Is trust in our law enforcement ever an “acceptable loss” when it comes to terrorist threats against our public?
Washington DC, formally the District of Columbia, is the capital of the United States of America, and it has about a total of only 60 square land miles, which includes not only government buildings, but also universities, parks, businesses, residential areas, etc. It was designed around a very small physical area for easily over 1.5 million U.S. Government employees centrally located there, and even more thousands of those who work in the same area in associated jobs and support roles. Given the small geographic area, the amount of parking area is extremely limited and the roads are highly congested, in both Washington DC proper and the surrounding suburbs in what is known as Northern Virginia and Suburban Maryland.
The nation’s capital, Washington DC, is about roughly the same physical land size of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with possibly half of the actual usable land space for offices and residences, double the population in the city, vastly more working employees traveling around the city, and a fraction of the available parking spaces. In the American national capital, there is a really significant challenge in getting from one place to another, quickly, and for many – just to get to work. Not everyone is the president and gets chauffeured around in a limousine. There are then the rest of the 1.5 to 2 million workers who need to get from one place to another.
To accommodate these otherwise unmanageable travel logistics in America’s national capital, in 1976, the local area governments and the federal government worked together to build an area subway system administered by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) called the “Metro” subway. The Metro subway now has 1,126 railcars and 91 stations in the Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The Metro subway system stretches across 117 miles, nearly double the entire land miles of Washington DC itself.
Every day, there are an average of 836,800 riders on the Metro subway system. It is the second busiest subway in the United States, second only to New York City (which has 300+ land miles.) The DC Metro has an annual usage of 261,435,200 riders. Outside of the White House, the Pentagon, and the Capitol Building, it is probably the highest profile security threat in the nation’s capital, and unquestionable a threat to the Metro would have the highest threat to human life and safety. It is a massive choke point for the nation’s capital public and certainly for the nation’s homeland security. After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government regularly had tactical police with sub-machine gun rifles traveling on trains and around Metro stations. I know – I rode with them on the subways. Many residents had been trained in evacuation processes. But all of that was many years ago. The perceived need for security has greatly diminished.
To accommodate these nearly 1 million riders every day, WMATA has about 500 Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) officers. That sounds like a lot, until you realize they have divide those police in multiple shifts, since the Metro runs from 5 AM to 12 PM Midnight. So for illustrative purposes, let’s divide that number in half – now there about 250 MTPD officers – over about 90 stations – that is about 2 to 3 MTPD officers on average per station – some stations will have more, some will have less. And every stop is carrying hundreds of thousands of people every day, whose safety is dependent on MTPD alertness.
Not so many police officers now, is it?
Could you imagine if one of those average of 2 or 3 MTPD officers per station, was working for the ISIS terrorist movement?
You know, the insane ISIS terrorist movement, which has launched terrorist attacks on trains, airports, restaurants, public places, houses of worship around the world, that has killed nearly 75 in America this year, who burn people alive, boil them in tar, poison with chemical gas, mutilate their bodies, etc? Yes, THAT ISIS. One could only imagine the massive of life if such a terrorist infiltrator to the Metro police acted on the vulnerable thousands of people traveling on the Metro subway.
But, that is exactly what was happening, one of the Metro Police was working for the ISIS terrorist movement, and our federal law enforcement knew about it – for years.
We discovered this on August 2, 2016 in the afternoon, when the local news media announced that Nicholas Young, one of the Metro Police had been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). We discovered that the FBI had arrested Nicholas Young for providing material support and resources to a designated foreign terrorist group, who turned out to be ISIS. We also learned that the FBI had been investigating Nicholas Young for SIX YEARS. He was originally investigated in September 2010 for his involvement with Zachary Chesser who had been arrested in 2010 for supporting the brutal terrorist organization Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Over the next 6 years, Nicholas Young continued on the Metro Police. MTPD’s Nicholas Young talked plenty over the intervening 6 years – he talked about attacking the FBI, about beheading people, about bringing guns into a courtroom. He planned kidnaps and torture, he met with terrorists in the Washington DC area, he went to Libya and met with terrorists there in 2011, brought body armor and military items on his flight to Libya to go help terrorists. In 2014, he traveled to Turkey to meet up and join with the ISIS terrorist movement. He then regularly communicated with those who he knew in the ISIS terrorist movement as well as FBI informants, cheering about terrorist attacks killing people in France. He then planned to provide funds to support ISIS. The terrorist supporter Nicholas Young brought his AK-47 to Metro Police training events. But he was still working as an MTPD police officer all this time. Over the course of the year in 2016, he finally was persuaded to purchase gift cards for ISIS to pay for mobile messaging accounts, and it was only that which then was the basis on which the FBI arrested him in August 2016.
