Timothy Gossfeld: Tough balance, but these investigators achieve it

  • Article by: TIMOTHY F. GOSSFELD
  • Updated: January 22, 2011 - 6:22 PM

A recent commentary did not fully comprehend work to stop terrorism.

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Commentary

Coleen Rowley's Jan. 16 commentary ("We're conflating proper dissent and terrorism") alleges that a mysterious, unaccountable "homeland security apparatus" is operating in our midst, under the auspices of the "war on terror."

Apparently unsatisfied with going after actual terrorists, the apparatus "has increasingly turned inward on American citizens," specifically identifying "war protesters" and "environmental activists" as its victims.

Grasping with amorphous facts, from the Church Committee and Vietnam-era abuses to body scanners and "Whitey" Bulger, Rowley attempts to paint a dire picture of aimless governmental intelligence collection and investigative indiscretion.

This speculation is a great disservice to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, an incredibly capable and highly professional multi-agency corps I had the honor of leading for three years.

Rowley can be admired for being a peace activist -- a noble cause -- but she knows little about investigating terrorism and the operations of such a task force.

People are investigated by the task force because they have either committed a crime or they intend to do so.

This applies to East African terrorists plotting for Al-Qaida, anarchists scheming to plant a chemical weapon under the Xcel Energy Center or domestic terrorists creating deadly Molotov cocktails.

People are not investigated by the task force for their political beliefs -- plain and simple -- they are investigated for their criminal behavior.

The men and women of the task force are charged with an immense duty -- actually preventing terrorist attacks from occurring. Although the mission sounds simple enough, a complete understanding is more involved.

The task force does not have the luxury of picking and choosing the threats to be handled -- they must all be addressed. Complex puzzles are not avoided to focus on the "low-hanging fruit" cases.

When seeking the truth, there are often layers of deceit and obfuscation that need to be peeled away in order to uncover what really happened or what is about to happen.

The work of the task force involves uncovering and analyzing intelligence (knowledge of an event) and evidence (proof of an event), so that a complete picture of a threat can be assembled in order to develop an appropriate endgame.

This takes keen perception, attention to detail and a great deal of tenacity. Witnesses are sometimes hard to locate. Information can be misinterpreted or misunderstood by others.

Although publicity rarely comes their way, the professional investigators of the task force are impressive in their quest to find the truth.

It is uncovered not through racial profiling or indiscriminate queries into private lives, but through focused leads emanating from properly predicated, carefully managed investigations.

These cases are pursued using authorized investigative techniques applicable to the magnitude of the threat at hand. FBI and Department of Justice managers, in local field offices and in Washington, ensure that those techniques are appropriately applied and that civil liberties are not infringed upon in the process.

Task force personnel have taken oaths to uphold the Constitution, and they do not take the obligation lightly.

Readers need to be assured the First Amendment is alive and well in our country, allowing differences of opinion to be openly aired.

We need to look no further than St. Paul, where civic leaders so capably proved in 2008 that convention protesters -- including those opposed to war and some environmental policies -- could demonstrate peacefully.

None of those protesters were investigated by the task force for their political beliefs.

Those who wish harm to the American people -- individuals who despise our freedom and our "civil liberties" -- can be dangerous and calculating adversaries.

In order to mitigate the threats they constantly advance, the congressionally approved tactics of our protectors must be skillfully utilized.

Be proud of the brave personnel engaged in this mission. They have to play by the rules -- the terrorists do not.

Timothy F. Gossfeld recently retired from a 26-year career with the FBI as assistant special agent in charge of the Minneapolis office, where he managed the counterterrorism and intelligence programs.

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