Monday, January 14, 2008

Might 'open sourced' criminal intelligence protect journalists and strike a blow against multinational drug cartels?

In the 21st century's information age, perhaps the role and function of "intelligence" in law enforcement needs to change to adapt to ruthless tactics by multinational drug cartels?

The Los Angeles Times today has a story today titled, simply, "The drug business has become so deadly those covering it are risking their lives." Bottom line, not only reporters but even pop singers who name names of drug runners have been gunned down in Mexico with increasing and frightening frequency.

As an hypothetical thought experiment, what could law enforcement do to help that problem?

I'm thinking of a potential media strategy where government systematically exposes what it knows about drug cartel operations in order to a) protect and assist journalists and b) generate additional intelligence and public cooperation. That might create new opportunities in the battle against organized crime, especially compared to the tactic of concealing information from the public, which leaves truth tellers in the media and informants horribly exposed.

The traditional role of intelligence gathering in law enforcement, as in national security, has been to develop secret knowledge and expertise, but decades of law enforcement efforts have failed to stem the tide of drug smuggling, until today illegal drugs make up 14% of global agricultural exports, and are widely available in every corner of the United States. Those traditional approaches have failed.

I remember listening during a legislative committee hearing in 2007 to a DPS narcotics commander identify the various "plazas" along the border where drugs routinely came across (at the major checkpoints, basically). He said they'd identified each drug trafficking organizations' leaders and top lieutenants at most plazas, but wouldn't give details.

Here's my question: Why not expose what you know about these folks, and that way more journalists don't get killed doing the job for you? Given the utter failure at arresting and prosecuting multinational drug cartels on a scale that affects supply, what benefit does law enforcement gain from keeping that information a secret?

Even if Mexican or US police can't capture or convict cartel figures for their crimes, you can publicize them, increasingly over time educating the public on their misdeeds and turning them into pariahs instead of some sort of latter day Robin Hoods.

When an informant is killed, tell the media who they were prepared to rat on. When a police officer is murdered, tell the public who they were investigating that got them killed. When arrests are made, don't just give the media names and charges but the narrative as to how they fit into this, that or the other drug trafficking organization's overall operations.

That way, reporters won't have to die telling the public information their government already knows.

There would still be some information that couldn't be revealed because it could only have come from a particular, readily identifiable individual who would be endangered, but the more information generally that's circulating about drug cartels, the more difficult it will become to pinpoint any one source for any particular piece of datum.

Plus, putting information out in the world inevitably means law enforcement would get information back. That's the lesson of the blogosphere compared to the MSM: There's always someone out there with more or different information or views who we may not know about, and we learn more by engaging them in conversation. That's arguably more true about black market criminal activity than it is, even about more commonly debated public policy topics.

Spreading information widely invites an interactive relationship with the public in a way that wasn't possible 10-15 years ago, when limitations on technology dictated more of a one-way exchange. That's been true in the media, and it's an argument, to me, for law enforcement changing its historic information strategies when battling multinational drug cartels.

In the same sense that open source software tends to be more secure than proprietary systems (because more eyes are scanning the code looking for mistakes and problems), "open sourcing" criminal intelligence gathering - or portions of it - might achieve important policy objectives, assisting in winning hearts and minds of the public and empowering the public with knowledge that will help them recognize when they run across information that could help authorities.

If cartel thugs can intimidate the media into not reporting their names or actions, they win a significant victory. Law enforcement in both the US and Mexico could seize that victory from the cartels' grasp and protect journalists in the process, simply by telling us what they know.

Even better, if they include a comment section, or its equivalent, the public can return the favor. What do you think? It's a bit of a radical idea, and no doubt there would be risks, as there are with the current strategies; but then, extreme times call for extreme measures.


Anonymous said...

You've made a good argument, but setting up such a system would have to be done very carefully to avoid false accusations ruining innocent lives. We haven't had lynchings in a while now, but angry mobs are still capable of making mistakes.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"setting up such a system would have to be done very carefully to avoid false accusations ruining innocent lives"

Agreed. But even with significant limitations, you could publish most of the "who" (certainly everyone with past arrests or current warrants), and certainly the what, when, where and why of a lot of stories that never get told in the media, or at least told accurately or in context.

If I weren't especially concerned about cartel violence already spreading north of the Rio Grande, the issue you raise would probably make me reject the idea out of hand.

But done with some forethought to prevent wrongful accusations - or at least libelous ones - it could have merit. Also, sometimes government possesses and ACTS ON information that's incorrect, anyway, whereas making it available for more public analysis might actually help discover mistakes before they affect deployments or policy.

Some of the government's intelligence definitely IS wrong - part of the goal of this strategy would be to improve it.

Anonymous said...

this would be a useful tool. if only those with arrest or warrents were listed no reason for a mob mentality to rise. also maybe a discription of a person whom they need ID on and why they need the ID. we use this for wanted felon in the US now. If a special set up for drug cartels,dealers etc. were on the web and news stores linking to the site might work. very kewl idea grits keep up the good work and this might catch on.