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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Is Government Planning To Increase Citizen Involvement In Homeland Security? If So, Better Publicize Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) & Nationwide SAR Initiative

June 21st, 2010 · No Comments

There’s an opinion piece on the website of Homeland Security Today, “Who’s Learning Faster, Al Qaeda or Us?” by Erroll G. Southers. Southers, associate director of the National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, argues that citizens have a significant role in homeland security, focusing in particular on Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) and the Nationwide SAR Initiative which:

…was created to establish formal standards for reporting suspicious activity and information sharing between law enforcement agencies. SARs contain information that might suggest terrorist or other criminal planning or intelligence gathering activity. Alert citizens who notice suspicious activity possess critical knowledge, and this information can be used to uncover potential threats, if shared with the proper authorities.

Appropriately, privacy and civil liberty protections are critical SAR requirements. We have a duty to ensure that our policies against alleged criminals do not harm or alienate innocent people. In furtherance of these protections, SARs inherently support objective analysis. They are centered on activity; behavior is the driver, not race, nationality or religion.

Enhancing the SAR effort, the Los Angeles Police Department recently launched “iWatch.” This community initiative educates the public about suspicious behaviors and how to report them. A simple phone call or report may lead to actions that disrupt a terrorist attack. The iWatch program, easily adaptable to other municipalities, is expected to spread nationwide.

I was struck to read that Southers feels that iWatch-type programs — which give the public more information about what kind of terrorist behavior they should be noticing — will be implemented across the U.S. I think that would be a terrific development for which this blog has been advocating over the past couple years. The question is whether that is going to happen on a national level through DHS and the FBI and/or through local/state authorities. I would argue that it requires both.

I think a first step would be to better explain to the public and the media what the SAR’s are, what the SAR initiative is and what is the role of citizens in homeland security. To get and maintain public buy-in, it is important that there is followup when possible. Southers gives an example of a successful citizen tip though it didn’t get all that much attention:

This month, two New Jersey men were arrested at JFK airport, planning to travel to Somalia to “wage violent jihad.” They also had expressed a willingness to commit violent acts in the United States. Both men were American citizens. The FBI received a tip regarding the men’s activities in October 2006. In the intelligence community, that tip is called a “SAR” – Suspicious Activity Report.

That is not a well known story. It should be. These examples of citizen tips helping authorities need to told (when possible) in a bigger way to the public and the media so Americans understand and don’t dismiss their role. The full article can be read here.

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Tags: Department of Homeland Security · See Something/Terrorism Tips

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