People, not tech, key to foiling terror attacks: Former head of US Homeland Security

People, not tech, key to foiling terror attacks: Former head of US Homeland Security

US' and Australia’s former counter-terrorism chiefs tell Talking Point how civilians can be trained to deal with terrorism, and about balancing security and civil liberties.

michael chertoff

SINGAPORE: As Singapore ramps up national security with the wider use of CCTV cameras and measures at public venues - from malls to leisure hubs and stadiums - counter-terrorism veterans are cautioning people not to view technology as the “total solution” to foiling terror attacks.

Said Mr Michael Chertoff, the former United States Secretary of Homeland Security: “I can tell you during my experience in counter-terrorism that many of the most significant cases we developed - cases that actually prevented attacks - can be because a concerned citizen saw something funny. Whether it’s because photographs were taken, or somebody (was) lurking around or (there was) some kind of suspicious behaviour, they reported it to the authorities.”

He added: “We need to make people lose that sense of self-consciousness that sometimes causes them not to report something because they are embarrassed or they are afraid that they are going to look unduly alarmed.”

He also cautioned against blindly rolling out scanners and metal detectors at public places like shopping malls, saying these would create unnecessary choke-points.

Mr Chertoff, along with Australia’s former director-general of security David Irvine, were in Singapore this week for a programme for senior national security chiefs, organised by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. They spoke to current affairs programme Talking Point in separate interviews.

With the threat level here at its highest in recent times, Singapore is stepping up its guard against terrorism, with measures that include tapping the data from Electronic Road Pricing gantries and police cameras, and requiring public buildings and event organisers to enhance security.

Also part of the plan is a community mobilisation movement, SGSecure, to train civilians to protect themselves and respond in the event of an emergency.

Mr Chertoff and Mr Irvine - who between them have been responsible for the security of 350 million Americans and Australians - spoke about the tension between security and civil liberties, the threat to community cohesion and how to prepare the civilian population for terrorist attacks.


Are new detection technologies the way forward in counter-terrorism?

Michael Chertoff: First of all, bomb detection technology and surveillance technology are going to improve. But as important is the use of analytics, to look at a large amount of data and pull out of that meaningful evidence that someone might be planning a terrorist attack. That’s going to be increasingly useful for police and counter-terrorism officials.

But it would be a mistake to think that technology is a total solution. It is an ingredient in a solution which also includes planning, preparation and also resilience.

Do you see body scanners and bag checks becoming the norm in every shopping mall or workplace in the near future?

Michael Chertoff: When you are dealing with areas with a large number of people moving in and out very rapidly, you can’t really filter everybody through a single choke-point, or you’ll destroy the ability to carry out the primary purpose that people are going there in the first place.

So you have got to find another way to detect people who might be dangerous. Among the things you can do: Use bomb sniffing dogs, which allows you to move around. Random checks, where you may stop some people and open a bag, and that’s a deterrent to somebody trying to smuggle something in. Analysing people’s behaviour, training officers to look at somebody and say "that person is behaving nervously".

So a series of techniques like this, which don’t require everybody to go through a scanner or metal detector, can still be effective ways to reduce the risk of an attack.

How is training of the civilian population done in the US?

Michael Chertoff: A lot of it is done through schools or other institutions. People are taught what to do in certain circumstances, whether it is at the workplace or school.

Another thing that people ought to be taught is, if you are in a confined area, whether it’s a shopping mall or hotel, be mindful of your surroundings. By having random checks and using tools like surveillance cameras, we can make it more difficult for somebody to bring a gun or a bomb.

But we can’t make it impossible, so people have to have their wits about them. What would you do if there’s an emergency, where would you go, what kinds of places you might hide in, keeping an eye out for something that looks a bit irregular.

These are the kinds of things that make the difference between someone who becomes the victim, or escaping from a terrorist situation.

What is the dilemma for governments when they introduce more CCTV surveillance? Is the man on the street willing to give up a bit of privacy in order to have better security?

Michael Chertoff: Interesting, the experience in the US has been that wherever cities have a lot of surveillance cameras, and they go to the population and say, "do you want this?", people ask for it. Because they do see it as something that deters crime, or allows a more speedy response to crime.

Now obviously, there’s a limit to that; people certainly would not want it in their homes. But I think people are receptive to increased use of technology to protect them, provided it’s used responsibly and there are protections to prevent someone from abusing it for personal and political reasons.

I think there ought to be strict requirements that people can’t access surveillance videos for an improper purpose, or simply for a casual reason. But if there is a reason to access a video, either because there’s behavior that causes tension or there’s been an event … then having that data can be a very important tool for protecting the population.


Aside from stepping up security measures, how important is social cohesion and engagement?

David Irvine: One of the great threats in mixed communities is that because particular threats like terrorism are associated, rightly or wrongly, with one of those communities, that can often have the impact of directing public attention and concern towards those communities - leading to further alienation, tensions and scorn.

This is hugely important in a country like Australia, where particularly in the last 60 or 70 years, we’ve built up a multi-cultural country ... Something like terrorism can halt that process because it raises tension within, and of course that is what terrorism was designed to do. I’ve been working very hard to ensure that we continue to focus on being a very inclusive community.

YouTube video: Mr David Irvine on the importance of social cohesion

Can more be done to get the civilian community prepared to deal with security threats?

David Irvine: It is often a broad range of people, particularly in Australia, who say: “The government’s got to do something.” The bigger or more difficult question is, how do governments work effectively with the communities that are immediately affected, in ways that have the communities coming with them? Bearing in mind that I worked in the government all my life and governments are not always the best at social mobilisation.

The communities have got to realise when there is a problem and find ways through it, and governments can help them. But also, there’s a whole range of other groups in Australia which can contribute to community cohesion: NGOs, charitable and self-help organisations, even sports clubs and businesses. And we haven’t explored all this nearly as much as other countries have.

In Singapore, we are coming up with SGSecure to mobilise citizens. Is there anything similar in Australia that we can learn from?

David Irvine: No. I suspect, from what I’ve heard about SGSecure, that the learning process is probably going to go the other way. Mind you, you are a very compact and very tight society, whereas Australia is a much more spread-out society. And the methods that might work in Singapore might not be, for example, as effective in Australia.

But if you look at particular areas and particular suburbs of Australia, where there’s a great propensity for a lack of social cohesion and potential security concerns, then what you are doing in Singapore might well work in most circumstances. I’m certainly very keen to learn about what you’re doing, not for what we can teach you, but for what you can teach us.

Let’s talk trade-offs between security imperatives and civil liberties or privacy - how do you manage this dichotomy?

David Irvine: There’s a tendency to see these as two different things. But where people talk about trying to balance the two to get it right, actually they’re both part of the same thing. You can’t have civil rights without personal safety. And having personal safety without civil rights can equally be disappointing. So you need to find ways to integrate them.

That is why we elect governments to make decisions on what bits of rights need to be restricted or limited in some way, in order that there could be community protection. The fact is, it is just as much a human right for you to be safe and secure, as it is a human right for you to have privacy and liberty of speech.

Talking Point airs on Apr 14 at 9.45pm on Channel 5. Watch catch-up episodes here.

Source: CNA/dl