Suspicious Activity Reporting, You Decide

John Farmer Jr., a dean at the Rutgers School of Law and former senior counsel for the 9/11 commission, has a New York Times op-ed promoting the Justice Department’s new Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative, which basically encourages Americans to report each other to the government if they see anything suspicious. Farmer offers the following scary scenario in support of SAR:

A young man walks into a Home Depot and buys a large quantity of acetone. Later, a young man walks into a beauty supply store and buys hydrogen peroxide. Still later, a young man is observed parked outside a nondescript federal building in a rented van, taking photographs.

No crime has been committed. But should any of these activities (acetone and hydrogen peroxide can be components for explosives) be reported to and evaluated by law enforcement officials?

Let’s suppose the answer is “Yes.” What do you think happens next? You pick:

Ending A: The tips are logged and encoded into the SAR database. Minutes later, advanced datamining algorithms scan both incidents and discover a link. The items are flagged for human processing. An analyst determines this is actionable intelligence and forwards it to the FBI counterterrorism coordinator. Within hours, a warrant is issued by a special federal court and the FBI’s SWAT team is kicking down doors. A major terror attack is averted, thanks to alert citizens.

Ending B: The tips are logged and encoded into the SAR database. Fourteen weeks later, a police detective temporarily assigned to his city’s Joint Terrorist Task Force’s Investigations unit spends eight minutes interviewing each person who provided a tip, carefully filling out the proper Homeland Security interview forms. Four weeks after that, a clerk types his answers into another database, and seven weeks later another analyst clicks the “Reviewed” box on his computer. Two months later, then again at the end of the year, a line in an SAR summary report has a number that is larger by one. Nothing else is ever done about either of these tips, and there is no resulting terrorism incident.

I’m pretty sure I know which ending is more realistic…

(Hat tip: Scott Greenfield)

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