For context, hundreds of thousands of passengers Metro traveled under the watchful eye of MTPD officer and ISIS terrorist Nicholas Young, every day, for over the 6 years while he was under active investigation for association with terrorist organizations.
The WMATA chairman, who stated that he also knew about this ISIS terrorist on the MTPD police, is still there running the Metro subway. No one was else was fired and no one resigned – other than MTPD officer Nicholas Young – after he was actually arrested for terrorist support, 6 years later. No one complained to the FBI or whether the agents investigating could have acted sooner. There have absolutely no consequences for this reckless approach to the safety of untold thousands of people at any time, on any day of the week. God only knows who else this ISIS terrorist has been working with in Washington DC or even within the MTPD police force. Our FBI has ensured us that there was no risk to the public, and that ISIS terrorist Nicholas Young, who planned kidnapping, murder, and who actively worked with ISIS terrorists overseas – was no real threat to the American public.
I want to believe that the agent in charge of the investigation, struggled with his conscience, had sleepless nights, wondering if they were doing the right thing, if today was the day that this insane terrorist Nicholas Young would snap, and kill thousands of unsuspecting people who looked at him and trusted him as “the police.” I want to believe that someone in an investigative review looked at this, and shouted in exasperation, “Are you crazy?”, when told that they were keeping this terrorist suspect on the MTPD police force. But these federal cases don’t take place in a vacuum. They are reviewed, regularly, and by multiple senior people in law enforcement. This wasn’t the judgment of one or two people. I would like to believe the chairman of WMATA would plead with the FBI, “how can I keep an ISIS terrorist on my police force?,” and would demand that there just had to be another way to do this investigation.
Official U.S. government will essentially shrug its shoulders over this, since after all “no one got killed,” and the Washington Post conveniently swept the story under the rug after a brief report on this. But the risk in ineffective handling of terrorist threats is not only to our lives. The risk is also to our TRUST. We have to be able to TRUST our police. We cannot be wondering – is that police officer really an ISIS terrorist? We cannot be wondering, if our police are infiltrated by the ISIS terrorist movement, will our FBI do anything about it? These are staggering questions of trust that we can not simply let floating in the air, while we shrug, and go back to our routine lives.
Of all of the so-called “acceptable losses” that we cannot afford, we cannot afford to lose TRUST in law enforcement. This is where ISIS terrorist Nicholas Young succeeded without firing a shot, without exploding a bomb, simply by being allowed by our law enforcement authorities to endanger the lives of thousands of Americans, without a second thought. Without killing anyone, Nicholas Young has still achieved his goal. This is precisely how terrorists win. It is not just the people they kill or the property damage they do. While those are the obvious and horrible crimes in our society, the very worst crime to social cohesion is the damage terrorists due to TRUST. They get us to question whether we can trust one another, and worst of all whether we can even trust those who are supposed to protect us. That is the greatest damage that terrorism achieves.
We cannot simply forget that thousands and thousands of American lives were endangered for YEARS every day by this investigation. If MTBD police officer and ISIS terrorist Nicholas Young had committed a successful attack or attacks on the Washington Metro, the death toll could have easily staggered the 9/11 attacks by many times. How can we trust the people who thought this risk was acceptable? But official Washington not only is not “outraged” over this, they really don’t see it as much of a concern at all. What more do you really need to know?
That is the state of our law enforcement’s ability to protect us from terrorist threats. Our law enforcement really believes that they are doing the right thing. They are handicapped by an obscenely outdated and ineffective criminal code, based mostly on criminal conduct and life in the last century, and dependent on laws written largely by people who long passed on from this life. Our law enforcement is working with “horse and buggy” level laws, while terrorists and criminals are running rings around them with state-of-the-art global behavior. The terrorist enemy has foreign support, 24 x 7, 365 days a week, while our federal law enforcement has forms to complete, antiquated statutes to follow, and a nation that expects them to act like real-life is an action movie. When you really think about it, it is a miracle that they catch any terrorists at all.
When it comes down to it, however, our mostly last-century laws are not designed for the world today. There is no real federal crime for terrorism other than for designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). Even if we know someone is planning a terrorist attack, our federal law enforcement need to find a charge and build a case to a specific federal weapons violation, providing specific support, or material support to a designated FTO group. If the terrorist does not have detailed proof of a case to a specific FTO terrorist group, then there really is no other terrorist crime to charge then on. Furthermore, for extremist groups not listed as FTOs, especially any “domestic” groups, there really is very little to charge them on, as we have no real legally binding “domestic” terrorist organizations defined, that we can use in criminal prosecution. This forces the federal (or local) law enforcement to try to find a prosecutable charge in a specific weapons crime, some illegal financial transaction, or other prosecutable offense, otherwise we really don’t have laws designed to STOP terrorism.
