The centerpiece of this policy will be a new multilateral organization called the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Treaty Organization (CITO).
Every nation has an interest in shutting down terrorism. CITO will create connections between a wide range of nations on terrorism and intelligence, including countries on all continents, including Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. New connections between previously separate nations will be forged, creating new possibilities.
CITO will allow members to voluntarily share financial, police, customs and immigration intelligence. Together, nations will be able to track the way terrorists travel, communicate, recruit, train, and finance their operations. And they will be able to take action, through international teams of intelligence and national security professionals who will launch targeted missions to root out and shut down terrorist cells.
The new organization will also create a historic new coalition. Those nations who join will, by working together, show the world the power of cooperation. Those nations who join will also be required to commit to tough criteria about the steps they will take to root out extremists, particularly those who cross borders. Those nations who refuse to join will be called out before the world.
My first reaction to this is that it’s going to be extremely difficult to pull this proposal off. It’s really, really hard to get states to cooperate on intelligence and internal security stuff – much harder in practice than to get them to cooperate in waging war. This piece (sub. to International Affairs of London required) sets out some of the reasons why. States tend to be very cagey about good intelligence information because they fear (with good reason) that if they distribute this information to other countries, their sources may get blown. Formalized police cooperation is also very tricky, because of differing legal systems. We’re beginning to see more cooperation happening in the European Union, through the adoption of the Treaty of Prüm into EU law and through other measures, but even there (where there are more shared interests), cross-border cooperation has been tricky to organize and highly controversial. Something like Edwards’ proposal would have had a much better chance of getting implemented if it had been proposed by the US immediately after September 11, 2001; now it’s going to face very tough going, even if Edwards manages somehow to win the Democratic primaries and (probably much easier) the presidency.
I’m also much more skeptical than Matt is about whether an organization like this could include countries like China and Russia. If it would be difficult to organize among democracies (which share a certain minimal set of values), it’s going to be nearly impossible if semi-authoritarian states (Russia) or one-party dictatorships (China) are supposed to be part of the club. Their ideas of what police are and are not allowed to do, who are the terrorists we need to fight etc etc are, to put it mildly, likely to be incompatible with minimal shared norms of how democracies should operate. The potential for really horrible things to happen when authoritarian countries get their hands on shared information about ‘dissidents’ and ‘extremists’ is too obvious to warrant much further discussion.
These doubts aside, I think that this is a worthwhile proposal for two reasons. First – it clearly puts the emphasis of combatting international terrorism where it should be – on policing and domestic intelligence. Metaphorically and intellectually muddled plans to drain the fever swamp of the Arab Street etc have not only proved wrong-headed, but catastrophic. Domestic intelligence and police work in Europe and elsewhere has been reasonably successful in preventing further attacks. This is not to discount the obvious risks to privacy and human rights if police and interior ministries are given too much of a free hand – but it is to say that domestic policing work has had some success in dealing with the undoubtedly nasty people who want to plant bombs.
Second, it may over time bring various rather shady existing forms of informal cooperation between intelligence and security services into the light, and make them more accountable to democratic authority. Many of the nastiest episodes of the last few years have been possible because international cooperation on these issues is a grey area under the law. Extraordinary rendition is the most obvious example of this – but we’ve also seen kidnapping of Europeans (with a nod and wink from the European intelligence services in question, despite its illegality), illegal sharing of financial information (which European central banks seem to have known about without informing the relevant domestic authorities) etc. All of these have been possible because the lines of authority are vague, and there isn’t anyone who can easily be held accountable for abuses. Negotiating a formal treaty is likely to bring some of these issues out into the open, and perhaps make them more amenable to domestic oversight. Creating real restraints on the power of security forces won’t be easy – in the best case it will be a bitter and hard-fought struggle – but it would be much easier going, I suspect, in the context of negotiations over a formal treaty. The problem at the moment is that the important forms of cooperation happen behind closed doors; it’s extremely difficult to establish what exactly is happening, let alone to do anything about them.