The Brennan Center for Justice’s day-long symposium on March 18, “Intelligence Collection and Law Enforcement: New Roles, New Challenges,” assembled top experts to discuss law enforcement officials’ more prominent role in gathering counterterrorism intelligence post-9/11. In a sweeping keynote address, John O. Brennan, Barack Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, outlined the administration’s multifaceted approach to combating terrorism with the cooperation of law enforcement and other actors.

John O. BrennanBrennan outlined the core principles underlying the government’s counterterrorism responses: the top prioritization of Americans’ safety and security, the use of every legal tool available to keep people safe, fidelity to the nation’s core values and ideals, a pragmatic approach rather than an ideological one, and the notion of flexibility in addressing each threat in turn.

The challenge, Brennan said, “has been to carefully integrate intelligence and law enforcement—consistent with our values and the rule of law—to ensure that they complement and reinforce each other.” He highlighted a history of successful prosecutions of terrorism cases in federal courts, a record he called “frequently forgotten” in debate over how to handle such cases. Brennan insisted that any terrorism suspect arrested in the U.S., as well as any American citizen arrested anywhere for such activity, would remain within the criminal justice system.

Foreign defendants would be tried either in civilian courts or in reformed military commissions, he said. “In choosing between our federal courts and military commissions in any given case, this administration will remain focused on producing the right result.” He also asserted that the administration remained committed to closing Guantánamo, but that support for that action has waned as some members of Congress seek to make it more difficult to transfer military prisoners to civilian detention.

“Combating terrorism requires a practical, flexible, results-driven approach that is consistent with our laws and our values,” said Brennan. “It is essential to our effectiveness, as well as our ability to sustain that strategy over time. Our criminal justice system, even though it is just one tool in this fight, embodies each of these things. Where it is available, it is, quite simply, one of the best counterterrorism tools we have to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its adherents. It has demonstrated unrivaled effectiveness, unquestioned legitimacy, and the flexibility to preserve and protect the full spectrum of our national security objectives.”

Representative Bennie Thompson, the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, gave the symposium’s introductory address. He spoke in the aftermath of his public disagreement with fellow committee member Representative Peter King over controversial hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims. In referring to the hearings, Thompson, who was surveilled by the government as a college student because he attended meetings of certain groups, stressed the need to protect civil liberties as vigorously as national security.

“The First Amendment of the Constitution protects freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” said Thompson. “This hearing overstepped those bounds and made law-abiding Americans unnecessarily uncomfortable. In addition to the hearing overstepping the bounds of the Constitution, an inquisition into the Muslim community ignored the facts that the Brennan Center’s report reiterated. Violent extremism knows no race, religion, or ethnicity.... I firmly believe that an inquiry into extreme ideology and violent action should be a broad-based examination. I agree that homegrown terrorism and a jihadist threat deserve continuing attention. However, narrowly focusing our attention on a particular religious or ethnic group lacks clarity and common sense. Today’s terrorists do not share a particular ethnic, educational, or socioeconomic background.”

Posted on March 24, 2011