The terrorist threat to western democracies has taken a complex turn that will greatly complicate our ability to detect and counter internal threats to our security. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have harnessed the Internet to appeal to marginalized and socially-isolated individuals worldwide to undertake autonomous attacks within their countries of residence in the name of jihad. So called "lone wolf" attacks in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as the carefully planned and executed attacks against the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher grocery in France, highlight an alarming trend.

Whereas the major threat previously emanated from organized terrorist groups that dispatched cells abroad to undertake terrorist attacks and who communicated over commercial communications networks, making them subject to detection and surveillance by security services, today's threat is more likely to come from an individual radicalized in the basement of his or her home in front of a computer or interacting with jihadist social media sites through a smart phone. By their very nature, these threats are not subject to easy detection and are extraordinarily difficult to disrupt before innocent lives are lost.


Public reaction to the revelations by Edward Snowden of Internet and telephone metadata collection programs by the National Security Agency has diminished our ability to detect plots by lone actors or small, autonomous groups who have become radicalized remotely by ISIS and AQAP. While an understanding of the intent and an examination of the actual product of these programs was lost in the public's concern over the government's surveillance of U.S. citizen's metadata, the fact remains that the sole purpose of these programs was to determine whether telephone numbers, Internet accounts or digital devices belonging to persons in the United States, or to foreigners whose communications were routed through the U.S., were in regular contact with those associated with suspected or known terrorists or terrorist groups abroad.

Further, as technology rapidly evolves, it is increasingly difficult for the FBI to legally access the electronic records of terrorist suspects. As FBI Director James Comey has stated, "the law hasn't kept pace with technology, and this disconnect has created a significant public safety problem."

BENS, Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of senior private sector executives that provides pro bono advice to the government on challenging national security issues, has recently released a multi-year study of the conduct of "domestic intelligence" — the collection of intelligence within the U.S. to identify terrorist threats by persons residing here. Its overarching finding is that the U.S. lacks a programmatic, holistic operational approach marshaling the capabilities of federal, state and local law enforcement and federal intelligence agencies to detect internal terrorist threats.

To quote the report, "our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are operating without an enterprise-wide concept at the federal level. ... This shortcoming impedes the federal government's ability to optimally conduct domestic intelligence activities in support of counterterrorism and related missions and to provide effective oversight of these activities."

With the proliferation of self-radicalized individuals bent on conducting violent jihad autonomously at the urging of groups like AQAP and ISIS, this is a worrisome conclusion.

While the BENS assessment recommends a number of prudent and, for the most part, achievable modifications to procedures by domestic security and U.S. intelligence agencies to enhance their ability to detect and disrupt terrorism plots against the U.S. internally, a fundamental question remains: To what extent is the U.S. body politic willing to endorse the collection of intelligence domestically to prevent terrorist acts against innocent citizens?

Vitally important, and deserving of a vigorous public debate given the security threats facing the U.S. today, is the fundamental question of whether the collection of intelligence domestically in order to protect the nation from internal threats inspired by foreign terrorist organizations is consistent with, or inimical to, our constitutional system. If it's consistent, then rigorous, mandatory and bipartisan congressional oversight of operational domestic intelligence collection activities must be required to ensure that they are carried out in a manner consistent with the spirit and intent of the Constitution. If the decision is inimical to our system, then we must prepare ourselves to fight a defensive war against an agile and cunning adversary who will use our self-imposed restrictions to their strategic advantage.

This fundamental question should be given the serious public debate it deserves.

James Rosenbluth is a retired CIA officer and president of Analytic Risk Solutions. Alfred Berkeley, a Baltimore resident, is the former president of the NASDAQ Stock Market and current chairman of Princeton Capital Management. They may be reached at bens@bens.org.