Genius hack for liberty? San Francisco withdraws from MOU with FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force

Genius hack for liberty? San Francisco withdraws from MOU with FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force
(Image: Shutterstock, Jared Ropelato)

The annoyance of San Francisco doing something that seems really stupid about public safety is the obvious hook here, and most commentators have jumped right on it.

Rick Moran’s reaction at PJ Media is typical (and, I want to emphasize, understandable):

John Crew, a retired lawyer who works with CAIR and the ACLU…is overjoyed that the city will no longer be a part of the task force…

“I’m not the least bit concerned,” Crew said.

Too bad the rest of us don’t share his confidence — or his ignorance.

Crew and his allies are celebrating the withdrawal of their city from the JTTF, but isn’t that sort of like having a party for removing the smoke detectors from your house? This senseless, knee-jerk reaction against anything we try to do to protect ourselves from terrorism may get a lot of Americans killed because of San Francisco’s mindless opposition to the federal government.

Moran may be right.  As he and others point out, the JTTF has prevented at least 93 Islamist terror attacks since 2001.  JTTF officials emphasize that in most cases, the key to early detection and effective response is two-way cooperation with local law enforcement.

It’s possible that if the San Francisco Police Department doesn’t update its memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the JTTF, and resume participating on the same basis it has since the JTTF was formed, San Francisco will basically become a sanctuary city for terrorists.

That could have a wider impact than putting the people of San Francisco at risk.  A sanctuary city for terrorists would allow them to plan and organize inside the United States and attack anywhere, without having to cross guarded borders to get to a target site.  It’s a legitimate concern, not just for San Franciscans or others in the Bay Area, but for everyone in the contiguous 48.

That said, however, this is a teachable moment.  Not about “cities’ rights,” which don’t exist, but about being mesmerized by organization and convention.

Here are a few questions to ponder.  One, what did we do before the days of FBI-chaired JTTFs?  Basically, we lacked a vehicle for the routine sharing of information.  It was done on an ad hoc basis, but when it was obviously necessary, people found a way to do it.  (Note that this is about information-sharing between levels of law enforcement.  It is not about the famous Clinton-era “wall” between DOJ/FBI and national intelligence.)

It’s undoubtedly better for some purposes to have a vehicle for routine information-sharing.  But with years of experience at their backs now, does the lack of an MOU and full official participation in a JTTF mean that the officers of SFPD, the FBI, and other participants in federally chartered organizations can neither share information, nor figure out when to?

The JTTF framework regularizes interactions, to be sure, and certifies a certain homogenization of view and behavior.  Because of political considerations, that homogenization by policy is why San Francisco has pulled out.  San Francisco doesn’t agree with the federal posture.

No question that that’s a trust issue, for the rest of us as much as for San Francisco.  But before you go high-order on me, think this through just a little more.

Theoretically, SFPD pulling out of the task force means that San Francisco can’t be trusted to alert other agencies to information its police have that may relate to terrorism.  Right?

But how do we know that SFPD would forward that locally-acquired information, even if the city renewed the MOU with the JTTF?

We don’t.  San Francisco could remain an official JTTF partner, and still withhold information for political reasons.

It’s the local police department that retains the discretion to forward or withhold information, with or without an MOU with the JTTF.

I’m sure SFPD had taken exhaustive account of this before letting the MOU expire and pulling out of the JTTF, which clearly is being done as a political demonstration.  Now, it is absolutely possible that a mistake in judgment or vision, on the part of the San Francisco authorities, will result in an increased terrorist threat to either the Bay Area or the rest of the country.  But that could happen anyway, since San Francisco is always free to withhold information and cooperation, MOU or not.

The teaching point here is that we need to think hard about what advantages in operations and security we really buy, when we federalize the organization of everything we ask government to do.  Do we actually need to set up all the structures we have today under federal control or supervision?

We might just find out that we can still thwart terrorism without organizing every last phone call and paper clip under a permanently chartered federal task force, endowed by its creator with everlasting life and an ever-expanding portfolio.

Frankly – ironically – I doubt that was really the lesson San Francisco intended to illuminate for us, by pulling out of the JTTF partnership.  Left-wing politics has been all about increasing centralized control for more than 100 years now.  If this were about high-handedness by the EPA, and not national security, San Francisco would assuredly find a way to be on the side of federal centralization.

But this seemingly absurd move by San Francisco could turn out to be a remarkably salutary development, if we process it in the right spirit.  An overly surveillance-happy nationalized police force is always something to worry about.  Civil libertarians have agreed on that for decades now, from both sides of the aisle.  Getting too comfortable with proliferating agencies is the first step on a slippery slope, and San Francisco — of all places — may serve to inadvertently back us off of it.

We live in interesting times.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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