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Paris attack highlights precarious balance between liberty and security

There’s pressure on police and intelligence agencies to keep people safe, but can those bent on killing be stopped?

One of the men from the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris earlier this week reportedly went to Yemen to fight with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Some of the men were also on the United States’ no-fly list. One was arrested trying to get to Syria and did time in prison. 

Like the United States, France has remade its surveillance, domestic intelligence and use of modern tools to keep tabs on people who might be involved in conspiracies with extremist groups — the kind who might one day go in to a magazine office and slaughter the people inside.

Can a society that does not hold people without charge, that does not imprison people without trial protect itself against mass murder? 

We asked a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

Inside Story: What might a Western country do in a case like this to result in a different outcome?

Fred Burton: It's an unrealistic possibility. Having been in this business for quite some time and looking at these attacks on tactical perspective and doing these investigations — they’re going to occur.

The only way you’ll stop them is by having enough resources to be able to throughly vet and analyze each and every suspected terrorist that may be on the loose in your area of operation on a practical level.

From my experience, these operations are usually successfully predicated on two authority failure points. They're successful because you lack the human intelligence and the penetration of groups to understand what they’re planning and prodding. Also, a failure of tactical analysis. You can look at any terrorist attack taken place, from Mumbai to Boston to the Beirut embassy in 1983, and usually they fail predicated upon by those two points.

Do considerations for an individual’s civil liberties impede pursing the goal of national security?

On a practical level, each nation-state has its own set of criminal investigation standards. Here it's strict. You're going to have to be governed by whatever the laws and regulations are per nation, which will allow you to open up cases predicated on some sort of action, whether that be intelligence liaison information, etc.

But think about the Boston bombers. The Russians, the KGB are our mortal enemies … in the espionage world, but in counterterrorism arena, cooperation exists. The Russian KGB provided information to the CIA about the Boston bombers, which predicated the FBI to open up investigations to do a little surveillance, but not much, and ultimately closing the case, which was an intelligence failure.

But the fact is that the terrorist arena is much like the criminal arena. Law enforcement information is exchanged. I can recall specifically in one of my cases where I was able to get information from the Iranian government back in the days shortly after the Iranian takeover [of the U.S. Embassy] in 1979. Everyone thought I was crazy, and I said, “Let’s ask the cops through Interpol,” and sure enough, they produced info of value to us.

On the law enforcement angle and intelligence service, there’s tremendous cooperation in the counterterrorism sphere.

What might a Western country do in a case like this for a different outcome?

Frederick Fleitz: We might have to step up surveillance in situations like that. But it is easy to say in hindsight that these individuals needed to be surveilled more. There are so many suspected Islamist radicals in France that there is a manpower problem to monitor them all. Electronic surveillance methods promoted by NSA and attacked by [Edward] Snowden are pretty effective. It concerns me that these methods have been undermined. I think we need to look at them again.

Are you in favor of detention of suspicious individuals?

In a free society, there is only so much we can do. Someone can be a radical and say offensive things and not necessarily be someone who turns to violence. There is a thin line between people who engage in violence and engage in belligerent rhetoric. You cannot jail people for belligerent rhetoric.

Is there anything more we can do, beyond more of what we are doing already?

There will be a reaction by the intelligence services to see what has been missed. There has been a string of terrorist attacks in France in the past month. They may conduct intensified electronic surveillance. It will go after these no-go zones where the French government does not seem to have control.

What can a Western society do in a case like Paris that can balance civil liberties and national security?

Charles Cogan: They have a multiple tiered place and security services in Paris. This is certainly demonstrated by events of today. In the countryside they’ve got the RASD, judiciary police, which means police can make an indictment right on the spot. You’ve got combined formal political reporting police and counterintelligence into one service called the Internal Department of Security, and then you have regular police. They’ve got an enormous apparatus

At the same time, they want to guarantee liberties. They didn’t protect Hebdo offices sufficiently. The threats had been there for a year — one man protecting the chief, and he was killed.

It's difficult. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, largest Jewish population in Europe. Most of the Muslims are Arab, most being North African, and most being Algerian. These two were Algerian-French.

The one who threatened to kill hostages in the kosher market was also Algerian. And in the background of all this, there’s this hostility — latent, but its there — between the Algerians and the French, which goes back a couple of generations.

Do the protocols in place make it harder to for these things to not happen?

It's harder because it’s hard to keep track of so many people. The French system is very centralized, and this electorate general of internal security is the policy function. They have a very vertical command structure.

Things work pretty well. It's quite amazing that they localized these two Algerians in a matter of hours. I think the French services, the internal security services, are really good, and that may not be appreciated here in the U.S.

The above panel was assembled for the broadcast of “Inside Story.” 

For future hard-hitting conversations, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.

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