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Bill Owens: What To Do About Terrorists After Belgium

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium, the presidential candidates have not hesitated to offer their views on how to eliminate terrorist attacks. To become better informed on the candidates’ stances, recently I read an article in the New York Times, listened to General Hayden, the former NSA head, on NPR (I know some readers have now already disqualified me as a liberal), and read Karl Rove’s story in the Wall Street Journal. Talk about fair and balanced.

Mr. Cruz proposes a police, if not military, presence in Muslim neighborhoods—although what constitutes a Muslim neighborhood was a little harder for him to define. Mr. Trump would close the borders and continue his approach of excluding refugees and Muslims. Secretary Clinton proposes increasing cyber intelligence gathering. Not much reported from Senator Sanders on this issue.

It is certainly understandable that people running for president want to reach out to their base, and may in truth have a visceral instinct to take certain actions. Clearly, all of us would like to be able to eradicate ISIS as a movement. What we have to recognize is that there have been a series of terrorist groups like this who have evolved in the Middle East, as seen in the 9/11 attacks, with Osama Bin Laden, and now ISIS. Terrorism is not new—just ask the Israelis.

It is instructive to probe the various candidates’ proposals. Mr. Trump simply provides a bellicose simplistic response. Senator Cruz offers a more thoughtful response, but it flies in the face of his other precepts that include a smaller government and less government spending. You can’t deploy more police without spending additional dollars. Secretary Clinton looks to focus on intelligence-gathering through all sources available, while General Hayden clearly supports her approach. The chief of police in New York City indicated this week that calls for actions like those proposed by Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz do not aid the police in their intelligence-gathering and deterrent activities; rather, they close off communities and generally create an atmosphere of distrust.

There is no doubt that we need to do a better job of vetting those emigrating from countries and regions that have strong terrorist histories. We should also be focused on enhancing our abilities from an intelligence-gathering perspective, including sharing information about terror suspects’ movements and emerging plots with all appropriate levels of law enforcement throughout the world. Obviously, particular attention needs to be paid to the United States and Europe, as they appear to be among the repeat targets, and Europe suffers from the inability to share information about suspected terrorists. Canada has also experienced terrorism attacks; however, the Canadian and US governments operate at a high level of cooperation that needs very little more than tweaking on both sides.

It is extremely important that we engage cultural experts who can offer a greater understanding of how new terrorist groups arise, their backgrounds, and what tools we should be investigating in order to best stifle and defeat these groups. A multi-faceted approach seems only logical, and given our capacity in the technology arena, we need to move forward purposefully and quickly to navigate this very tricky space.

The idea that bombastic pronouncements will do anything other than raise the blood pressure of Americans is disheartening and frightening. Mr. Ryan called for greater civility during the week of March 21st, which is an important step. However, he needs to guide his caucus toward factual analysis of the circumstances as we proceed with investigations, committee hearings and ultimately legislation. Should we revisit the Patriot Act? What other tools may assist law enforcement? The encryption debate becomes more complex with each terrorist event.

I opposed the renewal of the Patriot Act, but as I call for the need to step out of our intellectual and emotional silos, and to develop new modes of operation and controls over them. I recognize that I too need to be willing to adjust my analysis and conclusions.

Mr. Owens is a former member of Congress representing the New York 21st and a partner in the firm of Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher & Trombley, PLLC, in Plattsburgh, New York.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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