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Dahl: Time for National Dialogue on Domestic Security

With a hodge-podge of burgeoning efforts to collect intelligence at the local, state and federal levels, the time has come for a national dialogue on the possibility of a domestic security apparatus in the United States.

That was the message from Erik Dahl, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, during an address Sept. 29 to the World Affairs Council of Monterey Bay during a presentation titled "Intelligence reform and reorganization: Is it making us safer today?"

Dahl spoke to a group of about 100 in an address that took concepts often discussed at CHDS into the surrounding community.

Calls for such an agency, similar to Great Britain’s MI-5, typically bring howls of protest from both ends of the American political spectrum, with many conservatives charging it would involve the creation of a new, expensive government agency, while liberals worry such an organization would trample on civil liberties. Dahl, however, argues that since the Sept. 11 attacks, various intelligence operations have evolved that have no primary guiding authority.

This may take the form of local fire departments, to multi-agency fusion centers, to traditional investigation by the FBI and CIA.

"My argument is that we have already set up an expensive system," Dahl said. "It’s already going on, but it isn’t very well coordinated and we don’t have effective oversight."

Before voicing his conclusion, Dahl traced the evolution of domestic security in the United States and outlined the major organizations involved in it. Seventeen such agencies comprise the intelligence community, Dahl noted, with even more when counting the various state and local operations that have evolved since the Sept. 11 attacks. However, he believes most Americans are unaware of the extent of domestic intelligence operations and the issues surrounding them.

"The intelligence community in America is a tremendously complex enterprise that not many Americans know about," Dahl said.

A series of articles published this past summer in the Washington Post stated that more than 850,000 Americans have top secret clearances, for example, with the cost of the myriad intelligence endeavors estimated at $75 billion annually.

There have been many successes in disrupting plots, such as plan by a Denver area resident named Najibullah Zazi to attack New York City subways, Dahl noted.

So, the good news is that a sort of domestic security apparatus that is being aided by citizens has been established and is proving to be effective.

The bad news: Taxpayers have little idea of the worth of return they are getting on their investment and there is a lack of dialogue on civil liberties issues that surround intelligence collection.

Instead, most public discussion, if any, centers on topics such as the controversial drone attacks in Pakistan or the instability in who holds the position of Director of National Intelligence.

Given the expense and the importance of the intelligence need to preserve homeland security, Dahl would like to see Americans more engaged in the issue and believes, at the very least, a national dialogue is needed on how the nation approaches domestic intelligence.

"We are having this conversation at CHDS, and we need to have it more broadly across the country," Dahl said. "I think we need to have a national discussion on homeland security so we can decide if we are taking the right approach."

World Affairs Council of Monterey Bay is part of a network of World Affairs Councils that are composed of citizens who want to educate themselves on international issues. The local chapter regularly hosts speakers on an array of topics.