature of the intelligence community.

That has created information gaps, withholding information from the people who need it the most. Napolitano vowed to fight this old bureaucratic thorn by encouraging more departments to work together. She also emphasized greater collaboration with companies that control vital services such as power plants and communication system.

"It is a legacy we can no longer afford," she said, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

It will also require a higher level of awareness among the American public, she said, pointing to a spate of recent cases in which the public helped foil terrorist plots, including one in which police received word about a group duplicating extremist DVDs that led to arrests surrounding a plot to kill American soldiers on Fort Dix, N.J.

"Countering the terrorist threat is not just the effort of one agency, or one element of society," she said.

The push on information-sharing shows she recognizes the key aspect of protecting the homeland, says James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

"The way you stop terrorists is you have to have the intelligence to do that," he says. "That's done through information sharing."

The creation of fusion centers would help mitigate bogus or irrelevant information reported by a vigilant public, Mr. Carafano says.

"We need to be mature about facing this threat, and I think that's what this speech was about," he said.

The Bush administration's Department of Homeland Security became best known perhaps for its color-coded terror alerts, a confusing system that was criticized for fanning terrorist fears. The system is now likely to get a makeover as part of the Napolitano's efforts to revamp the way the department communicates with the public. The review of that system won't be complete until mid-September.

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