Waging a Wiser War on Terrorism

As the hearings of the 9/11 Commission have reminded us, it's time to place a much higher priority on improving our ability to fight terrorism here at home — to stop terrorists before they launch their deadly attacks.

This means more law enforcement. But it also means smarter law enforcement that not only protects citizens from attack but respects their civil liberties (search). To do that, we must re-evaluate the roles and responsibilities of federal, state and local authorities.

Consider the issue of immigration (search). We have long resisted using state and local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law. Communities want their officers working on local crime. They fear that pitting local cops against immigrants would discourage the immigrants from reporting crime, thus leaving them more vulnerable to criminals in their own communities.

But, in light of 9/11 and subsequent events, do these concerns still make sense? Don't all communities want terrorists rounded up wherever they are? Don't even immigrant communities want law enforcement to deal with the most dangerous among them?

About 40 million people come to the United States each year by legal and illegal means. Most pose no threat to the country or its citizens. On the other hand, all 19 of the 9/11 hijackers (search) did pose a threat and weren't detected. Future terrorists can be expected to follow their path — to enter the United States by any means, then hide in our communities, perhaps for years, before striking.

State and local police are far more likely to encounter people bent on committing terrorist acts than are federal immigration officials. (Maryland state police pulled over two of the 9/11 hijackers just two days before they struck.) They also have more surveillance resources than the federal agencies that enforce immigration laws have.

The federal government does not have the capacity to aggressively pursue its existing caseload of immigration violations which represent serious criminal and national-security threats. The Department of Homeland Security can't even deport all the criminal aliens released from federal and state prisons. With significant budget increases unlikely for DHS, homeland security can't be considered strictly a federal mission.

At the very least, in the normal course of criminal investigations, state and local law enforcement should be permitted to cooperate with federal immigration officials.

Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (search) provides adequate authority for state and local enforcement to investigate, detain and arrest aliens on civil and criminal grounds. It requires that state and local officers receive adequate training and operate under the direction of federal authorities. And when state and local officers handle immigration matters, they are considered to be acting under federal authority, which means the federal government is liable in case of civil lawsuits, not state or local governments.

A pilot program now under way in Florida could serve as a national model for how to implement 287(g) (search). In this program, select state and local law enforcement officers were trained to assist in immigration-related domestic counterterrorism investigations. This move has increased fourfold the capacity of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (search) agency to investigate immigration violations. In slightly more than a year, the program has led to more than 100 arrests — most for terrorism, but some for other crimes.

The agreement between Florida and Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds that local officers be used only in the most essential domestic counterterrorism investigations and that they engage in these activities only when taking part in counterterrorism operations supervised by ICE officers from the DHS. It also requires that officers who participate in the task force be American citizens with three years of law-enforcement experience and at least an associate degree.

Once selected, officers undergo intensive training and must pass a final competency exam. The agreement also establishes ways for people to file grievances against the program and its officers.

The success of the Florida initiative suggests three other steps we could take right now to enhance state-federal counterterrorism efforts:

—The DHS could encourage other states to adopt programs based on the Florida model;

—Congress could appropriate funds for the DHS to expand 287(g) initiatives; and

—States could use the Florida initiative as a model for expanding their own domestic counterterrorism programs and improving cooperation with federal authorities.

Let's take these common-sense steps now — before we have another 9/11 and another federal commission suggesting ways we can do better in the war on terror.

James Jay Carafano, a 25-year veteran of the armed forces, is a senior research fellow in defense and homeland security at  The Heritage Foundation.