Unlike the United Kingdom and other nations, we also have a very limited domestic intelligence gathering capability. While our headlines scream about fears of privacy invasions from the National Security Agency (NSA), the reality is that and the very finite FBI Counterterrorism Division (CTD), which does perform operations analysis and significant financial analysis, we really do not have have a separate domestic intelligence organization. Combining what America has in terms of a limited “domestic intelligence agency” into one body the FBI has positives and negatives. The positive is that it provides both intelligence and ability to perform law enforcement functions, unlike the U.K.’s MI-5 which can only perform intelligence functions. This eliminates “handoffs,” but on the other hand it also makes American “domestic intelligence” highly sensitive to only collecting information which can be used in a specific case for a criminal prosecution. Based on our outdated laws on terrorism, while this provides a maximum protection for American Civil Rights and judicial oversight, the ability of law enforcement to actually protect us from known terrorist threats (such as the ISIS terrorist working on the MTPD police) is dependent only on what they can currently prosecute such terrorists on. While our intelligence community and law enforcement rightly does claim that the goal to prevent such attacks, the incredible risk and damage to the public trust that the current laws present is a disaster waiting to happen.
Furthermore, our federal law enforcement is highly dependent on informants to address terrorist threats, and the very convenient Internet-based operations by ISIS terrorists publicly and boldly declaring their goals and plots on the public Internet through social media. This is where social media works against such terrorists and extremists, to the extent that they are stupid enough (and many are) to provide specific and prosecutable information in public sight, which federal law enforcement are able to use to build and document a case using the existing outdated laws. This is mostly dependent on such terrorists being stupid, and thankfully for law-abiding citizens, many of them are, which gives our otherwise-handicapped law enforcement ready documentation to make arrests. In addition, our federal law enforcement depends on a reported cadre of 15,000 informants, some of whom are paid, and who provide information on some cases and sometimes serve as “Confidential Human Source” or a “CHS” to talk to extremists, including to help set up “sting cases” where extremists are enticed to say enough that they can provide a prosecutable offense.
But migrating a police organization into having semi-domestic intelligence functions is a complex endeavor.
There is a sense of detachment which inevitably occurs, and various informants and open intelligence sources (e.g., public Internet postings) become pieces in an intelligence chess game. Rather than being outraged at the willingness of terrorists to plan and plot to kill Americans, as I have read in one federal law enforcement affidavit after another a sense that, we need to go on, and see if we can get some more information, and get them to incriminate themselves more and more and more.
For example, in a recent FBI affidavit that I read about the case of James Gonzalo Medina, who was arrested on May 2, 2016, after a long and extensive plot in a terrorist attack on a synagogue in Hollywood, Florida, planning to a mass-casualty terrorist attack. The FBI became aware of this in March 2016, and over two months, they had repeated undercover police meetings with James Gonzalo Medina, discussing different ways to commit the mass-casualty terrorist attack against Jewish worshipers using guns, bombs, and finally getting Medina to agree to use a fake bomb, which is how they were finally able to arrest him. During all of this time, Medina could have decided on his own, that he had gotten tired of waiting and committed the terrorist attack. All this time, the people of the local Jewish synagogue were oblivious to the threat, and regularly worshiping with their families and children, unknown to them that their federal law enforcement was having regular meetings talking to a terrorist about the most effective way to mass murder them.
But the FBI and federal law enforcement apparently have such antiquated laws and such confused priorities in domestic intelligence gathering on terrorist attacks that even when a person comes up and tells you, a federal police officer, that they plan to commit a terrorist attack on a house of worship, that is not enough to get you arrested and taken off the street. Once again, federal law enforcement got “lucky” and they managed to dissuade Medina from using an automatic weapon, so that they could substitute a fake bomb in time, and arrested in the course of committing what he thought would be a terrorist act.
But how many times is our federal law enforcement going to get “lucky” on such cases?
And what is the cost to our TRUST in allowing such an ineffective criminal code that allows people to go free after telling our police about their plans to commit terrorism against us?
Our next U.S. federal government administration needs to re-assess the laws that we need and the law enforcement and domestic intelligence resources we need to stop and arrest terrorists. Eventually our outdated laws and approach are going to end up in more than an attack on our trust, but will end up in an attack that will cost many American lives.