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In June 2021, the Biden administration released a lengthy report on the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. The report proposes leveraging public diplomacy programs and providing training and resources for counterterrorism. These programs will be open to the public and designed to enhance the ability of individuals and local communities to reduce the risk presented by individuals who are a danger to themselves or those around them. This is a step in the right direction — one that security authority Fran Townsend has been advocating for the past decade. How successfully the Biden administration will be at implementing these proposals remains to be seen.
“The American people were reasonably forgiving of the mistakes their government made on 9/11 in failing to connect the dots. But they won’t be forgiving a second time and they have a right to expect their government not to make the same mistake twice,” said Frances Townsend in an interview with C-Span.
The 9/11 attacks had a far-reaching effect. They caused irreversible changes in the lives of millions of people. In response, the U.S. had to reimagine its entire national security policy. It created the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Another significant change, however, came about in the public domain — the mainstreaming of the debate on national security.
“It does become a public debate post-9/11,” Townsend told PBS. The attacks generated discourse that was previously completely absent in the public domain. Given that terrorists primarily target civilians, it became important to engage the public in the debate on counterterrorism. Not only was this necessary since civilians are primary targets of terrorism, but because the nature of a terrorist attack is such that civilians are often the first to spot irregular activity.
There are few experts as well versed in the U.S. government as Fran Townsend. She served during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. From 1995 to 1998, she was the deputy to the attorney general. From 1998 to 2001, she led the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review of the Department of Justice. And from 2004 to 2007, she was the Homeland Security Advisor to President George W. Bush. Over the years, Townsend has engaged with crucial aspects of national security policy and helped shape a system that serves to protect U.S. citizens. Her expertise has earned her recognition as a respected authority on national security and counterterrorism.
She’s been vocal about engaging the public regarding issues of national security. “I really think we’ve got to do a better job of engaging the American people,” she says. Townsend thinks the U.S. is “a victim of its own success.” Thankfully, there hasn’t been a major attack since 9/11, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. should drop its guard. “You see a guy with a bad bomb in his underwear that doesn’t go off or a bomb insufficiently put together in Times Square. And I think people take sort of an unjustified comfort in that,” Townsend warns. Even though these failed attempts are nowhere near the scale of 9/11, she argues in favor of public preparedness. “It’s not a matter of scaring people, but it’s a matter of emphasizing to them that the threat continues to be real,” states Fran Townsend.
Townsend advocates for a more proactive role for the public. “You’ve got to tell them what it is you want from them, not just sort of this generalized ‘Be afraid, call the police,’” she says. “You have to engage them in a specific way.” Some of the ways the U.S. government can engage the American public, Fran Townsend suggests, is by involving them in the debates on privacy and civil liberties.
“The American people have the ability to affect not only by elections, but by public debate, their views on how that balance should be made, whether we’re talking about terrorism, or cybersecurity, or information sharing, have real value,” she says.
In September 2019, her concerns were echoed in a report by the Department of Homeland Security. The Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism report raised the alarm over disinformation campaigns non-state actors use to sway public opinion and undermine trust in the authenticity of legitimate information. The report stated these disinformation campaigns served to capitalize on and accentuate political divisions and public anxiety in America. With more terrorist groups now using the internet as a tool, it’s crucial to educate people. Countering such threats requires the administration to converse with the American people. “What you want to do is be able to talk to people so that they’re prepared in their own minds for what I think is inevitable,” says Townsend.
Her experience in dealing with national security issues has endowed Fran Townsend with a degree of foresight. In 2010, she was one of the first to acknowledge that terrorism is increasingly a homegrown threat. Dealing with that danger required collaboration with state and local partners because “the people who are most likely to see an anomaly in a state and local community are your local police forces and sheriffs,” explains Townsend. Even then, the role of the public cannot be understated as “state [and] local governments will not be successful without the help of the American people,” she adds.
When Townsend argues in favor of an active role of the public in national security, she thinks “part of it is enlisting their help. To tell them what you need them to look for.” Such specific information is necessary for identifying threats locally or in the online space. The Department of Homeland Security report proposes a public awareness movement similar to the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign. It’s specifically aimed at raising the awareness of the American people to identify disinformation, wherever it exists, but especially online.
Critics say there is, however, room for improvement. Greater public involvement in the national security debate will increase the preparedness of the public to deal with such threats. Moreover, programs currently reserved for state officials could be extended to the public. For instance, the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training Program by the Department of Justice could be opened to the public in an effort to actively engage the public in disrupting terrorist activity.