Insider's View: To Stop Homeland Attacks, Take a Page From the Secret Service

Behavioral evaluations could stop attackers before they're dangerous.

NEWS ANALYSIS— -- John D. Cohen is an ABC News contributor and a distinguished professor of professional practice in criminal justice at Rutgers University. He is a former counterterrorism coordinator and a former acting undersecretary of intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security.

Late last month a group of federal, state and local law enforcement officials and mental health professionals from across the U.S. met in Washington, D.C., to discuss in detail how to expand the use of behavioral risk assessment methodologies and threat management strategies in counterterrorism cases.

Traditional counterterrorism-related investigative and detection protocols focus primarily on determining whether an individual is communicating with or operating under the control of a foreign terrorist group. Investigators also focus on whether the elements of a terrorism-related crime are already present.

But in today’s threat environment, examining terrorism-related tips, leads and suspicious activity reports solely on these factors is too narrow of an approach and has failed to identify lone offenders preparing to launch an attack.

Omar Mateen, the man who opened fire at a Florida nightclub and killed 49 people in June, had come to the FBI's attention twice, for "inflammatory" comments and a potential link to an American suicide bomber in Syria. He was interviewed three times but was deemed not a threat.

Brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev detonated two pressure cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April 2013, killing three people, including an 8-year-old boy. Russian intelligence told the FBI two years before that Tamerlan Tsarnaev might have been radicalized, but again investigators found no links to terrorism.

In each of these cases the investigations were discontinued because the subject’s behavior did not meet Justice Department guidelines that would allow further efforts. In each case, the subjects went on to commit a mass casualty attack, despite not having any legitimate and direct connection to an overseas group.

But the Secret Service doesn't play by exactly the same rules as the FBI and has managed to intercede far earlier to mitigate threats before they develop. No one has gotten close to killing a U.S. president since the shooting of Ronald Reagan in 1981.

When investigating threats to a protectee, the Secret Service assesses the risk for violence posed by an individual in addition to whether a criminal offense has been committed.

Criminal investigators, armed with a thorough understanding of the behavioral characteristics of potential assassins, work with mental health professionals and others to determine whether an individual who has come to their attention is exhibiting the behavioral characteristics that years of analysis and research have shown to be consistent with a person predisposed to committing an assassination.

If a person is deemed such a risk, the Secret Service employs a number of strategies to prevent an attack, ranging from arrest and prosecution if a crime has been committed to facilitating the provision of mental health treatment.

Could the same techniques that have worked to identify and stop potential assassins be used to identify and stop potential lone wolves?

Over the past two years, much has been learned about the behavioral characteristics of lone wolf or self-inspired terrorists. Law enforcement should leverage this knowledge and modify how we evaluate and manage potential terrorist threats.

Using this approach for potential lone wolves would require expanding the behaviors that investigators consider when determining whether a subject poses a risk. It will also require expanding the opportunities for using non-law-enforcement techniques such as mental health care when dealing with high-risk individuals.

This would likely require modifications to the attorney general's guidelines that guide domestic terrorism investigations. Currently these guidelines require that investigators establish a subject’s operational connection with a terrorist group or demonstrate that the subject has or is about to commit a federal terrorism-related crime.

Expanding the behaviors considered by investigators would also require concrete privacy and civil liberty protections to ensure that law enforcement is not in the position of policing thought.

Still, this is not a concept that is new to the FBI. Through its behavioral analysis unit, the FBI often considers behavioral characteristics of potential offenders in a number of areas — like sexual predators, active shooters and serial killers — but generally not during the initial assessment stage of terrorism-related cases.

In addition to changing the way we investigate terrorism threats, we must expand the tools we use by leveraging broader community-based, multidisciplinary violence-prevention efforts directed at preventing targeted acts of violence and mass casualty attacks.

The goal of these community-based efforts are to complement traditional law enforcement strategies (investigation, arrest and prosecution) with systematic processes to identify, assess and manage potential threats in the precriminal space, meaning before a violation of law.

Emerging models emphasize early attention to the underlying causal issues (such as mental health, family and societal) before they escalate into violent behavior. This may include law enforcement action, but it could also include some other type of mental health or other support.

In order to prevent attacks, we need to get serious about creating holistic and collaborative ways to detect, assess and intervene when individuals exhibit the behaviors and indicators of extremism. If we don't get ahead of this, the violence will continue.