Napolitano: Terror fight needs public's vigilance

Average Americans must be more watchful and report suspicious behaviour to counter the "persistent and evolving" threat of terrorism, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday.

'Terrorists are certainly in a Web 2.0 world now,' Homeland Security chief warns

Average Americans must be more watchful and report suspicious behaviour to counter the "persistent and evolving" threat of terrorism, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is seen during an address in Washington in April. ((Joshua Roberts/Reuters))
As she outlined her strategy for dealing with terrorism threats at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Napolitano said she sees room for major improvement in creating what she called a "culture of collective responsibility."

"You are the ones who know if something is not right in your communities," she told the audience.

But Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona who was appointed in January by President Barack Obama to head Homeland Security, added the U.S. government must also get better at sharing information with the public, along with international, state and local partners.

Referring to last November's co-ordinated attacks by Islamic militants in India, Napolitano described how the threat posed by terrorists has evolved well beyond the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"The terrorists in Mumbai, for example, made use of GPS devices, satellite phones, mapping websites like Google Earth and even live cable TV," she said.

Inside the U.S., Napolitano said banking systems and energy grids are more vulnerable than ever to tech-savvy terrorists who are more decentralized than eight years ago.

"If 9/11 happened in a Web 1.0 world, terrorists are certainly in a Web 2.0 world now," she said.

"This network climate forces us to rethink how best to protect our security in a world where the tools for creating violence and chaos are as easy to find as the tools for buying music online and restocking inventory."

Policy goes farther than Bush administration: expert

Relying on citizens to be better scouts in the "war on terror" goes farther than the anti-terrorism plan of the Bush administration, said Marisa Porges, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and a former counterterrorism adviser at the U.S. Defence Department.

"This is a shift, and it will be interesting to see how the administration tries to implement this new line of thinking," Porges told CBC News.

In her address Wednesday, Napolitano gave no hint of any major rethinking of the anti-terrorism track laid down by the previous administration. 

She said she added a "prominent" former computer hacker to her advisory council last month. She has also shuffled more Washington intelligence analysts out to field offices to work more closely with law enforcement officials and has pursued more information-sharing agreements with other countries.

But some in Napolitano's audience sought clarification about her comments on the American public's role in keeping the country safe.

"Are you suggesting we need to train our people from school days to be more alert and watch more carefully … their schoolmates, their workers, their family, their neighbours, and then to more effectively report what they say to some authority?" one audience member asked.

Napolitano didn't seem to pick up on the tone or the point of the question.

"Do we have plan in that way or have we actually worked that angle of this? Not yet," she replied.

In April, Napolitano was forced to correct herself on earlier comments she made in an interview with CBC's Washington correspondent, Neil Macdonald, that suggested some of the hijackers in the 9/11 attacks entered the U.S. through Canada.

With files from Curt Petrovich