Yesterday the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP) publicly released a report entitled “Terrorism Threat Assessment 2016”, a detailed assessment of the current terrorism threat in the state of New Jersey. The report is a solid analysis of the different dimensions of the terrorist threat to the state; it concludes that homegrown violent extremists pose the greatest threat to the state in 2016, and also assesses that there is a “moderate” terrorism threat from other groups (ISIS, AQAP, white supremacists, militia groups, and sovereign citizens).
What is especially notable about the report is the fact that the state is releasing it publicly on its website, a contrast to the previous practice of marking such reports “For Official Use Only” (FOUO) and restricting their distribution narrowly to law enforcement officers, other public safety officials, executives at critical infrastructure companies, etc. This decision seems to reflect a deliberate recognition of the value in directly informing the American public about the terrorist threat, and appropriately enlisting them in efforts to detect and prevent terrorism, instead of treating them as passive bystanders. As the director of the NJOHSP notes in the foreword to the report, “Security is a collective responsibility and we are all in this fight together.”
The decision to release this report publicly warrants praise, and is a practice that the federal government and other states should emulate. For example, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation jointly release dozens of Unclassified/FOUO intelligence reports each year, the contents of which are rarely sensitive; in many instances, their findings are copied and pasted nearly verbatim from official statements about terror-related indictments. Given that these reports are already widely disseminated to state and local law enforcement and other stakeholders, there is little justification for not making them public at the outset, rather than allowing them to eventually leak to the news media, as they often do. The revised National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), which I wrote about last month, may also provide a basis for such broader dissemination of threat information. Many state fusion centers also produce similar reports to New Jersey’s assessment, which could be publicly released.
A shift toward issuing such analyses publicly could improve the American public’s understanding about the terrorism threat, leading to several tangible benefits. As noted earlier, well-informed citizens are more likely to play a role in detecting and reporting suspicious activity and potentially then preventing the next attack. Well-informed citizens are also less likely to make inappropriate reports about activity that should not be deemed suspicious, which wastes law enforcement agencies’ time with false leads. Finally, an American public that develops a sober, fact-based understanding of terrorism threats from professional non-partisan analysts (instead of from other filtered sources: cable news, social media, Hollywood, politicians, etc.) is more likely to react in a measured and resilient way to terrorist attacks and periods of elevated threat.
By no means is such public dissemination of threat information a panacea: but if such efforts lead to an improved public understanding of the terrorism threat even among a small percentage of the U.S. population, these efforts will be more than worthwhile.