Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Wednesday, July 29, 2009. AP
By Sebastian Smith
NEW YORK — A top US domestic security chief announced a strategy to make ordinary citizens the first line of defense against increasingly complex — and sometimes homegrown — terrorist threats.
“For too long, we’ve treated the public as a liability to be protected rather than an asset in our nation’s collective security,” Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a speech in New York.
“This approach, unfortunately, has allowed confusion, anxiety and fear to linger.”
Napolitano, who also announced an extra 78 million dollars in anti-terrorism funding for 15 mass transit systems nationwide, said modern communications had increased the sophistication of threats since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“The tools for creating violence and chaos are as easy to find as the tools to buy music online or restocking inventory,” she said. “If 9/11 happened in a web 1.0 world, terrorists are certainly in a web 2.0 world now.”
Napolitano urged a “much broader society response” in which the public helps curb a growing phenomenon of so-called homegrown terrorism.
Referring to a spate of arrests around the country of US citizens and residents charged with jihad-type militancy, Napolitano said that ordinary people were often the best eyes and ears.
“You are the ones who know when something is not right in your communities,” she said in her speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Indeed, if you look at the last couple of weeks, arrests have been made in places like Minneapolis and North Carolina,” she said.
“So I think better education about the breadth of the threat and how it can be carried out is important.”
Attorney General Eric Holder added his concerns Wednesday in an interview due to be aired on ABC News television, where he called homegrown terrorism “particularly troubling.”
In the latest case, seven people were arrested Monday, including an American-born Muslim convert and his two sons living in a quiet North Carolina suburb.
Napolitano even called on children to join an effort previously shouldered by police and other security services.
“There’s actually an important role we can play in educating even our very young about watching for, and knowing what to do, if you’re in an airport and you see a package left with no one around,” she said.
However, she stressed she was not advocating “a culture of spying on one another.”
She insisted that President Barack Obama’s administration was committed to repairing the erosion of civil liberties that critics say took place under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
“We have to be careful,” she said. “That’s a balance to be struck.”
An example, she said, was the need to respect mosques and other Islamic institutions.
“We have to be very careful about profiling a religious institution just as we have to be careful about profiling individuals,” she said. “We have to be very, very careful about interfering with the free exercise of religion.”
Even as US troops become increasingly focused on fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, more attention is being paid to violent plots hatched within US borders — often led by US citizens or residents.
The Washington Post on Wednesday described the chief suspect in the North Carolina arrests, Daniel Boyd, as the son of a US marine who had a “typical American childhood” in the suburbs of the US capital, Washington.
This week, a New York court unsealed a confession made in January by a Long Island man, Bryant Vinas, who says he joined Al-Qaeda to attack US forces in Afghanistan and had plotted to attack a New York commuter train.
In May, five Miami men were found guilty of plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago, which just this month was renamed the Willis Tower.
Also in May, four New York men — three of them US citizens — were arrested on charges of trying to blow up synagogues and destroy a US military plane.
In his ABC interview, Holder said: “That’s one of the things that’s particularly troubling: this whole notion of radicalization of Americans.”
“Leaving this country and going to different parts of the world and then coming back, all, again, in aim of doing harm to the American people, is a great concern,” he said.