Discussing the role of law enforcement as a counterterrorism tool, Assistant Attorney General David Kris said to win over the terrorists threatening the United States, the nation needs to use all available tools consistent with the law.
“We must, in other words, be relentlessly pragmatic and empirical,” Kris said last Friday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “We can’t afford to limit our options artificially, or yield to preconceived notions of suitability or ‘correctness.’ We have to look dispassionately at the facts, and then respond to those facts using whatever methods will best lead us to victory.”
In more concrete terms, the tools that are designed best for the problem is the ones that should be used, Kris said.
“When the problem looks like a nail, we need to use a hammer,” he said. “But when it looks like a bolt, we need to use a wrench. Hitting a bolt with a hammer makes a loud noise, and it can be satisfying in some visceral way, but it’s not effective and it’s not smart. If we want to win, we can’t afford that.”
Speaking about how he thinks law enforcement will help the war on terrorism, Kris noted three ways in particular.
“[It] can disrupt terrorist plots through arrests, incapacitate terrorists through incarceration resulting from prosecution, and gather intelligence from interrogation and recruitment of terrorists or their supporters via cooperation agreements,” he said.
Additionally, the criminal justice system has been used to collect valuable intelligence with the help of a HUMINT collection platform, Kris said.
“The fact is that when the government has a strong prosecution case, the defendant knows he will spend a long time in prison, and this creates powerful incentives for him to cooperate with us,” he said.
Addressing an argument about how the criminal justice system is fundamentally incompatible with national security because it focuses on defendants’ rights, Kris said the criminal justice system balances between defendants’ rights and the interests of government, victims and society.
“And whatever the balance that has been struck, the empirical fact is that when we prosecute terrorists we convict them around 90 percent of the time,” he said. “To be sure, the criminal justice system has its limits, and in part because of those limits it is not always the right tool for the job. But when the executive branch concludes that it is the right tool – as it has more than 400 times since Sept. 11 – we in fact put steel on target almost every time.”